Lakdhas Wikkramasinha
Edited by Aparna Halpé and Michael Ondaatje, translated by Udaya Prashantha Meddegama
New York Review Books, $18 (paper)

At the age of nineteen, in the summer before starting at Oxford, I flew from England to see relatives in Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital. It remains the first and only time I have travelled alone to the homeland of my parents. Reading through my fusty syllabus, for the course on Victorian literature my tutor made mandatory (instructing those who’d selected the modern option to give it up and turn to Matthew Arnold and John Ruskin), I watched for hours the grey sea foment. Walking along the sand, feeling at a loose end, I bought too many shells of all sorts from vendors on Mount Lavinia beach: striated, dogtooth-patterned, or resembling the chamber and spout of an ink pen.

The question Wikkramasinha asks us, and himself, is this: How experienceable, really, is the past?

A quarter decade earlier, in 1978, thirty-seven year old Lakdhas Wikkramasinha—having self-published eight tiny volumes soon out of print—had drowned off that very same beach. Half-cut, perhaps, on arrack.

Wikkramasinha, who wrote in both English and Sinhala, is known overseas for one poem: “Don’t Talk To Me About Matisse,” published in O Regal Blood in 1975 and quoted in Michael Ondaatje’s memoir of 1982, Running in the Family. It is anthemic, stridently postcolonial:

Don’t talk to me about Matisse . . .
the European style of 1900, the tradition of the studio
where the nude woman reclines forever
on a sheet of blood.

Talk to me instead of the culture generally—
how the murders were sustained
by the beauty robbed of savages: to our remote
villages the painters came, and our white-washed
mud-huts were splattered with gunfire.

European primitivists become colonizers thieving from the Global South and leaving splatters of blood, not paint, in their wake. Wikkramasinha supplies this manifesto:

I have come to realize that I am using the language of the most despicable and loathsome people on earth; I have no wish to extend its life and range, enrich its totality.

To write in English is a form of cultural treason. I have had for the future to think of a way of circumventing this treason; I propose to do this by making my writing entirely immoralist and destructive.

But I question this claim. Michael Ondaatje and Aparna Halpé’s vital new edition of Wikkramasinha’s work includes translations by Udaya Prashantha Meddegama, but the editors suggest that his “attempts at modernist-surrealist experimentation, which provoke powerful ruptures in his English poems, can appear disorienting and somewhat labored in Sinhala.” Wikkramasinha was inspired by the originator of Sinhala free verse, Siri Gunasinghe, who also strikes, in striking out on his own, macho postures: “Life clung to me / wailing,” he writes in “Renunciation,” “I brushed her aside.” Yet the English poems might be Wikkramasinha’s most innovative.

Consider “Antonio Barrettu,” an elegy for a Sinhalese Catholic commander in the Portuguese army. The epigraph quotes the Portuguese diplomat Julio Firmino Judice Biker’s Collecção de Tratados. Executed, Barrettu suffered the ignominy in 1620 of his head being “suspended on the road to Colombo,” where “it remained for a long time.” Stuck, it seems, on a pike (“spiked in the bestial weather”)—Biker’s unusual, in Wikkramasinha’s translation, word choice, suspended, appears to inspire in the poem a curiously temporal suspension, where the decapitated head hovers horribly between the status of agential human, and evidential object:

            It was the trophy of the rout
            The tongue reeked first                       the whole face
            Fell in rivers on the roadside grass
            From that day in May you had a different territory

The Sri Lankan poet with his animosity toward English nevertheless has at hand, always, it seems, whatever exact, suggestive, English word he requires. Not le mot juste but le mot mauvais. (The French symbolists, along with Osip Mandelstam, are European influences on Wikkramasinha. One poem in particular, “Turn Me Over,” appears to rewrite Rimbaud’s “Le Dormeur du Val” and its twist ending.) Both “rout” and “trophy” feel so punctiliously chosen, with the latter retaining its meaning from classical epic: a bole dressed with the purloined armor of a defeated foe and carried into battle. Wikkramasinha’s word-picture weds the pus and blood-stuff oozing from the spiked head down onto the “roadside grass,” to such “rivers” as were fought over, in a grisly shift from the small-scale to larger doings. “From that day in May you had a different territory”: a mordacious rejoinder to Rupert Brooke’s sentimental fiction of a fallen soldier’s leaving “some corner of a foreign field / . . . for ever England.”

