Six Poems


The Burnt Palmyra

They felled the other charred and telltale trunks
turned black from brown and missing their crown of leaves
used to make baskets and hats,
and as paper by the ancient poets
whose works burned, with the library in Jaffna;
those leaves made, too, into umbrellas
which may be why when the shells came down
on these now cratered, lunar badlands
innocents hid beneath my boughs,
hoping bombs might bounce off like rain …
So why is it those who took an axe
to all the other ruined trees that would
remember their crimes to the world
left me and me alone standing,
the voiceless lingam you drive past down
the tank-ruined road to the war museum
with its spalled propeller and piffling,
homemade submarines—arranged
to paint the Tigers as a joke
—where a troop of monkeys with a crash of leaves
leap along rusted, bathetic bulkheads
drooping apart in slices like carved meat?

Hillside temple

Schoolgirls in white blouses and with long, blue-black braids
stream down the road alive,
once, with dappled, leaping deer

—before they were shot by soldiers
like this bloke in his lucent boots
swaggering past the artillery centre

whose mural reads: “when the going gets tough,
the tough get going …” Fancying himself
an action hero walking in slow-motion

away from a coolly disregarded explosion
he leads the eye past the bars that keep
suicidal couples from Lovers’ Leap,

where the sea’s brilliant, soft-hard tremor
flashes a code through the boulder it’s said
Ravana slashed with his sword.

The last train

to arrive in Jaffna
during the war
30 years ago
on the tracks

the unimaginable
touch of time

has turned it
the colour, exactly
of this land’s ferrous soil
—of blood that is

four men round a fire
purple smoke slants
form the bier

Leaving Jaffna

everyone prays
at the Murugan kovil. A thumb
paints your brow
with thiruneeru,
sandalwood paste.

Later, you find yourself
sat on a
concrete block
at a table of concrete.
The place war widows run,
depending on no one:

dhal, rice, bangles
of cuttlefish
afloat in bronze
—wild chicken,
more bone than meat.


“it is skill surmounting difficulty, and beauty
triumphing over skill.” The fluent


into xanthous
exocarp, the blade

corner levering
a divot out—hole

for a straw—suck and suck
then give the king

coconut back: with a stroke
it’s halved,

he hews
of its side a rudimentary

spoon to scrape
out the white flesh with

like uncooked squid.


If my parents were, are, nervy,
camouflaged against carnivory;

if, at day’s end, their choice is
a belief in perpetual crisis;

if this autotomy and playing dead
(a jettisoned tail, ink squirted)

is the only language they
felt it safe to bequeath;

then, to smile today
with unclenched teeth,

to sleep well and not brood—an ingrate—
over trivially frictive grit

till the pearl of nightmare is fished;
to be at peace—wouldn’t this

betray my parents and my dead,
discard forever all they did?

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Vidyan Ravinthiran is a poet and literary critic. His most recent collection, The Million-Petalled Flower of Being Here, was shortlisted for both the Forward and the T.S. Eliot prizes. He teaches at Harvard University.


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up