nothing prepares you, by Vivimarie Vanderpoorten, Colombo, Zeus Publishers. Reviewed by Neloufer de Mel
In ‘The Pure Water of Poetry’ (1999, Colombo, ICES), an extended essay on the qualities of poetic language he admired, Regi Siriwardena conferred great value on the use of austere poetic language with the capacity to convey precise and poignant meaning. The metaphor with which Siriwardena began his essay, recalling a lecture by Lyn Ludowyke, was that of a glass which seems empty because it is full of pure water. (PW, p.1) The ‘concept of emptiness that contains plenitude’ (PW, p.36) carried in this metaphor was, for Siriwardena, an apt marker of what good poetry should be: bare, and without excess, yet lucid, provocative and emotive in its meanings.
On reading Vivimarie Vanderpoorten’s remarkable poetic debut nothing prepares you (2007, Colombo, Zeus), I was reminded of Regi Siriwardena’s essay. Containing 52 poems, Vanderpoorten’s collection is dedicated to her father ‘for sound and un-sound shared’. This line immediately draws attention not only to the spoken, articulate and audible, but also the incommunicable and inaudible. It places sound and silence as coeval and of equal value, and serves to frame the dominant poetic style of the collection characterized by a wonderfully crafted balance of the said and unsaid that leads to a ‘spare economy of utterance’ which Siriwardena admired in poetry elsewhere (WP, p.12).
Many of the poems in the collection in fact adopt the relationality of the said and unsaid as a thematic motif and deploy it towards their culminating paradoxes, satire and poignant statements. Silence is brought into meaning by its very relationality and juxtaposition to sound and the audible. The poem ‘They Said’ recounts the various narratives spoken on the death of the poet’s father. Everyone – the mother, the nurses, the blood bank, the doctors, the friends, the relations – pontificate on his demise, ranging from grieving accusation to fatalistic resignation, medical explanation and platitude. The poem ends with an exception: ‘His daughters said/ Nothing,/ Grief has no words.’(nothing, p.16) Silence here becomes the most potent statement pointing to the inadequacy of all the other utterances. Other poems in the collection explore the place of silence itself. What does it signify?
What gives it meaning? How adequately can it be brought into representation? In a number of poems it is first and foremost a signifier of profound loss. It marks grief at death (‘Tube Painting: Asian Tsunami, Christmas 2004’, ‘They Said’); characterizes failed relationships (‘All My Life’), haunts empty houses signifying uncomfortable change (‘Old house’) and takes the place of speech in those victimized by state brutality (‘Unsound’). Its resistance to representation unsettles and challenges the poet. The first poem in the collection ‘Tube Painting: Asian Tsunami, Christmas 2004’ dwells on the familiar composition of Madonna and Child and its circulation at Christmas to comment on another Christmas in a different context in which parents bear the bodies of their children killed by the tsunami. Held up for value is the stoicism of these parents with ‘Faces betraying no weakness/ Mouths not collapsing/ into twisted wrecks’ as they ‘Search now only for a dry grave.’ (p. 1) Yet even as such a way of grieving inspires admiration, the last lines of the poem worry over how such profound loss can, if at all, be represented, ‘How difficult to depict such/ dignified sorrow/ to capture on canvas/ this mother and this child.’ (p.1) It is almost as if an excess of grief, like the pretty pictures of Madonna and child at Christmas are easier to record and contemplate. The quieter mourning that accompanies such limit-events cannot be brought easily into representation. There is an understanding here of the profundity of the understatement that also serves to displace the classed, gendered and cultural stereotypes we have of mourning: of the poor (and women) who wail and weep in contrast to the elite (and men) who face death with stiff upper lip.
