"The life of the poet
is it different to the life of the ordinary
Anonymous person whom we encounter on the street,
Sometimes a flash of recognition illumines the face
as if encountered on some reincarnatory journey
through aeons and aeons of rebirth
that transient image startles you out of a dream and leaves
you like a passing thought never to be recaptured."
- Jean Arasanayagam
|Photo : Sophia Naz|
I am writing these lines from Samakanda, a 60 acre eco retreat in south Sri Lanka where time seems to have stopped, or more aptly never come into existence. Samakanda is part of the Kottawa Forest Preserve; a forty five minute drive from the picturesque southern coastal town of Galle. Galle fort, with its largely intact colonial era Dutch influenced architecture is a Unesco World Heritage site which combines the European flavor of its cobblestone streets and lively cafes with a laid back local vibe.
An abandoned colonial era tea estate, Samakanda was rediscovered and developed by BBC journalist and environmentalist Rory Spowers, who wrote about his experiences in a book called "My Year in Green Tea and Tuktuks". As morning's softly steaming mist dissipates, the forest greets me with symphonies of birdsong. An ever changing kaleidoscope of tweets, warbles and calls caress the ears. Every day this composition of birdsong changes, as if the three hundred avian species endemic to Sri Lanka were in animated conversation with each other.
Perhaps Fariduddin Attar was inspired by such exchanges when he composed his epic poem, The Conference Of The Birds. Pure untrammeled nature serves to remind us that at its most elemental, language is just made of sound. The birds remind me of Kerouac's attempts at an unfiltered vocal verse, especially his poem at Big Sur by the Pacific Ocean, my adopted home 8000 miles away from these serendipitous shores. Enveloped by the sensory overload of this numinous rain-forest, confronted by its overwhelming primal force, I feel as Kerouac must have felt, a need for a liminal tongue, poetry as word-birds, going with the babble flow.
Language lies at the root of the dark underbelly, the scarred fault-lines of this paradise. In 1956 Tamil was made a minority language, a secondary tongue. Sinhalese became the official language: the speech of bureaucracy, of many, many jobs. And in 1956, leading politicians preached race hatred in order to win office. They said, the Tamils are taking your jobs. Sri Lanka's history bears a chilling resemblance to current events in America and Europe today. History teaches that history teaches. Massacres, suicide bombings, disappearances, abductions, arbitrary arrests and imprisonment, marred desolate bombed landscapes, refugee camps, camps for the internally displaced, landmine explosions, a society divided and consumed by antipathy and suspicion.
Writing is a tool to document, a tool of memory against forgetting. Many of Sri Lanka's best known writers on the island and in the diaspora Jean Arangasayam, Yasmine Gooneratne, Romesh Gunsekera, V.V. Ganeshananthan, D'Lo, Yalini Dream, Mary Anne Mohanraj, Pireeni Sunderlingam, and Krisantha Sri Bhaggiyadatta, to name just a few–have used poetics and literature to document the realities of living within a civil war resulting in massive amounts of violence, death, forced diaspora, and repression.
The havoc wreaked upon the land and its people by Sri Lanka's 26 year long ethnically fueled brutal civil war is poignantly conjured up by Jean Arangasayam' s poem, Nallur:
the shadows of long bodies shrunk in death
the leeching sun has drunk their blood and
bloated swells among the piling clouds
smell it in the air
its odour rank with sun and thickening blood
mingling with fragrance from the frothy toddy
pots mingling like lolling heads from
amid the clangour of
the temple bells, the clapping hands, the
brassy clash of cymbals,
the zing of bullets
cries of death
drowned in the roar
of voices calling Skanda
by his thousand names
Arumugam . . . .
Thirtham now no longer nectar of the gods
brims over but is bitter, bitter,
and at the entrance to Nallur
the silent guns are trained
upon a faceless terror
The persona of the poet inevitably and indelibly absorbs this legacy of violence in
Lakdasa Wikkramasinha's The Poet:
The poet is the bomb in the city,
Unable to bear the circle of the
Seconds in his heart,
Waiting to burst.
Violence permeates even this poem describing a computerized chess opponent in
Reggie Siriwardena's poem, To White Knight ( MK 11):
Loss and gain
are sensed as abstractly by your blind circuits
as by the remote airman his deadly rain
on the town below, or by the absent terrorist
his bomb’s explosion of blood and pain.
Yasmine Gooneratne's poem, Big Match, brings home the irony of what unfolds under the tree that is the symbol of the enlightened Buddha:
Beneath a Botree
in a shower of sticks and stones
flung by his neighbour’s hands.
The joys of childhood, friendships of our youth
ravaged by pieties and politics
screaming across our screens her agony
at last exposed, Sri Lanka burns alive.
The civil war led to the exodus of many Tamils to the west. Expatriate Tamil poet Indran Amirthanayagam migrated to America in 1988. In conversation with his Pakistani counterpart Adam Zameenzad he eloquently talks about poetic influences and the constant makings of newness:
"Pound wrote a poem for Whitman saying, “it was you who broke the new wood/now is the time for carving.” We have been carving since the dog dug up Eliot’s garden, and Auden doused himself in bitters on 52nd Street, and Dylan beseeched his father to not go gently into that good night. We have been carving since Guy Amirthanayagam wrote “the road is dark and stained with damp gray leaves” and later wondered if his son Revantha would ever reveal his awesome secret, “that there is in life an undertow of sadness/which rocks what fleeting gladness there is today or may once have been.” We have been carving since Yeats slouched to Bethlehem and admonished himself and his friends: “We who seven years ago/ talked of honor and of truth/now shriek with pleasure/ at the weasel’s twist, the weasel’s tooth.” We have been carving since Bob Lax wondered aloud about being 108 years old: “and not/ one per-/ fect/ hai-/ ku /writ-/ ten.” We have been carving since Cummings became puddle-delicious and Jaime Manrique saw golden bees of light strike Gotham’s sparkling towers. We have been carving, Adam, with Maria, your heroine, wandering through Latin America in search of Heaven. We have been carving since Allen jumped off the hydrogen toadstool and puffed a nicotine-free cloud, and long before then, when he sat with Jack Kerouac on the tin-can banana dock."
A rich, complex hybrid poetry has been carved by these prolific poets. Like the mangroves they are equally at ease with the rooted land and the fluid, global currents of the encircling sea. This liminal foundation has given rise to a vibrant contemporary poetry scene, which I shall explore in my next letter.
Samakanda, Sri Lanka