Jayani Chathurika Senanayake’s Scattered is a mixed bag, with the poet showing much promise which, in turn, is neutralized by several “abnormalities” and “anomalies” of her craft. Her sense of rhythm and the poetic quality of the verse immediately detains our attention — specially, since the nitty gritty of modern verse has readily given non-poets and other pretenders the sufficient leeway to pass off as bards. However, in Jayani Senanayake we see a writer who passes this bar.
One issue I have with Senanayake’s poetry, however, is her coinages and phrases which at times are hollow of creativity or “freshness”. Compounds are at times cliched, or too common for that phrase to hold reader interest. In Chopping Onions, for instance, we have a series of such cliched usages, such as the narrator’s “unsuspecting eyes” (which are made to tear by onion fumes), the flowing of “rivers of blood” and the splitting of her “gentle skin”. In an abnormal submission, the narrator cedes that her finger was cut in the process of chopping onions that the blood got sprayed on the walls. Among the possibilities behind such a characterization can be (a) the writer not having undergone such an accident ever, or (b) the kitchen being somewhat claustrophobic. Either way, it is beside my present object.
Elsewhere, in Breath, we are told how the “sky weeps”, how the same sky shall “smile tomorrow” and as to how “silent tears” are rained. These phrases give a distinct sense of deja vu. In Roses, the poet uses a phrase “puckering their red red lips, arrogant”. I am certain that this is my own anxiety, but the choice of words and verbs more than the poetic sentiment brought to me a sudden memory of Lakdas Wikkramasinha’s To A Servant Girl, where the poem concludes with an arrangement which overall feature 40% of those words (differently arranged, all the same). However, Bullet Hole In My Memory — a poem written in the persona of a migrant woman from Jaffna upon a return back home (or so I suppose) — has too much of Jean Arasanayagam (and particularly her Ruined Gopuram) in it for one’s liking. The laying out of the landscape, the “decaying Gopurams”, the “burning pyres” where “corpses burned” lands us in the thick of Arasanayagam territory.
Senanayake is equally preoccupied with liquids and water. Her corpus often re-insists on images of water, rain, dew, wetness, juices, syrups, “soggy breezes”, “salty breezes”, wells, tears; if not blood and sweat. The image of water is central and crucial to Senanayake that even where the narrator reprimands an unfaithful lover, she insists: “[w]ash yourself off me, set me free / Before you fuck somebody else”. Poems such as Stench of the Rain, Clean, Silent Rain and Seasons of Thoughts are dominated and flooded with images of rainwater. In Afternoon Tea, the time is 4.30 PM and the world is “diluted in a delicious syrupy golden glow”. Among the things the narrator is reminded of there are pancakes, “yummy home made things” and — more to our current theme of liquids — “maple syrup”. Squirrels and birds hop from branch to branch on the way to the “water basin” to “take their afternoon bath”. Dust is seen “drunk, in the honeyed aureate glow of the sun / swimming / in the gentle loving breeze”. The narrator, who is writing, has “words ooze, drip / and spatter across the page”. The poem folds up with a “cup of afternoon tea”. In Advice received on entering the adult world from the mouths of the leering men there is “saliva dripping”.
In two poems at least Senanayake very effectively incorporates the image of the toad. Kissing Frogs laments that none of the frogs the narrator had kissed turned to princes. They, on the contrary, turned into “big, fat / ugly toads / who spat venom and hopped away”. The narrator recommends that “frogs should wear name tags” like (guess what?) “water bottles”. The poem is on the whole a less serious piece, but the toady imagery complements with a similar usage in Faces 2012. Here, Senanayake refers to huge billboards and “colossal cut outs” from which wannabe politicos stare at you, armed with their “election smiles, crosses and numbers”. Senanayake qualifies them as “toad-like creatures” who “sneer and jeer” from their propaganda boards.
Senanayake’s poetry at times make meaningful inroads to the Classical world as well. The image of the Gorgon is employed at least in two instances: in The Gorgon — a poem with much vengeful sentiment — and A Modern Day Perseus. These are not Senanayake’s best poems, but her carefully mediated parallels between the narrator, the narrator’s lover (I think) etc with the mythological Greek counterparts add a novelty as Classical allusions have gone out of fashion (where they are not born to begin with) with more contemporary young writers emerging from paradise Isle.
In a recent chat with Dhanuka Bandara, Dhanuka tells me that his play of 2010 The Commode is, perhaps, topical of a play written by a 22 year old living in and conscious of Sri Lankan reality of that time. In other words, what Dhanuka tries to emphasize is that looking back from now, he sees his project as a tinge immature and improvable, even though the moving spirit and the response that is thereby issued are valid. Perhaps, a year or two down the line, Senanayake would uncover that her work at times betray an “amateurish”, “under-exposed” vein. Scattered, when all is said and done, is a commendable read and is hopefully the first corpus from a writer who will publish more.