More Than “just a sick girl”: A Review of Heat Death of the Universe by Leela Raj-Sankar
by Eleanor Ball
It’s a rare pleasure to read a debut and know you’re seeing the author at the beginning of a long, successful career. But that’s how I felt reading Heat Death of the Universe (fifth wheel press, 2023), the debut chapbook of emerging poet Leela Raj-Sankar. In Heat Death, Raj-Sankar follows up her prolific 2022—which she capped off by scoring one Pushcart and two Best of the Net nominations—with an evocative, sharply-written debut. This collection deftly explores chronic illness, adolescent love, and the pains of growing up.
As implied by the title, Heat Death is grounded in Raj-Sankar’s home of the Sonoran Desert. Raj-Sankar captures her everyday life in the desert through carefully-chosen details, such as “the rusting AC / creaking with sounds of overuse,” “chlorine-stained hair,” and checking her shoes for scorpions. She often chooses desert-related titles that thematically connect to the poems, for example, in “Cactus Wren,” which opens “The poppies are redder than blood and I have become / a prey animal, anxiously awaiting / a miracle, my mouth / thickened and cottony with the stench / of desire.” Raj-Sankar renders the desert as searing and airless, yet wildly vivid: a fact of life, a forsaken island, a brutal road to salvation. This book is simultaneously expansive and claustrophobic, red-hot and refreshing. Raj-Sankar’s poems map experiences that, like the desert sands, are almost too hot to touch—but she goes there anyway, with equal parts verve and grace.
Raj-Sankar’s struggle with chronic illness is woven throughout Heat Death. Her poems situate themselves in the liminality created by illness—days curled up in bed in the midst of migraines, hours staring into space inside of MRI machines. Raj-Sankar discusses how illness influences her daily life, manipulates time, and confounds identity. “I couldn’t write that summer,” she mourns in “High Tide in a Landlocked State.” “Couldn’t lift a pen, or a spoon to my / mouth, or do much other than watch the fan spin lazily above me, once, / twice, three times.” As someone who has suffered from migraine and headache issues for close to a decade, I’m painfully familiar with the desperate calculus of “aubade after migraine cluster”—“It’s just simple brain / chemistry: if I can endure the next five minutes I can endure / the next fifty years”—and the frustration of “High Tide”—“The ocean is most romantic when you think you might be / dying. I wasn’t. In the end, I was just a sick girl who didn’t want / to be sick anymore.”
But although Raj-Sankar is realistic about the effect that illness has on her life, Heat Death’s outlook is not ultimately hopeless. For me, one of the most memorable images in the collection appears at the end of “aubade after migraine cluster,” when Raj-Sankar emerges from her bedroom after a long migraine. Adjusting from the four-day darkness, she amazedly notices small details around her like the soft golden sunrise, fresh coffee, and jazz drifting from the kitchen. “Even after the world ends / it goes on,” she writes. “Even after the world ends it says: wake up. Jazz is playing in the kitchen. / You are going to live.”
In addition to illness, Raj-Sankar also explores the slipperiness of identity through the lens of growing up. In “Fantasia,” one of the most vulnerable and technically ambitious pieces in the collection, she reckons at length with her heritage:
Raj-Sankar amplifies the poignancy and incisiveness of her reflections by grounding them in carefully-chosen, everyday details. “Fantasia” also clearly demonstrates how a poem’s form and content can (and should) work in concert with one another. Raj-Sankar develops the tension of the poem’s form (spacing, line breaks, and so on) in tandem with the rising tension of the content. Her form and content uplift and complicate each other in subtle yet striking ways—to me, a hallmark of good poetry.
In other poems, such as “SECOND-GENERATION ANTI-LOVE LETTER,” Raj-Sankar explores the trials of adolescent love. As she reads a book of subpar love poetry gifted to her by her significant other, she reflects on the large and small spots of disconnect between the two of them:
“[. . .] You say you’ll
name the sun for me and I think, in which language? In which
season? April turns my head fuzzy so
I tell you to lie in the grass with me. Inke va, my throat is so
dry. What I am trying to say is I love you but
I can’t call you meri jaan. What I am trying to say is that
you should open your windows so you can hear me singing from
ten miles away.”
And in a gut-punch ending, she concludes, “What I am trying to say is / I need you to learn to pronounce my name.” Raj-Sankar beautifully expresses the yearning, hopeful, and melancholic shade that youth casts over everything, combining wisdom and wryness into a magnetic voice that is wholly hers.
I will end on the note that Raj-Sankar’s poetry is simply a great pleasure to read. Her language is crisp and evocative with no word out of place. Her command of rhythm is outstanding; these poems glide, cut, sing, and snap, all without a hitch. Although Raj-Sankar is young, she writes with perceptiveness and skill that many older writers lack. With Heat Death of the Universe, Leela Raj-Sankar has established herself as a writer to watch.
Eleanor Ball is a queer writer from Des Moines, Iowa. She’s studying for her M.A. in Library and Information Science at the University of Iowa, and she also edits for several magazines dedicated to uplifting marginalized and emerging writers. Her essays and criticism have been featured in Hyacinth Review, oranges journal, Write or Die, and elsewhere.