Krishnakumar Sankaran’s “Incubated” [Read the poem here]
(First published in Issue #13 of Cha)
Krishnakumar Sankaran’s “Incubated” is a poem in two parts.1 The first describes a visit to the wilderness by the persona and an addressee; the relationship between the two is intimate, although never made explicit. In the second part, it is revealed that the addressee is dying. What is enigmatic about this poem is the relationship between these two sections. Is it causal? Can the source of the illness be traced back to that day in the woods? Or is the first part simply a memory of the time before sickness, an uneasy pause, which in retrospect seems to foreshadow the end?
The poem begins with the motivation for the addressee’s visit to the wilderness: ‘You came for butterflies’ (L1), a pleasant albeit slightly frivolous activity. However, if the characters were expecting an enjoyable day out, what they find in the forest is significantly less comforting. At one point, entering ‘a glade like a pause / between hill and river’ (L2-L3), they encounter an ill wind ‘in flux / flocked with blind colors that met and ducked / into holes in a sky held up by branches’ (L2-L4). The oxymoronic collocation of ‘blind’ and ‘colors’ suggests that the wind carries something invisible yet substantive. It also seems to bring a sense of death into the poem and forest. The glade is now filled with an atmosphere of foreboding: ‘The branches were old fingers raking sky’ (L3) and ‘a pause of leaves’ were curled wings that ‘cracked like bones’ (L6-L7).
This new sense of death prefigures the illness which is introduced in the second half of the poem. But is the wind itself more than simply the messenger of bad news? Is it in fact its source? The persona remembers that the wind ‘ran through you / on invisible wings’ (L7-L8). Was this simply a chilling wind? Or did it carry the motes which the characters will later find ‘rotting microcosmic in your lungs’ (L13)? In this last interpretation, the “Incubated” of the title may refer to the process in which the particles had started to settle in the addressee’s lungs and were beginning their slow destruction of the organ, like cocooning caterpillars before turning into poisoned butterflies. In this sense, the addressee has found the ‘butterflies’ he came for, although not the ones he intended. Or perhaps the memory is not causally related to the forthcoming illness at all. It may just be a moment the two people shared shortly before their lives changed. In this case, perhaps the illness was already incubating when they visited the forest.
Whatever the interpretation, the two visitors seem to find the wind menacing and they ‘didn’t stay long’ (L8). This provides a linguistic transition into the next line, which also begins the second section of the poem: ‘It wasn’t long when you couldn’t stop coughing’ (L9). The use of ‘long’ with a negative verb in both cases not only suggests shortness of time but also perhaps a causal link between past and present, forest and hospital. From this point onwards, the poem describes the addressee’s medical condition: the symptoms are constant coughing (‘you couldn’t stop coughing / up a keening knot’), a tight chest (‘a weight in your chest’) and a dry tongue (‘a dry white paste’). They later learn from ‘green X rays’ that the cause of these symptoms is ‘motes / rotting microcosmic in your lungs’ (L12-L13). This diagnosis takes us back to the forest. The ‘green X rays’ of lungs are reminiscent of the branches ‘raking sky’ and the ‘motes’ inhabit a microcosmic ecosystem like ‘indifferent skeletons’ (L14) in their own forest glade. Here, it is almost possible to read the first section of the poem from the perspective of the motes inside the lungs—their bronchioles, tree branches; their intakes of breath, the gusting ill wind. But the poet may also be suggesting that because the addressee cannot escape this illness, the two are trapped in the forest, stuck with the diseased lungs.
1A reader had this to say about the poem.
Krishnakumar Sankaran is based in Mumbai, India. His work has been published by nether, Muse India and New Aesthetic, among others. He also has two poems in Rupa Publication’s Writing Love anthology.