Navigating the ineffable
A review of Prageeta Sharma's 'Undergloom'
What happens to the woman of color body as it endures the banal repression of the academy? And if it aches to be itself without pressure to conform and meet assumed burdens to produce, publish, and exhaust itself to ‘fit’ while concurrently losing itself? Undergloom by Prageeta Sharma explores the thingification of the woman scholar and the way her mind must adapt to a tepid environment. This innovative text refuses the armchair, rejects being told to take a seat, and exposes the internal politics of the unconscionable class system of our departments and divisions in a university setting and its deplorable yet veiled activities.
As an associate professor in creative writing at the University of Montana at Missoula, Sharma as the speaker expresses the humanity of despair and utter disapproval at the institution. She takes us through the undergloom, the southward space where said but untended language lands. By depicting moments from the classroom, faculty meetings, job talks, recruitment, retention, allyship, and passive aggression with colleagues, Sharma explores the impostor fatigue of doubly occupying career difficulty and rising mobility. The poems “Everybody at the Institution,” “Grateful,” “What Happened at the Service?” and “The White Filter” speak to internal, conscious, and subconscious choices to change Self to ‘fit’ what is ‘missing’ or not yet present, and in a sense, the racialized scholarly and cultural body becomes the missing and the occupied — she becomes the absence and the negative space. Sharma grapples, with deft language and microcosmic detail, with the documented stresses of a compartmentalized scholar-poet at work. She calls for brave selfhood in the poem “Hey Day”:
Don’t discount lightness when it occurs, life with its usual
bare corrosive sense keeps abuse thick and present.
And so when we were all self-effacing in ways that felt spunky and kind —
I became elated, I was pushing my identity, the real one.
The one not struck with terror, the one not struck down by anyone.
This is what I want every day, what I want for myself and for the future. (19)
The poetry summons the gashed body, the split Selves. By addressing the upset and bruised body, Sharma comments on the appearance of the body at work as possibly co-opting their realities; is the cultural body in an academic setting seen as complicit with the danger and multiplicity of the institution? Sharma asks about this collusion in “The Other Profiled in Cerulean”: “Could you look at me the way you look at him or her? / Would this mimicry allow for some kind simulacrum?” (8). By asking these questions, language is posited as a tool that breaks and repairs, fails and succeeds us. Sharma’s poetry points to this conundrum: the academy is a place of unwavering criticality — but can we spin the institution? — the institution, in turn, must be questioned as a mock-up of how power is divided and fought over. In the poem “We Have Trees Now,” the question “What is the profession of the culture-hoarder?” perhaps points out how the professionalization of cultural studies becomes a collection of bodies and minds. Do our universities and colleges dismember our faculty? Sharma, I think, says yes.
I think this wicked rivalry of selves
does not speak to some engaging quality you see
in yourself — talent for being unusual, eccentric force of brain —
you are not the neem from a tropical tree. (25)
Here, she rejects the notions that reduce the person to their mind and intellect. This is one way of dismembering; the act of dismembering can breed loneliness and wisdom, as evidenced in the poems “A Befallen Electric Harp” (54) and “Popularity in Poetry” (60), respectively.
The language of the poetry is political, seemingly tame but fiery in cry and as real as mental efforts to sustain one’s self. The poetry is seemingly confessional, sad at times from a place of exile, wanting or desiring as a form of hope, but not as a necessity. The poems depict the underlying abuse and navigation of the academic-industrial complex.
inscrutability is the only answer to power —
but to say I am inscrutable is to say what they always say;
the way shorn hair says everything about lack and space,
but can be hard to pull off without a menacing posture. (27)
In addition to being rendered invisible and marginalized, the speaker witnesses the ineffable lack of personhood not granted to other potential scholarly bodies. In the poem “Mobbing,” she plays with the results of an interview’s deliberation involving another colleague’s judgment: “her stink stank to you so you sunk her” (28). Sharma re-creates confidential spaces and hiding places of authenticity.
It is clear that Sharma’s thick use of language explores the craft of poetry and what it does to the crafter, the poet. Undergloom wrestles with talking to others, talking with Self, but most importantly, that it is said. Think of each poem as a wish, a possibility, or another way that could have been — a place right from the undergloom.