The return of the native : an appreciation of Basil Fernando’s poems –Part V - Sri Lanka Guardian

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

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

"We know that no poet of resistance/no activist for the cause of justice is alone in the modern world. Here, Basil assures us clearly that his commitment to poetry is his commitment to reality and justice. Reality for Basil is within the dialectics of contemporary suffering. Suffering is reined by terror. Everywhere it is chained by the complex mechanics of autocratic power."
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By K. G. Sankara Pillai

(October 22, Kerala, Sri Lanka Guardian)Later I translated this poem of Basil into my language Malayalam, which owns with pride the great heritage of Indian Upanishads in Sanskrit, where the Master and the disciple are the two main characters wholly immersed in a holy search for answers to the eternal philosophical questions about life and death. Masters like Bodhi trees filled great space in inner and outer worlds, their answers were brighter then, and the masters were endless spirits of enlightened treasures of wisdom. Subtle threads of this great Oriental tradition are still active in deeper layers of any new Asian narrative searching or addressing the wise about light.

In times of terror and turbulence clarity is a dim light in language. Talking too much is no symptom of knowing too much. Deliberations of the ideologues ignored the virtue of being intellectually honest, clear and authentic. What is even more disturbing is the absence of a genuine searcher who identifies properly the deep disquiet and doubts within. On the contrary Basil produces that rare brand of master and disciple as protagonists in the poem ‘The sea was calm behind your house’. Deep in their selves we can feel the restlessness of a nation and the questions urgent for answers. Questions raised by the most sensible of the youth are seldom answered; only a series of irrelevant responses are supplied. Situations of the absurd and the agony of choice has become a common feature of experience of even the masses. They are more available today at any counter of the ideological explanations of any political party, even compared to the coffee house storms of Euro- centric modernism existentialists of the late fifties in the last century in the third world countries.

New ideologues cease to be an affectionate guide or master. He opts to be a manager of the masses. He/she believes in generalizations. He/she has lost a grip over specificity. Missing clarity, command and authority over the most pivotal and complex issues of the day, new generation leaders have become hollow beings. Gossip and controversies are placed high on the menu card of serve, printed visual media. Many of the poets, ideologues, critics, and scholars are trapped. They serve an impression that they are actively engaged in an important battle of ideas to produce clarity in abundance and to restore the power of resistance against imperialism, casteism, and communalism in the everyday culture of the people in an age of globalization. Or they might have imprisoned themselves in the silent forts of private profits. Or they will be busy in selling fashionable ideas, comics, jokes, and DVDS in a jungle of opposing answers.

Basil’s poem ‘The nation’ is another specimen of deconstructing the traditional idealist construct of the concept of nation.

The nation
Inside
There is only weeping
Outside
Great posturing.
Towards some unknown
Somewhere
We may be moving
Where, we may
Openly weep
Where, on rivers of tears
We fertilize the land
There, new trees may grow
And new watermelons.

We see Basil’s power lashing out in exposing the propagandist peace masks of killer nations; we see the myth of freedom in prison-like nations in many of his writings. We see the thorns of Orthodoxy brought under trial of a new sense of justice.

Words behave like rebels and warriors in Basil’s poems. Poems take the shape of a procession on the march, or the flowing form of a jungle stream telling stories of the dark depths. A tone of moving forward is the phonetic electricity of a Basil-poem. It is reluctant to compromise on issues related to crime committed and justice denied. It is least interested to dance over a fancy cloud chanting abstract metaphysical angst and agonies with an existentialist, or to shrink into a self-centric micro world of emotional chaos. We can’t see Basil as a romantic singing cuckoo in the city parks, self-praising and self-lamenting

