By Thiru Kandiah –
“Exile”, and the Retrieval of Literary Creativity (from [Late-/Post-] Modernist Defeatism) Liebetraut Sarvan’s Be it ever so red….Poems. (Herstellung und Verlag. Books on Demand, Norderstedt. 2013.)
Note: Liebetraut Sarvan is the wife of Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan, formerly of Peradeniya’s English Department.
This essay is some eight years overdue. Liebetraut Sarvan’s superlative collection of poems Be it ever so red… made its public appearance in 2013. It was a very slim volume, a modest 35 brief poems altogether. But even just the visual presentation of the volume was strikingly attractive. The dust jacket of itself delighted the eye, with its designedly contrasting hues of bright (mainly shades of red and yellow and orange edged by faint touches of green, mauve and [a sombre] blue) and light and dark (mainly a bold insistent black seeking to contain the colourful bits even while venturing to interrupt them); also, for the lettering, white, firmly asserting itself against the black, which then tries to retrieve some of its lost ground by arrestingly claiming the lettering on the bright red cover entirely for itself). All of the colours so mindfully, as well as tastefully, poised relative to each other as to guarantee that for all the spatial predominance of the dark colours, the bright and light ones would still more than hold their own in contributing to that delight. One must not judge a book by its cover they say. But in this case, dust jacket and cover did quite attractively point, in a symbolic way, to some of the satisfactions the book would yield. At that stage, though, I was yet to discover the deeper of them, with not even its most intriguing title, an inspired requisitioning for its purposes of the first line of the (untitled) poem that opens the collection, providing adequate clues in that respect, even while at the same time tantalizingly heightening my sense of anticipation.
What I most vividly recall from when I first read the poems themselves was the tremendous impact they made on me, most immediately triggered by both the exquisite beauty and the absorbing power of their writing. Such qualities had very evidently been earned for the writing by the extraordinary skill and sophistication, strikingly distinctive in their nature, with which the poet had put to work the representational resources, primarily those of language, that she had at hand for the pursuit of her artistic purposes, coaxing them, with what struck me as being effortlessly instinctive ease, to bring tangibly alive for us a set of concerns, clearly of vital importance to her, out of which those purposes had shaped themselves.
At a quick initial glance, these concerns seemed to revolve most immediately around a quest by the poet to recover or reconstruct for herself a sense of her own subjectivity or identity, during a rather less settled period of her adult life extending over a considerable number of years, when she found herself removed by her circumstances from so very much of the reassuringly familiar and known that had made her what she was. The quest is carried out in the poems through an ever-unfolding narration of her unwaveringly resolute struggles to make for herself, and live, a life that had true meaning and purpose in the face of challenges raised by a whole ceaselessly varying series of moments, situations, happenings, episodes and so on that had occurred during that time. These moments, situations and so on are explored in the poems in all of their distinct particularities, as they restlessly keep arising, often in disconcertingly unforeseeable fashion; to be met with the poet’s own no less predictable responses to them as they arise, responses which too then quite naturally get absorbed into that exploration.
The exploration itself, while deeply reflective, remains highly personal, even intimate, in its texture, quite uniquely so in fact. At the same time, we are ourselves led by the sheer power of the writing to share, and indeed actively participate, in it with palpable immediacy. As we do so, we find ourselves arriving at ever-growing understandings of what we are presented with; and in what turns out to be an excitingly rewarding manner. As, poem by poem, even often line by line, we make our way through the poet’s journey of exploration alongside her, we find ourselves time and again surprised into seeing the phenomena presented in unexpectedly different ways that cause the horizons of our own understandings of them to be refreshingly extended; and, not just of the phenomena themselves, but also of whole integrated sets of larger issues, themes and motifs that they inherently call up, issues, themes and motifs that are suggestively wide in their range, profoundly deep in their reach and substantially valuable in their import. Extending in their effects vastly beyond the literal confines of the pages on which the words, structures and other representational devices used by the writing are set down, these supply us with a reliable framework of reference by which we might begin to make edifying sense not only of the poet’s own individual experience but also, even as we do so, of the more encompassing human experience it so strikingly re-enacts in its own distinctive way. All of which then leads us to see not just the phenomena presented but also life itself, the human condition they reflect, as we have not quite seen it before; much, of course, to our enrichment. Which, after all, is what we would expect from all good art.
To complete this broad sketch of the picture against which the enlarging claims that have been emerging above with regard to the value and significance of Sarvan’s volume of poetry might truly begin to make sense, I shall need to add one further set of general observations of the kind I have been making above. Expressing rather differently what the Irish dramatist Synge reminded us of a long time ago, the unique power of a work of art derives, after all, not just from abstractly specified virtues, of a “pure”, disembodied, aesthetic sort earned for it by the excellence of its deployment of its artistic resources; but, as much, from out of the distinct time and place, the specific context out of which it most immediately issues, a context defined on the basis of the concrete realities, material and otherwise, that mark it out. In other words, the power of the work derives as much from out of these other very distinct context-embedded particularities on which those resources have, necessarily, been brought to bear as from those resources themselves and their use.
As it turns out, the Dedication page of the volume places us squarely at the very heart of that context, even before we start to read the poems themselves. And that context, we tantalizingly discover, is a context of “exile” in a set of countries very unfamiliar to her. It is under a condition of exile that the poet encountered those moments, events and so on that marked out her personal Odyssey of self-recovery/discovery, something very important to bear in mind in opening ourselves to what the poems have to offer us. What makes that discovery “tantalizing” is the commandingly resonant place that the term “exile” has come to claim for itself, as well as for the many other equally heavily charged terms, such as “displacement”, “severance”, “non-belonging”, “unease”, “exclusion”, “unhousedness”, “deracination”, “migrancy”, “diaspora” and so on that tend to cluster around it, within the consciousness of our (modern, might we add late/post-modern, too?) times; as evidenced with especially striking force in the spheres of literary, indeed all artistic, creativity (as well as, for that matter, its critical discussion).
