Malinda Seneviratne’s Edges collects 81 “poems” —- almost each poem, a play with sound, words, lyricality; with the corpus largely absent of context-specificity, teleology or horizontal movement. The poems, read together, reminded me of the island of the Laputians, which Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver visits among his many travels. The Laputians are a race, very skilled in music and geniuses in Math, but they lack in pragmatism. Their island floats about, without any concrete fixation, without purpose or profit.
Malinda’s “poetry” is just words, playfully and ear-pleasingly arranged. That. Is. It. It is appealing for its own simplicity; pleasing for the lyrical brim he often teases out of the text; and rewarding as they — words — go further than any other word-stringer has. But, to what purpose are these words? Specially, in a context where we have an excess of words, enmeshing us in marshmellow realities built on scum, as things are? Malinda’s poetry is an escapism, a delightful assortment of happy words and feel-good feelings: a happy drug in search of my little pony. Robert Frost’s cliche informs us that poetry ought to “begin with delight” and “end in wisdom”. Malinda, suspended in mid air, occupies a different projectile. Lakdas Wikkramasinha urges the poet to be the “one who prepares the spiked pit” from the reference point of the common people in order to hunt down the “enemy of the people”. Malinda, in spite of an epistle to Lakdas in his previous collection, hardly concerns himself with the inescapable ground realities of the times: with the bottleneck of an impasse into which Sri Lanka has been pushed and in which it struggles for a further day’s survival. A few lines on the injustice faced by the Allied Health Science students’ trauma, maybe (for, as a journalist, Malinda does take social evils to task), as the poetry — as a whole — is sensitive and facilitating of life’s many moods and mishaps? At least a bit on the beautification syndrome, then; if not the gagging (buying, feeding, laptopping) of the Press?
Instead, we are injected with a happy drug of words rose-syrupped with words. In many ways, the “edge” Malinda Seneviratne has in his Epistles (of which I haven’t read all, but have read enough) is betrayed and lost to dust; where we are left with an easy-metaphor or a convenient verse-piece that one can take home for domestic use, or to mumble over and over on a pathetic night until you pathetically fall asleep. His “poetry”, then, is written to appease the uncritical masses who consume English Literature in Sri Lanka, within whose limited critical consciousness these verse-bits can fit; and for whom the rest of the world doesn’t matter, even if it goes and fucks itself.
For them, Malinda sheds his pre-Edges skin (and here, for comparison purposes, I refer to Epistles) and grows a reactionary hide from which “poems” as the following materialize:
“When you go away
and when you come
when you weep
tears to addresses
other than mine,
again and again
float in a teenage stupor
from rehearsal to concert
to photograph and photo-edit
when you sit here
and when I feel I am absent
through all this and more
now and again
you are beautiful” (Absences, p.7)
There are a few rare instances where the collection sheds an eye on culture and politics. Refer to his poem “Avurudda” (p.27):
“From Devundara to Peduru Thuduwa
across random boundaries
and fantasy line,
It’s a Sinhala thing, a Tamil thing
but not forbidden to anyone else
either in observation or receipt
of kindness and gift,
it is the annual renewal
of nation and citizenship
affirmation of history
of all our tomorrows”
The facade and superficiality of “binding rituals” of the above sort are, here, once again deep-throated into our gang-pressed minds and hearts with the spreading ease of a melted butter. How easily Malinda can unfurl the “annual renewal of nation and citizenship” through this “Sinhala thing, Tamil thing” which, yet again, is a consciously concocted, politically correct inclusion! When megalomaniacs of quasi-Fascist ultra-nationalist Sinhala groups demand in the parliament that the Tamil nationals of this country should sing the national anthem in Sinhala — this in spite of a long standing constitutional provisions — Malinda seeks the “heritage and foundation of all our tomorrows” in an ad-made-in-the-clouds-for-the Government type of make-feel-good poem.
“Resilience” (p.18) serves no better. The poem is an evocation of a “national spirit” — the spirit of a “we” — against (what appears as) international questioning of the Mahinda Rajapakshe government’s “sins”:
“We will not petition the UNHRC
we will not confess to uncommitted crimes
we have nothing to say
to the ignorant,
to the blind,
to the selective inquirer”
Malinda — through his Truth Commission — thus absolves the government of Sri Lanka and its respondents of concerns that have detained global attention. His contribution to the tribalist mentality fostered by the government for its own protection and survival reaches a ridiculous height towards the tailend of the same poem:
“we are compassionate to confessor
open to the open-mind
firm in our faith
tested in our solidarities
resolute in the face
… we fall, we rise
as we always have”
These lines in a country where suspects are summarily executed and the executioneers are deemed as “heroes” by the ignorant mass psyche; in a country where the law has been disarmed and the constitution has been warped for party gain. The begging question in this poem is as to who these “we”, to whom Malinda repeatedly pumps iron, are? It is the voice of the regime — the treble of the government — that we hear, as the poem, as a whole, resonates a collage of what the squirmy-faced ministers and media spokespersons are compelled to table on behalf of the regime, everytime they have had a “fall” and crouches to “rise”. Indeed, the title of “Resilience” is well chosen.
The two poems to which I have above-referred are representative of instances where Malinda breaks out of the “tangle of words on words” mode — musically pleasing, ear-tickling arrangements of playful formations and puppy-love sentiments which we greedily accept as “poetry”. But, in the above cases, where Malinda puts half a foot down to draw (even superficially and uncritically) on context-specified, politically sensitive terrain, a Cereberus yet appears: an uncouth three-headed dog in regime defence, regime justification and regime stabilizing, with a word-savvy woof.
Now, Malinda is not all that — there is more. In fact, I liked Malinda’s exercise where he, Hopkinsian-like, coins words and sentiments in search of the desired, optimum expression: a tabling of the heart-felt effect with economic ease and clinical sharpness. These “word exercises” largely appear in the “happy drug” category of “poems”: the mesh of musically and aesthetically rich words for which every you and I (on either side of Midlife Crisis) in Malinda’s social media spaces will put a “like” for without understanding shit.
We come across pleasing and rewarding-to-read constructus such as “tear-propriety”, “un-languaged”, “un-layering”, “smile-cloth”, “veil-wall”, “so many somedays”, “rejection blow”, “post-love displacement” (a play, I believe, on “post-war displacement”), “heart-thief”, “eye-unguent”, “flesh-blood dreams”, “stray-ways”, “keles bloomage” (which is an ace of a construct), “womb-comfort”, “love-orbits”, “long-short ways”, “universe-collapse” etc. Lost in Laputa, these — to borrow a metaphor which recurrs in Malinda’s writing —, like “kites”, are in constant movement; and in movement alone they make their destiny.