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Review:

Matter of fact poetry infused with insights


Prof. Kamani Jayasekara

A significant aspect of Kamani Jayasekara’s poetry in the collection ‘Twinkling Beads” is the poet’s expounding of deeper philosophies of life in the context of every-day life experiences. Noted for matter-of-fact diction with unpretentious language, the poet takes the readers through a voyage dealing with socio-cultural issues in equally diverse contexts.

The poet explores the themes such as feminism in modern and Sri Lankan context; contemporary discourse of morality, class of modernity with religion, nostalgia, past and present. The poems in ‘Twinkling Beads’ stand out for their natural poetic diction and concomitant structures which are essentially demanded by the subject matter and not paragraphs broken into lines and then put into preconceived structures such as Haiku.

It offers readers with snap-shot views of life in contemporary milieu. At a superficial level, her poetry seems to be not exceptional yet at deeper levels, her poetry generates myriad of perspectives and insights into life.

Incidents

Kamani draws her experiences from every-day-life and from things and common place incidents which would not attract attention. One of the significant aspects of her poetry is that the economy of expression and the exactitude of ideas. However, they are full of insights. For instance the poem ‘Waiting rooms’ describes how the ‘notes’ are waiting to be collected by ‘their gods’.

“Waiting rooms
Notes of multiple colours
Waiting anxiously to jump
Into a single bundle
When their gods arrive.”
Contemporaneousness

One of the important aspects of Kamani’s poetry is the Contemporaneousness and the representation of the milieu. For instance, in the poem ‘ Waiting rooms’, the poet has made use of a common experience and objects of every-day-life to strike the fact that how they associate with life. The teacher marks students’ assignments which are in diverse colours. The line ‘when their gods arrive’ suggests that teacher who is considered as an authority on subject would collect the notes into a bundle.

Private life

The poem ‘Recreation’ deals with the very notion of ‘recreation’. The poem concludes with the idea that when those who merry-made were in silence, they would return to their own worlds. . Even amidst a party and picnic, one may return to one’s own world when silence descends upon.

“Recreation
We chat gaily
Gossip enthusiastically
Laugh out loud at the
Jokes shared
And are delighted
At what we see
Soothed by music,
Amazed at the tastes
Relax, refresh and rejoice
Returning to worlds of our own
When silent. ”
Evocative diction

The realisation of memory contrasting and comparing the present and the past is skilfully captured in the poem ‘Beads of Glasses’. The narrator recalls when she shed tears over ‘purple beads’ which resembled ‘the sweet scent of dew drops of the dawn’.

It is one of the poems where the poet has effectively used objects to recall the past. One of the significant aspects of the poem is the sense of individuality amidst a group.

“Beads of Glass
Eyes moving together
Fingers skipping through
A rainbow of coloured beads
Strings of various sizes and shapes
The traditional mementoes
Of the ancient shrine
My mind harks back
To an yester year
Of tears shed over
Purple beads
Emulating the sweet scent of
Dew drops of the dawn. ”

‘Beads of Glass’ is one of the evocative poems where the poet skilfully juxtaposition the past and the present in relation to a bright dawn. As the fingers ‘skipping through’ the ‘coloured beads’ the poet recalls the past who she shed tears over purple beads.

What is significant is that the poet has used evocative diction enriched with sparking metaphors which would recreate powerful visual imagery such as those of ‘coloured beads’ which at present represent ‘traditional mementoes of the ancient shrine’ and another the past ‘ purple beads’.

Nostalgia

Nostalgia is a major theme the poet explores in the collection ‘Twinkling Beads’. In general, nostalgia refers to a yearning for the past which is very often in idealised form. For instance in the poem, ‘Beads of Glass’, the poet vividly realised the past as;

“My mind harks back
To an yester year
Of tears shed over
Purple beads
Emulating the sweet scent of
Dew drops of the dawn”

It is an idealised past which can only be revisited in memory. However, there are instances in the collection; the poet recalls the past not in idealised sense. For instance, in ‘The Day it all ended’, ‘Options’ and ‘Batch mate’, past is vividly revisited in different contexts.

In ‘The Day it all ended’, the poet recalls how she burnt ‘the past’ firmly believing that it would not haunt her again.

“In a single suitcase
I burnt that diary
That contains so many
Hopes, aspirations and dreams
Scribbled down daily
For nine long months
Burn it to ashes
Misleadingly believing that
With time those ashes would not
Rise to haunt me
The day, she would have reached
Thirteen, and become a teenager. ”

However in ‘Options’, the poet compares a senior Professor with her mother and reflecting on her present position.

