A cup of fine tea: Krishnakumar Sankaran’s “Incubated”

Krishnakumar Sankaran’s “Incubated” [Read the poem here]
(First published in Issue #13 of

-This post is written by Tammy Ho.

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.


5 Responses to “A cup of fine tea: Krishnakumar Sankaran’s “Incubated””

  1. Krishnakumar Sankaran Says:

    Thank you so much for this thoughtful analysis. There is little for me to add to it. Regarding form, I tried to follow a scheme of repeated sounds in the poem, wherein the end of every even numbered line is mirrored in the start of the next line. The repeated words were ‘branches’ (L4/L5), ‘long’ (L8/L9). The rest were near echoes of each other: ‘flux/flocked’, ‘chest/tasted’, ‘motes/rotting’.

  2. Bob Bradshaw Says:

    It’s striking how Cha publishes so many young talents.

    There are many fine lines in this poem by Krishnakumar Sankaran. Some are first rate examples of good writing. I tip my hat to these lines:

    It wasn’t long when you couldn’t stop coughing
    up a keening knot, a weight in your chest.
    You tasted ash. Your tongue, a dry white paste.

    The poem works best when we’re swept along by associations, when lyricism carries the load. But I’m impressed too by the poet’s cleverness. I like the idea of walking into a ‘pause’ of leaves. Why pause? Is it because the foreboding leaves give the narrator pause?

    However, letting us in more on the couple’s relationship would have given the poem a stronger emotional punch.

    Overall I can only say how much I enjoyed this poem, and how I look forward to more of Krishnakumar Sankaran’s work. Soon, I hope.

  3. t Says:

    Yes, Bob. I’d like to know more about the relationship between the persona and “You”, too. Not much information is given in the poem, although one can surmise that they are close.

  4. Shadowy figure Says:

    If the glades are reminiscent of the sick person’s lungs, does that not make the two characters in the poem “motes” that eventually will kill the forest? I see an environmentalist aspect to the poem as well, not just a metaphor of the other guy’s illness.

  5. Arthur Leung Says:

    The more I read this poem, the more I like it. Tammy did give a very convincing analysis esp. on the elaboration of the two sets of imagery – natural and physiological – graphically and magically alluding to each other, desparately incubated with the power of the poem being heightened by the interestingly indifferent tone of the persona (yet I agree that the persona/addressee relationship is close). Thanks for the pleasure, Krishnakumar!

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