Wednesday, March 12, 2008


By Indran Amirthanayagam
Hanging Loose Press, 2008
Price $16.00 ISBN 978-1931236-82-9

Review by Richard Wilhelm

More than 225,000 human lives were lost on Dec. 26th 2004 when one of the worst tsunamis in history brought destruction to the coastlines of Indonesia, Thailand, the northwestern coast of Malaysia, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives. Even Somalia, Kenya, and Tanzania in eastern Africa felt the effects. The death toll was the equivalent of approximately 52 September 11ths occurring on one day. Sri Lanka lost approximately 35,000. Indran Amirthanayagam’s collection of poems memorializes those lost and gives voice to the survivors of this incomprehensible tragedy in powerful evocative images. In the preface, he writes:
“It was the day after Christmas, Boxing Day, and they were sleepy-eyed, and unaware of the ominous signs, a sea receding revealing hundreds of fish gasping for air, brackish, angry water, and animals scurrying for higher ground, birds flying inland. On the Andaman Islands some people still close to birds and beasts picked up the signals and headed for safety. They were a drop literally in the sea’s bucket.”
He speaks of “the ones who picked up huge fish and dashed for shore delighted at their luck,” not guessing that moments later would come a catastrophe of Biblical proportions. Amirthanayagam, along with bearing witness, cannot help but ask questions as well. In the first poem of the collection, “Face”, he asks:

“How shall we greet
the orphan boy,
the husband whose hand
slipped, children
and wife swept away?


“but what if the ocean
were innocent,
the tectonic plates
innocent, what if God
were innocent?

In “Century” he describes the tsunami as a

an-hour knife
hurtling towards
our island
to gash and gut
the coast, unearth
childhood treasures
and landmines

popped out
for public display
in the silt and mud
the tsunami’s
gift and curse,
instant and forced
for you the survivor
who lives on---

Amirthanayagam documents the sufferings of various individuals and gives them a voice, persons such as Chinnathambi, the body builder who tried to swim with his wife and mother-in-law clinging to his neck until he hit a wall and was knocked unconscious. He woke to find his family lost.

And does he think:
Who will say Dada now?
Who will care for me
when I grow old and cannot
lift a woman with my leg,
or 330 pounds of cement?
My sons and wife
must have thought
my strength would save them;
“King Kong”

In the poem “Bill,” the speaker observes:

“Something strange

is happening to the sea,” a man
shouted. “We are going to die.”
I rushed to the window,
the whole bay had emptied
and shoals of huge fish
were flapping and gasping
on the bed. -----

In “Eyewitness,” Amirthanayagam calls the sea “an angry bugger, sleeping monster, murderer,” but adds:

blind, brutal, blood-
thirsty, but she is
our mother;
we are islanders;
she has fed,
brooded us,
let our boats

come and go,----

Indran Amirthanayagam is a poet and essayist whose first collection of poems “Elephants of Reckoning” won the 1994 Paterson Poetry Prize. He was born in Sri Lanka and is a member of the United States Foreign Service. “The Splintered Face,” his second book published in the US, paints haunting images in well-crafted rhythms. It is a deeply moving book, highly recommended especially for those of us who, unlike the Andaman Islanders, are no longer close to birds and beasts, no longer picking up the signals. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of the book are donated to tsunami relief.

-- Richard Wilhelm

No comments:

Post a Comment