Not at all barren

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Nisansala Dharmasena Bertholameuze’s My Womb, A Barren Land is an intriguing collection of poetry that resonated in my heart as a woman as well as a fellow human being. I find the book to be quite unique as the poet has made an attempt to illustrate key moments of her poetry pictographically as well. The accompanying paintings enrich the reading experience by providing reference points to the reader. Some of the dominant and recurring themes of the collection are; memory, forgetting, journey, war, brokenness, home, identity, intolerance, meeting, and parting.

Memory and forgetting

In A Box Full of Memories Nisansala explores the idea of memory, the dominant theme of the collection. While cleaning her house she comes across a boxful of things she has collected over the time and probably forgotten. After exploring the content of the box, the poetic persona asks a question I too often ask myself after going through my own numerous boxfuls of memories both literal and metaphorical.

Why do we keep such triggers of memories?

Is it for the memories long gone?

Recalled by time

Or is it for the feeling of being loved?

Once cherished

By family

Friends

Lovers

Even strangers  

Similarly, in Did You Preserve Your Memories of Me? the poetic persona confesses that she used to press flowers given to her by her lovers as, “Keepsakes to be looked upon many a time,” So that she could, “Feel if the delicate fragrance is still there.”  She asks the reader whether there wasn’t a similarity between the preservation of flowers and memories.

Aren’t memories the same?

Pressed

Preserved

And looked upon

Many a time

 She acknowledges that memories could be a dark place to be and that, “Even knowing this we still preserve the memories of bygone days.” The poem ends with the seemingly passing question, “Did you preserve your memories of me?” However, I feel that the entire purpose of the poem is getting an answer to that seemingly rhetorical question.  

In Forgotten Lands the devastating realisation that one day we all will be forgotten is explored. People we forget are compared to lost languages of which, “No words are ever spoken …again.”

The topless braless greenish women with red flowers in their hair in As We Weep too weep, “Over memories written over memories,” and, “Bodies held and untouched,” due to the, “Utter isolation of their soul.”

In Sheets of Memories, the first poem of the collection, the poet introduces the metaphor of weaving to illustrate the process of storing memories. The woman as a weaver of memories is an age-old metaphor. Poets such as Emily Bronte, Thomas Hardy, Christina Rossetti, and Emily Dickinson have written extensively on the process of making, preserving, and letting go of memories. However, the female in the poem referred to as ‘she’ is traumatised by her memories. 

Ultimately, she decides to hang herself. For that she uses a rope, “Made of sheets of memories.” The tree on which she is going to hang herself has some emotional associations; it was where, “She played house with her former self once,” and for that moment found, “Bliss.” Reality intrudes, “Real playhouse was spilling out from all corners and nooks.” So, she decides to end her life where she was the happiest. Still, it was not easy to take the final step. “She looked at the noose for a while.

A long while.” Then she saw even the memories abandoning her. At that moment, she hangs herself. In a parallel sphere, her younger self finds her still hanging from the tree, “Feet swaying in the wind.” Here, using a euphemistic synecdoche the poet illustrates the pathos experienced by the younger self at seeing the end of her older self. The only thing she could do to restore some dignity to the ravaged life she is yet to experience is repair the, “Chipped nail polish.” The foreshadowing of the inevitable cycle the younger self, too, about to experience generates within the readers’ mind a profound sense of sadness.

Journey

In An Island of a Man the female poetic persona is on a pilgrimage to, “Reach a certain island of a man.” The poet seems to be playing with the now-famous quote, “No man is an island,” from one of John Donne’s sermons. The man, “Like an island,” offers, “Migrant birds,” a momentary refuge. The poetic persona, however, wants to make the island her permanent abode; she wants to give the man-island serenity and receive serenity in return. But the journey is taking a long time.

So she travelled till seven clocks are torn apart

Till seven walking sticks turn to dust

So, the question the poet seems to be leaving with the reader is whether such pilgrimages are going to be ultimately fruitless.

Life as a journey and the importance of learning to let go gracefully is illustrated in Stories Written on Leaves. The poet charts the brief course of a leaf from spring to summer. When their time comes leaves fall;

Never hanging on

Nor complaining of the too short life

They just let go so that they could;

Pass by breath

To the next generation of leaves

The poet feels that the human heart that, “Hang on with lust and desire,” Should learn the art of, “Majestic … bravery of letting go,” From a leaf. 

