Before I Had the Word: Poems
The poems in Before I Had the Word explore the divine within the secular, mundane world, and often challenge the definition of holiness. Sahni uses her religious and cultural backgrounds--Sikhism and Judaism--as springboards from which to question notions of the ecstatic in nature, sexuality and the body. Religious and spiritual ways of knowing; the sacred in the mundane; how knowledge and story manifest in the body; language and how one shapes meaning, are also central to this work. Language, the speaker might argue, seeks to create meaning much in the same way religions and spiritualties do, but ultimately falls short due to the ineffability of the ecstatic experience. The book attempts to conflate, even dissolve the idea that mundane experience is separate from religious, holy experience--it all depends on how one would choose to word it. Some might use god or holy, the speaker might use elm or paper or even questions. In a book that seems more concerned with the questions rather than the answers, the speaker tries to fill absence of all kinds--cultural, sexual, etc.--with knowledge.
The poems in Before I Had the Word are exploratory, narrative-driven, and seek to challenge religious doctrine without making any accusations. Even when Sahni comes close to challenging organized religion, she still poses that interrogation as a question: "I'm not saying we should replace god with art, or am I?" The poems are unified in their mission to question rather than to answer.
Many of the poems that make up Before I Had the Word have been published in Prairie Schooner, Cimarron Review, The Missouri Review, The Cincinnati Review, Denver Quarterly, Nimrod, 32 Poems and elsewhere.