When the Mouth Closes

Anjoli Roy



                                     The room is a mouth

                                     our dark body breathes high

                                     in the sky. An oily,

                                     turmeric moon asks for fish.

                                     Ilish’s pristine body slides

                                     through wet clouds.


                                     She smiles at us. Black wind washes

                                     salt from scale, from the muddy bottom.


                                     We gather around the tongue: my father,

                                     Cousin Deepa, the ruby jeweler, and his

                                     wife, prim on the molars.


                                     Their daughter, Amrita, hangs from the uvula.

                                     Pouts, fashion school, New

                                     York, San Francisco. Pouts, me.

                                     Now. Beautiful. Her mother nods,

                                     pets her river white. Wine

                                     tilts glasses. Whiskey trembles.


                                     Cousin Deepa, suddenly girlish:

                                     Oh, baaaabaaa! Her vowels

                                     long as slits, her mouth

                                     open as the sun. Alone,

                                     without the married couple,

                                     daughter in this room,


she said, Baby. Sad. Pressure.

Dark. Her light, low. A row of skin-

bleaching creams shepherding the dust

behind her, I wanted to say,

Pelvis. Angles.

Counted days. Six pillows.

Timed orgasms.

I wanted to hand her woman

words. Sleek. Full





Deepa’s mouth closed, green

as a bottle gourd. I felt

the ruined scalp,

the gut that bleeds

quietly in corners.

I felt the ash, stuffed in our mouth.


Ocean swelled between us.

A tangle of moldy decades

bobbed the surface.


                                     Bengali wells up from the street far below us, floods the throat,

                                     grabs our ankles, rattles the teeth. Amrita swims fast

                                     to the safety of her mother. Who are they? I ask,

                                     peering out the front of the mouth, watching signs and the feet of

                                     innumerable people wetting the streets. What are they saying?


                                     All maids, Deepa explains, calm, watching

                                     the water gag down the throat. My father sits secure,

                                     silent, on a wisdom tooth. Deepa strokes the tongue.

                                     Glares at a hard empty kitchen, the not-swept-today

                                     floors. They’re drivers too, she adds, her wrist flicks

                                     crumbs from the taste buds. Rubbish.

                                     The ruby jeweler and his wife cackle.


                                     The molars ache. My tuning fork reaches

                                     over the mouth’s loose incisors for

                                     so many feet pounding Kolkata’s July streets.

                                     I turn, hold the fork to the molars, vibrating.


                                     I want the demonstrators’ words, but

                                     cousins, soft-lipped, are not good translators,

                                     and my molars only understand English.


                                                                                                  Who are you to hook these bowels?

                                                                                                  Will you string them up? Hang them

                                                                                                  from ocean views in Honolulu?

                                                                                                  Lose them on a loose-knuckled breeze?


                                     Ilish flashes behind dark clouds. Her words

                                     gut. Gums shift, recede. I wonder

                                     what will happen when the mouth closes.


                                     The voices from the street subside,

                                     for now.


                                     We swallow Chinese food spread

                                     out across the tongue’s midline groove. Because,

                                     no one to cook the prawns, the

                                     banana flower stuck in the

                                     icebox, browning. My father shooed

                                     from the kitchen.


                                     Amrita’s body says 17, says

                                     plump, says thin, says

                                     run-on hair and silver skin and bright

                                     young-young thing. It says

                                     only child. Amrita’s mother teases,


                                     you never eat veggies. Amrita

                                     snaps: Just not your shitty

                                     Bengali vegetables!


                                     Amrita licks the tongue.

                                     Glands flush. Vessels thicken.


                                     Amrita’s father, the ruby

                                     jeweler, fingers the stones

                                     on his wrist. He looks

                                     across the tongue

                                     at the round of his

                                     wife’s collarbone,

                                     He whispers to my ribs:


                                     It’s nice, he says,

                                     that she has stayed so fit.


                                     Saliva steeps us all,

                                     soaks skirts and pant legs,

                                     rolls toward the lips, where I lean

                                     toward the silver back of the

                                     Hooghly River.


                                     It is not Ilish’s time to kiss the river

                                     mouth, not yet time for

                                     that ancestral pull, when the

                                     full belly of unborn will

                                     call her home.


                                     I watch Ilish in the sky

                                     gleam in blackness, flicker behind

                                     crooked clouds, anguish when she

                                     vanishes, at last, in the

                                     moon’s oceanic mouth.


                                     I am curling around

                                     a canine, tracing the line

                                     of river to ocean beneath us, waiting,

                                     when her voice, again, dislodges



                                                                                                  When will you leap from those lips?

                                                                                                  Or, will you plunder the body’s dark throat




Ilish is an anadromous fish popular in South Asia. Bengali Hindus prepare it on puja days, particularly to offer to the goddess Lakshmi.




Anjoli Roy writes creative nonfiction, fiction, and (rarely) poetry. Her recent work has been published in Kweli: Truth from the Diaspora's Boldest Voices, Frontier Psychiatrist, and Fiction365. She is pursuing her PhD in English and creative writing at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. Her web site is www.anjoliroy.com.