18 June 2023

What makes oxygen breathable?

A young girl, interviewing me for some program at her school, asked if my poetry has had an impact. I said I didn’t know.  I know that Cesare Pavese (1908-1950), one of the most influential Italian writers of his time, not only believed that his first book of poems, ‘Lavorare stanca’ (literally ‘Work is exhausting,’ translated as ‘Hard Labour’) was his most significant literary achievement, he even said towards the end of his life that ‘it might have saved a generation.’ I doubt, though, that saving anyone framed he exercise of writing.

Writers and indeed artists rarely sweat over the impact of their work. They are, for the most part, indulging in self-exploration, attempting to come to terms with the world around them and the universes that reside, move and interact with one another within themselves And yet, they do transform, if not the world then at least a few of those who encounter their work.

There are writers who inspiredus. There are books that delight and inform. There are words that are unforgettable. There are things we have heard we not only remember but which have helped shape the way we see the world, craft the philosophical tenets we are guided by.  

We don’t ponder the relevant etymologies, histories and back stories of, let’s say, guide-lines we use as referents, consciously or intuitively. These things didn’t and don’t fall randomly from the sky, they don’t float by in happy and coincidental breezes so that we can grasp and pocket them, they don’t arise at a preordained moment and place. And yet, someone must have said it one day, someone must have repeated, someone may have added color and texture, someone may have translated it into a known language and someone must have recorded it in one form or another.

Last night I came across a book about poetry and how it transforms, ‘Ten Windows: how great poems transform the world,’ by Jane Hirshfield. In these essays Hirshfield, a poet herself and one time Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, ‘unfolds and explores some of the ways in which poetry is language that torments revolutions of being.’ A single line, absolutely poetic, sums up the book for me: ‘oxygen is available; so long as the poet is speaking, it can be breathed.’

The poet then, is an enabler of breathing. Of course, all this is metaphoric. After all it is not the case that people got asphyxiated for want of poetry. Oxygen is life breath, though, and sometimes we realise we are alive and we find ways of living or rather we understand life’s sweeter, tender and endearing essences and conduct ourselves more gracefully simple because we read a particular poem, watched a particular movie or were movement by a singular movie-moment, were struck by a particular chord of music or a singular line or splash of color in a painting.

It is not always deep and philosophical, not always a startling revelation shared. Sometimes it is a simple word, line or verse that moves, makes us tremble and gets etched in memory. In fact, for me, it has almost always been a simple thought said in a simple way and yet so beautifully crafted that it makes me think, ‘couldn’t be said better, couldn’t be said any other way.’

නුඹ කුඩා දරුවෙක් ය
වී කරළකින් උපන්
වැහි බිඳුවකින් උපන්
සඳ කිරණකින් උපන්...
කිරි ගොයම් කිති කවා මද පවන් සිනා සේ
නුඹ මගේ හදවතේ නිසසලේ ගිම් නිවයි

You are a child,
born of a rice-stalk
born of a drop of rain
born of a ray of sunlight…
a breeze tickles the tender rice shoots
and laughs
and you, in my heart, recline and rest.

Adoration. Love. Confirmation of the known in ways unanticipated. Oxygen that exists, whose existence is known, and yet has suddenly become breathable.  

All kinds of oxygen, all kinds of life-breath, all kinds of life-things known to exist but not necessarily acknowledged have been rendered breathable by poets and other artists. Pablo Neruda brought the vibrancy of Macchu Picchu back to life in his ‘Canto General.’ He made us breathe the oxygen of history congealed into stone, frilled with archaeological narrative and absented of people.

Show me your blood and your furrow;
say to me: here I was scourged
because a gem was dull or because the earth
failed to give up in time its tithe of corn or stone.
Point out to me the rock on which you stumbled,
the wood they used to crucify your body.
Strike the old flints
to kindle ancient lamps, light up the whips
glued to your wounds throughout the centuries
and light the axes gleaming with your blood.

He spoke on behalf of the ‘dead mouths’ of men and woman unnamed and therefore condemned to anonymity and indeed non-existence. Oxygen, again, the breathing of which may save a generation. Or, just me, simply.


['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:

Sorrowing and delighting the world

The greatest fallacy 

Encounters with Liyanage Amarakeerthi

Beyond praise and blame

Letters that cut and heal the heart

Vanished and vanishing trails


A forgotten dawn song from Embilipitiya

The soft rain of neighbourliness 

The Gold Medals of being

Jaya Sri Ratna Sri

All those we've loved before

Reflections on waves and markings

A chorus of National Anthems

Saying what and how

'Say when'

Respond to insults in line with the Akkosa Sutra

The loves of our lives

The right time, the right person

The silent equivalent of a thousand words

Crazy cousins are besties for life

Unities, free and endearing

Free verse and the return key

"Sorry, Earth!"

The lost lyrics of Premakeerthi de Alwis

The revolution is the song

Consolation prizes in competitions no one ever wins

The day I won a Pulitzer


Ella Deloria's silences

Blackness, whiteness and black-whiteness

Inscriptions: stubborn and erasable 


Deveni: a priceless one-word koan

Enlightening geometries

Let's meet at 'The Commons'

It all begins with a dot

Recovering run-on lines and lost punctuation

'Wetness' is not the preserve of the Dry Zone

On sweeping close to one's feet

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

To be an island like the Roberts...

Debts that can never be repaid in full

An island which no flood can overwhelm

Who really wrote 'Mother'?

A melody faint and yet not beyond hearing

Heart dances that cannot be choreographed

Remembering to forget and forgetting to remember

On loving, always

Authors are assassinated, readers are immortal

When you turn 80...

It is good to be conscious of nudities 

Saturday slides in after Monday and Sunday somersaults into Friday 

There's a one in a million and a one in ten

Gunadasa Kapuge is calling

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

Hemantha Gunawardena's signature

Pathways missed

Architectures of the demolished

The exotic lunacy of parting gifts

Who the heck do you think I am?

Those fascinating 'Chitra Katha'

The Mangala Sabhava

So how are things in Sri Lanka?

The most beautiful father

Palmam qui meruit ferat

The sweetest three-letter poem

Buddhangala Kamatahan

An Irish and Sri Lankan Hello

Teams, team-thinking, team-spirit and leadership

The songs we could sing in lifeboats when we are shipwrecked

Pure-Rathna, a class act

Jekhan Aruliah set a ball rolling in Jaffna

Awaiting arrivals unlike any other

Teachers and students sometimes reverse roles

Matters of honor and dignity

Yet another Mother's Day

A cockroach named 'Don't'

Colombo, Colombo, Colombo and so forth

The slowest road to Kumarigama, Ampara

Sweeping the clutter away

Some play music, others listen

Completing unfinished texts

Mind and hearts, loquacious and taciturn

I am at Jaga Food, where are you?

On separating the missing from the disappeared

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