The success of the bare line, its effect of emptiness and plentitude, are to a great extent dependent on placement and context. In ‘Visiting Giants’ (p.23), on a visit to Giant’s Causeway, fellow American tourists inquire where the poet’s home is. On receiving an answer they query ‘Which part of Africa is that?’ To the postcolonial reader, the irony behind this query, of the benign racism that masquerades as knowledge on all black folk, is unmistakable. But even as one laughs at the ignorance, it is both the paramountcy of Americans on the world stage (the poem’s title itself puns on both tourist destination and supremacy) and the futility of explanation that strikes home. Again what the poet didn’t say is crucial:
I didn’t say
That it has a splendid past
But no future
That its rich soil
Is drenched in blood
And that there’s hopelessness
In the eyes
of its children.
When they asked me
“So what’s it like?”
I only said
This last line, with its austere simplicity that speaks to both racism and violence even as it affirms ‘home’, stands as a fine example of Vanderpoorten’s craft, particularly her sense of placement and ability to effect ‘emptiness and plentitude’. The word ‘home’ carries all the weight of emotion and identity that is intensely private precisely because it cannot be explained to such a public in such circumstances. It is better left unexplained. Yet in the context of the poem which also reflects Vanderpoorten’s capacity to delineate rich and complicated situations by yoking together a few events, coincidences and meetings artfully observed, the reader is aware of the depth of the poet’s reply. It is both resistance and affirmation: one that sardonically cuts through the generalities of racism on the one hand, and on the other, affirms the bonds to homeland despite its tragic contemporaneity.
Many poems in the collection (‘Unsound’, ‘Disappearance’, ‘Haiku: War’, ‘Balloon Man’, ‘Offering’, ‘Explosion’, ‘Death of a Cartoonist’) refer in fact to the violence of our times. Political murders, interrogations, torture, forced disappearances, armed conflict, terrorism provide their overall contexts. Often the context is evoked through a couple of arresting images and well placed bits of information. Take for instance the poem ‘Disappearance’ (pp.81-2). It tells of a crow which loses its chick, stolen deftly in the night by a couple of polecats. The nest from which the theft takes place is located near the study hall of the narrator/poet. The title of the poem itself - ‘Disappearance’- takes on a political charge when, a couple of lines later, the reader is informed that the theft took place on a night when ‘there was a power cut/ in the capital/ and a curfew in force.’ The incessant call of the mother crow for her chick, her pleas and final accusations of ‘did you not […]/ try to/ stop them?’ (pp.81-2) disturb and provoke the poet-narrator. The poem’s context of violence, militarization, loss and accusation is not elaborated upon but drawn by way of sparse reference to the violence of the theft, the power cut, the curfew, and the grief of the mother crow. In a country that has experienced politically motivated forced disappearances from the 1970s onwards, Vanderpoorten knows her audience well and deploys its familiarity with the specificities of such a context to advantage. Without unnecessarily spelling out the details she concentrates instead on creating an effect that provokes contemplation on the guilt of the bystander and the moral implications of such violence and loss for society as a whole.
To the informed reader, there is also rich irony to be found in some of the poems. ‘Explosion’ (nothing, p. 35) depicts the aftermath of the Central Bank bombing in Colombo. Through personification - ‘for a long second/ time staggered’ – and an auditory effect – ‘All sounds of a workday morning/ in the city/ even the cawing of the crows/ merged into a solitary/ Boom’, the first stanza effectively presents the enormity of the bomb. The second records its terrible consequences on the lives of ordinary people.
It is in the third and final stanza that the note of irony creeps in. Out of a damaged car, a radio commercial declares ‘big or small, insurance/ protects them all.’ Apart from the intended irony that marks the failure of the advertised product to keep its promise, for readers who know that the insurance company in question was itself extensively damaged and suffered loss of life because of its location opposite the Central Bank, these final lines of the poem speak to the vulnerability of all in the wake of a terrorist attack.
nothing prepares you is a remarkable first book which announces the entry of a very talented poet onto the stage of Sri Lankan creative writing in English. Vanderpoorten’s poems have an impressive range of subject matter from the personal to the political and reflect saliently on issues of gender, race and class while offering us vivid contexts of love, loss, violence and joy. They exemplify a good command of rhyme and rhythm, and in their economy of utterance offer an enabling lucidity within which poet and reader can meet, and memorably so for the reader.