13 September 2023

Octavio Paz and Arthur C Clarke in the stratosphere

['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 the
221st article in the new series that began in December 2022. Links to previous articles are given below]     
Ciaran Cosgrove described the Nobel Laureate for Literature Octavio Paz as a ‘poet of the stratosphere.’ Cosgrove refers to the poem ‘The broken water jar’ where Paz suggests that sources be sought:

‘…you have to dream backwards, towards the source,
you have to row up centuries,

beyond infancy, beyond the beginning, beyond
the waters of baptism…’

This of course did not mean that Paz focused on the past. He engaged with the present, especially in its horrific manifestations. This consideration of both temporalities, one could argue, was non-negotiable in the exercise of imagining futures that were less petty, humiliating and tyrannical.

To me, Paz is a stonemason who could make and break temporal and spatial archaeologies. In this way he releases thoughts, philosophies, fragrances, words and even ink from accidental or pernicious incarceration. They fly and as they rise above the earth, letting sunlight and rain alter shape and shine, Paz re-gathers them, arranges in particular ways and lays them out on pages from which they can escape at will with a little help from their readers.

Cosgrove may have meant something else, of course, but ‘stratosphere’ works for me.  In the poem ‘Daybreak’ he confesses, ‘I rub my eyes: the sky walks on the land.’ What this means, perhaps, is that he can at will call forth sky-cloth and use it as a flying carpet. He unhinges gravity, releases earth-clamps and airlifts them all.

Flipping through ‘The Collected Poems of Octavio Paz,’ I came across many invitations to discover the faculties of flying. So I soared and found that those stratospheric heights could take me to doorways of the past.  There, sitting upon a blue bench at a green table, was Arthur C Clarke, wearing the burdens of insight and indiscretion on a countenance bathed in the shimmering and yet scorching sunlight of accusation.  

Judgement was someone else’s pleasure. Mine was to glance at the book that lay upon before his eyes that could no longer blink and denied the wash of tears were bloodshot: ‘The Other Side of the Sky,’ published in 1958. 

‘Turn, turn the pages of time until you discover how temporality can be subverted so truth has a second chance in the stratosphere where judgment is passed,’ Octavio Paz urged me. 

And so I flew back to the middle of the 1980s and arrived at the short story which first appeared in the science fiction magazine, ‘Infinity Science Fiction’ in 1955.

In this story Clarke travels with a group of space explorers from Earth who have found remains of an advanced civilisation destroyed when its star went supernova. Aware of the impending catastrophe, the inhabitants moved a representative collection of artefacts to the remotest planet of the solar system, which told the explorers the story of a gentle people who faced their terrible fate with utmost grace.

The group’s astrophysicist, a Jesuit priest, calculates the exact year of the explosion and determines the time it would take the resultant burst of light to reach Earth and recognises a terrible and faith-shattering fact: it was indeed the brilliant light that heralded the birth of Jesus Christ.  
And Clarke lends the shaken priest the following words: 

‘O God, there were so many stars you could have used. What was the need to give these people to the fire, that the symbol of their passing might shine above Bethlehem?’

We do not know if he obtained succour in the received wisdom, ‘His ways are not our ways,’ or whether he considered it all as nothing more than a divine test of faith. 

We could just say ‘fiction.’ It could be argued that if indeed there was a ‘Star of Bethlehem’ and it could be light emanating from a supernova, but as of now there’s no evidence of any civilisation or even any life form that was simultaneously obliterated.

All that matters is that there’s nothing to forbid the sometimes necessary subversion of time and space.

An inkstand lifts off the page and takes flight,
The ocean recedes till it is nothing but a few millimetres of rippling sand,
In the palm of a hand a grain of corn opens to reveal the flaming lion inside,
Fat drops of the milk of silence drip in the inkwell,
The multicolour tribe of poets drinks it and goes off to hunt the lost word.

So Octavio Paz observes in ‘Inks and transfers.’

And so I dream backwards along the trace of rivers overwhelmed by time and foliage, row upstream from civilisation sleeping over a civilisation betrayed which had bested another civilisation in the innumerability of rise, decay, rebirth and rise again, inching beyond infancy to womb and other unknown corporealities in unnamed constellations, looking for vaults that can be emptied and whose contents pieced together in the hope that they describe better this moment, this place, these congregation of truth and lie, and thereby reveal signs to futures that can be designed without condemning the knowing and unknowing blameless to oblivion.


Other articles in this series: 

Enduring solidarities 

Coco 'Quotes' Gauff!

9/11 and the calm metal instrument of Salvador Allende's voice 

What a memory-keeper foregoes 

Whitman, Neruda and things that wait in all things

Thilina Kaluthotage's eyes keep watch

Those made of love will fly

Profit: the peragamankaru of major wars

Helplessness and innocence

The parameters of entirety

In loving memory of Carrie Lee (1956-2020)

Mobsters on and off the screen

Transfixing and freeing dawns

We're here because we're here because we're here

Life signatures

Sha'Carri Richardson versus and with Sha'Carri Richardson  

A canvas for a mind-brush

Sybil Wettasinghe's shoes

Love is...

A stroll with Pragg and Arjun along a boulevard in Baku

Meditation on tree-art

Daya Sahabandu ran out of partners but must have smiled to the end

Gentle intrusions 

Sleeping well

The unleashing of inspiration

Write, for Pete's sake

Autumn Leaves Safeness

 Sapan and voices that erase borders

Problem elephants and problem humans

Songs from the vaekanda

The 'inhuman' elephant in a human zoo

Ivan Art: Ivanthi Fernando's efforts to align meaning

Arwa Turra, heart-stitcher

Let's help Jagana Krishnakumar rebuild our ancestral home

True national anthems

Do you have a friend in Pennsylvania (or anywhere?)

A gateway to illumination in West Virginia

Through strange fissures into magical orchards

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