According to Professor Calculus, a reader from a Department of English who prefers that name, Aparna Halpe’s Precarious is “too contrived and strenuous in their effort to gain appeal”. This commentator highlights that what s/he sees in Precarious is a poetry that strives to bring together a range of fashionable variables and an exotic formula that would, in turn, make a writer with Asian-descent appear toothsome to a mainstream Euro-American readership. It is, in short, a collection which a writer in the caliber of Graham Huggen would says is involved with “marketing the (geo-political and cultural) margins” of the neo-colonial map.
Bianca Castafiore – another commentator – claims that Aparna Halpe’s “edge” lies in honing private experiences and impressions into poetry. Castafiore cites as evidence the small body of poems in Precarious that deal with home and memory. But, this claim entails that there is “another” type of (non-personal, non-private) poetry which, perhaps, concerns the larger political and social realities. But, in Precarious we see no commitment or connection with national narratives, leave aside the issues of nationhood and of political currents. Perhaps, it was not Aparna’s purpose in selecting the present corpus.
Precarious, on the main, reads as a series of largely personal, yet accessible poetry. There is very little to be said of her craft or (as hinted earlier) of her socio-political commitment to the Sri Lankan historical dynamics of the recent years. In her very physical alienation from Sri Lanka (Aparna Halpe is an academic based in Canada) whatever little references she makes to the politics of the island nation connects only with effort. Of her poems, only one poem – “Me Gauthama Budu-Rajya” – strives at at least in marginally capturing the ethno-religious drum beat of post-2009 Sri Lanka, following the government’s war victory over the LTTE. However, even here, Aparna dos not force her poetry beyond a predictable image or two; nor does she engage in the larger implications of a xenophobic hegemony at which she volunteers to point her finger, nonetheless.
Poems in the caliber of “Middle of the Night” – dedicated to Lakdas Wikkramasinha – carry no entry point for the reader and remain an esoteric communication between, perhaps, the writer and “Lakdas Wikkramasinha” alone. But, Lakdas being dead for 35 years, it merely registers as yet another poem dedicated to Lakdas, to whom Sri Lankan poets of both sexes dedicate poems from time to time. This set aside, the esoteric and the impenetrably personal quality in the wider corpus, however, is not a weakness; but, works as a definitive strength Aparna’s nostalgic take on past encounters, childhood memory and of people and places. Personally, for me, the strongest section of Precarious is the body titled as “Ritumaga”, where the personality of the narrator blends effectively with memory, nostalgia and in memorably graphic evocations. Her poem “Varama” reads as a sensuous return to the familiar scents, sights and sounds of her Sri Lankan home in the calm hills of Riverdale Drive.
In “Varama”, however, there are several exotic references to flora and colour which reminded me of the poetry by the likes of Michael Ondaatje and – more crucially – of Rienzi Cruz. The “pie-dog pup fattening in the bougainvillea”, references to exotic bird calls in the “battichcha” and “koha” – as well as the “fireflies” who “slowdance in the mirror” are equally resonant of the poets/writers highlighted above who, coincidentally, are also of Canadian residency. The exotic bright colours and the vibrant and fuzzy movement of the insect and the bird, at its best, indicate how the shades and movements of nature are essential to a writer who, from a detached poise, means to restore and retrieve fond memory and sentiment.
The bulk of Aparna’s poetry in Precarious are either dedications, or are seen as being influenced by a person or an encounter. In addition to Lakdas Wikkramasinha, there are poems dedicated to Eve Egoyan, Rohan De Saram, Glen Perera, a novel of Ondaatje, a film by Vimukthi Jayasundera as well as for Aparna’s own students at Centennial College. Her poem for Rohan De Saram – “Rohan’s Cello” – reads well, where Halpe infuses memory, desire and sense placing them within an evenly woven oriental and occidental cultural nexus. However, in a collection of less than 25 poems, the overwhelming body of dedications, at times, evokes monotony and a contrived pattern.
Aparna’s publisher is Perera-Hussein, Colombo 7, whose hand at publishing trans-national writers is a progressive move (as far as a liberal business venture that banks on Sri Lankan authors can be progressive, I must add). It is commendable to see Perera-Hussein venturing into poetry as well: a genre that is said to sell little in the Sri Lankan market. Aparna Halpe’s collection is also conclusive of a trademark post-2007 Perera-Hussein cover with an exotic female body with a camera shy short which (one might argue) adds to the poetic spirit the book is oriented to promote.
Aparna’s two poems on politics and violence are set in post-2009 Sri Lanka and Mumbai in the aftermath of the “terrorist attack” of 2008. Significantly, none of the poetry relate to the humanitarian crisis with which the governmental onslaught against the LTTE comes to a controversial close in 2009, nor the militarized self-interests of a narcissist regime of which we have become the willing or unwilling offertory in more recent times. While the benefit of the choice should rest with the poet, it is condemnable that these crucial issues have slipped the selection of a writer who is as sensitive to life and sentiment as Aparna Halpe is.
[A version stemming off from this review of Precarious was submitted to The Nation]