“Shit Your Eyes Shut” by Vivimarie

by Vihanga

Marlon Amaresh – straight in his criticism and perceptive in his judgment – calls her the “deja vu poet”. He says that when you read Vivimarie VanderPoorten you get a sense of deja vu: of having been in that context before; of having seen / felt the “sense of” that writing somewhere, some time before. That is the extant to which Vivimarie’s poetry resonates in us a familiarity – us: fairly well off, comfortable Middle Class “readers” of the world.

Indran Amirthanayagam writes a foreword to Vivimarie’s recently released Stitch Your Eyelids Shut. To Amirthanayagam, Vivimarie “has surpassed her earlier work” and has laid claims to being a “voice for the voiceless” as well as a spokesperson for “all Sri Lankans….especially women negotiating modern life, with jobs, children, sex, in alliance with, or opposed to…the powerful man, whether father, husband or lover”. Thank you, Amirthanayagam – expatriate, also comfortably well off in a Northern American Canadian haven, widely read voice of the expatriate Sri Lankan (Tamil [?]) Identity, translator etc etc – for that huge bumkiss. Cos Vivimarie hardly speaks for ALL Sri Lankans. She is in the first place hardly a spokesperson for the comfy middle class to which I belong; and the slightly elevated ‘upper than middle’ in which she herself is nested. “Women negotiating modern life?” Big words, Indran. But, who are these women you say Vivimarie gives voice to? This pan-Sri Lankan sensibility you allude to has as much validity as the cubic volume of air you have drawn in on Sri Lankan soil over the past 20 years.

Vivimarie’s is a classed poetry. Hers is a “private poetry” that derives from experience drawn out of her personal world. It is restricted by the boundaries of her own limited vision. In Nothing Prepares You, her 2007 volume, the poetry does not call out to be “huge” or political. That year, Vivimarie won the Gratiaen Prize – for which Nothing Preapares You (NPY) contested alongside Sivamohan Sumathy’s Like Myth Like Mother. Compared to Sumathy’s, NPY was both domestic and a-political. For some, this, in fact, was the key to Vivimarie’s work – the very unassuming a-political nature of the writing was taken as her honesty and strength. Dhanuka Bandara tells me that the greatest poetry in history has always been the personal and the private. Vivimarie’s NPY, however, is devoid of political agency not for any other reason but for the writer’s own a-political worldview.

Vivimarie, in her new collection, tries to “assume” a political engagement; and that is one place where her agenda is screwed. With criticism of being “un-political” and “critically detatched” ringing in the ears, the writer, artificially, fixes the “political maxim” to Stitch Your Eyelids Shut (SYES). The end results in poems such as “Love Displaced” (subtitled ‘Northern Sri Lanka: July, 2009)and “Death at Noon” (For Lasantha). Here, the “individual” is at crossroads, striving to make some political connection come about. The effort and the strain, more than anything else, is painful in itself. I mean, if you ARE politically conscious of what was happening among the “voiceless Sri Lankans” between 2007 and 2010, surely it would come to something more than this? Displaced Northener and Lasantha Wickramatunge come across as too little and too small.

Eyes stitched shut

Indran Amirthanayagam has more to say. He sees in Vivimarie’s new collection, informed by her wide-read draw from “all over the world”, an offering of “heart-wrenching wisdom” (This derivation, of course, depends on how wise one is at the point of intervention).

Vivimarie offers us the following:

“Will dog earned pages
in books
grow tails to wag?”

“Will Kangaroo courts
have prison cells
in pouches?”

“Do dead ends have live means
or do they yearn to
be reborn as
cross roads?”

Witty – Very witty. And we are now the more wiser.

In the poem “Migrant”, the narrator’s University Lecturer brother has migrated and is now under-employed as a shop hand. Now he

“Tired from his
Job stacking shelves
In the supermarket
Dreams of eager eyes
Pencils on notebooks
Some nights he dreams
that he’s

The anguish and trauma of migration: a sense of displacement, the breakdown of dreams and life’s long mapped ambitions.

Consider “Quiz: Present Tense”:

I remember TOO MUCH

(Why capitalize part of the line? Why only a part? Why not the first part?)

Now, it is my turn to write a poem:


Folks, be impartial – if this is all it takes to poetry, which poem strikes you as at least worth the cash?

Using specks on eyes

“Happy Poem”, I figure, is one of those places where the poet, as Amirthanayagam puts it, “dsiplays a rare ability to speak for all Sri Lankans”:“OK

I’m going to write a happy poem.

