Poets from the Island
- Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha (Author)
Consensual Genocide. TSAR Publications (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Rienzi Cruz (Author)
Gambolling with the Divine. TSAR Publications (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Indran Amirthanayagam
A poet publishes her first volume, and another releases number ten, yet with the freshness of new milk, in these recent collections from Tsar Books which celebrate the creative writing of immigrant Canadians.
Sri Lankan American Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha has refined her poetry on the platform in cities throughout North America. She delights now with the rigor necessary to make sounds work in lines, on the page. These are home-spun tones, informal, written to be spoken on the tongue, and they extend to titles presented in lower-case letters. The lead-off poem is the marvelous “eating a $5 plate of string hoppers, I think of my father.”
Snoozing in front of Seinfeld on the beige on beige recliner
his belly folds after years
of American chop suey, hamburgers and Michelob
he really wanted to eat
was ever on the shelves
of landolli’s or the Big D
I think of that man
who cried three times in my life
once when appamma died
once when our dog died
and once when I sent him
a 99-cent package of tamarind candy
and he called me long distance after Ma went to bed
weeping from tasting tamarind
for the first time in thirty years
This evocation of her father’s exile as he tastes tamarind is beautiful and the craft understated: the way the poet moves easily from television’s Seinfeld to immigration-laded images like “American chop suey” to remembering father’s Tamil mother “appamma” in an intimate conversation with the reader, ending with that tamarind punch in the heart “for the first time in 30 years.”
Piepzna-Samarasinha then gives us “a love poem for Sakia Gunn,” described as “a black, queer youth murdered May 11, 2003.” While string hoppers and tamarind serve as madeleines in the first poem, Sakia’s story inspires a sensual, frank, and whimsical reflection on the poet persona’s growing up on Brooklyn streets and trains: “When I was 18 I rode the N train home at 5AM/smelling like Night Queen in a bra under a bomber jacket.” Earlier, the poet addresses Sakia: “I know I could’ve fallen in love with you/so easy when I was sixteen….We could’ve been taking that late train back to Newark/falling sticky stars all over each other in the vinyl seat/my titties poking out pussy humming/stupid fearless.”
There’s spatial sense to the ordering of the poems. The first two lay out territory she will explore throughout the collection. It is a space rich with longing for stories from a faraway island. It is a landscape where a young girl discovers tastes in love and identifies her politics with concerns of the marginal, the different, the once left out communities—gays, Tamils, women—both in Western metropolises like Toronto and New York and in cities elsewhere. I say cities because this is urban poetry conceived in the developed world but with a recent immigrant and disadvantaged consciousness—“the guy who let me be seventeen cents short/on my bulk food store food/making pancakes outta 46 cents a pound mix”—she says in “1997-1999.” She complains elsewhere about six dollar juice drinks she cannot afford.
Almost all the poems moved me, and some deserve a wide readership. In “landmine heart,” “there is an unexploded land mine heart in me/waiting for a footstep a breath/for troop movements a tsunami.” In “tsunami song,” “ I am used to no one being able to find my country on any map….Then this wave hits my television/and I am transfixed/half a world away/and a block/ from the dosa mahal.” That dosa mahal sounds absolutely right, like Cho fu Sa at the end of Pound’s translation of “The River Merchant’s Wife, A Letter.” As the poet journeys through the world’s cities, she needs to be firm with the language she uses to bear witness and show solidarity with the world’s downtrodden. This collection’s few weaker poems suffer from an easy use of slogans and commonplaces. In the uneven “I didn’t want the end times to be like this: 9/11 in seven slams,” we read “all us brown folks/Nepali to native/it doesn’t matter to them.” Try to identify “them,” I say to the poet. Specificity would strengthen your argument.
Rienzi Crusz writes with grace and wit as he gambols with God in these confessions of a mercurial, passionate older man seasoned in lyricism. Crusz writes from the force that through the green fuse drove the flower, to cite Dylan Thomas, one of his poetic fathers. He leads off “The Maker,” paying homage to Ted Hughes’ crow on the way: “on shoulders burnt under sun fire/he grows a head pitch as crow,/shapes arms/to thin sparrow bones,/has me walking with elephant feet.” This is earthy and contradictory writing. Who is this scarecrow with elephant feet? Crusz gives more detail to feed the reader’s imagination. He says ,“I am crow/that lifts the last thimble of water.” Again, the reader is perplexed. What could he mean? Is he talking of a desert, a drought? Yet, this is confident poetry. Crusz does not tie the poem up neatly and serve it on a platter. He wants the reader to complete her side of the contract: to digest images and make sense of them in the contrary states of her own soul.
But Crusz can also engage us in economic, direct utterance without high flown lyricism. Here is “Let Us Now”
“Let us now
in the embracing love of the Father,
wish each other
the Peace of Christ” so says Pastor Malone of St. Michael’s.
So, my brown hand stretches
to greet the old lady standing beside me.
She turns, glares, extends
a thin pale index finger.
I accept this one-fifth brotherhood,
still believing, still refusing to snuff out
the last candle to our darkness.
There are fifty-six poems here, all worth reading over and over again. Discovering Crusz has also brought me back to the far-away island that unites both these poets and their reviewer. Crusz writes about mother in “For Cleta Nora Marcellina Serpanchy:” “Dead and not dead, gone and here,/you serve breakfast as usual: hoppers and chicken curry,/coconut sambol, tea in the old pot.” And later in the poem: “And me, your immigrant child of the snows?….Mother, you are dead and not dead./Gone and here: love, as the pappadams/crackle on your skillet again,/and you are shouting and chiding,/raving and ranting loving,/praying, always praying.”
Serpanchy’s prayers or blind nature have given us Rienzi Crusz and we are blessed with his own addresses to and about god and man in these poems.
- Uncomfortable Angels by Daniel Burgoyne
Books reviewed: &: A Serial Poem by Daryl Hine, Downriver: Poems with a prose memoir and a story by M.T. Kelly, and Patient Frame by Steven Heighton
- The Spiritual Subject by Amanda Lim
Books reviewed: Ox by Christopher Patton, More to Keep Us Warm by Jacob Scheier, Riding Backwards on Dragon: A Poet's Journey Through Liuhebafa by Kim Goldberg, I Will Ask for Birds by Kelly Parson, and Duet for Wings and Earth by Barbara Colebrook Peace
- Open Meditations by Karl Jirgens
Books reviewed: The Tapeworm Foundry by Darren Werschler-Henry, Burn by Paul Vermeersch, Chess Pieces by David Solway, and Light-crossing by Michael Redhill
- Voir le visible by Cyril Schreiber
Books reviewed: Le silence est une voie navigable by Catherine Fortin, Les Rives claires by Michel Létourneau, and Lointain écho de la petite histoire by Olivier Labonté
- Literatures, Nations, Regions by Rita De Grandis
Books reviewed: Vol de cendres by François Michel-Durazzo and Jaume Pont, Définitions mayas by Mercedes Roffé and Nelly Roffé, and Utopies américaines au Québec et au Brésil by Lisa Soares de Souza
MLA: Amirthanayagam, Indran. Poets from the Island. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 12 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #194 (Autumn 2007), Visual/Textual Intersections. (pg. 162 - 164)
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