Many of the results of this development in these artistic spheres have been quite impressive, helping raise all kinds of expectations, considerably of a sanguine kind, of this volume too, which, as we have just seen, itself explicitly invokes the notion of “exile”. Woven into those expectations, though, are a set of concerns of a different, quite disconcerting, sort. For, while it is widely acknowledged that none of the terms just listed in any way signifies a singular, unitary phenomenon, all of these phenomena alike seem, of their inherent nature, to variously call up a familiar range of less-than-propitious states of mind and existence, such as, for instance, deprivation, loss, destabilization, radical uncertainty, insecurity, fragmentation, neither-here-nor-thereness, unrealization, alienation, angst, the dystopian, uncompromising relativism and so on – those assorted disorders of an unwholesome sort that Eliot’s term, “the dissociated sensibility” seemed, in its own insightful way, so appositely to project to. These might well have always been in various ways and to varying degrees part of the realities of human life, existence and experience. The problem, though, is that in our own, (late-/post-?)modern times, these fundamentally negative states have gone on to assume considerable pre-eminence and force; paradoxically as a consequence of the workings of exactly that phenomenon of modernity that defined these times, a modernity that, even as it was so evidently bestowing upon humankind all sorts of very positive benefits across a whole wide range of areas of life and existence, contrived to usher itself at the same time into what calls to be seen as a most unproductive condition of despair or, rather, defeatism, variously and collectively invoking all of those less-than desirable states for the purpose (David Craig, in his essay, “The Defeatism of The Wasteland”, quite a while ago identified that malaise of modernity – or “modernism”, the notion/term favoured by European and Anglo-American literary or artistic professionals).
And, which is what renders all this immediately salient for the account presented in this essay of the volume of poetry under consideration, that is a condition that cannot but work to vitiate, even to the point of extinction, that sense of the affirmative that humankind have always, if difficultly, striven to maintain in the conduct of their affairs; just that sense of the affirmative that, ultimately, gives their lives the meaning that makes them worth pursuing, and that the creative arts have throughout the ages, intuitively or consciously/designedly as the case might be, variously aspired to project and sustain, as, indeed, an important part of their own validation. Which, given the poet’s own overt invocation of exile as the context of her Odyssey, could well cause some disquieting reservations to raise themselves about the volume, reservations that would be rendered all the more unforgiving by the likelihood that that obviously unpromising, even incapacitating, condition of defeat is not simply a fortuitous contingency of the modernity that we (the poet, quite likely the reader, and certainly myself too included) almost taken-for-grantedly tend to operate within; but, worse, an expression of some sort of deep-rooted inadequacy built into it of its very nature by virtue of the historical circumstances of its emergence over the preceding several centuries (initially, under direction primarily from certain specific places [or “centres”] of the “old”, feudal Europe). Which would effectively make that inadequacy and its unpropitious effects virtually impossible to resist – all the more so, given that it tends to operate insidiously, beneath the radar of recognition.
Of course, the large positive claims made about the poems above have already indicated that they have been considerably more than successful in warding off the condition and avoiding its harmful effects; in fact going on, even more noteworthily, to turn the very situation of exile out of which they issue to commendably positive account without at the same time going into denial of its less prepossessing features, and in ways that assign the volume an extraordinary scale of value and significance that carries immensely beyond the expectations that its slimness, and indeed the impeccable modesty of its demeanour in general (so gratifyingly at variance with the vulgar, cultivated exhibitionism of much of present-day public performance in any area of life at all), might understandably lead us to entertain of it. Which, as we might expect, assigns the rest of this essay the task, primarily, of trying to demonstrate the truth of those claims as well as of the accomplishments the volume is asserted to have achieved on their basis.
If, however, that demonstration is to carry any conviction, some of the assertions about modernity and its shortcomings made in the preceding paragraph or two and from which the claims made derive their consequentiality will need to be far more fully elaborated on than they have been above. Moreover, the specific ways in which the poems do successfully address those shortcomings, thus warranting the large claims made for them on that basis, will also need to be shown. Which in turn will require detailed examination of the actual writing in the poems, to concretely display to us the sheer virtuosity of the artistic skills with which the poet puts her linguistic resources to work in creating these poems that, in Toni Morrison’s memorable description of them, are so “stirring in their austere clarity”. And that examination will necessarily entail, too, an account of the superbly imaginative design of what might be termed the overall “architecture” of the volume, that inspired arrangement, grouping and placement of the poems relative to each other that so brilliantly enables the volume, poem by poem, even indeed line by line, to work its way, with its readers as absorbed immediate participants in the experience they help construct, towards what might justly be considered to be as deeply satisfying a resolution of the large human and artistic issues they raise as any we might have hoped for; and one, moreover, that effectively addresses the malaise of modernity identified earlier in ways that assign the volume the significance claimed for it.
These essential tasks require very many more words than a brief commentary of this sort can afford. So I shall leave them for the fuller essay that the volume absolutely demands, in the hope, though, that the positive claims so very generally made for it above might whet readers’ appetite for seeking out for themselves in the volume the treasures these claims promise to them. I have not the least doubt that they will come out of the exercise far richer than they were when they went into it.