The return of the native : an appreciation of Basil Fernando’s poems –Part III

Links: Part One | Part Two

By K. G. Sankara Pillai

(October 20, Kerala, Sri Lanka Guardian) I think this is the entry point of Basil Fernando’s poems into the history of culture. Basil asks himself in his poem on the rivers originating in childhood and school texts: What am I? What is my motherland? We are tempted to go for the various meanings and suggestions of nature, of the rivers, lives, and mountains. We know that these are questions with the knowledge of time’s sadness in a poet’s heart, more than doubts about self-estrangement or angst or skepticism. More than existential agony these questions convey the tragically uncertain predicament of society and democracy.

Poetry has to keep a tone of intimacy at every turning point of its change to a new mode of writing. Concepts of the language of poetry, by the time of Basil’s poems, have been transformed thoroughly. It became more and more unromantic and colloquial. Traditional prosody was a product of feudal culture. We can see the reflections of the vision of a God-centric universe in the depths of the metrical forms of yesterday’s poems. This may be an attempt to keep the discipline of poetic culture in its traditional orbit. This may be a resistance; also, an attempt to focus against the ‘anarchic’ drive inherent in a culture to decentralize, a natural tendency in creativity to disobey the centre. The conventional meters had its physical limitations to hold the troublesome burden of a heavily complex and violent present, where culture has outgrown all traditional tracks of discipline. Time is the form. As we often see childhood and old age holds its respective time forms. Forms of yesterday are tragically inept in holding up the content of the new age. This is the law of the necessity of new form in life and culture. Apart from this we should notice that conventional poetical forms had oppressive pressures from religious and political revivalists to bear the grave weights of the dead past and its extinct customs and faith patterns. Change of form in poetry from metrical patterns to free verse, and from free verse to a liberated medium of lively and lovely dialogic prose, is a very natural sequence of change in poetic form and rhythm. The mode of imagination has also to undergo drastic transformation from the pensive imagination of the lyrical tradition of the self-centric romantic age, to the dialogic imagination of the dynamically alert days of socio-centric third world modernism. Confronting, sorting out, and transcending the complex realities of the neocolonial world are the basic mission of this new aesthetics of resistance. It demystifies and deconstructs the current mythologies of power; diagnoses the crisis of democracy, and releases people from the dungeons of fashionable superstitions and garden fresh slavery in consumerism, revivalism, tradition and from the juicy temptations of the new world order. I consider this liberation of language from the autocratic clutches of orthodoxy as one of the most significant creative achievements of the new literatures and the great liberative struggles of the new age, where creativity is in search of the possibility of the experience of justice as theme and vision. Justice narrates a unity of virtues, portrays a socio-spiritual strength of culture, and nourishes a love for life and integrity of the individual. Words and images are there in a poem to celebrate it.

Poetry we attend to here is not a play with words or a gymnastic display with the existentialist jargon of the absurd. In Basil’s writing there is a reminding, revisiting, and revaluing the reasons to live and love life on earth. Whether it is a point of justice inherent in relations with father and son, Guru and disciple, judge and lawyer, accused and convicted, she and he, laws of nature and laws of country, torturer and the victim, old and new, land and land, city and city, writing is a reminder to read other dimensions in the mountain of time. Writing for Basil is a reassertion of the need to learn that the growth rate of the wages of repression today is in geometrical progression, and is causing carnage of a strange kind in the psyche. Seeking a way out of the challenging contemporary puzzles is the leading stream of meaning in many of Basil’s poems. Relevance of his quest for justice and equality is not bound to Sri Lanka alone; not to eco-politics or human rights or justice alone. It is all embracing.

Let us return to Basil’s river image. River is a universal metaphor which enabled poets to articulate their varied experiences and revelations throughout the history of world poetry. What flows in the rivers in poetry is the meaning and mystery of time. The poets are many and their traditions and times are different. But the river is there from time immemorial to the present and on into the future. It is just like the ever present river in the novel Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. Or it is as deep and mysterious as the river in the story The Third Bank of the River by the Latin American writer Rosa, which evokes rarer and deeper dimensions of fluency and stillness in human existence. A river can easily show life lived and unlived. It takes us to the secret chambers of venom and nectar in the magical hood of time. River has the imagined key to open the secret doors of times past and time present. Rivers in poetry can flow through all levels of cultures and minds. Like the veins of nature they convey a deeper sense, clearer reflection, and brighter vision. As symbols, rivers, the earliest vehicles of complex meanings, are ever active within the ups and downs of the art of poetry. In the classical Shaivites’ symbolism of the Indian metaphysical poetry, the river is a symbol of the mortal being, traveling to the omnipotent ocean - the God - for an infinite and immortal communion with the God. Similar concepts of river are present in the ancient texts of various other religious groups of India. River is a perennial journey into the realization/death or beyond, for most of them. Rivers, as lifesaving arteries of nature were worshipped as gods/goddesses in the thousand year long agricultural heritage of the Indians. Volga, Don, Danube, Yangtze, Colorado, and many other rivers had the opportunity to be treated as courageous comrades of revolution by the socialist poets of Russia, China, Cuba, Chile, Nigeria, Germany and others. Langston Hughes, the celebrated American Negro poet, in his poem ‘The Negro speaks of Rivers’ articulates a unique mode of identification with the rivers:

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went
Down to New Orleans, and I have seen its muddy bosom
Turn all gold in the sunset...

Rivers are great energizers and composers of cultural identity. Riverbanks are the cool habitats of generations of forefathers, slaves and prisoners. Rivers are portrayed and preserved as the eternal reservoirs of memories of the Negro poet and of the dim and bright heritage of his race: labor, lynching, pain, chains, silence, dream and struggle for liberation. A brilliance of awakening is the beauty of the word of the Negro poet; particularly of the post-Aime Cesaire Negro/post-Fanon Negro poet. In the Black sagas of love and revolt for freedom and dignity, great cultural heritages are intertwined in the clear flow of the river. Depth of his word is very near to any reader since that flow of experience is a combination of resistance and justice; meipory and hope.

“The river sweats oil and tar,” was the impurity T. S. Eliot saw in the Thames after the First World War, in 1922, in the dry days of Euro- centric industrial modernism. It was the fearful interval of two World Wars. It urges the grave need of a giant cultural refinery to keep the flow of time pure, deep, clear, and worthy in an age of stress, split, and confusion. Impurity of the river is the impurity of the modern times and its civilization on the move. Eliot returns to the lofty voices of the great metaphysical poets of the east and past and sees the falling down of the bridges on the way from modernity to tradition. He calls it the London Bridge. But it is more than colonial confidence. Naturally Eliot rests back in the midst of a heap of broken images, waiting for the song of the water. He was convinced by his situations to wait for an escape from the bitter and negative essence of his time, the vastitude of waste land and waste water. The sonnets of pure river free from oil and tar. Unfortunately the army of impurity was attaining monstrous growth in the post- colonial world.

Basil’s poems use the river image to reflect the true moods of history in various contexts of hatred and state terror. Rainwater is mixed with blood and tears in all the rivers. Water is contaminated, flow is maddened, and the charm of civilizations on the river valleys is lost. Mystery of the mountains and nature vanish along with the purity of the waters.

(Professor KG Sankara Pillai is one of India’s best known contemporary poets. His writing in Malayalam has been translated into many Indian languages, as well as Chinese, French, German, English and Sinhala.)
-Sri Lanka Guardian