When Ramya asked me to write something about the poem ‘The Moon at Seenukgala’, I had read through her latest poetry book and had liked this poem above all the others, but... I wondered, ‘What can I write about a poem?’ I was no poet to critique her poetry. I rarely read poetry, but like anyone who works with the English language, I admire good poetry, and a few great poems from famous (mostly English) poets have left a lasting impression.
Growing up and schooling in Sri Lanka, Ramya’s and my generation bore the brunt of linguistic nationalism, which played to the increasingly radicalised Sinhala polity.
Unlike our anglicised parents, we did not have the benefit of teachers who learnt the language under British rule, from English, Irish, Welsh, and Scottish men and women. Streamed in Sinhala, the English we learnt in school as a second language was sub-standard; therefore, our grounding in English grammar is deficient or happens late. Given this background, Ramya’s mastery of the English poem, the most subtle and difficult art form using language, is a credit to her remarkable aptitude and skill.
Speaking to Ramya, she told me that her inspiration and appreciation for English literature came in part, from a Sinhala teacher who taught her to appreciate Sinhala literature; How ironic, but also, how apt?
‘The Moon at Seenukgala’ is at the most basic level, a poem about nature. It is also a poem about us and our complex relationship with nature. At the deepest level, it is a poem about who we are and where we fit into this planet.
Throughout the poem, her imagery is evocative, accurate and dazzling. For example, “The forest pulled its denseness behind us and pushed us on
to open land, dry grass, where a
everywhere ahead of us
We stood, shielding ourselves,
To anyone who has ever walked through the dry zone wilderness with its habitat mosaics of forest patches, grasslands, and scrub, Ramya's beautifully chosen, spare sentences are immediately evocative of that experience.
Her poem; all of her poems for that matter, deal with the full sensory experience of living – in this instance, sight, sound, and touch; “To open land” – sight, “where a river thundered somewhere” – sound, “we stepped across this humped liquid ground‘‘ – touch. Much of wild Sri Lanka has to be experienced to be appreciated; it is hard to describe the experience.
Hard, enough in straightforward prose and Ramya does it so well in poetic language, but is never flowery. Hiking through the wilderness, or bush walking, as the Australians call it, and camping in wild places; this is not for everyone. For many, it is outside their comfort zone; the exposure to the elements, mosquitoes, ticks, leeches, perceived danger from large wild animals, this overall sense of vulnerability, dominates the mind and robs the experience of all that is edifying and freeing.
At a deeper level, the poem is about our origins; our connectivity to nature. We humans are a part of a natural continuum, Ramya describes it thus;
”We stepped into the still water
surrounded by a river
determined to leave as we shuddered,
shocked by the discovery that our roots
grow lush, full, tunnel deep into the Earth’s core
at times and places like these.”
Our origins are in water. The theory of biological evolution points to small, unicellular beginnings in a briny ocean – a primordial soup. The river is also a life-giving source of fresh water and its ever renewing character is clear in her poem.
“Every road ever travelled,
every timeless quest for gold, ambrosia,
love, ends here, where our skins become
the scales of fish, our bones become crisp boughs of
driftwood, our hair our teeth,
every element every tree every water and every stone.”
She raises the implicit question whether there is any difference between what we humans seek, and what animals seek. Much of basic human motivation is the quest to secure food, love, sex and shelter. That much we have in common with all higher animals. The kinship that humans have with all of nature is clear. Art, science, logic, philosophy, spirituality, politics commerce and literature: all of human endeavour only comes in when those basic needs are met. Knowing she has to return to the urban landscape which we all live in, the poet says that they “reached up, plucked out the moon and put it into our pockets.”
So in her language, they took away something of value from that wild place, something of that wilderness, carried carefully tucked away in a pocket treasured in memory. The moon that is carried in the pocket is pulled out when the city is overwhelming and meaningless. It is a “white-disk compass”. At a deeper level the first mention of any colour is the white of the moon, purity? all colours within that white? It is clearly a compass to orient us when we are lost. The moon as a metaphor that contains all that is meaningful and beautiful in the wild landscape which can be carried around and tapped into at will.
To my mind, the most powerful part of the poem is the last;
“… and singing, laughing, throw this moon back up
into the sky,
and watch the water crash through every
washing our hardened walls,
filling our closed rooms
with lunar rivers boulder forests liquid fires.
This, is the way home.”
The way I see it as the poet joyously throws the moon back up into the sky, it unleashes the elemental, primordial forces that shaped this planet, fire and water. At one level the water crashes through every concrete building, washing hardened walls and filling closed rooms, a metaphor for the walls and rooms we build to compartmentalize ourselves from each other, the defensive walls that we all construct. Juxtaposed with this structured cellular nature of modern living is the unstructured, uncontained, unbridled freedom of nature.
This may be a romantic notion, but it is not without substantial merit. At a deeper level, she alludes to the futility and fragility of the built environment, in fact of our very civilization in the face of natural forces, like the devastating 2004 tsunami that we all experienced in one way or another. Water can destroy all that we build, all that we hold dear; we simply can’t shut it out of our lives. Nothing we build, none of our cultural edifices can shut out nature. However in the poem these forces are benign, and are just a reminder that like the river rushes home to the ocean, we are creatures that came from the forest, and we all seek the beauty harmony and tranquility that we once knew, in a place we called home.
Ramya writes heartfelt, always thought provoking, sometimes profound poetry. Her imagery is beautiful and she uses language that matches that luminous imagery. I hope she continues to write and reaches an ever wider audience. Her writing speaks for itself, she really needs no other spokesperson.
‘There’s an Island in the Bone’ is available at Odel Bookshop.
(Rukshan Jayewardene holds a degree in Anthropology, a MPhil in Archaeology from the University of Cambridge and is a committed conservationist and wildlife photographer)