29 October 2023

Let us take a deep breath now...

Questions are the respiratory system of children. I doubt if anyone thought of this before or, even if the thought crossed the mind, wrote it as elegantly. This is why I find John Freeman’s Dictionary of the Undoing fascinating. One could open the book to a random page and find mind-blowing observations written in heart-blowing ways.

John has dedicated an essay each to every single letter of the English alphabet. It seems like an easy enough exercise; after all there are countless words beginning with each letter. For ‘A’ he has picked ‘agitate.’

How many times has that word been used, I’ve asked myself. In how many poems, news stories, features, declarations, political pamphlets scurrilous and otherwise, conversations, political commentaries, television debates and social media posts has it appeared, for example? How many forms can agitation take?

I do not know the answers. I do believe that if anyone were to assign a particular aspect of agitation to write about he would do so as eloquently as he has in this book. I do believe, also, that if someone picked a random word beginning with the letter ‘A’ he would still churn out a compelling read. Yes, even for apple, adze, amulet, atom or anonymous. The same holds for the other 25 letters of the English alphabet.  

Let’s return to children and their respiratory systems. John isn’t really talking about children. He’s not talking about how they breathe. His is an essay about the need to be critical and the need to be self-critical. It is about what kinds of questions we could consider asking.

Here’s a slice:

For a big question to get off the ground, it needs to open up a possible field of answers that is far bigger than one individual an contain or grapple with.

Here’s another:

As we ask questions, the world’s structures take on a whole different hue. If we ask What if? often enough in our private lives, we may begin to do the same in our public lives. If the answers our structures return to us do not suffice, we may begin to question the structures themselves. Or we may begin to ask different questions.

A few hours ago, speaking with some undergraduates who aspired to become journalists, I referred to the title of a book I had read a long time ago, so long ago that I got the author’s name wrong. Rivers have sources, trees have roots: speaking of racism was written by Dionne Brand and Krisantha Sri Bhaggiyadatta. We see trees. We see rivers. We don’t see roots and sources. And so we celebrate the trees and the rivers, not the roots and tributaries. That’s because a tree has an authoritative presence. A river too. They are there before our eyes, why ask how they came into being? See?

The poet Ruwan Bandujeewa has seen trees and rivers and other things too. He has obviously considered the ‘why’ and ‘how’ and ‘where from’ related to these things. For example, consider the poem titled ඇළ (Th Canal) in මීළඟ මීවිත (The next wine).

ඇළ හොඳින් ඇඳ පැළඳ
ඇවිද යයි කුඹුරු මැද

වැව අරෙහෙ නිදි නැතිව
මේ ඇඳුම් මහපු බව
කිසිම වී කරලකට
ඇළ කියා නැත තවම

The canal,
elegantly attired
strides through the paddy fields

That the reservoir over there
stitched these garments
without a wink of sleep
not even to a single rice panicle
has the canal informed
as of now.

In some moments, the right questions can prompt an untold story. In others, a well-timed inquiry may force us to contend with what we are; not who we wish to be, or imagine ourselves to be, but how we are living in the world today.

That’s John, whose essays can be read as answers to questions that have tormented him so much that he has taken each of them in his hand, turned them around so he can read how  
It has been formed and how it glistens in sunlight and is dulled by shadow. The questions and answers are both evident in his reflections; each question has roots and sources and each answer not only recognises these but swells the waters and nourishes the root and for this reason signatures both river and tree in ways that we can no longer ignore their hidden pasts, hidden body-parts or hidden ancestries.

I think that the opening line of John’s essay which I opened this essay with was not just an elegant composition with the children-reference giving it the softness that allows for a play with malleability. Children have a way of asking questions that adults don’t believe make sense because much of what they, adults, encounter are marked ‘goes without saying.’ Children have not concluded thus and therefore their queries imply the existence of a certain ‘comes without saying’ that ought to be investigated.

John tells me, ‘be a child, if you want to breathe.’ It could be the title of a book. John has written it; only, he’s picked a different title. Regardless, let us resolve, friends, to take a deep breath. Now.

['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 254th article in the new series that began in December 2022. Links to previous articles are given below]



Other articles in this series: 

How Grolier Poetry writes 'Harvard Square'

Let us write beautiful poetry

Following children and their smiles

Let's plant words in cracks and craters

Re-weaving lives and love

When the earth closes upon us...

Let us now march to the battleground of words

The most pernicious human shield

Who bombed Frankfurter Buchmesse

The truly besieged 

Love's austere and lonely offices

The mysteriously enjoined in the middle of nowhere

Serendipity now!

Reflections on the unimaginable 

Jackson Anthony is a book and will be read 

A village called Narberth Bookshop

Gateway drugs to A-B-C

'Irvin' and other one-word poems

Earth pieces Kerala and Sri Lanka

Obligation as bomb and ocean

In the land of insomnial poets

In and out of shadows

Over to Eve

When you don't need an invitation, it's home

When the Canadian House of Commons applauded a Nazi...

Touching the touch-me-nots

The importance of not skipping steps

No free passes to the Land of Integrity

Hector Kobbekaduwa is not a building, statue, street or stamp

Rajagala and the Parable of the Panner

Let's show love to Starbucks employees!

You've got mail?

Octavio Paz and Arthur C Clarke in the stratosphere 

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