“Options
Madam delivers beautifully

Nostalgically reminding me
Of my mother
Who must be near her age
Bending over the
Coconut scraper
Or grinding stone

The leaping flames of hearth
….
And I, gaze dreamily
At my sweet beloved
Note pad in hand
Pen in mouth
Jean clad legs
Drumming to an unknown tune”

In ‘Batch mate’, the poet recalls the happy student days filled with nostalgia of hard life. The poet contrasts the present with the past;

“Emulating prosperity
And a station
A stooge in the
Hands of power ….
Forgetting those years of oil
Late night study,
Discussion under trees
On stone benches,
Debates firmly based on
Honesty and integrity”

In ‘puppy Love’, the poet explores the academic life. The poet who is an academic, at times, looks with a critical eye at the luring ‘scholarships, fellowships and seminars’ and the kind of ‘devotion and dependency’ developed as a result of the ‘wider exposure’ that the academic would get.

Apart from ‘wide exposure’, most of the seminars, fellowships would often turn out to be paid holidays depending on the experiences and knowledge of the academics. The poet offers her critical views on such ‘fellowships, seminar’ in the final couple of lines; the academic would, ultimately depend on them. A striking feature of Kamani’s poetry is the unpretentious voice and the use of simple diction.

“Puppy Love
Scholarships, studentships
Fellowships and conferences
Seminars abroad
Attraction and glamour
‘Wide exposure’
The mind flutters like a balloon
Swaying in the breeze
Tied down by the
Whimpering eyes
Of absolute devotion
And dependence. ”

The poet describes the ‘unconventional love’ in ‘Sacrilege’ which according to the narrator has violated the sacred bondages which is amounting to sacrilege.

What the poet seeks to shed light on is the convention-bound behaviours on the part of passionate lovers and the notion of love, marriage and institution of family. The title of the poem ‘Sacrilege’ has been used rather sarcastically to question the conventional morality and to describe the struggle between emotion and intellect.

“Sacrilege
Two people in deepest embrace
On the verge of
One being melted
Into other
In the height of ecstasy
Pretending, forging and deceiving
Making a mockery of
Not only sweet Aphrodite
The goddess of love,
But wife of mighty Zeus
Hera the goddess of marriage. ”
Gender issue

The poem which offers critical insights into one’s world view is ‘Chastity’. ‘Chastity’ is a notion in the eyes of an onlooker.

It is a notion or an idea shaped by conventional morality and notion of womanhood, motherhood and the role that society assigned for women. Even the notion of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are relative and subject to change in different contexts.

“Chastity
Just look at that skirt
So tight
Revealing all
Leaving nothing
To the imagination!!
That blouse??
Exposing all
Breasts filling over
Four instead of two!!
Have no mirrors
In their homes?
No husbands,
Parents or boyfriends??
His senses are offended
I nod with no answer,
But honestly
Having observed none
For I had not looked. ”

In ‘Chastity’, the poet explores feminist issues with a critical view on the societal notions on women and the role assigned to her in South Asian context. One of the important aspects that the poet highlights in the poem is ‘discourse of morality’, which effectively regulates woman’s sexuality in postcoloniality.

Pramod K Nayar describes this as “An important mechanism of regulating women’s sexuality is through discourse of morality. In fact, in most postcolonial nations sexuality is coded as morality; to be moral is to be monogamous, reticent about one’s sexuality/ sexual preferences or even being sexual. Thus to articulate sexual desire or preference, or being promiscuous, is immediately classified as ‘immoral’ ”.

The poet questions the validity of the notion ‘chastity’ in modern context. Speaking on the theme of gender, traditions and modernities, Nayar observes that woman always associates with notions of tradition, ‘licit and illicit’ and the code of morality upheld by society.

Therefore, chastity is a prominent theme in feminism and postcoloniality. Nayar observes, “A pity summary of linkage between gender, Postcolonialism and modernity is provided by Mary John and Janaki Nair; ‘The middle class, upper caste woman has been the ground on which question of modernity are framed.

She embodies the boundaries of licit and illicit forms of sexuality; she is the guardian of the nation’s morality. Further by bestowing spirituality- the notion of ‘Shakti’ in Hindu tradition, for instance- the woman’s sexuality is effectively erased in favour of a ‘pure’ tradition.

Context

In postcolonial times, in the context between tradition and modernity, the woman is held to be the repository of all that is ‘good’ in culture’s traditions, even as colonial/ postcolonial modernity and tradition seek power over the familial and domestic space. When everything else in postcolonial culture in a state of flux and transformation, it is woman’s needs to be projected as stable and safe.

As writer C.S Lakshmi puts it; ‘ The ‘notion’ of unbroken tradition is constant and attempts are made to write this notion of tradition on the body of the woman to dictate its movement, needs, aspirations and spheres of existence even while the body is moving alone the time, space and history.

Dress code

Debates about the dress code in contemporary India, for instance, often use notions of ‘a suitable dress for Indian woman’ or idea of ‘appropriateness’. Indeed, even politically, powerful women in postcolonial societies are conceptualised within binary of ‘good mother/bad mother’ thereby neutralising their political edge by circumscribing them within a stereotype role.

Such debates are rooted in this discourse of fixed womanhood, of woman as a symbol of a well-preserved and stable nation/cultural identity.

