When I Reach for Your Pulse carves a looping track through a poet’s grief after his father’s death by suicide. Though the collection focuses on this death, it’s never tunnel-visioned; rather than settling into a stable perspective or attempting to tell a decisive story, it hypothesises and rehistoricises, repeats and refracts. Rushi Vyas, an Ōtepoti-based poet, was born in Ohio and has lived in various US states before relocating to Aotearoa. These poems traverse geographies of the American Midwest, northern India, and Otago and often swing between English, Hindi, and Sanskrit, wrestling with questions of diaspora alongside those of mourning.
This collection is a courageous one, not, as blurb writers love to say, ‘unflinching’, but one that flinches and presses on anyway. Where other poets might quiet down or turn away from a brittle, complex subject, Vyas plunges deeper, delicately crafting three persona poems in the voice of his father and labelling them suicide notes. There’s a push and pull here between bringing clarity to the father’s story and setting him at a distance, at one point referring to him several times within the same poem as ‘the man who earned the money Mom used to raise me.’
Vyas is a poet aware of his own discomfort. He’s able to construct a generous, often tender portrait of his father, a man who took his son to watch a game, whose naps his son watched over, but who also drove his loved ones away through hostility, violence, and paranoia. In ‘Scaffold’, a lyric essay exploring the role of the scaffold in the process of a hanging, placing the father’s suicide alongside the deaths of nuns as portrayed in Poulenc’s opera Dialogues des Carmélites, Vyas details that complexity:
had I placed the bell of your stethoscope on your skull
had I listened to the Gujarati Hindi and English voices between
your clamorous poles affection to conniption man who stood
three times a day before Bhagavan who headbutted his wife and later
his son would my hearing have appeased your mob?
In ‘Scaffold’, Vyas suggests that language, particularly the navigation of multilingualism, is a space of clamour and confusion. He also knows when language will not do. In the first iteration of the title poem, square brackets fence off empty spaces where the reader might otherwise find nouns. In the second iteration—‘When I Reach for Your Pulse (again)’—there are empty spaces, too, but they’re no longer constrained by brackets. Silence meets language seamlessly; it has become part of the lexicon of grief.
I reach I am listening for the for the Atlantic, also
ninety-nine percent , gifted body by the spasmodic
waltz of electrons. When I reach for your , I breathe
oxygen and hydrogen displaced from another. I exhale
carbon, render it lifeless. Breathe in . Breathe out .
These emptinesses are dynamic, momentous, because Vyas, a poet who often otherwise interrogates his subject in full, hardy sentences, through the seemingly watertight construction of a narrative, the fully detailed image, only uses them when no language will do. When he uses a blank space instead of a word, it is not to play a trick. It is because there is no other option. What Vyas has to say here can only be said on the very edges of language.
If I’m making this collection sound purely cerebral or abstract, I’m doing it a disservice. It is anchored in the physical, the sensory, the shock and horror and delight of moving through the concrete world. Sometimes a poem will slow down enough to start unravelling, as in the end of ‘Midwest Physics: Third Law,’ which asks plainly, ‘now that he is gone / what’s my equal and opposing / force?’ Vyas balances the abstract with the granular. Even in a figurative moment, he never floats too far above the ground.
When I reach
for your pulse I am sitting on your lap
as you let me drive around the cul-de-sac
You are an orbital I cannot escape I
tethered to round a nucleus spin
on momentum only to slow by force
When I Reach for Your Pulse is authoritatively paced. Vyas is comfortable with taking up space, reprising poems from its first half as disintegrating, altered versions in its second half, spreading poems horizontally across pages and punctuating them with ample blank space. And the collection plays with a satisfying range of narrative and lyric forms, allowing the reader to feel situated in time and place often enough that the more rhapsodic, figurative poems don’t displace us completely.
As a slight aside, the collection’s notes section delighted me with its substantial detail, clearly written out of a deep familiarity with each notated text. It ranges through poets—including francine j. harris, Frank Bidart, and Amiri Baraka—but also highlights Newton’s Laws, Star Trek’s Borg, mantras and Hindi songs, a quotation from Pythagoras, and the scientific name for ‘bitter orange’. It’s a record of Vyas’s wide reading, his eagerness to write in conversation with not just living poets, but those who have passed—with not just poets, but scientists, mystics, creators of pop culture. And the acknowledgements, an equally lush list, confirms this desire for conversation—it’s a sign that Vyas treasures, and is informed by, community.
In a 2021 interview in Pine Hills Review, Vyas speaks about somatic rituals in which he pairs ‘bits of language’, a mélange of Sanskrit chant and Anglophone poetry, with physical action:
that forces me to confront ways I have been entangled with attachments to power, whether that be colonial modes of bodily comportment, patriarchal inheritances, or caste-related hierarchies from my Indian ancestry.
It seems as though these poems are not merely informed by ritual, but are rituals in themselves, each one a marriage of language and action. Even as the lines lie unmoving on the page, they feel spoken, chanted, forceful in their momentum. The repetition Vyas employs, either by the thrum of an echoed word—‘Move move move’—or in the refrain of ‘reach[ing] for your pulse’ that punctuates and titles the collection, enacts the ritual not only of grief, but of the fruitlessness of attempting to interrupt that grief, or pause it, or fix it, or reach beyond it to the person who has gone.
Think of light: my body approaching—
now wave; his hanging—now particle.
When I reach for his pulse
I collapse. Behind the door’s double slit
the suspended body dies when seen.
Perhaps if I look away— No.
Vyas illuminates the impossibility of holding onto what has gone. The attempt to reach one’s dead, even to hold onto a solid memory of them, is as futile as trying to reclaim a dream whose details vanish with every effort to seize them—but it is, as this collection reiterates, a process impossible to forgo.