About the head of the corpse, says the poet, worms “convolve.” That strange word’s double fricative has its place in a complex sonic weave:

The hive of your rage             Antonio
Barrettu           the derelict fields are laughing
The palm trees serrate the light          below
Is your stoned head     unknowing

The jaw dropped steep            cheek
Bones pocked             “his eyes were blades”            gravid
Holes descant for us the sight
The peasants are         Antonio           livid

Sun of renegades                    on the long road
Of fear             you would whelm the heart    goad
Us yet              Without sight              watch              the armies drive
More pleasant cattle to the hot archive          

Can Wikkramasinha’s talk of a starkly “destructive” Anglophone poetics be reconciled with the ingenious rhyme of “gravid” and “livid,” and the two couplets of the final stanza? Over time, atrocities degrade into anecdotes: Wikkramasinha worries that we are merely “goaded” by violent remainders into a voyeurism as unseeing as Barrettu’s eyeless skull. Or that we cannot extract anything real from the “hot archive”—a word which, resurrecting “hive” within it, pullulates excitingly, as it doesn’t always in the mouths of scholars (“descant” can refer to song, or just such tedious verbiage as may flatten both literary and historical experience).

The question Wikkramasinha asks us, and himself, is this: How experienceable, really, is the past?

Suresh Canagarajah observes Wikkramamasinha’s “nativization” of English, which includes but also goes beyond the use of nouns and adjectives from Sinhala. Combined with his ambivalence toward his feudal roots, this makes for undecidable poems. “From the Life of the Folk-Poet Ysinno,” for instance, is taught as univocal praise of the relationship between such a poet and his benefactor, the Menike at the Walauva (the mistress at the big house). This is how, for instance, the scholar of Sri Lankan literature D. C. R. A. Goonetilleke reads the poem, with dismay at its conservatism:

            Ysinno cut the bamboo near Haniketta,
            And from those wattles made his hut
            And had nothing to cover it with, nothing
            Like a hundred and sixty
            Bales of straw.

            So he made his way to the Walauva at Iddamalgoda
            And to the Menike said how poor he was,
            And how from his twenties he had made those lines of song
            Swearing before her all his fealties.
            So she said, Wait for the yala
            Harvest and take the straw.

“So . . . so.” The power dynamic appears naturalized, with one’s poverty compensated by another’s noblesse oblige. But Halpé notices that another poem, “In Ancient Kotmale,” which may appear nostalgic, is in fact a parody of W. B. Yeats’s “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” So when Ysinno gets to building with bamboo and “wattles,” I, a relatively deracinated Sri Lankan Tamil, shaped by Anglo-American verse cultures, hear Yeats once more: “I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree, / And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made; /  Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee, / And live alone in the bee-loud glade.”

Reading the poem ironically, we understand the impatience of “nothing to cover it with, nothing,” and the otherwise inexplicable specificity of the “hundred and sixty / Bales of straw,” aligning now with Yeats’s “nine bean-rows” (and we already know that Wikkramasinha has got from somewhere—it could be Yeats’s poem—the metaphor of the hive, applied to the rotting head of Antonio Barrettu). So yes, this could be a poem by a Sinhala poet stating the continuity of his Modernist experiments with the folk verse of his forebears. Or it could be a postcolonial poem criticizing the desire for authenticity, by alluding to a sham rurality that Yeats largely invented:

            Ysinno said, O the rains are coming near,
            My woman fretting, her kid will get all wet.

            Then the kind Menike said, O then
            You take what straw you need from the behind shed.
            And Ysinno being a folk-poet, and his lines being not all dead,
            The benison of the Menike of Iddamalgoda
            Lives even today.

