February 2008

Jennifer Garfield


The Splintered Face: Tsunami Poems by Indran Amirthanayagam

"I find it hard to write even today about this tremendous beast," writes Indran Amirthanayagam in the preface to his latest book titled The Splintered Face: Tsunami Poems. Though it would be grueling for anyone to write about the tragedy of the 2004 tsunami without spectacle, it is particularly thorny for a poet to watch his birth country destroyed from his safe home in Rockville, Maryland. This status, coupled with Amirthanayagam's membership with the United States Foreign Service, provides for a rare, far-from exhaustive take on local and global reactions. Yet despite the distance (and contingent guilt), Amirthanayagam's poems achieve a devastating intimacy that necessarily dissolves the separation between countries and peoples.

With confidential lyricism and sorrow, Amirthanayagam asks the reader to relive with him that which he has never lived. From his dry perch, he bears witness to the tourists, fishermen, waiters and husband left behind, their voices unguarded and bewildered. As expected, each asks the fundamental questions of faith in the face of natural disaster. Yet his speakers are more vivid and heartbreaking than mere characters or projected vehicles for his own emotional discourse, and his poems go beyond the headlines to distill the cruel, calculated aftermath of tragedy as survivors continue running to higher ground. They quietly demand, "How shall we greet/the orphan boy,/ the husband whose hand/ slipped, children,/ and wife swept away?"

With this collection, his second published in the United States, Amirthanayagam has pledged to "write back his country's face" through the impossibility of moving forward. There is a burning need to write these poems, even as journalists and poets everywhere are "writing endlessly" about the tsunami, even though their words can't answer the questions, can't unsalt the wells or rebuild the houses brick by brick. Amirthanayagam's imitable language, however, still reminds us of the enduring power of empathy and the dark recognition of survivor's luck. Anywhere in the world, the owner of a "once elegant hotel" will break your heart as he points "to the remains/ of a room/ where a wheel-/ chaired man/ embraced his wife." This scene is an apt example of how Amirthanayagam pulls on the heartstrings by not pulling -- his rhyme and cadence are gentle and disarming, and the muscle of his poetry lies in its initial passivity, mimicking the helplessness of both the living dead and the simply living.

Stark, undeniable moments and imagery lend an armor of authenticity and remorse to the most vulnerable of Amirthanayagam's poems. Amidst the brick-a-brac and flotsam, nine mothers claim a single "subject of Solomon," a baby pulled from the mud, miraculously alive. Although DNA testing will prove the truth, we are left without solace for the eight childless mothers. On the same token, Amirthanayagam pays particular homage to the duties of the living in honoring their dead. He writes, "The ghosts will need food/ bedsheets, towels/... The ghosts will/ not leave us/ to grow up/ unattached, alone."

It's important to note that Amirthanagayam is not here to reaffirm one-dimensional grief and the lifetimes of mourning ahead. He is also not here to breathe a sigh of relief that his family was halfway around the world. Each poem and voice claws at how the human spirit loses faith and musters courage at the same time, how victims must now cling to the murderous sea for renewal and memory to keep their ghosts alive. In his final poems titled "Borders" and "Come Together," he admits to watching the tsunami unfold via satellite, though the paradoxical safety does not absolve him of connection or responsibility. He pleads:

Let's not speak
of countries or homelands; . . .

Let's pick up
the dead now, all
the peace agreements,
insurance papers.
Let's walk across
the borders now.

Although Amirthanayagam is "grateful to the extra time, the borrowed day," his consolation delicately holds the deep, nuanced configurations of tragedy. Despite our erected distance, nowhere is far enough away from the horror. No one is untouched by the burden of death and recovery.

The Splintered Face: Tsunami Poems by Indran Amirthanayagam
Hanging Loose Press
ISBN: 978-1-931236-82-9
104 pages