28 February 2023

On separating the missing from the disappeared

'Even the darkest night must end and when the dawn pushes aside the heavy curtains of sorrow all equations will be altered beyond recognition.'

This line or versions of it I have often used to console friends in distress.  I’ve also used a line tossed at me by my brother: there’s nothing in this world that’s so terrible that you cannot walk away from it. He may have been quoting someone, but I can’t remember. Nice line, though. It has helped me and I’ve helped others with it.

There have been moments of doubt though: why is that the long, dark night not end with a breathtaking dawn but is replaced by a different kind of darkness? It seems that certain sorrows become part of us, torturing us in our wakeful hours and denying us restful slumber.

Sometimes words of consolation help. But like most prescriptions and prescribers, they seldom work for those who utter them for the benefit of others. And yet sometimes, yes sometimes, such knots unravel by themselves or are cut through by the sharpest blades of chance or are resolved by words found on a random page in a random book.

This is the book: the July/August 2019 edition of ‘Poetry’ which features Sridala Swami, Hari Alluri and Cathy Song, according to the blurb. It is a periodical founded in 1912 by Harriet Monroe, this was the 4th in Volume 214.

I had never heard of it until a few minutes ago. Never heard of Harriet Monroe or of the blurbed poets. Never heard of the dozens of ‘Global Anglophone Indian poets’ whose work is contained in this collection.  It was a gift from my sister who tries her best to get me to read different kinds of poetry by different kinds of poets; she knows I tend to read and re-read the poets and the poetry I’ve chanced upon and taken a liking to. Pablo Neruda, Nazim Hikmet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the Sufi mystics, Octavio Paz, Rabindranath Tagore and of course Sinhala poets long gone as well as contemporary voices I find delight in.

Anyway, this morning, just a few minutes ago, I opened this book that has been lying around for a month and which my daughter must have picked up, glanced through and left on my table. Page 361 (the book starts with page 289; I assume that since that the first 288 pages are in the first 3 collections of Volume 214). A poet I had never heard of: Carolina Ebeid who I now know holds a PhD from the University of Denver and helps edit poetry at ‘The Rumpus,’ about which I had not known until just now.

A strange title made for reflection, I feel: ‘Chorus attempting to interpret unearthed fragments of their play.’ Whose play? I don’t know.

Here’s the line or rather the two lines:

Separate what’s missing
from what’s disappeared.

I am thinking, ‘advice for playwright and players.’ I am also thinking: a ribbon with which I could tie up these thoughts if I can get it wrapped right.

This is the thing with darkness. Things are robbed of shape and dimension. Things merge into one another. There’s no light that can help distinguish inevitable from correctible. There’s no light that allows for a sober assessment of what’s before us, what came before and what might come later. And caught in this tyranny of darkness even light that may enter our dismal abodes are kept out by thick curtains of disbelief and resignation.  So how can we know what’s missing? How can we know what’s disappeared? How can we distinguish one from the other?

So here’s a confession. Sometimes I come across an interesting line and I make a note of it thinking, ‘I could write an article around it.’ Recently I came across two. One, the caption for a photo-album I posted after wandering in and around Polonnaruwa: ‘countries within countries, moments without tenses.’ Good one for a piece, I thought. Two pieces grew out of that one caption: a) And intangible republics will save the day (as they always have) and, b) Moments without tenses.

The more interesting quote was by Victor Hugo: ‘Whatever causes night in our souls may leave stars.’ Cimourdain was full of virtues and truth, but they shine out of a dark background.’ It’s from his last novel, Quatrevingt-treize (Ninety-Three), Cimourdain being a former priest and revolutionary who shoots himself the moment that Gauvain, the commander of Republican troops in Brittany suspected of being too lenient towards rebels, is executed following a tribunal in which he, Cimourdain casts the deciding vote finds the man guilty.  Gauvain apparently had outlined his vision of a future society with minimal government, no taxes, technological progress and sexual equality to Cimourdain when the latter visited him in prison.

Suicide doesn’t exactly help conjure an image of stars emanating from a person whose soul has been invaded by night. There is, however, some light that is discernible. Remorse is not a dark thing. It illuminates the dimensions of a heart. Admission of guilt is marked by humility and humbleness is not dark-made. It shines.

In the country of darkness which forbids consideration of borders and escape, one can still travel to the edges of torment on a vehicle powered by self-reflection. That which turned out the lights may then turn on the searchlights that enable a consideration of the true dimensions of the conscience.

I must read ‘Ninety-Three,’ which apparently speaks of the counter-revolutionary uprisings in 1793 during the French Revolution. I must read ‘other poets,’ I tell myself. It may spark some poetic thoughts. Stars left behind by nights that took up residence in the heart. It might help separate the missing from the disappeared. It might help end the night and alter equations beyond recognition.  

['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below]

Other articles in this series:

Moments without tenses

And intangible republics will save the day (as they always have)

The world is made of waves


The circuitous logic of Tony Muller

Rohana Kalyanaratne, an unforgettable 'Loku Aiya'

Mowgli, the Greatest Archaeologist

Figures and disfigurement, rocks and roses

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced

Some stories are written on the covers themselves

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time 

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists?

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords

The books of disquiet

A song of terraced paddy fields

Of ants, bridges and possibilities

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva 

World's End

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse

Street corner stories

Who did not listen, who's not listening still?

The book of layering

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain

The world is made for re-colouring

The gift and yoke of bastardy

The 'English Smile'

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5

Visual cartographers and cartography

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart The allegory of the slow road