“His lines being not all dead”: the carefully awry couplet-rhyme holds us up, suggesting we shouldn’t take the poem at face value. Wikkramasinha points to the interplay of poetry and power in the feudal era, and inequalities enshrouded by rhetorics of kindness. The poem is called “From the Life of the Folk-Poet Ysinno,” and when Ysinno explains to the Menike how “from his twenties he had made those lines of song / Swearing before her all his fealties” (emphasis mine), one way to read the iterated phrasing is in terms of the poet using up his life, transforming his own energy and time into praise of his benefactor—a queasy transfusion. The figurative mortality of ancient poetry—as in, its disappearance—colligates with the possible actual death of the poor poet and his family.

Sri Lankans struggle to explain the name of Colombo’s Beira Lake, though it must link with one of the invading powers and commemorate a Portuguese or Dutch engineer. Like Jean Arasanayagam, his challenger as Sri Lanka’s preeminent Anglophone poet, Wikkramasinha is anticolonial but queasily besotted with—returning to Halpé’s introduction—“the romance of Portuguese and Dutch conquest.” His corpse-littered corpus bespeaks Sri Lanka’s colonization, but it’s also relevant that his career spanned “one of Sri Lanka’s most incendiary moments in history, beginning with the failed military coup in 1962, and stretching through the JVP insurrection of 1971–1972,” leading “to the deaths of thousands of young people, many of them university students.”

The mythologizing of poets can help publicize them, but might in this case become another way of garbling writing from the Global South. So I hesitate to observe how many of Wikkramasinha’s poems appear, uncannily, to presage his death by drowning:

            That body that you and five policemen
            Pull out of the Beira—
            That you saw early this morning
            Floating in the lake,
            Had, at seven o’clock in the twilight
            A mind thinking

Into the lake named for a disappeared person—an unspecifiable foreigner—there vanishes another. The body of a master killed by his disciple:

            A mind thinking: my loyal disciple follows me,
            He is at my footsteps, at my back
            My disciple follows me—

            But his mind was not too quick
            To know, the knife I buried in his back,
            His mind was too slow to think—
            Like the saffron light I flashed before him,
            That I showed the way for him—
            For him, for you—

Wikkramasinha’s poems are thought processes. The innovativeness of his scrupling over vanished histories requires the begetting—from poem to poem—of a fluidly juxtapositional syntax (colons, semicolons, dashes, each distinctively weighted). But what, in this poem, is he thinking about?

Belonging to a bilingual Sinhalese elite shaped by both Buddhism and Christianity, Wikkramasinha fuses Jesus and the Buddha in “Nosa Senhora dos Chingalas” (“Our Lady of the Sinhalese”), picturing “Christ, with a hair-knot against the strident / Green vegetation, standing; speaking / In the soul’s dialect.” This composite figure stands his ground, prophesying in a language beyond language available to everyone. “Disciple” occupies the same space. Christ walked on water, he didn’t drown; of his counterpart, the ninth-century monk Linji Yixuan told his followers, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Which is exactly what Wikkramasinha’s disciple does—in a literalization of Judas’s back-stabbing.

The mythologizing of poets can help publicize them, but might in this case become another way of garbling writing from the Global South.

Or is this just a young man’s poem about knives? Wikkramasinha brings to mind Jorge Luis Borges, entranced by esoteric philosophy but also roughnecks. “I will come through your gate / Menike, at dusk, with the kris-knife”; “After the pallid turbans of the bar, / After the toddy breath, / I have waited on the rail-track at night / With a knife that flowers at night.” I imagine here a Swiss Army knife, its several blades unfolding like petals. “Middle,” a caustic, short poem, expresses a mannered isolation, catching itself in the mirror:

            The middle of the night
            Was built for two people:
            For myself, and for myself.

            But the middle of the day is called noon:
            Taking in memories of the hot air,
            Dreaming in the siesta,

            Sleeping alone, with a long knife.

Violence is everywhere in these poems and only sometimes with clear coordinates. Though Halpé and Ondaatje do their best with endnotes, much is inexplicable, even with the aid of the internet. This makes Wikkramasinha seem astrally weird—a man out of time. If anyone reading this can help out with “Dandhabanavaka,” a poem about a tenth-century bas relief, or define “wiggus,” related to a Malay manuscript’s protective charm, I’d be grateful.

