14 January 2015

At the intersection of love and justice


හැටේ වත්තේ මග්දලේනා ’ (‘Hete watte Magdalena’ or ‘Magdaleena of Community 60’) by Saumya Sandaruwan Liyanage, a collection of 47 poems, an author publication, reviewed by Malinda Seneviratne

Love and social justice.  That’s usually the world of a young poet.  In the case of the former, typically, the sentiments revolve around common themes:  ‘I love you’, ‘love me’, ‘why don’t you love me?’ ‘why did you leave?’ and a lot of ‘damn, damn, damn!’  In the case of the latter, i.e. social justice, there’s a lot of ‘damn, damn, damn!’ liberally laced with prescription.  Slogans abound.  Call for reflection, sparse. 

Nuance, one can’t help thinking, comes with age, when life reveals things such as layers, multiplicity of shades and cuts down arrogance to the point where humility can rise.  One sees this in a lot of cyber space poetry as well as first-time publications.  ‘හැටේ වත්තේ මග්දලේනා’ (‘Hete watte Magdalena’ or ‘Magdalena of Community 60’) is refreshingly different. 

Saumya Sandaruwan Liyanage’s maiden collection of poetry, which by the way won the 2013 State Literary Award for Poetry, is by the poet’s own confession a transcription of his conscience.  That’s almost a cliché.  Except for the humility between the covers.  Rings true.  There’s nothing clichéd in his verse.  No slogans. No ‘damn, damn, damn!’

But there’s love.  In ‘ඉනික්බිති, සිත්තරා නික්ම ගියේය’ (the artist then left), the poet says the easy easily and even more effortlessly the difficult of love and leaving, remembrance and nostalgia.
හිස් බවෙකි නිරතුරු
නුඹ නික්ම ගිය පසු
මතක සැමරුම් පිරුණ
මේ විසල් 'මහගෙදර'...
නුඹ 'වෙත ඉතිරි කළ
මතක සායම් රැගෙන
හිත පුරා තවරමින්
කරමි සිත්තම්, නුඹ ...
There is emptiness
in this memory-filled mansion
now that you are gone…
so I gather the hues of re recollection
you left behind
splash it all on the canvass of mind
and paint,

The above is ‘easy’.  What’s difficult or rather, rare, is the last verse:
නුඹ තියා ගිය මතක
තවම ඉඳහිට දිනෙක
විඳිනවා මං තනිව
ගෙවෙන සීතල රැයක...
බිතක් මත දියෙන් ඇඳි
පෙඳ පාසි සිතුවමක
ඉබේ ඇඳෙමින් වැඩෙන
රුවකි නුඹ ගැන මතක...

I do suffer along
memories you left behind
on a certain lonely night…
when memories of you arise
as a form that arises naturally
a moss-mould fresco
water-painted on a wall.

Poets write.  Poetry arises without effort and sometimes does not get transcribed into words.  That’s not easy to say, but the poet says it effortlessly. 

So yes, there’s love.  There’s also comment on things social, disparities and subjugation, insult and humiliation, and by and large a decent range of the vicissitudes of the human condition.  In ‘සුළං පෙම්වතාගේ නො පළ පෙම’ (The unexpressed love of the wind-lover), the poet traces a history of a love felt but not spoken, from childhood and its innocence, through the disconcert of unfamiliar feeling, the sobriety inscribed by a violent political and the long lived thereafter, ending with a ‘nothing’ that is conclusive in a way that the tears are not overworked or overly sentimental. 

හුරු පුරුදු ඔරු-පාරු
නාඳුනන මළමිනී
සම සිතින් දරා ගනු බැරි හෙයින්,
කලාතුරකින් දිනෙක
හැඬුවාය නුඹ හොරෙන්
හදවතේ ඉඩ මදි
දෙගොඩ තැලුවේ දුකය

 And one rare day
in secret you wept
unable to bear together
the unknown dead
in known waters…
and it was weeping sorrow
that broke the banks…

Here the poet weaves into the tenderness of young, innocent love so wedded to the unspoken-felt, the larger tragedies of a time terrible for other reasons.  He touches thereby the trace left on human lives by such processes without robbing the innocence of timeless commerce between human and human. 

This kind of juxtaposition is also evident in ‘වන්දාමි චේතියං’ (The Chaithya I Venerate):

දැගැබ් සුවිසල්
රුපුන් කඩු ගෑ තැන්
ගලා ගිය ලේ පැල්ලම්

magnificently made
there where warriors clashed
sword met sword
and the mark of blood
that flowed.

He delves beneath the apparent, clearly, perceives the tragedies swept under by both time and the need for a gaze that will not hurt, for convenience perhaps.  This is this poet’s edge, a confident grasp of the subtle that makes for pithy comment that nevertheless illuminates so much.

He cuts clean through to the unsaid but known, not just in that which is taken to be political but the politics of the everyday, for example work or rather its drudgery that is also marked by sloth and fudge.  ‘පැය අට’ (Eight hours) is a delightful explication of what happens in (government?) offices.  He employs a rhythm that resonates with factory sounds to show the day-to-day sameness of come and go, order and obey, empty talk and gossip, from ear to ear, hour to hour, and then slams us all with the meaningless of it all with the following…

එති - යති
කති - බොති
හිනැහෙති - හඬති
අවසන මියෙති

Come – go
eat – drink
laugh – cry
finally die

The philosophical gaze of the poet pervades the collection.  Take for example ‘සරුංගල්’ (kites):

බදු අරන්


hither and thither
having leased out the sky

as long
as there is

Transliteration is a murderous exercise, but the message is clear and the clarity speaks to several levels of meaning.  This is our story, for example, in a democracy.  There is the apparent and there is the real, hardly seen, tug and control.  Forget all that, it’s an at-face-value kite story that anyone can relate to.   Vivid, in short.

Such poems reminds us of the work of Ariyawansa Ranaweera.  As opposed to Ranaweera, perhaps due to the particular fascinations of youthfulness, the poet is more overtly political. 

The politics of control and the ideologies that coat control with perception of untrammeled liberty is perhaps best captured in ‘නගරාලන්කාරය’ (city beautification). Consider the following lines:

අලුත් ගල් එබ්බවූ
මේ පදික මං තීරු
ඔබටම , 'ගැන සැක
නො කරන්න

These walkways
with new stones paved
are yours;
doubt not.

And these, at the end of the poem:

ඔබට හිමි තීරුවේ පමණක්
රිසි ලෙසින් ඇවිදින්න 

Walk as you will
on that path
reserved for you
and no other.

The politics of city space, the ideologies of control engraved in that architecture and landscape at all captured in this insightful gaze on the everyday of ‘consuming’ what is commonly called ‘city beautification’. 

In this collection one encounters oneself in the personas and lives, trials and tribulations, described by the poet.  There are Magdalenas and Sivas within us and they are also characters we meet, only wearing different garments, having different names and wearing varying contours that time and life have carved on their faces.  He writes their lives.  And he writes our lives thereby.  Truly a remarkable artist. 

Yes, love and social justice are ‘youth concerns,’ it is popularly held.  Some would say that the latter is contained in the former or that they are one and the same.  If it is true, others might qualify.  This collection has the truth of honest appraisal and engagement with that which the heart encounters.