I have started counting
the times I force myself
not to call you,
the times I try not to text you
and succeed.
I mark these little triumphs
with tiny smiling faces in my diary
and daily

grow 🙂 🙂 🙂 …..”

Indran Amirthanayagam has translated Vivimarie into Spanish as well. So, I take his judgment seriously.

Not that Vivimarie’s SYES does not have its moments. To say that she’s an allround flop as a poet and that she can’t rhyme would only betray my invalidity and prejudice. Yet, as I have maintained before, there is nothing much to write home of where her work is concerned. She has a good sense for words and phrases which is further enhanced by her lyrical sensibility. Yet, she is essentially in a little upper middle class ivory caccoon and – perhaps – her work comes out better when she is left there. The descent to being political should come with age and carnage – and should not be forced, even though it is a fairly markatable proposition.

The persona that idly floates among her lines, to me, often resonates an immediate post-adolescent (and at times strangely adolescent) looking out at the possibilities of the world. The scars and mud splashes of Vivimarie’s own experience / assumed experience, are, in turn, injected into this awaiting youth. We had a reading and discussion of SYES not too long ago. Some of the audience was in fact surprised when they were told of Vivimarie VanderPooten’s biological age. For me, what strikes deep is that “innocence” at the verge of “contact with the world” vibe which I find predominant in her writing. Doomed are they who try to define this writing using the big words and marketable cliches of seller literature. Not that anyone would see the point or the difference. But, see the mess Amirthanayagam has made of himself trying to do so.


25 thoughts on ““Shit Your Eyes Shut” by Vivimarie

  1. WELL said …. you’ve put into words what many of us were thinking and discussing for the past few years …
    but Mr. Perera i think you have gone overboard with mimicking poetry of such a “great”, “non-elitist” poet…. the last time you did that you nearly began world war III

    • Dear Supun,

      You have posted a link that leads to an account on something justified as ‘confessional poetry’ ……. i hope this is not a mistake. Is there a point in inserting this link?

  2. Vihanga please do not misquote me …. i ddnt say she is a deja vu poet i think thats something you said…. what i really said was that her poetry deserves to be thrown in the bin and i also remember saying that its a shame that she is our only selling poet…. who has published (to my knowledge) two volumes of poetry….

    Reading her second work was simple torture …. though i must admit that the first collection was slightly better since it did not accompany footnotes (footnotes which explained the meaning of JVP)…. it was a much more personal work….

    also considering the poet’s personal remarks about my weight and how hard it is for me to see my own @#$% i find the poem anorexia a little hypocritical…..

  3. Read Vivimarie’s first book recently. After reading your criticism of the poetry sayin they’re not political I thought of sharing this link. I rather like her stuff. Political can be interpreted in different ways, no? Just IMHO, and am not an expert or anythin, just a student.

    • Ah, okay Supun… No problem.

      I have no issues her poetry not being political. I mean, what s the big deal of everyone trying to be political cos its sexy, right? But, to me, that exactly IS the problem — VVP is kinda trying to accomodate that in in this 2nd volume.

      But, the link doesnt mean much either, isnt it?

      Don’t be defensive Supun — who needs experts and anythings. Don’t just say ur a student. You’re making your point. Keep posting.

  4. Good review. I don’t agree with everything, but I do with most of it. VVM is not the voice of anyone except the yuppie barefoot sansoni types in colombo. She puts on the persona of the depressed suicidal poet because it worked for plath and hope it works for her. Her peotry is nothing but teenage angst, unfotunately, and it seems to sell in sri lanka – perhaps because it is ‘new’ to society because other people who go through it write it in their diaries which are later thrown out, now published.

    You say of SYES
    “The persona that idly floates among her lines, to me, often resonates an immediate post-adolescent (and at times strangely adolescent) looking out at the possibilities of the world. ”

    This is not just of SYES, it is who VVM is – very strangely adolescent – it is the first thing that you notice when she begins speaking, except in the moments when she takes on the persona of the english-know it all and begin spouting big words about other big words. Oh well. A dearth of good poetry equals anything that makes some sense looks like good poetry.

  5. Dear All,
    Not an expert in subject but enjoy reading,
    The FACT that she won the Gratien and her books are sold out completely speaks for itself.
    Try not to be so personal in criticism. For courtesy sake atleast.