“Avariya,” a Sinhala poem, is named for a fruit used in ayurvedic medicine such as my grandfather practiced. It is a miniature still life:

On a gold plate
like ripe bananas
five fingers
red blue yellow

Ripeness and death; discoloration, beauty; the reverse alchemy of gold into copper into ash. A memento mori seen sidewise—an amputated, rotting hand. A cure for what ails you that really prefigures death. This is Modernist poetry, defiantly imagistic. Finding in another Sinhala poem, “Umbrella,” a comparison of its subject to “an old man / made of iron rods / in a black robe,” I think—though Wikkramasinha might be scornful—of D. H. Lawrence: “Man fixes some wonderful erection of his own between himself and the wild chaos, and gradually goes bleached and stifled under his parasol. Then comes a poet, enemy of convention, and makes a slit in the umbrella; and lo! The glimpse of chaos is a vision, a window to the sun.”

Speaking to fishermen who barely understood me, wondering if they, Sinhalese, knew I was Tamil, albeit no Tamil-speaker, I wanted, on the threshold of adulthood, to connect to the country where my parents grew up. But the shells were only pretty, the sea was only wild. Collected on my shelf (the shells themselves, photographs of Mount Lavinia beach) these experiences turned into objects transport me no further than a limitedly personal past: the moment of their acquisition. “History is nothing live,” worries Wikkramasinha in “Five Swords”—as if his poetry were sheer, mere, archivism:

If I am always collecting things
In the manner of the sand
On the sea shore
Collecting, the corpse of the dead swimmer
Against the soles of whose feet
There is nothing paler;

Sand, infinitely small
Infinitely glistening on the black skin
Peeling off—

If I am always collecting things,
You should know that I am collecting things,
That are always dead.

“If I Am Collecting Things,” the poem’s called. It seems, like “Don’t Talk to Me About Matisse,” a riposte—as if the poet has been called out, this time for his intricate and relentless urge to arrange. He is as helpless before this desire, he suggests, as the sea; as the drowned swimmer—again, he foreshadows his own death—turned to a racialized (visually shocking) corpse. But William Blake dreamed of seeing “a World in a Grain of Sand,” of holding “Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour.” Is it possible that, despite what he says about English, Wikkramasinha remembered that Romantic poet as he wrote these lines? Didn’t Blake too—writing from the perspective of Hell—seek to revise orthodox values through a poetics of destruction: “by printing in the infernal method, by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid”?

Wikkramasinha wrote nothing of anti-Tamil nationalism—the Gal Oya riots, for instance, of 1956—making, like many well-off Sinhala authors, the decision to turn aside (to the past). Perhaps if he’d lived to see the civil war, following the events of July 1983 that saw homes and businesses looted and destroyed, and Tamils beaten, set on fire, raped, killed (my uncle and his family were fired at and imprisoned, later fleeing to Tamil Nadu) his poetry would have changed. New horrors might have cured his belatedness, providing a present-day subject. As it is, he laments his irrelevance, writing in “The Wisdom Won of Ancient Battles”:

“Where are you going,”
—“To the chilli plot . . .” My legs
splayed out like a grandfather’s
in the long armchair—like a grandfather
I remain in the verandah, resting—

For already I know
with a knowledge that belongs only to the elderly,
that already
the evil-eyes of passers-by
have split & shrivelled the reddening

chillies: None
will ripen—& I say, in the manner of ancestors:

“Nothing will come of it,”

or remind her that

“We have died
two centuries back!”

One shouldn’t boast of one’s accomplishments. Better suppress the news—or so my Tamil mother taught me—or you’ll be targeted with the evil eye and acid attacks of envy (as if the pottu—the red dot women like her wear on their brow—were the laser sight of a sniper rifle). Wikkramasinha sees his chillies ruined by his enemies; recumbent in an old-style planter’s chair—with the ends of his legs hooked over the bars—he is profoundly inert; it is hard to rise from such chairs, shifting from reverie into action. In this way, the poem expresses his imprisonment in the colonial past. Becoming his own grandfather, he is paralyzed by the fatalistic idioms—“the manner”—of his ancestors: he is someone with no place in postindependence Sri Lanka.

