31 July 2023

Through strange fissures into magical orchards

Walt Whitman, the great grandfather of North American poetry, writing about strangers, noting the pleasure offered in passing of eyes, face and flesh and the fact that he in return gave his beard, breast and hands, was convinced that the unknown individuals ‘was the he or the she’ he was seeking.

And he made a mental note and inserted it into the poem:

I am to think of you when I sit along
or wake at night alone,
I am to see to it that I do not lose you.

Leslie Jamison, writing the Foreword to a collection edited by her friend Colleen Kinder who had one been a stranger but was one no more, remembered Whitman’s observation. The letter she wrote, upon Colleen’s invitation, was addressed to a one-legged traveling magician in Nigeria, someone who had been drunk every time she had seen him as she herself had been.

It had come out ‘dark and gleaming and alive as if it had already existed insider of [her], fully formed.’ A secret stowaway, she felt this letter was, waiting for a home. The letter had ‘opened a fissure in [her] memory; an aperture that invited her to peer through it.

‘Letter to a stranger,’ therefore was a book of fissures where contributors peered into these strangers and through them enter regions of their own selves long neglected. They say, in Leslie’s words, ‘I never had you, I never knew you; I am to see to it that I do not lose you.’

We are made of those who touch us and those who we touch and in touching leave traces of persona, thought, feeling and encounter upon our skin or sometimes break through to bone and within. We are also made of the words we read and therefore those who wrote those words in the first place. We are made of conversations that we bump into inadvertently or which brush against us as we hurry to destinations unknown to the particular conversationalists. We are made of strangers. We are made of fissures we aren’t always aware of.

We all know of a traveling magician, drunk or sober. He or she may not wear a consume that screams out ‘I am a magician.’ Intoxication or sobriety may not be pinned in bold letters on the hat that he or she is wearing, or, if indeed there’s no hat then on the hat that ought to have been worn or for that matter on shirt-pocket or the back of a t-shirt. There’s magic of some kind which is what would compel us to think of this person if we received an invitation of the kind that persuaded Leslie Jamison to write a letter to a stranger who now is stranger only to himself and not to those who read Colleen’s book.

Any number of things can happen if anyone sits down to write about a stranger who obviously had taken up residence in some corner of mind or heart so long ago that resident and residency had both been forgotten. Colleen suspects that among other things both writer and reader would conclude that ‘intimacy and connection aren’t just the province of the main players in our lives.’

Colleen Kinder has sorted the letters: symmetry, mystery, chemistry, gratitude, wonder, remorse and farewell. There’s all or some of that in strangers and strange encounters. There’s much of it in each unforgettable yet forgotten but invariably remembered stranger, come to think of it.

Consider a few random ‘recipients’ of the letters gathered in the book: ‘To the woman we met before the flood,’ ‘To the traveler who hid cash in her underwear,’ ‘to the girl I didn’t love on the last bus home,’ ‘To the waiter who left me a tip,’ ‘To the taxi driver who looped back to get me,’ ‘To the first respondent after the storm’ and ‘To the face in the subway glass.’

How many letters can we write, each of us, beginning with ‘to the…’? We don’t have to write. Remembering and reflecting would suffice. That way too we have see to it that even though we’ve never had the particular stranger, never known the particular stranger, we nevertheless make sure that we do not lose the particular stranger.

If this is about fissures then it can also be about dissection. ‘Stranger’ can also be obtained from ‘The Familiar.’ We don’t know all the personas sharing a single name that is familiar and thought to be known, through and through. Within each person there’s probably ‘a stranger’ who brushed passed us or who we saw so briefly that we are not sure if it was a figment of our imagination. A traveling magician, a waiting who left a tip, a face in a subway glass etc., lost in the multitude of personas jostling the the crowded market place of their minds or our minds.

We may lose much by losing them. We may lose something of ourselves which, if noticed, acknowledged and cultivated, would turn our hearts into orchards and our minds into botanical gardens that add the most tender perfumes to the human condition. Who can tell?  But think of writing a letter to a stranger, perhaps even to someone who shares your name. We are not alone. We are part of communities and those communities are part of who we are, even if no one knows anyone else's name.

And that, people, is my letter to the stranger who has conspired to write this along with me without my permission.

['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: 

There's sea glass love few will see 

Re-residencing Lakdasa Wikkramasinha

Poisoning poets and shredding books of verse

The responsible will not be broken

Home worlds

Ownership and tenuriality of the Wissahickon

Did you notice the 'tiny, tiny wayside flowers'?

Gifts, gifting and their rubbishing

History is new(s)

Journalism inadvertently learned

Reflections on the young poetic heart

Wordaholic, trynasty and other portmanteaus

The 'Loku Aiya' of all 'Paththara Mallis'

Subverting the indecency of the mind

Character theft and the perennial question 'who am I?'


A degree in people

Faces dripping with time

Saji Coomaraswamy and rewards that matter

Revolutionary unburdening

Seeing, unseeing and seeing again

Alex Carey and the (small) matter of legacy

The Edelweiss of Mirissa 

The insomnial dreams of Kapila Kumara Kalinga 

The clothes we wear and the clothes that wear us (down) 

Every mountain, every rock, is sacred 

Manufacturing passivity and obedience 

Precept and practice 

Sanjeew Lonliyes: rawness unplugged, unlimited 

In praise of courage, determination and insanity 

The relative values of life and death 

Feet that walk 

Sarinda's eyes 

Poetry and poets will not be buried 

Sunny Dayananda 

Reunion Peradeniya (1980-1990) 

What makes Oxygen breathable?  

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
The allegory of the slow road