    • Dear Chinth,

      Thanks for writing in. No one is in the act of criticism for love. A writer winning an award or selling out books don’t mean much, do they? I think in reading a text you have to go beyond the sales and the awards. That, even Holmes will agree, is elementary.

      Criticism IS personal. It is a personal response to the textuality of the writing and the writer. Apart from that, I have not attacked the writer — Vanderpoorten — personally.

      The sake of courtsy is for the reader. The writer, in that context, is priviliged and doesnt require our courtsy.

      Keep writing, do.

      • Dear VK,
        The amount of money a person earn would not mean much. But, in the case of art, popularity IS something. Simply, It means a lot of people, maybe less eloquent and less educated than you (like myself) agrees or finds her poetry worthwhile, true or just that they find it speaking to their hearts or something. whichever that appeals to them.
        I am not trying to say that an Artists that is not popular is not worthy. I am aware that some artists were not even recognized in the world till they were dead. But the fact that she is popular means her views are accepted and appreciated.
        Ok.. since you explained and enlightened me on criticism (maybe true as I already confessed regarding my knowledge about the artists’ world) don’t you think mocking the name of the book calling it “S*** your eyelids shut” a little juvenile? Don;t you think that it WAS wrong.. Criticism as you said may be a personal thing and whoever writes should be ready to endure it as you say. But don’t you think it shouldn’t go to depths that you have reached? Amirthanayagam may have exaggerated his views in his commentary. Fine. But that doesn’t hurt anyone.
        Isn’t it a lil undignified If I am to call you something like “Self-obsessed” or “pompous” by taking something you have written in one of your publications? since you are a writer I hope you agree that a pen can be more sharper than any sword.
        “she is essentially in a little upper middle class ivory caccoon”
        “surprised when they were told of Vivimarie VanderPooten’s biological age”
        Don’t you think these were very unnecessary comments and very judgmental? How far in being disrespectful to a person can you go on to prove a point. I have no objections to your thoughts and views on her writing style or skills. You may think its stupid and there’s nothing wrong to make a statement on your personal view. But, I hope you realize you have passed the boundaries of dignity.
        If you think your poem in CAPITALS is same as hers. Do you think you can publish it?Pls.. consider it food for thought… 🙂

  6. Hmm… “popularity” does not mean much — not to me at least. And in any case, popularity or the extent to which one may have “embraced some heart” (sigh) do not come across as excuses for a writer/ writing to be exempted from criticism.

    Mocking the name of the book is a part of the trade, dude. It comes with the baggage of getting an effectively shitty title for the piece. Then, again, “shit ur eyes shut” accurately summarizes the reader who doesnt see the mediocrity in question. I mean, don’t measure everything I do here with a positivist air, u know. Sure — there is indignity. Sure, the idea is to hit out at the writing. Also note that I have credited VVP on grounds I can credit her. And that crediting is not done to “balance” my essay — but it is done with earnestness. Check last 2 paragrafs.

    I say “UMC ivory caccoon” cos that IS the case. The point with VVP’s age is brought out to highlight the adolescent strain in her writing. When you read the reference to age in context (and unless you choose not to understand it) I think my focus is quite clear.

    Of course I am judgmental and disrespectful. Why should I be otherwise in my own blog? :p . In the same way I do try to pass the “boundaries of dignity”, cos that “dignity” is not mine…

    I am self-obsessed and pompous — as u have rightly observed. It is good to be so, if it is to identify an over-rated writing.

  7. Dear VK,
    I’d prefer if you do not publish this..
    Art is soemthig always connected to popularity the way i see it. The term ‘Good’ is soemthing which describes what most of the people i a society or whatever would think is right!
    I will agree that there could be crappy arists to a sector of a society who could be higly praised by another sector or somethign. Now, which sector is more right is a matter of perception. But what matters here is that whoever the artist may cater, Whats important is that it is regarded ‘Art’, appreciated by some people. Thats why i see success in popularity of an artist.
    I never said its wrong to criticise anyone or anything. My point was that you were being personal in your comments, disrespectful in conveying your thoughts and that is wrong and unethical of anyone to do. Your criticism seems crossing the line to being personaly attacking her. That was my point from the begining.
    How on earth can you make such a statement on VVP’s personal lilfe.. meanin.. UMC ivory whaever.. from what she writes.. How on earth can you bloody say that? i mean you claim to have based your criticism on the writing. Can you like deduce my social status from the way i write as much? Or wait. I confessed earlier about my knowledge on literature.. are there like classes in writing based on the writers social status? Do tell me pls.
    Ok.. mocking the name of the book is part of the game.. fine.. just that i found it a bit juvenile.. Hmm..
    In your own blog you can be whatever you want machan but doesnt mean its ok for you to insult someone. Not that its somethign which doesn’t happen in the world. My point is that it is wrong. Not that you can’t do it.
    I did not mean to offend you in any way but i fear i might have been somewhat aggresive. Please forgive me and Since I’m on your blog, you are at the freedom to block this if you want. I too dont have any need to see this published 🙂
    I did not mean to annoy you or insult you in anyway. I just wanted to share my thoughts on what you have said. I hope you understand.

