This is a difficult book to read. It is extremely well written, and its graphic power to describe horror will shake you.
For example, in The Opus of Pain we find this: “So we remain the disappeared, /society’s rejects, the world’s unwanted, /dregs in a cup of tea finished a long time ago /thrown out on the garbage,” and the poem goes on beyond that.
In Love Song to a Stranger, I will give both the beginning: “Hatred is a beautiful word. /It comes from the lips of a stranger. /It pours out forth in volley after volley of madness /that mingles and flies in the dust on the air.” and the ending: “to do his bidding with hatred /singing in your heart. /Like the love song /on a young girls lips, /which you will soon /wipe off with your song.”
I can comment now that Rajapakse has given us an unsettling insight into interpersonal relationships during the conflict in Sri Lanka.
For a glimpse at the family members’ impact, turn to Disenchantment where where we find this: “curled up like an old man waiting /for the last glimpse of his son that /went to war, a sad salute to /an unknown soldier that never returned. /They said there was nothing left to bring back. /Everything had rot.”
For a personal response to propaganda, turn to Singing for his Supper, where we find this: “Money rules and lines are penned to /appease the paymaster. Coffers are filled. /The writing machines are hard at work /churning out stories that /such folks like to hear.”
I have not included quotes from the more violent poems, which include torture and mutilation. I did warn you that this was a tough experience, reading or reviewing this book. (I read all of a poetry book, write down the titles and put small notes next to them to guide my review.)
Now for my star count boilerplate. My personal guidelines, when doing an ‘official’ KBR review, are as follows: five stars means, roughly equal to best in genre. Rarely given. Four stars means, extremely good. Three stars means, definitely recommendable. I am a tough reviewer. This is an interesting and unusual work, to put it mildly. Roughly equal to best in genre? I’ve never seen anything like this. Five stars feels right on to this curmudgeon, so five stars it is.
Kindle Book Review Team member.
(Note: this reviewer received a free copy of this book for an independent review. He is not associated with the author or Amazon.)
In Shirani Rajapakse, the small and long-suffering island of Sri Lanka has its voice of reason, its staunch advocate for the local people shredded in the maw of bloody insurrection. Rajapakse, award-winning poet and writer, casts her tired eye and her energetic pen to the multiple civil wars - only concluding in 2009 - waged on her island. Fear and greed and loss and genocidal mania emerge as the main themes in these poems, and the reader is never relieved of them. This steady load of sorrow mirrors exactly Sri Lanka’s unending grief, and lends this collection its magisterial weight.
Ms Rajapakse sings of displaced peoples, of the haunted look in a grieving mother’s eye, of baked and ruined earth, of greed, hypocrisy, and the murderous folly of the powerful. The poet explores multifarious points of view to record the destruction: the bereaved mother, the wife for whom hope is fading, the child soldier dressed in belts of bullets, barely able to carry his weapon. Dogs and cattle too witness the destruction, and smell the arresting odor of blood soaking the dusty ground.
Striking also, is the thought-provoking measurement of distances: from the living to the remembered dead; from the place of death to where the bodies are discovered; from the midnight knock on the door to the first, exhausted glimmering of hope; how far refugees must walk to find safety; from reason to ghastly reality. These gulfs yawned for far too long for poor Sri Lanka; Ms Rajapakse attends to the work of bridging them.
The title “Fallen Leaves” refers chiefly to the dead: soldiers and civilians alike. In “Anuradhapura, the Sacred City,” after two elderly Buddhist monks are murdered by terrorists: “Bodhi leaves whispered / your last rites as the breeze / gently bore it down to you lying there / where once sat a man / a woman, a human on earth …” Falling leaves are introduced by this elegy, and the very next poem, “The Lonely Watch,” focuses on a lone soldier on guard, listening for footsteps in the leaf litter, and then: “Fallen leaves, fallen heroes / there was something poignant about it all / he mused as he cocked his gun at the sound of the wind / nudging the old leaf next to him …”
Such stark realities populate this series: baked by an angry sun, sorrowful, regretful at the folly of humanity. This moving collection will remain a scathing indictment of the Sri Lankan factions at the root of the chaos, and a bright highlight of Ms. Rajapakse’s career.