Poetry collection that warms the cockles of readers’ hearts | Sunday Observer

Poetry collection that warms the cockles of readers’ hearts

8 January, 2023

Book: My Womb, A Barren Land

Writer: Bertholameuze Nisansala Dharmasena

Nisansala Dharmasena

Nisansala Dharmasena Bertholameuze’s My Womb, a Barren Land is an intriguing collection of poetry that resonated in my heart as a woman as well as a fellow human being. I find the book to be quite unique as the poet has made an attempt to illustrate key moments of her poetry pictographically as well.

The accompanying paintings instead of becoming a distraction enrich the reading experience by providing reference points to the reader. Some of the dominant as well as recurring themes of the collection are memory, forgetting, journey, war, brokenness, home, identity, intolerance, meeting and parting.

Memory and forgetting

In “A Box Full of Memories” Nisansala explores the idea of memory, the dominant theme of the collection. While cleaning her house, she comes across a boxful of things she has collected over the time and probably forgotten. After exploring the content of the box, the poetic persona asks a question I too often ask myself after going through my own numerous boxfuls of memories both literal and metaphorical:

Why do we keep such triggers
of memories
Is it for the memories long gone
Recalled by time
Or is it for the feeling of
being loved
Once cherished
By family
Even strangers.

Similarly, in “Did You Preserve Your Memories of Me” the poetic persona confesses that she used to press flowers given to her by her lovers as “keepsakes/ to be looked upon many a time” so that she could “feel if the delicate fragrance is still there”. She asks the reader whether there wasn’t a similarity between the preservation of flowers and memories:

Aren’t memories the same?
And looked upon
Many a time.

She acknowledges that memories could be a dark place to be and that “even knowing this/ we still preserve the memories of bygone days.” The poem ends with the seemingly passing question, “Did you preserve your memories of me?” However, I feel that the entire purpose of the poem is getting an answer to that seemingly rhetorical question.

“In forgotten lands” the devastating realisation that one day we all will be forgotten is explored. People we forget are compared to lost languages of which “no words are ever spoken …again.”

The topless braless greenish women with red flowers in their hair in “As We Weep” too weep “over memories written over memories” and “bodies held and untouched” due to the “utter isolation of their soul”.

In “Sheets of Memories”, the first poem of the collection, the poet introduces the metaphor of weaving to illustrate the process of storing memories. The woman as a weaver of memories is an age old metaphor. Poets like Emily Bronte, Thomas Hardy, Christina Rossetti and Emily Dickinson have written extensively on the process of making, preserving and letting go of memories. However, the female in the poem referred to as “she” is traumatised by her memories. Ultimately, she decides to hang herself. For that she uses a rope “made of sheets of memories”.

The tree on which she is going to hang herself has some emotional associations: it was where “she played house with her former self” “once” and for that moment found “bliss”. Reality intrudes: “Real playhouse was spilling out from all corners and nooks.” So, she decides to end her life where she was the happiest. Still, it was not easy to take the final step: “She looked at the noose for a while. A long while.” Then she saw even the memories abandoning her. At that moment, she hangs herself.

In a parallel sphere, her younger self finds her still hanging from the tree, “feet swaying in the wind”. Here, using a euphemistic synecdoche the poet illustrates the pathos experienced by the younger self at seeing the end of her older self. The only thing she could do to restore some dignity to the ravaged life she is yet to experience is repair the “chipped nail polish”. The foreshadowing of the inevitable cycle the younger self, too, about to experience generates within the readers’ mind a profound sense of sadness.

The last poem of the collection “Made of Borrowed Dreams”, too, is about memories. It takes the reader back to the first poem in which too memories are woven into a fabric. This time, the threads of the fabric of memories come from the various experiences of the poetic persona’s life which are mostly pleasant. But even in the process of weaving the fabric of memories the poetic persona is conscious of the “borrowed” nature of her “dreams” and in extension of life itself.