  8. why should i block you? ur getting ur opinion across.

    On the popularity issue, I still disagree. Writers are — and this is the more chic practice — not “self-made”; but are “made” through deliberate processes. The said popularity is not necessarily a variable that is consequent to the writing; nor is it necessarily a result of “how good” a writing is. Your argument of popularity having a “right” or a “sanction” is based on the same logic as saying “a majority rules”. Cannot subscribe to that.

    I know that VVP is in a comfortable cacoon cos i have done my research on her; and cos I know her through both 1st hand and 2nd hand interaction. Also, because the writing reflects it without a blush. Her social status, her political affinity, her commitment to anti-AIDS movement —– all these are part of her writing and her author-sensibility. Vivimarie’s and everyone elses poetry depends on similar variables.

    If you read other posts by me you will see similar criticism made. Check my second response to Mark Wilde, for example.

  9. Im just saying that variables p, q, r, s…. all count — from one’s vote to one’s anti-AIDS campaigning. Not referring to VVP, but speaking in general.

  10. Hey, I saw this and remembered reading an interview Malinda S had given to the Nation. The interviewer asked Malinda about ‘touching on real issues in your writing’ and he answered that you “can’t expect a writer to write what you want. Do we really have to write about the war, just because we live in Sri Lanka. Is that obligatory from a writer from Sri Lanka?” I also noticed that many of Malinda’s poems are all personal love stuff. Would your you, or the people who have commented saying VV’s poetry is all about personal stuff and love also level this criticism to Malinda? Or is he not upper middle class? (he DID go to royal college, study at harvard etc and sends his children to ladies college. and his father is a top former civil servant)

    • The defense of VVP continues…

      Come on: who is malinda seneviratne, that I have to base my opinion on his?

      Well, i don’t care whether he, you and others think that there need be no ‘political’ depth in writing. Being ‘political’ and writing ‘of politics’ are 2 things… and i am referring to the former as lacking in VVP poems.

      You can be political even writing of the personal, if u see my point? VVP tries to bring in some “political moments” in SYES. But, this doesn’t come out convincingly; as I argue, cos it is artificially evoked with much contrivance.

      And do not measure “elitism” merely with the gauge of the “pas maha balum”…. that is not sufficient. Elitism is also what u aspire to, where u wanna go, what ur objects are etc etc…..

      Read the Observer review of VVP new collection last week:

  11. The Observer Review? Can you even understand that? I saw it. That ‘journalist’ has said that VV can’t write like John Donne. Man, you should not even quote that article, at least your reviews can be understood and are in excellent English. I found a ‘poem’ written by that ‘journalist’. Seriously dude, he needs to get some English classes ah.

    • Yeah, but did you follow the argument he presented? Not that the ‘Observer’ is my personal fav paper; but, the logic of the piece struck me as quite perceptive.

      Forget the nostalgia over Donne etc etc. The argument per se — that was well grounded and analyzed.

    • Hi Janz… there’s no “hate” here. It is an argued essay if u follow it; and the views stemming from it.

      My work being shit is beside the point. U really think I’ll get provoked by that tested monkey trick? Duh!

  12. I am sure VVP will miss her amazing scholarly critic Ranga somebody from the Observer, (your friend no?) for his scintillating insights (almost as scintillating as yours, VK) about her poetry not being similar enough to John Donne’s. Seeing as he has been interdicted from Lake House. He he.

    • (Anonymous) Reader,

      Thanks for visiting the post and leaving back a comment in the defense of The Poet. I am sorry to say i don’t generally follow the careers of career journalists —- even when some journalists take a special interest in poets / poetry. But, if Ranga Chandraratne has been fired / interdicted I don’t see how that would be funny, because in spite of differences in opinion and assessments people are human and to say ‘hehe’ to a guy who has lost his livelihood is not very cool. Even your preferred poet Dr. VVP will agree to that.

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