Divya Mehrish is a high school writer from Manhattan. She enjoys writing poetry, prose, and novels. Some of her poems have been recognized by the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award, the New York Browning Society, and the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, which has named her a recipient of three national medals. Her work is also forthcoming in the Tulane Review, the Ricochet Review, and the Kitchen Poet.
When What You Have Is Called A Family
I store smells in my dreams.
Minty-crisp dry cleaning
Soft, burnished sweat
& orange marmalade:
the Bonne Maman kind in glass mason jars
From which clouds of peach smoke
But those are all his.
My mother is scentless.
In second grade,
When Ms. P demanded
that we journal about our Mommies and Daddies
I wrote about Daddy, about Jeopardy, lavender checkered ties,
and Warren Buffett, who I was positively sure was Santa Claus in hiding.
There was no other way to go—
she left no trails to follow.
When I first sensed,
That she reeked
one syllable decided to leap into my vocabulary—
It seemed to perfectly encapsulate
the grip I just couldn’t get.
I carried this jeweled dagger in my pocket, always.
But she plunged through anyway,
and just winced.
I had known wrong.
After school, on Valentine’s Day,
I was dropped off at home
By the Mercedes that was always
Drenched by clouds of gasoline
that Daddy swore he couldn’t smell.
I don’t remember if I was blabbering
about Environmental Club or Hello Kitty—
I just remember how he wouldn’t look at me
how his eyes spun like Mancala marbles
bouncing in their crescent wooden homes.
And then he sped off into the rain,
With a pink card and a box of chocolates
that he wasn’t going to bring back.
My mother was curled
On the leather couch in the foyer,
obscured by a forest of winking jades.
She drowned herself in newspapers
The crinkling and wrinkling
Almost trampling the sound of wailing.
I didn’t need to approach her, because she didn’t
have to tell me why.
So I went to my pink room.
Suffocating in the shame of the everlasting blush,
I bolted the door
and gulped down the gift she had finally given me—
the something I could hold onto—
I memorized her sounds.
Her voice was like strawberry jam—
Sharp seeds prickling on my skin like eaglebumps
As my nose grew longer, stronger, like hers,
she deepened to raspberry.
As the moments between her words grew longer,
my beer-battered tongue decided to fill the void
I learned how to curse—
she wouldn’t attach herself to a funnel of vulgarity.
But she dove in anyway,
And got stuck in the pipe.
I had known wrong.
Sometimes, in middle school, when I spoke up in class,
or gossiped half-heartedly with girls I called friends,
An iron cymbal would clang against my forehead
As I ran my tongue over the tangy steel familiarity of my husky fairy voice—
Of her husky fairy voice
that I had consumed.
Daddy’s fragrance was always Other—
A treasure in a chest I could unlock
When it was time to worship,
But hers was now
And the self of herself of myself
I squandered myself in her music,
And blamed her for my extinction.
Yet it was her song,
The trills that wiped me out
that gave me an eternal place
behind the museum’s glass, beside the dodo bird
It was her own scarlet lullaby
boiling inside her stretching stomach,
burning into the flesh of her swollen intestines,
she didn’t let herself sing
because it would have burned me too
The first time I uttered
I hate you
I was sweltering in the suffocating heat
of a growing vocabulary.
I remember how sweat glistened on my cheeks
and a small smile played at the corners of my lips
Like a prayer
I remember how her black eyes shrunk
Like socks in the drier,
a double wink.
I didn’t know what the words meant—
I just liked the sound of the music.
But she did.
Nails biting into the soft skin of my palms
I stuck my chin out into the thick air between us.
I thought I was ready to bear
whatever she would hurl at me.
But I wasn’t ready to bear her.
The fingers that flew at me
Sliced my throat closed
Stitched it open
Long was all I could call the pain
As she spun herself
She had made a mistake
that neither of us could forget.
Beaming ivory tendrils ran down my neck
as if three identical flashlights were being perpetually shone
on my throat, parallel to one another.
I quickly learned that the only way to cover the sunshine
is with a storm.
when shadows blended
into the moonshine that cut
across my neck,
I learned how to scream.
