Full Disclosure: This book was recommended to me by a pal before Forward came about. Nice to have a good reason to review it.
Review: The phrase ‘Grun-tu-molani’ is explained by the book’s epigraph, a passage from Saul Bellow’s 1959 novel Henderson the Rain King, and means ‘I want to live’. The context seems fairly complicated and tied up with western privilege and should probably be investigated by someone who has read the novel. Anyway, if we take Henderson’s excited, life-affirming outburst at face value, it largely matches the register of Ravinthiran’s first collection, a wild, unpretentious, occasionally misstepping but thoroughly pleasurable book.
Indeed, if Ravinthiran has a dramatic flaw™, it might be his drive to include everything, to speak quickly and incisively then move on. In several pieces, like ‘A Chair Addresses Jackie Chan’, ‘Fallout 3’ (a personal favourite), some excellent translations ‘from the Puranaru’ and the required-reading ‘The Zany White Poet (after Benjamin Zephaniah)’ (‘so liberated / from history’), this impulse for sounding out the odd and wonderful gives the collection a sense of urgency, a diary-style thought-recording that many poets attempt and few accomplish; in his acknowledgements Ravinthiran thanks Leontia Flynn for her editing, and the poets’ affinities are clear to see. Not all of these set pieces hit their marks, however. ‘The Lecture’, in which Ravinthiran figures his students as assorted birds – e.g. ‘the owl thought he knew better’ – feels a little condescending; the speaker is figured as human rather than (for instance) adult bird, and the closing line, ‘but it was time to fly. I threw the windows open,’ is a shade to the wrong side of patronising. Similarly, the ambitious ‘Anti-circ’ is a little unclear in its message. The title refers to being anti-circumcision (for which the poem suggests we read ‘anti-Semitic’), and begins with an epigraph from Nabokov, ‘we are vertebrates tipped at the head with a divine flame’. The poem itself is a series of responses to various writers, starting with Nabokov, who campaigned against anti-Semitism, ‘Once I cracked Lolita’s spine I found myself knee-deep in cheesecake / my not-quite-fist unclenched, disclosed a wet cluster of blackberries’, and finishing with John Updike (who Bellow once described as ‘an anti-Semitic pornographer’) and Enoch Powell:
Updike’s prose flaunted the revealed
cleanliness of a girl’s arse, its well-briefed sway up the stairs ahead;
and when I called up from the stacks Enoch Powell’s uncut First Poems
her skilled tongue agitated my thankfully intact frenulum.
The poem seems to run in two threads: each writer’s anti-Semitism and the reader’s pleasure; as the former intensifies the latter tends towards sexual exploitation, highlighting the sexual location of hatred in the poem’s title. The poem might well be drawing attention to the links between two kinds of oppression, but this remains in the subtext. I absolutely believe that ‘Anti-circ’ has nothing but good intentions, but the poem slightly muddles an issue of some gravity, and in its last lines falls into the trap of presenting rather than challenging oppression.
The long poem, ‘Sigiriya’, is a much deeper and more complex quest into the roots of male power-hunger. Sigiriya, as the book’s notes explain, is a rock-fortress in central Sri Lanka, about a hundred miles from Colombo, which was once home to King Kasyapa, the poem’s main character, in the 5th century CE. Alternating between third- and first-person narrative, the poem relates the king’s homicidal megalomania, ‘Perhaps Sigiriya was no fortress […] but his try at a separate state, / a state of one, just one just man,’ his eventual overthrow by his brother and the rock’s contemporary status as tourist attraction. In Ravinthiran’s hands the story gains traction in its discussion of familial expectation and the search for home, albeit inflated to vainglorious proportions. The most impressive feature of the poem, one reflected throughout the collection, is the poet’s ability to manage its tone, to deploy the precisely humanising line that brings its heterogenous tendencies back to shared emotional ground. Hence Kasyapa’s acceptance that ‘When I went down to fight from my red rock, I could have been Wilde, / finding it harder and harder to live up to his blue china.’ The poem’s final section, printed in italics to signal its divergence from the main plot, has an English archaeologist ‘discover’ the site in 1895, ‘led, he admits, / by a ‘brave Sinhalese lad’ // who had the nerve / to precede / the archaeologist.’ The cycle of imperial hierarchy starts again.
Another sequence, ‘Foreign Bodies’, explores the poet’s own family history, telling the stories of ‘Rajes’, ‘Kuthimama’, himself and his parents. These poems thoughtfully relate the violence and injustice that each family member has experienced: Rajes’ suicide amongst talk of her ‘adulterous body’; Kuthimama’s life as a doctor in Trinco, where ‘they said he stitched up men he should have turned away’; as the poet reads a letter rejecting his poetry as ‘just another ethnic ort’, he notices racist graffiti on the bathroom wall, graffiti which he in turn admires for its ‘craftsmanship, / painstaking, light-years beyond your token / swastika in wobbly biro or felt-tip… / Yes, how I relished each letter of rejection!’ The poem’s closing section has a beautifully conceived vision of the poet’s mother being ‘driven through every council estate the BNP // exploits, speak, love-fluskering, to the people / from your own Pope-mobile,’ a figure of pure, innocent positivity:
when you first came to this country
the snow you’d never seen before went on for weeks.
As kids gurn at sprouts, you must have gawped with joy
at that strange white – till your face got fixed that way.
Not for the first time in Grun-tu-molani, rejection is countered with acceptance.
Few of Ravinthiran’s symbols appear more than once, and snow is perhaps the most obvious. The poem ‘Snow’ (a significant title for Flynn and MacNeice fans, and MacNeice’s poem is at the heart of this one) is a stunning piece of imaginative acrobatics, connecting snow’s mutable nature to the importance of emotional sensitivity and flexibility: ‘Sure the anchors call it treacherous / but I’ve met it down dark alleys all my life’, ‘The difference between snow and water is / the difference between dialectic and a kiss, / between a birth certificate and spare change’, ‘white shapes of breath that want, like the smoke / from a cigarette, or the super-slow-mo ripples / of a cube of gelatine bounced off tile, to be / the drapes and folds of statuary’. Wow. ‘Snow’ conveys its meaning but is not easily explained, and, in its demonstration of what a writer engrossed in and given over to their symbol can do, is one of the collection’s great pleasures, and this poem might well be at the heart of the collection’s understanding of the world. careful and various and too much to be simply comprehended; the book’s success comes from its productive engagement with the attempt.
Tl;dr: Grun-tu-molani reveals more of its odd, bold and generous perspectives with each reading. Though some of its poems don’t quite offer up their ideas or fumble the attempt, the collection is full of energy, wit and sensitivity, and is very much worth reading.