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.
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
grow tails to wag?”
“Will Kangaroo courts
have prison cells
“Do dead ends have live means
or do they yearn to
be reborn as
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
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
I don’t see BLACK AND WHITE
I want TO REACH FOR SOMETHING WHICH FOREVER ILLUDES ME
I hate PRIVACY VIOLATED
I wonder HOW TIME CAN EVER HEAL
I have ALWAYS BEEN STRANGE
I know PIGEONS CAN TURN THEIR HEADS 360 DEGREES”
(Why capitalize part of the line? Why only a part? Why not the first part?)
Now, it is my turn to write a poem:
I remember MAKING A SAND CASTLE
I don’t see MYSELF DOING THAT AGAIN
I want TO BUT SOMETHING IS ITCHING ME
I hate IT BUT IT DOESN’T LET ME GO
I wonder IS THIS AN ARROGANT BODY RASH
I have ALWAYS HAD THIS NASTY DREAM
I know THAT SOME DREAMS DON’T COME TRUE.
Folks, be impartial – if this is all it takes to poetry, which poem strikes you as at least worth the cash?
“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
I mark these little triumphs
with tiny smiling faces in my diary
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.