I learned how to make my vocal chords thud
against each other fast enough to ripple the scars
off my skin.
And there was something about the night:
Perhaps the way she would always
kiss me goodnight,
But never my father.
There was something about the closure—
The not knowing whether the three words I uttered
Would be my last.
That muggy midsummer,
It became a tradition.
I love you meant as much to me as I hate you—
It became safe.
When I felt her eyes sinking
into the echo of her thumb
etched beneath my chin
three syllables could regurgitate
The sharpness of the ache.
She had made a mistake
and she was going to pay.
That muggy midsummer,
Her shoulders slumped to her waist
Ebony crescents waxed and waned
Beneath her bulbous pupils.
Her skin was lined with small incisions
Of the bites that she wouldn’t dare return
Her knobby knuckles knocked
against my open door
she needed to tuck me in.
Her arms would flutter around me,
lips brushing against my cheek,
but the moment her eyes glued themselves to my neck,
my dazed body would freeze,
claws digging into her arms,
as I spat out the words I could blurt
even in my sleep
When I grew tasteful enough
to wince at the tastelessness of my own tongue,
When I needed to forget,
To deafen myself to the words that my tongue caressed
like a peppermint
that wouldn’t dissolve
They wouldn’t go away,
Like colonies of bacteria,
On the surface that had nurtured them—
The New World.
What I didn’t know
What I need you to know
is that an out-of-tune jukebox
just as white
as your mother’s touch
A Conversation between Divya Mehrish and Lily Bechtold
1. Thanks so much for talking with us, Divya! Both “When What You Have Is Called A Family” and “Stain” approach ideas about family from different angles. To you, what links these poems? What differentiates them?
These poems are linked by the theme of family, and by the question of belonging. One often assumes that being part of a family is synonymous with belonging. But I feel that being a part of a family requires children to fight for belonging, for understanding, for empathy. Children must delve deep into the relationships that connect them with others and grapple through all the uncertainties and questions of the past that may continue to haunt their families. I believe that these two pieces are linked by questions. The narrators in both pieces are drowning in burdened silence—they both struggle to make sense of their families, their relationships, and how they can lead an existence both together with and separate from their respective families. I find that “When What You Have Is Called A Family” is a more observational piece, in the sense that the narrator is watching their parents and trying to make sense of how they exist relative to their parents’ relationship. “Stain” is a coming-of-age piece that explores a tumultuous mother-daughter relationship, and the power that words play.
2. In both pieces, the narrative flows around family, painting a vivid cast of characters who develop individually and in respect to one another over the course of the stories. How do you see longer works as an opportunity to develop and flesh out characters?
I believe that there is power in poetry that is short as well as poetry that is long. When a poet writes a shorter piece, there can sometimes be less space to fully explore and flesh out the roles of each character. This form is sometimes able to leave many questions up to the reader, allowing the reader to formulate their own conclusions. I enjoy longer pieces as well because I find that I can create a prose-like narrative with more of a story arc that gives a character the flexibility to fully develop into a real-life individual with whom the reader can hopefully more directly relate.
3. In “When What You Have Is Called A Family,” you describe the word ‘hate’ as a “jeweled dagger,” the narrative voice capturing an entire person with a single, powerful syllable. What is there to be said about the power of language and vocabulary as it affects the way we think about and interact with one another?
As a writer, I believe that language is tremendously powerful, on both ends of the spectrum. It can be used as a form of catharsis or a means of communication. But it can also be used as a weapon, as a way to hurt others. We live in a world in which we are each so deeply affected by what others think of us. We live in an age of judgment, of constant scrutiny, and language has come to define who we are and who we want to be. I think that language is a particularly personal aspect of our identities—language is a reflection of who we are, of how we think, of the way in which we perceive our world.
4. The transience of adolescence is documented so well in these poems, especially in the context of a family that’s changing too. Maheen noted especially the change from “the everlasting blush” of a pink childhood bedroom to a “beer-battered tongue” in “When What You Have Is Called A Family.” How does this motif of transition inform the poems?