In “An Island of a Man”, the female poetic persona is on a pilgrimage to “reach a certain island of a man.” The poet seems to be playing with the now-famous quote “no man is an island” from one of John Donne’s sermons. The man, “like an island,” offers “migrant birds” a momentary refuge. The poetic persona, however, wants to make the island her permanent abode; she wants to give the man-island serenity and receive serenity in return. But the journey is taking a long time: “So she travelled till seven clocks are torn apart/ Till seven walking sticks turn to dust.” So, the question the poet seems to be leaving with the reader is whether such pilgrimages are going to be ultimately fruitless.

The concept of journey is continued in “An Island of Misfit Journeys”. Here too, memory plays a crucial role. Here memory makes a casket and “You” is on a pilgrimage “like a bhikkhu meditating/ with a bowed head” in search of the casket. In the course of the journey, the traveller makes dark memories which keep pace with him “shoulders crouching/ with darkness unnamed” very much like the sinister presence in Eliot’s “Wasteland”. In the company of such a morbid companion, the poetic persona “would look at the sky/ as if looking for the seagulls” but of course it was “a land without the sea.”

Life as a journey and the importance of learning to let go gracefully is illustrated in “Stories Written on Leaves”. The poet charts the brief course of a leaf from the spring to the summer. When their time comes leaves fall “never hanging on/ nor complaining of the too short life”. They just let go so that they could “pass by breath/ to the next generation of leaves”. The poet feels that the human heart that “hang on with lust and desire” should learn the art of “majestic, bravery of letting go” from a “leaf”.


Through the short poem “Through the Rubble of History” the poet offers a somewhat apocalyptic vision of a world gone mad. She repeatedly uses paradoxical phrases such as “government’s anarchy” and “flames of post-war peace” to illustrate her vision of the status quo.

In “1989”, the poet explores a traumatic personal experience during the infamous youth uprising of 1989-90. The need to move on with life despite the tragic nature of one’s experiences illustrated by the poetic persona tentatively attempting to cross the river making use of the “broken wooden bridge” that rocked “with the weight and the wind”. However, in the attempt to cross the small child sees dead fish floating in the water which is being compared to the bodies of the dead insurgents thrown into rivers never to return home.


In “My Soul, A Bombed Building”, the poetic persona stands outside herself and observes the meaningless hurt her soul had been subjected to which had left it resembling “a bombed” or “ramshackle building” which “stands with bits and pieces missing” or “the ruins of war”. The soul/site of devastation still carries within it “memories of not long ago”. What kind of memories are they? Little by little, the shattered soul “drifts away into the valley of sorrow”. This again is a poem that touched the deepest part of my heart.

Brokenness is the theme of “How We Loved Our Broken Men”, too. The men they loved, according to the poetic persona, were broken and “their loneliness and their bitterness” was too “sour to bear”; still, women like the poetic persona loved them albeit with “a touch of despair” and a “touch of fantasy”. In the last two lines of the poem, the poetic persona comes to the realisation that not only their men, but they themselves were broken, too.

Brokenness is the theme of “An Outsider Looking Inside from Time to Time”, too. This time, brokenness is a result of barrenness, loss of someone who “had to pass you by”, not being held and kissed, and forgotten memories.

Home and identity

In “Sentimental Pieces”, the poet explores what constitutes her as a being. She sees herself as a celestial being that has lost her “sense of proportion” and become a sentimental piece.

In “If You Flip Through the Pages of Me”, the poet presents the first person poetic persona as an old book. The poetic person stands outside her book-self and sees someone reading the crumbling pages of the book of her life and observes the way the experience affects him/her. However, the ultimate reason for reading the book for the reader is to find the pages containing the chapter that involved him/her.

Some men, in “Half-opened Books”, the poetic persona says are “like half-open books,” “waves that never reached the heart of the shore,” or “half-opened doors” – “never actually there/ yet, never actually gone.”

