Madri Kalugala’s recent collection, An Almond Moon and the White Owl is without a doubt the most powerful volume of poetry to emerge out of the Lankan English literary circuit in recent years. For a slim volume of 78 pages, Madri’s work is a roller-coaster of emotions, moods, anxieties, antipathies and so forth, chipping away at the writer’s own surface flesh, carving for us the melancholy and agony of a person/persona in a passionate and earnest struggle to come to terms with herself: a sentence dipped in dramatic words there, but each word true to the vibrant journey Madri invites us to take along a memorable channel of powerful verse.
Earlier, I had said (almost offhanded) that with the arrival of An Almond Moon and the White Owl “all charlatans, fake and delusional poets can now finally start thinking of a suitable retirement scheme”. By this I meant to identify the positive challenge Madri throws at the fellow rhyme-vendors of our time (myself included), pushing back the boundaries and creative horizons of verse composition, almost declaring a poetic war on substance and quality of what people initiate as “poetry”. One decisive factor Madri has to her advantage seems to be that she has delicately studied and taken under her wing poetry as a craft and expression, and her writing hints at an in depth reading of poetry as a “tradition”. Her erudition as a “studied writer”, someone who has internalized the range of forms and style, is among the first observations a reader would make: which quality, unfortunately, is not the strength of all good poets among us at the present time.
Madri’s work are often introvert and excavations of the soul. Her sensibility and anxiety are often channeled through a Romantic modality: a poetic consciousness that seems to have deeply influenced Madri. Madri’s work have the distinct echo of a Keats and a Shelley, while at strategic moments, they are reminiscent of pastoral landscapes evoked by writers such as the younger Tenneyson, in poems such as In Memoriam. Her gift in economically sketching out deep, complex sentiments – which she does through a casual (sounding) phrase, or an artlessly thrown half a line – and her rich choice and careful, meditative use of words are to her advantage.
An Almond Moon and the White Owl is a canister of surging passion that is seen either in motion or in suppression. Powerful, overwhelming emotions are often seen suppressed and held back, while occasionally – in poems like A Tree Speaks to the Rain – there is a masochistic outlet of tumultuous energy:
Lay me bare. Strip me of my leaves, green innocence
As I struggle to grow, to breathe in this pain,
Eat at my heart! My disease. My pestilence.
Wet hard bones, brown and cold – do I not tempt you again?
Naked, glistening, arms outstretched to an unseeing sky.
You whore. Cleanse me, then! Your insanity keeps me sane
Through your strange sadistic pleasures I do not cry
Beat me livid, till I’m numb, whiplashes on my face
My veins turn black but I do not bleed.
The painful, pathetic symbiosis between the raging power / force of the “rain” and the equally surging resistant-submission of the “tree” (the inverted commas come naturally) ends with
But I grow from you.
I grow from you.
Ravished by your hate,
I break into flower
The synthesis of opposing energies – the conflict and consummation of dialectical beauties – dictate many memorable passages of the collection, and is among the factors that detained my attention:
When I pressed my lips
Did you hear the hiss
Like steam, escaping
From a shut lid –
Between our souls
Snake-like, something passed
And I knew you knew
For your head jerked upwards, wild
And in your eyes
Was all the fire of raging hell and
Your teeth were sharp like flint
Your hair, loose black river
Broke free –
This is a mere hint of a thread in the poetry that appealed to me, and is not to by any means define and limit the scope and range of Madri’s expression. Her experimentation also enmeshes forms such as the couplet (as seen in poems like Seven Couplets for a Yellow Dusk), the Sonnet (Shall I Compare thee to a Moonbeam) and a poetic rendition of the elaborate toccata form (A Toccata of Galuppi’s (II)). Memorable intertexts include Dostoevsky’s Raskalnikoff (in Rodion) and Tennyson (in To My Lord).
Madri’s is a resigned, recluse world far away from the day-to-day and the mundane. It is a self-absorbed and self-centered universe, wound by Gothic and Romantic energies. The one exception – a rare moment that bridges Madri’s enclosed space with real time and space – is the poem Seya, of which the title is self-evident:
… Did he hurt you, my shadow
Did those black eyes shimmer in dark
Deep as still water,
Wide pools of pain.
Did you gasp with the hurt
Of not knowing
What you’d done
And that baby’s mouth open
While the stars dimmed out one by one.
Did you smell milk, my baby,
A memory of milk the warmth of the womb
The smell of your mother’s hair
New-washed and spread in the sun
Did you taste grass instead
And the stale stench of fear
As those eyes closed, little one?
Madri Kalugala’s poetry will be best appreciated by a student of that subject – by one for whom form, craft and temperament of an artiste adds to the superficial reading we do of words and impressions. Though it might most likely go unnoticed, her offer to the sphere of Lankan Literature is of promise, and as to what seat she will occupy of this largely under-studied domain has to be seen with time and further critical engagement.