Phoenix – A Book of Poems by Anupama Godakanda Reviewed by Padraig Colman
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
A version of this article appeared in the Sunday Island on August 30 2015.
This is not a long book, only 94 ages, and the poems are short, the longest covering four pages, but some big themes are handled. The poems deal with colonialism, post-colonialism, race, Sri Lanka as home, Sinhalese mythology and culture, a child’s perception of the world, feminism, ageing, the classical ancient world of mythology, and, as the collection’s title suggests, regeneration. I suspect that the poet’s heart is closest to the more personal themes: the ill-fitting self, the battle of the sexes, delivering love, unsatisfactory relationships.
The Ill-Fitting Self
The poet indicates in her preface that, like Yeats, she is interested in the concept of The Mask. “As a social creature I am compelled to wear as many masks as possible and even go so far as to hide my own self from myself- for my own good it is said”. In ‘Faces’ the poet ponders on what face to wear today- “or dare I go naked for a change?”
In ‘Dreams and Hopes’, even hopes are delusions and disguises:
Camouflages they are
That dress poorly
The nothingness at my core.
In ‘A Closer Fit’ she writes
My skin does not fit right
An imposter in clothes,
Borrowed, begged, or stolen…
In shame when among those
With tailor-made skins, just right,
The way they hang, chameleon-like.
Wading our way through
A quagmire of the postcolonial slush
Sucking it up to the White Sahib
That comes from a poem called ‘Let Me Cast the First Stone’ which vividly encapsulates the fate of someone oppressed because she is a woman as well as because she is the subject of a colonial power.
They wanted to truss her up in alien dress,
To have her boned and hooped,
Her tongue and knees
Bent to their will.
‘Amalbiso’ takes an old story and makes it new.
Foxes are licking their chops
Blood-spattered from a fresh kill upriver
Yet, greedy for another gorging
The screech you hear is the vultures,
Heralding a brand new age.
The conclusion is nicely done and brings us back to the concept of post-colonialism.
The wolves, the foxes, the vultures and the leeches
Keep waiting for their fill of the kill
Prowling, circling, sniffing, growling
For the hyena to cackle its command from across the Atlantic.
As we in Sri Lanka wonder what changes the US wants to impose on us, this is very timely.
In the poem called ‘Home’, the poet challenges the image of her homeland, Sri Lanka, that has been concocted to entice tourists. She does remember
Smiles like sunshine
Kindness like rain,
Soothing my heart
And bathing my spirit
In their regenerative pools.
Nevertheless, the brutal reality of Sri Lanka’s history and present must not be ignored. As I write this, I have just been reading about the horrors of the torture chamber at Batalanda.
Here, in this island
With its soil soaked
In blood – weight for weight-
Yours and mine,
Its air pierced
With cries of pain and of rage.
In spite of all that, the “mongrel” poet calls Sri Lanka home.
In the poem called ‘Feminism’, the poet asks
Are we there yet?
The implicit answer seems to be negative.
They said we were oppressed,
Hoodwinked and exploited, hegemonically.
So we left the warmth
Of our hearth-fire;
Un-clunged the clinging arms
And marched (do not ask how or where to)-
All in the name of liberty.
Much of what we have read in the other poems in the collection might suggest that the answer is “no” to the question.
Are we in better charge
Of those violated orifices, tears and sweat,
At least hegemonically?
‘Bleeding Dead’ depends on what in the Metaphysical poets was called a “conceit’- an extended metaphor with a complex logic. The conceit in this poem does not quite work for me. Time is seen as a bomb ticking away as we age toward death. Then it becomes non-operational but rises out of its own ashes only to blow itself up.
The theme of regeneration is more successfully dealt with in ‘Choices,
I like a phoenix, need to burn
To be born again, free,
So that your fire
Could set me on fire,
For us to burn,
To be free, togetherness.
In ‘To Love’ “One being” arose “phoenix-like” from an “inferno of white passion”. Here regeneration depends on human relationships. These are not always easy. In many of the poems, love is cruel thing. As the old Boudleaux Bryant song has it, “Love hurts, love scars, love wounds and mars”.
Truth and lies are mentioned many times in the poems, often in the context of the power games of sexual relationships. In ‘138 ¾’ she wants to believe her lover, despite his “honey-poisoned tongue(s”) because she is “hooked, enthralled, enslaved” and in turn (she hopes) bind and enslave him. However,
Is this enough for a lifetime-
Lying and hoping?
Hoping and lying?
Love can be a battlefield. In ‘The Craving’ the couple
Bleed and pant
And then prop each other up
Sitting back to back
On the battlefield
And lick each other’s wounds clean.
This would have been a better book with more rigorous editing. There are too many stale received phrases. Nevertheless, the poet often shows that she is capable of following Ezra Pound’s command “make it new” and creates strikingly original images. Pound was asking the artist to see everyday objects afresh and to question the basic assumptions of our lives, and art’s relation to them.
For a foreign reader like myself (and one might hope that this poet could gain an international audience) a glossary explaining some things about Sinhalese culture would be helpful. Amalbiso has many striking images and the theme is clear. However, just speaking for myself I would like to know more about the story of Amalbiso than I can find on Google.
A little about Anupama’s life: She is the eldest of three girls, but she was raised by her paternal grandparents. “It’s my grandfather who had the greatest influence on my life, I think. I’m a lot like him, people say. Middleclass by upbringing but working class if you check my bank balance. I’m a Sinhala Buddhist and I take pride in that.” She reads other poets for pleasure and inspiration: Keats, Yeats, Frost, Shakespeare, the Brontes, Dickinson, and Plath. She likes Sinhala poetry, too.
I will leave it to Anupama Godakanda to sum up what she is about. In her preface she writes: “A declaration of war. Words are the chosen weapon in the ongoing battle waged by myself against me which is not really me. And rarely does myself emerge victorious from these many skirmishes. However, these defeats, instead of crushing myself down, are often the very stuff that set me on fire so that I could turn to ashes once again and emerge from my pyre a little closer to myself”.