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

“Nation in Basil’s poems is not conceptualized as a savior angel. Decline, fall, and collapse of the Nation appear in many of Basil’s writings. Notion ceased to be the democratic entity of hope or belief. This fall is portrayed in cool and slow words in the poem ‘The sea was calm behind your house’.”

By K. G. Sankara Pillai

(October 21, Kerala, Sri Lanka Guardian) We see in several poems of Basil Fernando the impurity of the murky crawl of time. The maddening standstill of history in the mud of orthodoxy, as the effect and result of the impure concepts in the conservative tradition and the growing autocratic tendencies of power in the modern states.

The return to that space and time for Basil Fernando’s poems is imbued with several possibilities of interpretation: primarily it is a deep listening to the whispers of the roots, and of the perceptions of the self. Roots and self are constructs of various historical elements and rhythms, including tradition and modernity, science and polity. Listening to the self can be widened to listening to the fears, anxieties and cries of the time, listening to the truths of time. It is also a judicious hearing of the cases of criminal offences against innocent fellow beings.

Basil’s poetry altogether gives us the design and definition of poetry in times of turbulence. Basil’s poems are not obscure. Crystal clear meaning, feeling, awareness and vision, are at the bottom of the words of Basil Fernando. His poems have a habit of revealing their own origins. They are children of a turbulent time, the violent situation, demonically challenged human dignity, freedom, and culture, in the history of modern Sri Lanka. They are poems destined to perform a central role of a critique of powers of deceptive legislature, executive, judiciary, and orthodox culture of the ruling class, and the defender of the resisting culture. To perform it perfectly they go back to history and the heritage of people’s art and folk culture, to the depths of the disquiet arena of national reality. They rediscover and bring back high potential tales from folk and fairy narratives, and reactivate them with an authentic analysis of the everyday experience of the people. This makes them fit to be effective technologies of expressions in the poetic art of an age of violence and chaos. Simplicity of language and transparent charm of narrative patterns of the folk tradition have an added political dimension in poetic communication. The source of a host of images, characters, and references in Basil’s poetry also is folklore, fables, and classical literature, mainly from Sri Lanka and India (he sees no borders in traditions of culture and creativity). References to the past carrying with it the implicit awareness of the caste system, racial question, fascism, consumerism, oppressions, denial of rights and justice and the turbulent present, explore the possibilities of keeping the poem alert and sharp.

Thus we can have a series of dimensions of the creative habit of a return to the native land recurring in Basil’s poems. It is clear that Basil’s orbit is his homeland in which he tries to reach the mysterious universe of human suffering. He explores similarities of this bitterness in the past to trace the route of the river of pain in history flooded with blood. Basil’s poems are always reassertion of the fact that the real reasons for human suffering is not fate, divine or metaphysical, but it is the merciless social network of the economic, political and historical capital and its manipulators. Basil’s return to native reality in another sense is to recharge the self- confidence that another world of values and justice is possible, and that identity and creativity is an ascent to a vision of contemporary history. He never plays the lyre of melancholy or nostalgia. Leaving no space for ambiguity or speculation, in one of the title poems of this new collection, ‘The song of the bird of the Chinese house’ Basil makes his vision of the past clear.

The poet asked the singing morning bird of the Chinese house:

“Are you talking about a lost forest?”

The bird’s answer is bold and straight:

“You know nothing
We are singing the song of our city
not the song of the past”.

They are singing the new, the present, the rough and tough and the bitter incomings of the day. No chanting of nostalgia. It is not a lonely bird. Hundreds of birds join her to make their morning musical and hopeful, their expression willful, with liberatative alertness. The bird is quite confident about the non-nostalgic orientation and substance of its song. This bird can be heard in several poems of Basil Fernando. The bird is a loud metaphor signifying the essential concern for the present in Basil’s poems. In the poem Oh, you miserable pen pusher’ I saw this bird deeply engaged in a trial of the writers of the esoteric circle as concluding the trial as follows:

You rotting pen pusher
look in the mirror and smile
- In the mirror you will see
something worse than death.

Nation in Basil’s poems is not conceptualized as a savior angel. Decline, fall, and collapse of the Nation appear in many of Basil’s writings. Notion ceased to be the democratic entity of hope or belief. This fall is portrayed in cool and slow words in the poem ‘The sea was calm behind your house’.

Nation has gone mad, says the poet. A child/disciple went to his master’s house. It was a pilgrimage in search of peace, in search of clarity and answers. It was in a day in July 1983. The ever restless sea was calm behind the master’s house. Greetings as usual were there. Sharing of deeper times as usual was there. An unhappy presence of something strange and awful was thickening the air. The Nation was restless. Everybody knew that something had gone wrong Cheerful beliefs are shattered. Relations are broken. Fate and Gods turned hostile. Unfolding of the unknown had started. Host and guest were tense, breathing in measured silence. No magic of wisdom of the master was sufficient or able to tranquilize the maddening waves inside the mind of the new generation child. Rhythm of that relation met its end there.

I felt it as the silent and lonely burial of expectations of a Nation. I felt I was looking into the heart of a vanishing light. The land was grey. No reverberation of the whistle of the wind from the sea. In between the master and the child silence stood like a third man in a transparent mantle. I saw the desert stretching its vast barren chest above the frozen waves of the sea, filled with inviolable voice. Silence brought fear. Fear from the past and fear of the future. Fear from the land and fear from the strangely calm sea. Fear from wisdom and fear from ignorance. I remember certain lines of T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’ came to my mind when I read this poem for the first time:

I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

To be continued....
Previous Parts: Part One / Part Two/ Part Three
-Sri Lanka Guardian