Amali Rodrigo, Lotus Gatherers,(Bloodaxe Books, £9.95).
The blurb to Amali Rodrigo’s first collection, Lotus Gatherers, comments ‘the lotus flower embodies the promise of purity and transcendence because it rises clear out of the muddy mire of its origins. It represents both abstract realms and the concrete phenomenal world. The lotus root is also an aphrodisiac.’ In Greek mythology, the lotus is associated with the dreamy apathy of the tribe of lotus eaters met by Odysseus in the Odyssey. There is sometimes a dreamy quality to some of Rodrigo’s writing, but it is never apathetic. What it is, though, is often sinuous and dense.
The poem, ‘The Bell is always Ringing, for example, is forty five lines long, and consists of three sentences, the first of which is thirty four lines long. The lines are quite short, but, it might be contended, they need to be. This poem is characteristic of some of Rodrigo’s method, which is to take an idea and then work it out, almost centripetally. Thus the first ten lines or so of this poem are as follows, ‘If, to hear is a long/ gathering’s interruption/ of this this this – / not tongling bronze, not the iron cast heft/ of a house, not a zhong bell’s two/ exact tones, but perhaps like/ someone caught/ in a small act of love,/ or the trace of a day he held/ a hint of at the far end/ of a hallway, she, panicking/ out of sight in a blur/ of bridal white,/ and how smug/ they were of reflex/ superstitions:’ This is one long conditional clause, which finishes with a colon and then is not followed by a main clause. The writing begins with the suggestion that ‘to hear’ is an interruption of something which it is not, the sound of a bell, which itself is not the sound of a house, but it is ‘perhaps’ a trace of a hint of a female persona who is out of sight in a blur of ‘bridal white’ with a smug sense of ‘reflex superstitions’. To paraphrase the lines in this way is to risk parody, of course. And to pick out such lines when the whole book is clearly more disparate is to risk sending up Rodrigo’s whole project. But there is an element of risk in this book which Rodrigo does not always quash.
Elsewhere, and to my mind, more successfully, Rodrigo focuses more fully on things as opposed to ideas. ‘Ossuary’, for example begins with a lovely, atmospheric description of the passage of time in the ossuary, ‘One bone fell upon another/ as a loved body deranged,/ femur to humerus, mandible/ to radius, to lie apart from faint/ quakes of loincloth spill, tinsel/ voices gone inside out, as if/ small hands of ash dropped/ through skin into salt longings.’ Here those lovely images of ‘loincloth spill’ and ‘small hands of ash’ are, firstly, earned within the syntax, and, secondly, deftly placed within a narrative which is both evocative and moving.
The central section of the book is ‘from Aftersongs’ which are short, haiku-like poems ‘based’ on graffiti written contemporaneously on the walls of a fifth century pleasure palace built in Sri Lanka. The poems, addressed to the women in the palace, are sensuously and warmly rendered by Rodrigo. And, while they are (perhaps) the graffiti of men writing about the women, Rodrigo’s poems are a lively recognition of the sense of desire between the sexes. One such is, ‘The man whose lust is rewarded/ by this gold-skinned girl – isn’t he as one/ who, having warmed himself by the fire, lays down his head in it?’ Another, even shorter goes, ‘Cast among glowing coals, / gold too shall melt.’ In these poems, there is a neat, clear focus which Rodrigo uses with considerable aplomb to depict not ‘the war between the sexes’, but both the dangers and the rewards of such desire.