How we perceive ourselves changes as we grow. And for poet Natasha Rao, self-awareness is valuable. It shows us how reality works against our memories and dreams. In her debut collection Latitude, which won the 2021 APR/Honickman Prize, Rao becomes aware of her animal self — wanting food, companionship, sex — by perusing what she unabashedly desires from the world around her.
Across the book, the poet's prime approach to "knowing" herself is an examination of how she clings to her past. In the very first poem, Rao's speaker wants to remember "the gentle lilt" of her brother's "early voice" — instead she hears "the dripping of a basalt fountain." Titled "Old Growth," the poem considers what it means to realize one has grown, but only after the fact.
"...I felt safe before I knew
the word for it. But how to fossilize a feeling, sustain it
in amber? I keep dreaming in reverse until I reach
a quiet expanse of forest..."
Latitude is aware of its constant chase for a time past, but it does not live in the past. Quite the opposite — its scrutiny of nostalgia directly wrestles with the poet's attachment to today's desire. Consider this line from another poem addressing her brother: "Now / I get off the plane / and keep waiting for the part / where you need me again." A stark sense of place keeps us rooted in the poet's search for a particular childhood feeling — that feeling of safety from the first poem.
But there is friction between the poet's sense of integrity and the intensity of her desires. Even the book's title, Latitude, refers both to a geographical awareness and the freedom of action and thought. The poet wants to know everything and be everywhere, but understands the brevity of her life. Here's a striking short poem titled "World View":
"Envious of the fly
that has enough eyes
to take everything in
and the snake
who can swallow it
Sensual details take Rao's poems in a lyrical direction; her South Asian culture and familial expectations probing at the nature of her desires. In the book's title poem, which is split into 10 prose verses, the poet grasps at memory to make sense of the friction she feels: "In the liquor store I remembered a friend's advancements with unexpected enjoyment." She wants to feel desired — what she calls "the precedent to shame." She identifies her "recklessness" and embraces it. "Truthfully I didn't mind the smell of semen in the air," she writes as a secret to herself, breaking away from any rules she might have felt the need to follow.
Similarly, one weekend she is at the park, looking at passing dogs: "Not knowing the names of breeds the way my white friends did, I sat in an embarrassed silence while they discussed their preferences for Dachshunds and Dobermans." Here, silence points to a familiar immigrant experience, where language sheds light on who is here and who is "other."
But just two lines later, she admits to feeling "light and fearless in proxy" to a driver when sitting in the passenger seat of a car. Relinquishing control isn't difficult for Rao — perhaps, it's actually fun. And when they drive into the park and she sees a "geyser surge" the sound she lets out is "like a small, round pebble." It is "the same mineral gasp" she let out the first time she felt "a man erupt inside [her]." The poet accepts the complacency that comes with her silence, just as she acknowledges the power of her voice. It is hers alone, to keep or to share.
This performance of the self through voice is key throughout the poem, as well as the book. "This week I am unable to contribute to conversation, determined to hear every voice at once," she writes in a later section. But that tension around her desires perks up again as she admits: "I take it back, I don't want to be a fly, to know everything happening at once." The poet isn't afraid to admit she sometimes finds her voice unreliable, just as she isn't afraid to own every bit of what she wants.
Finally, it is the changing of her desires that gives the poet the most latitude. She basks in that uncertainty, writing in another section: "To cut all ties. To not know what comes next. To watch my nails grow longer, having forgotten to pack the clipper." Here Rao's speaker is back on an airplane, tending softly to her desires. "What a relief, at last, to admit I am in love with turbulence."
By dissecting familial memory, sexual awakening, and the feelings that were once new but are now old, Rao allows herself to grow into her many versions. She is tuned into the complexity of her longing within the framework of her changing life. Self-aware and direct, Latitude is timeless in its honesty.