Basil Fernando belongs to another breed of poets. Basil is delighted to tell stories. Through those stories he releases the dilemmas of our dreadful time and reveals his priorities in a creative career. Basil believes that the mission of poetry is narrating the nation; narrating the reality; the nation of the poorest majority of the people. His faith is in the ethics of imagination. The idyllic landscape, the nuanced narrative, the resonant image is absent in Basil’s poetry. Using straight and steady masculine linguistic structure in his poems, Basil opts to be a confident narrator of the times he witnesses, and a credible reporter of the cultural roots-spread beneath human relations we are tactfully farming. Basil believes that knowing the hard realities would alarm people. He dislikes allowing sleeping or dead words to ride on the horses of his poems. We see in Basil’s poems a narrator terribly worried over a madly chaotic world. His poems warn us against the speed with which our spiritual/social rivers are drying up. Our lives have become unbearably narrow. We are unaware of the crime we committed and the reason for our arrest. This is a frightening reoccurrence of a typical Kafkaesque situation. Basil’s poetry seeks with urgency the reasons for the unreasoned and rationale for the irrational. Fascism exhibits facts, but hides reality. Fascism announces might, but silences the cry. We can’t see which heavy weights are crushing us in the centre of the roads, in the abyss of time. We are not taught in schools or universities who are fabricating our lives as condemned cells. Basil has sought in his poems to convey the pain and ignorance prevailing in his land, in every land. He has written poems, as critiques of authoritarianism and orthodoxy fighting against the people, to maintain the power they celebrate now.

Friends of Black poetry today are very familiar with the theme of the return to the native land and the vigor poetics of resistance. Profound and far reaching was the impact of Aime Cesaire’s master poem ‘Return to My Native Land’ in the development of a liberatively new sensibility of avant-garde Black poetry. It was the herald. The earliest significant sign of the rise of a great era of socialist poetry of compassion, commitment, and protest in the third world. It was the declaration of the presence of a new humanitarian poetic tradition. A new poetry with nerves of resistance, bones of protest and mind of will to fight for their dear dream of freedom and equality. in that pioneering work of Aime Cesaire return is rediscovery and native land is politico-cultural identity of the Blacks, the negritude. Race is not a sectarian concept. It is used here as the representative of the miserable. That poem is a powerful example of a fiery response to enslavement, injustice, tyranny, and murder. It succeeded in absorbing the aesthetic potential possibilities of surrealist patterns of poetic medium. And it could be a surer proof for the premonition of WB.Yeats, that, “a terrible beauty is born.”

We know that no poet of resistance/no activist for the cause of justice is alone in the modern world. Here, Basil assures us clearly that his commitment to poetry is his commitment to reality and justice. Reality for Basil is within the dialectics of contemporary suffering. Suffering is reined by terror. Everywhere it is chained by the complex mechanics of autocratic power.

Knowingly or unknowingly, Basil joins the trend of making poetry an intellectual myth. Traditions of resistance are different in different great poets of the previous century. Pablo Neruda, Bertolt Brecht, Wole Soyinka, CesarVallejo, Octavio Paz and many of the major poets of the third world have egalitarian values in common. Basil chooses characters, and narrative patterns straight from the memory of his land and language. There is rhyme and rhythm from informal local conversations, images from everyday life, themes from the dark and awesome world of torture and the denial of justice. Projection of meaning for Basil is projection of a contemporary reality, a appeal against the violation of values, human dignity and the rights of his fellow beings. For him the poetic experience is nothing other than/less than the experience of what is historically valid, ethically essential, an experience of a popular form of enlightenment in times of violence and official lies. Poetry is thus posed as the natural counterpart of immoral power. And poetics is the organic loom for resistance against fascist politics. Historical, natural or organic or simple is what is manufactured in bitter complexities, the sociocultural arena of authoritarian power relations.

All his literary moves bring forth an impression that Sri Lanka is the core problematic of Basil’s vision of society, culture and history, of knowledge systems, democratic convictions, and emotional conflicts. His roots are there deep in the Sri Lankan villages, in its rich folk tradition, in the lore and legends of the workers in the paddy fields and tea estates, in the fairytales, mythology and memory of a great culture; in the history of generations of pains in Sri Lanka. In his poetry Basil effectively uses the magic of his meticulous memory of Sri Lankan culture. At the same time he uses myths from other cultures. References of Indian mythology are not rare. Basil has effectively retold the myths of Sambuka and Ekalavya, well known characters from the great Indian epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata. They are recreated in Basil’s poems as penetrating metaphors against the heinous caste system in Hinduism, in India. He uses situations and characters from the epics. Vision and message are from the alternative tradition of spiritual enquiry, subaltern religiosity, and social protest in Indian poetry. The Indian Bhakthi movement was not monolithic and monologic. It was polyphonic and pluralistic. It was either so liberal and lucid or tricky and crazy in order to accommodate both conservatives and radicals under the same roof of the same Gods. Basil is aware of these intricacies of Indian culture. Signs of his emotional and intellectual attachments and questions towards Indian heritage. His affinity to Buddhism is deeply linked to the new philosophical positions he maintains. But they respectively too, are powerful examples for recreating epic situations and ancient characters in the light of a new vision of democratic rights and humanism.