I believe that childhood is defined by change—both positive and negative. When writing these pieces, I was overcome with acute nostalgia for my childhood. It was a time of complete oblivion, and of an utterly carefree attitude that I doubt I will ever experience again. The fact that my memory separates my childhood from my adolescence in such a rigid way is an indication, to me, that I was so severely affected by the changes that occurred in my life that brought me to where I am today. In both of these pieces, the deeper sense of self and sense of awareness that the narrators gain inform their experiences, forcing them to view their realities in very different lights.
5. The lines “It became a tradition / I love you meant as much as I hate you” struck a chord with me, the juxtaposition between two ideas tied intrinsically together. How do you think these lines are reflected in the overall narratives of “When What You Have Is Called A Family” and “Stain”?
I think that as both of these pieces explore childhood, which is so often a time of discovery, of learning that there are rules to follow, of defining right from wrong, the juxtaposition of the ideas of love and hate reflect the entropy of childhood. As children, we fit into no box. We do not try to meet expectations or please others, but truly are able to live for ourselves. While this line appears to be linking together two opposing notions, in reality, I believe that for children “love” and “hate” are just words, just ideas that do not exist in a vacuum, but are rather muddled together in their growing vocabularies and growing understandings of reality.
6. Both of these poems conflict the roles of mother and father. The process of identity formation is so interwoven with them, especially the mother. How does maternity work, as opposed to paternity and in itself, in these poems?
In these poems, the father figure is more distant, more intangible, and thus the narrators harbor more of a sense of curiosity towards their fathers. But maternity in these pieces is a kind of static, suffocating presence that is almost overwhelming to the narrators. There is a sense of being over-comfortable with one’s mother to the point of feeling a need to distance oneself. But distancing oneself from someone one cannot live without, someone who is so ingrained in one’s soul, is painfully difficult. And thus, the narrators begin to experience this deep sense of hatred and anger as a defense mechanism in order to try to protect themselves from the pain of growing up.
7. Throughout “Stain,” the narrator changes drastically; as the narrative voice describes events from a more removed angle, readers can feel the loss of an innocence present earlier in the poem. How does this development factor into some of the other themes present in the poem, such as family relationships?
The development of the narrative voice corresponds with the physical and emotional development of the narrator from childhood to adolescence, which also marks the transformation of the narrator’s perspective of family relationships and of their understanding of their identity relative to the existence of their mother.
8. Both of these poems are set against the backdrop of a home, from the smells and textures described in “When What You Have Is Called A Family” to being tucked into bed and watching moonlight on the walls in “Stain.” In what way does this setting have an effect on these works?
I think that both of these pieces are grounded in the idea of home. Some of my most distinct memories of my childhood are based in the five senses. I remember laughs, sounds, colors dancing off walls. That was how my brain interpreted my existence and tried to make sense of the way in which I could belong to the greater world. Thus, I think the settings in each of these pieces can physically pull the readers back into their own childhoods.
9. What effect do you think that being a “teen writer” has on your work? What do you think are some of the unique advantages and insights that this particular stage of life can lend poetry?
Many adults like to declare that being a teenager is difficult, but I think that it is so much more than that. Being a teenager is simultaneously terrifying and extraordinary. I have thousands of thoughts tumbling through my head, and I am always full of ideas and words that seem to disappear the second I think them. I think that having the perspective of a teenager in this very politically difficult time in our world is very important and gives me insight that I can lend to my writing. I see the world we live in through two lenses: that of a child, and that of an emerging adult. The ability to sneak back into the relative sense of oblivion of adolescence and enter the more anxious and responsibility-drenched existence of an adult a moment later allows me to live in two worlds at once. I believe that my age gives me the opportunity to draw from these very different experiences, and to muddle them together to create art.
10. Is there any advice you have for other teen writers?
As teenagers, we have so much to say. We are teetering on the boundary between childhood and adulthood, and we are puffed full of words, of thoughts, of questions. Even if you can’t feel it, words are gushing out of you. But to hear these words, you must stay in the present. Don’t make the mistake of relishing in the nostalgia of childhood oblivion or planning your future. Just live in the now.