Wikkramasinha’s fatal swim in the ocean seems, finally, to rhyme terribly with the colonial sea voyages of the past. One might say that he was out to subvert, parody, reclaim, or deconstruct with his daredevil gesture, if it weren’t for the complicitous nostalgia one can’t ignore in his dealings with Portuguese conquest, including the adventures of Vasco de Gama and Luís de Camões, who fused details from his own and de Gama’s journeys into his national epic, The Lusiads. Its opening lines deploy Sri Lanka, or “Taprobana,” as the horizon of the unknown:

            Arms are my theme, and those matchless heroes
            Who from Portugal’s far western shores
            By oceans where none had ventured
            Voyaged to Taprobana and beyond. . . .

Wikkramasinha on Camões: “After so many years here / He was overcome by the fatality lurking / In these waters, / And strove to make an end of it.” De Gama, contrarily, announces in The Lusiads that the ocean itself is terrified of the Portuguese, and will do their bidding.

We sense the postcolonial lyric poet’s resistance to the violence-laden enterprise of the epic. It is the point made by the Martinican poet-theorist Édouard Glissant about the self-doubt—as well as the glossed-over or glamorized pillage and domination—concealed by epic narratives of the nation-state:

However, and this is an immense paradox, the great founding books of communities, the Old Testament, the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Chansons de Geste, the Islandic Sagas, the Aeneid, or the African epics, were all books about exile and often about errantry. . . . Within the collective books concerning the sacred and the notion of history lies the germ of the exact opposite of what they so loudly proclaim. When the very idea of territory becomes relative, nuances appear in the legitimacy of territorial possession. These are books about the birth of collective consciousness, but they also introduce the unrest and suspense that allow the individual to discover himself there, whenever he himself becomes the issue. . . . These books are the beginning of something entirely different from massive, dogmatic, and totalitarian certainty (despite the religious uses to which they will be put). These are books of errantry, going beyond the pursuits and triumphs of rootedness required by the evolution of history.

The amnesia of Sri Lankan literary culture meant no fame came Wikkramasinha’s way.

It turns out that you can’t tell the story of a nation’s founding without also writing of imperiled travel, homelessness, that undeniable precarity which it is the epic’s task—for Camões, as much as for Vergil or Homer—to transmute into the fiction of a glorious destiny. The colonizer requires the colonized; Portugal discovers in South Asia the supposed restoration of an abiding deficiency.

Wikkramasinha strips back Camões’s mythicizing, considering his own nation’s identity, or lack thereof:

Luís de Camões, spitting in the sea—
slanting—the sea off Galle,
singing of frost over the Mondego: a Lusitanian breeze:
Mondego; frost (you will remember);
a very cold wind, you remember, was flapping about—
you thought there were two winds—
you thought it was like an eel, bleeding—
But really, the wind was very still
that year.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


de Camões! A poem contains nothing
but the bones of the dead.
& the bones of the dead, my friend,
do not last forever.

Epics are always epics of collateral damage: their heroes stand, finally, atop a mountain of corpses. Wikkramasinha may be thinking again of Blake—“drive your plow over the bones of the dead”—but also of a letter Camões wrote before sailing to India in 1553. Citing Scipio Africanus—the Roman general; not an African, but a conqueror of Africa:

Ingrata patria, non possidebis ossa mea.

Ungrateful homeland, you won’t possess my bones. Writing The Lusiads, Camoes went from the prisoner belonging nowhere, to an artist-saint of Portugal. When Wikkramasinha writes of “the convict Camões”—exiled, perhaps, as punishment—“redeemed by his style,” he alludes to such maneuvering, but one wonders if he really believes in such redemptions: an Audenesque cleansing, through literary accomplishment, of a writer’s misdemeanors. Everyone in Portugal knows Camões. The amnesia of Sri Lankan literary culture—not unrelated to its carnages, past and present—meant no such fame was headed Wikkramasinha’s way.