The poet finally reveals the secret behind her partiality to green in “No.16”. The poetic persona had been forced to leave a beloved home. Though she had said goodbye to other homes previously saying goodbye to No.16 was difficult as it was “a happy place”. Yet, inevitably “darkness crept in/ darkness always had a way of creeping in”; so, each one of the family members went around their home on a little pilgrimage saying goodbye to “walls vibrating with memories”. In the end, the poetic persona was the last to leave locking the gate behind her. In her hand, she carried “a pail turned to colour green/ as if too sad to leave behind even a single shade of memory.”

The poetic persona returns to one of the homes she had left behind, “naked” and barefooted in “A Landscape of Loss”. She walks through the “empty shell” of the house which “used to overflow with memories” of the sorrow and laughter of its human occupants. Similarly, her body into which once her beloved “wandered in” is “now a barren land of dreams, / a landscape of loss.” She predicts that her body that has become an “empty shell” due to her abandonment by her beloved would turn into “ashes in the end/ to be swept away by the wind into the infinite space.”

In “Unmarked Graves in Unmarked Cemeteries” the first person poetic persona comes to the realisation that she is the end product of her “ancestors dying” – something positive born out of the inevitable. The accompanying painting depicts a cemetery on a hillside. The poetic persona is climbing the green-dark hill lit by the light of hundreds of fireflies or stars looking upwards at the lighter coloured sky. The simple dress, like in the previous paintings, is life-affirming red and the woman’s unbound hair waves in the breeze.

“A Ruined Train Track” offers the reader a fresh metaphor in illustrating the painfulness of waiting for a purpose to give meaning to one’s existence. The short poem is profoundly pathetic.

Intolerance of differences

“He Arrives Sharp at Nine” with its accompanying painting of a sinister looking man who according to the poetic persona looked like “the Hunchback in Notre-Dame” seems to be about intolerance of what is termed “deviant” by society. The poet suffers for loss the “imperfections” that gives this world its various colours and shapes at the hands of the “censorship man”.

Meeting and parting

“Two Hundred and Twelve Bones” with its haunting illustration is about giving up someone the poetic persona loved who has found someone new to love. In the first three lines, the poet offers a shattering metaphor of the poetic persona being imprisoned in her own body:

I live in a house made of ghosts
and memories
Two hundred and twelve bones
And a cracked rib cage.

“Old Pier by the River”, too, deals with a long ago parting. The poetic persona is revisiting the “old pier by the river” where she used to meet her beloved only to find the landscape changed beyond recognition. She sees a similarity between “the old ruins of their memories” and abandoned site that is slowly being reclaimed by nature. The change has been a result of war that has left a “ruined” “bombarded world” behind it. Still, poetic persona feels that the souls who used to “breath in the river air” are floating into the place “as if to greet their own memories/ through worlds of time and compare.”

In “You Move Music Sheets Within Me”, the poet sees the meeting and getting to know one another as beautifully chaotic musical experience; “the ripples of waves/ within a silent pond” - “all rhyme and rhythm/ meeting at once”; or a “cascading fall of water”. The poet uses the word “nothing” three times in the poem with positive connotations.

“I Love the Years Within You,” once again is about meeting and the inevitable parting which leaves the poetic persona feeling “lonely from the thousand years within her.”

“As Darkness Descended” takes the reader through a failed suicide attempt in which the poetic persona sees dying as descending into “bliss of nothing” which she compares to “a stone being thrown to silent lake” The act creates ripples on the surface while the stone itself finds peace at the bottom sheltered from the trials and tribulations of the surface life. However, the poetic persona gives into the whisper of life it seems.

In “Somewhere in December”, the poet looks at a short chance meeting between two people, which had made a strong impact on her. A much older poetic persona looks back at the memory which has become only a “murmur”.

All in all, there is nothing even remotely barren about Nisansala Dharmasena Bertholameuze’s poetic womb. Contrary to the ominous sounding title, her imaginative soul shared with me some of the resonating themes and original metaphors I have read in a while.