In Chamali Kariyawasam’s collection Sylphlike Ether (2009) there are several deeply intriguing poems, like “Duende”, “Eternity”, “September in the Sun”, “Journey”, “The Guises of Parvati”, and “Indian Evenings in June”. In a 64-page anthology of poetry, the above poems demand our close engagement, as they leave a strong imprint and an echo of originality. The tone set by poems of the above definition, however, is often neutralized by entries that fail to make the mark, thereby, injecting Sylphlike Ether an inconsistency of sorts.
One overwhelming motif in Chamali’s poetry is movement – be it dance, walk, movement between spaces, migration, or displacement. This is the common thread that permeates her work, as its veracity is tried out in different ways, at different levels. Dance and music, in particular, are recurrently seen, indicating a close link between the twin creative forms and Chamali as a person. This, perhaps, is one reason why her poems generally betray an easy, fluid rhythm, from line to line and between stanzas.
Travel and movement are at the heart (and in the mind) of the personas in poems like “September in the Sun” and “Journey”. The ceaselessness of movement and the absence of settlement not only encapsulates the changeling within the human spirit, but also the longer, indefinite route we take in life, lacking guarantee or assurance even in our most comfortable moments. Lines from “September in the Sun” grow on you the more you read and reread them:
“You and I watching –
A constant drone in your mind that
I am leaving;
Understanding edged by certain petulance;
Yet, this traveling across the seas,
These hideous dregs that litters the journeys,
I am yet to come to terms with…
… The concept of home ceases to be a place,
But a feeling;
I am but a speck of dust,
In the wayward wind”
The journeys often continue without end, and parallel to the journey the larger metaphorical movements in life, such as intimacy and relationship, evolves. In “Journey”, the tiring, ceaseless travelling of two companions of sorts is seen to them in a rustic backwater, far away, as suggested, from the concrete of civilization:
“This road cannot end;
We shall travel without the faintest notion as to
Where all this leads,
Who we shall meet and at what expense we journey;
We have found no other answers than to continue
Despite our weariness…
… There is that withering star again, I point out;
Over those rooftops lies lovers’ paradise;
You still charm me;
All this way and I have still not tired
Of your face”.
Passion, in Chamali’s poetry, is multifaceted: it is, in an instant tranquilized, sedate and dormant, while in poems such as “Indian Evenings in June” the palpability of desire is located with earnest evocations:
“When your body touches mine –
So much like the rain;
My breath rises like the scorched earth
Come to life;
So much like the lightning, my body glows in your arms;
Your loving gives me the rages of the skies,
The incessant laughter
Of rain crazed wind
And then peace of living seeds slumbering beneath”.
The imagery of the all receiving earth and the rain-like transmission of desire, alike the strategic use of pathetic fallacy, however, are a touch clichéd. These are motifs that have been flogged by a two thousand year corpus of literature set in India from the key epics to the minor strains of Bollywood. The significance, however, is in the juxtaposition of these expressive, extrovert tensions with the bottlings in of emotion and desire seen in some other passages, including the sections cited earlier.
The following lines come later on in “Indian Evenings in June”, again, brimful of spoken and reciprocated desire, and an afterword to the intimacy hinted at in the above-quoted:
“At the end of all our wet, wild, conscious and unconscious loving –
So much like the silence before and the silence after the storm,
There is a ‘mixed peace’ in our soft words and laughter;
So much like evenings caught in unyielding monsoons,
I tremor, I awake, I live – awash in
Your love, your touch, your words”
Perhaps, my most favourite poem of the collection is “Eternity”, which, in comparison to the rest of the line up, disarms us with its deromanticization of human interplay. The poem presents to us a marriage (if not a domestic relationship) cemented by vows and rings and all, taken to a violent and abusive end. Domesticity itself is an effort; coexistence, a task:
“You wound me with your words
Language fails to make connections;
Suddenly, a smile becomes an achievement;
Your sweat, your breath and your eyes alight in distaste;
Your force, your pretexts and unwelcome
Exploitation of my being;
All these wreck me;
What holiness remains then in this union?”
Set in sequence with some of Chamali’s dreamy, wishful, romantic expectations, “Eternity” is swift in undressing euphemism and in annihilating the very essence of mutuality and intimacy the bulwark gradually builds up. But, in the collection, “Eternity” is one of the early poems, placed before some of the other pieces that celebrate interlocked intimations.
Chamali’s sense of imagery and the set pieces she formulates around them often betray a repetitiveness and a lack of originality. This is not a drawback, per se, but a hurdle that restricts Chamali from pushing back the boundaries of her craft. However, her capacity to explore and hold to scrutiny diverse patterns and nuances of close human relationships is well demonstrated in Sylphlike Ether. This, in fact, can be said to be Chamali’s chief strength and, perhaps, her main focal point in the anthology. She is a writer, she makes us feel, for whom rhythm matters much in life as much as it does in her writing, and one for whom the brevity and ceaselessness that tamper our lives are an anchor and a fascination.