The palmyra palm is revered by the Tamil people of Sri Lanka, where it is known as a celestial tree, a symbol of fertility, every part of which can be used. In Vidyan Ravinthiran’s “The Burnt Palmyra,” one of these trees speaks. Although it has been “burnt,” the tree has survived the savage violence of the Sri Lankan civil war, unlike all “the other ruined trees” along the road where it stands, which were cut down so that their “charred and telltale” condition would not call the world’s attention to manifold war crimes.
Unaccountably, this tree is left to bear witness. It has been stripped of its “crown” of leaves, leaves that were traditionally used to make things both everyday and elevated, from “baskets and hats” to the manuscript scrolls of the ancient Tamil poets “whose works burned, with the library in Jaffna.” Ravinthiran is referring to the destruction of the vast library in the Tamil capital by police and a government-allied mob in 1981. Today, the war is over. In a museum curated by the government, the exhibits try to portray the insurgent Tamil Tiger forces as “a joke.” But the burnt palmyra tells a different story.
Most Americans know little of the brutal Sri Lankan civil war, which raged from the 1980s to 2009, when government forces finally gained a military victory over rebel troops. The war was rooted in a political and religious conflict between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority beginning in the late 1940s. Mass dislocation, suicide bombing, assassination, famine, child soldiers, land mines, summary execution, rape—these were some of the horrors of the conflict. Estimates of civilian deaths, overwhelmingly suffered by the Tamil population, range between 40,000 and 100,000.
Ravinthiran, a poet, literary critic, and Harvard professor, grew up in Leeds, the child of Tamil immigrants to Britain. In “Eelam,” the Tamil name for Sri Lanka, he considers his parents’ justified “belief in perpetual crisis” and their strategy of “playing dead” in order to survive. Will it ever be possible for their son to be “at peace,” to “sleep well and not brood,” and not at the same time “betray my parents and my dead, / discard forever all they did?”
The slant-rhyme couplets of “Eelam” convey not only Ravinthiran’s unease but also his probity and precision, his care and craft as a writer. These are poems of aftermath in which he returns to his parents’ homeland as an observer. He responds to the places and people he encounters with a rhetorical modesty that avoids handwringing and self-display and instead makes for complex sympathies and quiet ironies.
In “Leaving Jaffna,” he takes us to a place run by “war widows” who depend “on no one” but themselves. He puts their cooking before us in words so vivid that we want to taste it, even while he declines to translate the Tamil name for the dish, making it harder for the tourist to consume it. Or, in “Yes,” think of the man cutting open a coconut. Like “The Indian Jugglers” in William Hazlitt’s essay of that title, he demonstrates “skill surmounting difficulty, and beauty / triumphing over skill.” Ravinthiran accomplishes something very similar in these poems.
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