In ‘Chastity’ what the poet seeks to point out is to question the notion of ‘kula kata’ (‘good woman’) according to the tradition and societal norms.

“Just look at that skirt
So tight
Revealing all
Leaving nothing
To the imagination!!
That blouse??
Exposing all
Breasts filling over “

Although the poet suggests it is the attitudes on the part of the onlooker which determines the ‘licit /illicit’ or ‘appropriateness or inappropriateness’ of the dress code and the manner in which woman dressed in this particular instance, onlooker’s notion of morality is based on the concept of ‘purity’ and socially acceptable role of ‘good woman’ in this particular context.

Institution of marriage

The poet is best at dealing with a multitude of issues through common incident of life.

One’s outlooks, attitudes and even notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are culture specific and by and large a culture-made.

Institution of marriage is an important cultural site or locale. It is also one of the important places where the roles allotted to man and woman (husband and wife) is pre-determined by the discourse of morality.

In Mutatis mutandis, the poet deals with the issue of marriage. The extraordinary politeness on the part of the husband turns out to be false. The man had divorced a couple of times. Although the poet does not deal with intricate issues within the institution of marriage, the social behaviour of the husband, particularly, towards wife is false given the dynamics of traditionally coded relationship between husband and wife. However, the poet is enlightened by unknown (agent is omitted) on the real self of the husband.

Mutatis mutandis
‘He loves her so much
Spoils her rotten
So caring and so polite
Always concerned
Her preference and her choice
I almost felt jealous
He even draws the chair
And opens the door for her
‘Yes he would
So he was with the first
The second as well
And would be with the fourth
If he be given the chance.”

It is obvious that the husband’s politeness is pretentious or too good to be true. What the poet seeks to highlight is that there are shady side to apparently too good behaviour of the husband.

Religiosity

A significant aspect of Kamani’s poetry is her matter-of-fact language. The poetess often uses adjectives sparingly and metaphors have been used in most appropriate places often in sarcastic light. For instance in the poem ‘Pilgrimage’ the poet has not only used metaphors appropriately but also the very title sarcastically. The poet, among other things, is critical of the attitudes of the pilgrims. For them, it seems that pilgrimage is a package tour with religion, site-seeing and a kind of shopping.

An important issue that the poetess discusses through pilgrimage to Devundara is religiosity in modern context. Religiosity depicted in the poem can be analysed from a postcolonial perspectives and within the discourse of modernity.

Constant negotiation with indigenous culture is a common feature in the process of modernisation. However, this process of modernisation is not homogeneous and assumes different facets in diverse socio-cultural contexts. One of the prominent characteristics of modernity in postcolonial context is reclaiming of indigenous cultures and religions.

According to the classical definition of Western modernity, an important part of modernisation is the fact that overarching acceptance of non-Western culture, traditions as well as religions as fundamentally hostile to modernity and incompatible with modernity. The first, logical step is total discarding the indigenous system of values in favour of Western culture and pagan religion. However, more radical definition of modernity as articulated by Marx, Habermas, Giddens, Berman; modernisation has been defined as a practical empirical experience that liberates societies from their oppressive ‘material’ conditions.

Modernity

It is pertinent here to invoke the definition of modernity according to Marshall Berman, a contemporary radical modernist. Berman conceptualises modernity as “There is a mode of vital experience – experience of space and time, of the self and others, of life’s possibilities and perils – that is shared by men and women all over the world today. I will call this “modernity.” Modern environments and experience cut across all boundaries of geography and ethnicity, of class and nationality, of religion and ideology: in this sense, modernity can be said to unite all mankind.

But it is a paradoxical unity, a unity of disunity: it pours us all into a maelstrom of perpetual disintegration and renewal, of struggle and contradiction, of ambiguity and anguish.”

In ‘Pilgrimage’, the poetes observes waning religiosity on the part of the pilgrims. It is contradictory for followers of religion of non-violence to consume and even enjoy the fresh catch of fish and to worship Hindu gods.

Issues

Among the important issues that the poet highlights is the class of modernity with socio-religious and cultural practices. It is obvious that religion has found its own place in the context of evolving modernity. It is the country-specific modernity which assimilates old practices of pilgrimage with a different face.

“Pilgrimage
Born Buddhist
The religion of Ahinsa
Taking refuge
In the Triple Gem
Seeking
Benevolence from
Hindu gods
We travel to Dvundara-the devalaya
In suppliance
On returning
We watch the sea
Enjoy the salty breeze
And the golden sands
Buy fresh fish
Right from the shore
From friendly fishermen
With dark faces and bright smiles
Not only the prices but
Even the commodities are
Consumer friendly
For one or two even
Wagging their tails. ”

The collection ‘Twinkling Beads’ differs in many aspects from most of the contemporary poetry in English. The poet has used international standard english and also used Sinhala words where necessary to describe particular events and places. Above all, ‘Twinkling Beads’ is exceptional for its diction, use of metaphors and encoding a deeper philosophy of life within the matrix of every-day life drawing on life situations.

 

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