“music, dancing and storytelling”

The Courtesans Reply, Shazea Quraishi, Flipped Eye, pamphlet, £4
reviewed by Emma Lee

courtesan's replyThe Courtesans Reply is a sequence of poems written from the point of view of Indian courtesans, who were famed for their skill in music, dancing and storytelling as well as love. Some of these courtesans are happy to imply that they are in charge, manipulating their clients, e.g. ‘Ramadasi’

Untie my belt, open
the silk cloth
covering my waist,

let my oiled limbs, my
perfumed skin
envelop you

as the rose
the bee.

Although as both line length and stress patterns tail off towards the end of the poem, it seems to belie the confident message. The rose may swallow the bee, but the bee still gets the nectar and has a choice of flowers; all the flower can do is make itself as attractive as possible. The sexual imagery is both appropriate and effective. Not all courtesans are as confident, in ‘Madhavesana’

After I have washed the sweat,
the trails of saliva from my skin,
I stand at the open window,
let the breeze dry my face.

There’s another issue explored by ‘Caransdasi’ who wonders whether her clients find her as necessary as she finds them.

Tell me what you read in books
and hear in coffee houses,
at wedding parties. Teach me.

When our tired, gladdened bodies
drift onto the bed,
kiss me like a husband..

The epilogue uses found text from “Glimpses of Sexual Life in Nanda-Maurya India” translated by Manomohan Ghosh and the Karma Sutra and concerns the art of courtesanship rather than how the courtesans feel, e.g. in ‘How can scratching and biting, even if they are painful, create pleasure?’

Just as a whip
when used by the charioteer,
makes horses mindful of speed,
so the use of nails and teeth
during intercourse
engross the heart in the pleasure of touch.

What the poems explore is the sense of power the courtesans have over their clients. The client may appear to be in charge because he is buying their services, but once alone with him, it’s the courtesan who controls him through manipulative and sensual skills. She controls the speed at which things happen, how far he can go and how pleasurable that experience might be. It’s a false sense of power as he could still overwhelm her, fight back and hurt her or simply walk away but each is confident in her ability to influence how the time together will go. The courtesans don’t fear violence because they assume their skills in love will deter and encourage a gentle reaction. The poems are polished and pared down to explore their topic with a single voice per poem. Tonally, however, they are practically the same with each woman using very similar vocabulary and elocution. That said, the poems are skilfully written and make for an engaging read.

Emma Lee

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