‘The Captives’ by Shivani Mehta

I have bent the rules again here, because Shivani Mehta’s poetry has done as much for my fiction as many other fiction writers, and it would feel unfair to disregard that. This poem, almost written as a historical blurb, tells of a (made-up) historical practice of burying the dying just before they died, capturing their final breaths and sealing them. She describes the sound of a final breath as a sparrow sighing when squeezed in the palm of a hand; a gentle, efficient description that toppled me on my first (and every subsequent) read. In an interview with Ben Niespodziany, Mehta describes her poetry as “images, one after another, that involve a little girl growing up in a swirl of language,” which feels like a wonderful description of much of this collection of poems. There is wonder and rhythm amongst her work. The last line of this poem has always moved me – the way she captures hundreds of years of relief, the final gasps of the ancestors held hostage. I do not want to write the final line here, because I want you to read it in context. You can hold your breath until then.

Published in Useful Information for the Soon-to-Be Beheaded, Press 53, 2013. Read the prose poem online here