An intimate reader of Basil Fernando’s poetry can authentically define it as a truthful report of a radical scanning of Asian reality of the post-colonial era. Layers of national realities and Asian mythologies are aesthetically interwoven to invoke memory and history to become the texture of Basil’s poetry, blessed with imagination and narrative simplicity. Narrating Nation is Basil’s poetic mission. Straight, sharp, and simple narration is his mode of expression. Nation is always the launching pad for Basil’s poetry to new Asian experiences and the universal human condition. The nation is so centrally placed in the eye-line of Basil’s poetry. As if Sri Lanka is his reading lens: for a clearer vision of the inner structures of crushed memory, hope and human suffering, of the deeper realities and moral dilemmas in an age of degeneration of democracy, in a burning season of torture, of imprisonment, of killings, of disappearances, of denial of justice, of the desert days of the corrupted judiciary, of the polluted politics and the shocking standstills of history in the ethical nothingness of brutal state power. In situations like this Basil is a voice for justice. The space of poetry in contemporary culture is determined. Articulations of the poet in times of agony of everyday social life in a time of ethnic and ethic turmoil and state terrorism is at its peak. Thus Sri Lanka seen here having acquired, an authentic status of this empirical authenticity of Sri Lanka makes it the final destination of Basil’s Odyssey in the depths of tensions of contemporary world history. Sri Lanka is placed so centrally that it gradually becomes the central theme of Basil’s poetic/narrative missions. Beyond this, Sri Lanka has a multitude of representations in Basil’s poetry. Sri Lanka appears there as a recurring metaphor. Nation as a kaleidoscopic source of vision of the present. Direct or indirect use of Nation as metaphor, complex duals of turmoil and terror, chain and pain, beauty and scar, cultural identity and facelessness, fascinating nature and crippling culture, elegance of tradition and elegy of present, in Basil’s poetry. It is an island in blood and suffering, in war and fire, in disorder and despair. No wonder Basil’s poetry keeps always a tone of red alert on. No Sri Lankan has given such an infinite series of spiritual return to his/her land, folklore, against violence in everyday politics, culture, memory and destiny of the people. This is no saga of nostalgia. Not an aesthetic return to the murky soil of the past. Basil knows very well that the murky orthodoxy has an unequalled and devilish pulling power to drown and deform all its worshippers.

Homecoming in Basil’s exile is a concept which can be engineered to various directions of meanings:

It is a coming closer to down to earth realities for clearer scan of the present days.

2. Gaining access to bare facts to authenticate the charges against the governmental power.

3. Entry in to the manipulated news to demythologize and demystify their hidden agenda.

4. To strengthen convictions for constant and alert defence of the peoples’ cause.


Basil’s homecoming is a return to folktales to retell them, a return to epics to reread them, a return to heritage to redefine it. Also it is a reaching up to a reassertion of solidarity to the suffering poor lot of every country; and to a language least ornamental, to a simpler and fresher narrative form and of style in poetry, to the structure of dialogic imagination of the contemporary socialist poetry; to a newer warmth of love, protest, anxiety, trust, hope, and humanness; and finally to a reinforced confidence in self, justice and poetry. It is neither poetry of irrational admiration of the past nor poetry blind condemning the past. An inbuilt urge is predominant in the poetry of Basil for an urgent release from the fascination of the past. Basil knows well that the past is essential for the development of a historic awareness and vision, deeper realms of experience.

To be continued...

Previous Parts: Part One/ Part Two/ Part Three/ Part Four
-Sri Lanka Guardian

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