War  

Through the short poem, Through the Rubble of History the poet offers a somewhat apocalyptic vision of a world gone mad. She repeatedly uses paradoxical phrases such as ‘government’s anarchy’ and ‘flames of post-war peace’ to illustrate her vision of the status quo.

In 1989 the poet explores a traumatic personal experience during the infamous Youth Uprising of 1989-90. The need to move on with life despite the tragic nature of one’s experiences is illustrated by the poetic persona tentatively attempting to cross the river making use of the, “Broken wooden bridge,” that rocked, “With the weight and the wind.” However, in the attempt to cross the small child sees dead fish floating in the water which is being compared to the bodies of the dead insurgents thrown into rivers never to return home.    

Brokenness

In My Soul, A Bombed Building the poetic persona stands outside herself and observes the meaningless hurt her soul had been subjected to which had left it resembling, “A bombed,” or, “Ramshackle building,” which “Stands with bits and pieces missing,” or “The ruins of war.” The soul/site of devastation still carries within its, “Memories of not long ago.” What kind of memories are they? Little by little the shattered soul, “Drifts away into the valley of sorrow.” This again is a poem that touched the deepest part of my heart.  

Home and identity

In Sentimental Pieces the poet explores what constitutes her as a being. She sees herself as a celestial being that has lost her, “Sense of proportion,” and become a sentimental piece.

In If You Flip through the Pages of Me the poet presents the first person poetic persona as an old book. The poetic person stands outside her book-self and sees someone reading the crumbling pages of the book of her life and observes the way the experience affects him/her. However, the ultimate reason for reading the book for the reader is to find the pages containing the chapter that involved him/her.   

The poet finally reveals the secret behind her partiality to green in No.16. The poetic persona had been forced to leave a beloved home. Though she had said goodbye to other homes previously saying goodbye to No.16 was difficult as it was, “A happy place”. Yet, inevitably;

Darkness crept in

Darkness always had a way of creeping in

So, each one of the family members went around their home on a little pilgrimage saying goodbye to, “Walls vibrating with memories.” In the end, the poetic persona was the last to leave locking the gate behind her. In her hand she carried;

A pail turned to colour green

As if too sad to leave behind even a single shade of memory

In Unmarked Graves in Unmarked Cemeteries the first-person poetic persona comes to the realisation that she is the end product of her, “Ancestors dying,” – something positive born out of the inevitable. The accompanying painting depicts a cemetery on a hillside. The poetic persona is climbing the green-dark hill lit by the light of hundreds of fireflies or stars looking upwards at the lighter-coloured sky. The simple dress, like in the previous paintings, is life-affirming red and the woman’s unbound hair waves in the breeze.

Intolerance of differences

He Arrives Sharp at Nine with its accompanying painting of a sinister looking man who according to the poetic persona looked like, “The Hunchback in Notre-Dame,” seems to be about intolerance of what is termed, “Deviant” by society. The poet suffers loss of the, “Imperfections” that gives this world its various colours and shapes at the hands of the, “Censorship man”.      

Meeting and parting     

Two Hundred and Twelve Bones with its haunting illustration is about giving up someone the poetic persona loved who has found someone new to love. In the first three lines the poet offers a shattering metaphor of the poetic persona being imprisoned in her own body.

I live in a house made of ghosts and memories

Two hundred and twelve bones

And a cracked rib cage

Old Pier by the River too deals with a long ago parting. The poetic persona is revisiting the old pier by the river where she used to meet her beloved only to find the landscape changed beyond recognition. She sees a similarity between, “The old ruins of memories,” and abandoned site that is slowly being reclaimed by nature. The change has been a result of war that has left a, “Ruined,” “Bombarded world,” behind it. Still, poetic persona feels that the souls who used to, “Breath in the river air” are floating into the place;

As if to greet their own memories

Through worlds of time and compare      

As Darkness Descended takes the reader through a failed suicide attempt in which the poetic persona sees dying as descending into, “Bliss of nothing,” which she compares to, “A stone thrown to silent lake,” The act creates ripples on the surface while the stone itself finds peace at the bottom sheltered from the trials and tribulations of the surface life. However, the poetic persona gives into the whisper of life it seems.

All in all, there is nothing even remotely barren about Nisansala’s poetic womb. Contrary to the ominous sounding title, her imaginative soul shared with me some of the resonating themes and original metaphors I have read in a while.           

By Anupama Godakanda