Convergence of Science & Art at the Vulnerable Point of the Human Heart: Review of The Mustard Seed
Time with The Mustard Seed: A Collage of Science, Art and Love Poems, by Lalita Noronha has comprised some of my favorite moments of the last few weeks. I heard Noronha read at at DiVerse Gaithersburg Poetry in Spring of 2019. Although I try not to make impulsive book buys, she read this:
After Auguste Rodin’s The Kiss; Baltimore Museum of Art
It’s the way your hand rests
on her thigh,
your thumb poised above,
the way she sits
sideways astride between
your legs opened wide.
It’s the way her arm encircles
one on your breast,
the way she lifts
from the cave of your arm,
the way you take
her only with your lips.
It’s how we know
what drove Adam and Eve from
why Paolo and Francesca left
The Gates of Hell,
why we stand
I could not resist buying this book. I’ve returned to Noronha’s work periodically over the months, enjoying a piece or two, reflecting, and sharing her work with other poets. So I decided to write a mini-review, inspiring me to read cover-to-cover. But find I have too much to say for a short review. I want to transcribe the whole book for everyone to see! Given the time, I bet I could spend days of hours unrolling meaning and savoring sounds in The Mustard Seed. I’ll take the luxury of enjoying doing a couple of hours of that now.
Noronha addresses essential themes, such as otherness, love between mother and child, romantic love, and aging all with beautiful, imaginative and sometimes surprising imagery. And as seen above, she writes fantastic ekphrastic poetry! She uses nature, art, and science as vehicles for imparting powerful insights on love, guilt, forgiveness, and longing. While reading The Mustard Seed alone, I found myself saying, “Oh my God,” “Wow,” and such audibly, unable to contain my awe at the turns her poems take and what seem to me important truths she hits upon.
If nothing else, The Mustard Seed inspires me to search all sorts of scientific concepts and vocabulary, “echnoderms,” “Haliotis iris,” and “programmed cell death” to name a few. Fortunately for me deep understanding of the terms are not necessary. Noronha, who has her Ph.D. in Microbiology/Biochemistry, is a generous poet who uses the terms in context that make the overall meaning accessible. It fascinates me how she moves so deftly between such small targets as cells and fibers and weaves in references to impossibly huge subjects such as the universe, sky, history of the world, without losing the reader or straying from some fundamental element of what it is to be human.
The Mustard Seed speaks to an immigrant’s experience. In “From Bombay to Baltimore” she writes, “And still I search between continents, / between sky and sky, / between then and now // for home.” Although I don’t share the immigrant experience, I found many of her poems on the theme relatable. Perhaps she hits upon larger themes of belonging and being an outsider that can be understood through the lens of many different experiences, perhaps through being quirky, introverted, and somewhat anti for example. “Immigrant Dandelion” especially spoke to me.
“With sunflower yellow blooms
and feathery seeds,
it dares to live and succeed
undaunted by perennial labels,
I love this stanza and how she arrives there from discussions of water, cell, “belly of the earth,” pavement, and lawns. She carries the reader to this growth which feels commonplace but also phenomenal. Weeds have always been my favorite flower.
Some of Noronha’s poems tell whole stories, such as “Gypsy Girls” and “The Prawn Woman.” Although beautiful imagery therein, I find it difficult to quote one or two lines, without distracting from the gestalt of the poem. Likewise in “Planters at Dusk,” but I take the risk to share this gorgeous line, “... — one long last look as / shadows drown their day’s work.” What a lovely way to describe something as familiar as the end of the day. Her pieces are filled with such delicate descriptions.
Really, it’s difficult to pull excerpts from most of Noronha’s poems. To quote her work to some extent minimizes the incredible turns and connections she builds. So I resist sharing lines of some of my favorite pieces, “Homo Sapiens” (p. 18), “Beyond the Cenozoic Era” (p. 29), “What We Cannot Name,” (p. 51). Those are a lot of favorite poems for me to have in one collection! Another, “Starfish on Calvary,” I will quote, although note that the whole poem is wonderful and best in its entirety. In this poem Noronha writes of a mother trying to comfort a girl concerned about a starfish on display. “She looks in my eyes, / her face implacable, unyielding, / and then - she smiles - in compassion for me.” As a mother who has benefited from the selfless grace of her children, I appreciate how this skilled poet sums up the phenomenon in an endearing story and gorgeous lines.
I highly recommend The Mustard Seed. I’m not sure one needs to love poetry to enjoy this collection. I’ve shared plenty of bits with loved ones who aren’t particularly drawn to poetry and it’s always well-received. I’m grateful for this book and look forward to reading more by Lalita Noronha.
The Mustard Seed and Noronha’s other two collections, Her Skin Phyllo-Thin and Where Monsoons Cry, can be purchased from her website
or from Amazon