An Identity Poem describes the way a person thinks of themselves in a variety of different possible ways. The method that Akshay Chalana uses to do this in What I Don’t See is that of a passive viewer of his life and the various aspects within it. He uses this passive and seemingly distant view to analyze his life as a situation which he is unable control, yet which he holds a view about. The overarching theme of this poem appears to be that Chalana challenges a world and its darkness and negativity with his personal strength and that given to him by his surroundings.
The first stanza seems to describe some sort of ritual act, likely that of prayer. As the purpose of the poem is to display events and ideas that affect Chalana’s mentality, it is obvious that this refers to someone who would closely affect his life. Seeing as he is a high school student, it is most likely that these people are his parents. The most apparent poetic device at first is anaphora, which continues throughout the poem as he repeats the phrase “I see as,” or, in the first stanza, “I see as they.” The repetition of this emphasizes the speaker’s position as an indifferent viewer, simply seeing that which is in front of him rather than having any part in it. Chalana further uses allusion when he mentions “the great elephant.” Knowing that he comes from a Hindu family, it can be deduced that this refers to a statuette of Ganesha, the Hindu deity of wisdom and intellect. His use of allusion once again emphasizes his role as a viewer rather than a participator, stating that he isn’t necessarily familiar with what he sees. However, despite this, he goes on to use personification to describe a response from an inanimate object, a painting, possibly of Ganesha or of another deity that his parents pray to. This personification affirms the idea that, while he is an unfamiliar, passive viewer, he recognizes the faith and hope in the situation, and draws on it to allow it to affect his own life.
The second stanza is the most metaphorical, offering description of various things, yet never stating exactly what they are. This imagery once again states Chalana’s unfamiliarity with what he sees, and thus, inability to describe as a single word or specific term. Exploring his descriptions, it can be inferred by his description of a “powder,” that the first item he mentions is halva, an Indian dessert. The second item, which he describes as “brown sheets,” could either be chapattis, or a similar Indian flatbread. However, since Chalana describes it as “[puffing]” and as being served with halva, this food is likely puri. Together, puri and halva hold a special place in the Indian diet, as they are a combination of foods that is mainly served as prasad, an offering to the Hindu deities. Besides this imagery, Chalana also uses synesthesia when he says “That smell of… licking my lips.” The use of this, contrary to the general theme of the poem, represents his personal connection to the food that he describes. It symbolizes the fact that the love and life that this food represents for him play a role in his life.
The third stanza of What I Don’t See describes something that is more clearly out of Chalana’s hands, the view the rest of the world has of him. The primary poetic device that he uses here is reification, when he states that others “violently [throw]” their impression of him at him. This is an effective way of emphasizing the brutality in the way people’s ideas are communicated to him, not only in the adverb “violently,” but more importantly in the verb, “throw.” Combining this with the rest of the stanza, Chalana appears to be stating that he is viewed negatively by others in his world because of his race, and that these other people use this as a basis to exclude or apply special consideration (not necessarily a positive thing) to him. This is really something that he can only passively observe, not do anything specific about.
The fourth stanza of this poem outlines Chalana’s view of himself through a series of metaphors. Each uses alludes to a different situation that is commonly recognized in American society. The first states, “I am a flying eagle, traveling the distance.” In American culture, the eagle represents freedom. This freedom not only represents physical freedom in the sense of not being forced to do anything, but also the metaphorical freedom from society’s ideas. While this isn’t clear in American society, which, like any society, has regulations and standards, Chalana intends to claim this as his own capability and strength. The second metaphor states “that I will be the flag flying assertively above their heads.” Once again, in American culture, the flag represents freedom, patriotism and American authority. Characterizing himself as a flag, Chalana declares himself to be an authority: that the views that others hold of him and his background won’t stop him from achieving what he wants to. The final metaphor states that “I will never be the grass beneath a herd of wildebeest.” The grass beneath a herd of wildebeest has been trampled: it is oppressed, destroyed, ignored and disrespected. Through this allusion, Chalana states that he will never be put into this situation: that he will maintain the authority and dignity that he previously claims, despite the world’s challenges.
The final stanza leads up to the revelation of what home means to Chalana. This final revelation is that “home is within me, not without me,” an easily misunderstood line. Considering the lines that lead up to this one, which reaffirm the qualities which Chalana believes he embodies, it would appear that Chalana uses “within” to describe home as being something that he embodies for himself. Furthermore, he likely uses “without” to state that, due to this definition of home, he is never away from it, and that it is never away from him. The primary poetic device in this sentence is the synesthesia in the first line. He states that he “[tastes]… righteousness and declaration.” Obviously, neither are tastes, though both are non-physical concepts which aren’t detectable by any physical sense. However, taste is a much more personal sense than sight, so it eliminates the passive viewpoint that Chalana describes throughout the rest of the poem. The reason for this is that, while the rest of the poem describes ideas that are out of his control, this stanza truly asserts his capacity to challenge the uncontrollable forces that are apparent in the previous stanzas. Thus, ending the poem with a reference to home, Chalana confirms that he has no true responsibility to the society in which he lives, but rather only to himself. He can take this power anywhere in the world and maintain it.
Now for a short piece by the author himself:
While I myself am proud of this poem, much of it isn’t understandable without my description. The allusions I use often are rather specific; they refer to a culture which many know about, yet which few can immediately identify with or understand. Furthermore, while the poem does follow a general thread of resistance against negative ideas, this may be more of the purpose of the poem than a theme. It isn’t something that is repeated, and in fact appears to be contradicted in multiple locations. Plus, some of the allusions must be understood to finish arguing this point. Overall, this was probably the hardest part of writing the poem: offering consistency throughout. I attempted to do this through the repetition of the phrase “I see as,” but this didn’t always work. I had initially had “I see as they,” as the start of the third stanza, but my readers found that too confusing, as it appeared to describe the same subject as the past two stanzas. I had intended for the reader to sense a progression away from something familiar to something completely unfamiliar, but this wasn’t apparent enough. Thus, the first three stanzas were easy misinterpreted. Besides this, another case that was unfortunate was an attempt to use synesthesia in the second to last line. I had originally written “I smell the new ideas.” Readers also misinterpreted this because they claimed that it was impossible to smell ideas, and that there was no purpose for the poetic device in this situation. Clearly, I changed this. As such, despite what I attempt to claim in the poem, due to the fact that communication must be standardized to an extent, I am still controlled by others.