This review appeared in the Island on July 11, 2018. You can also read it below.
Poems of Dignity and Defiance
July 10, 2018, 9:25 pm
Title – ‘Chant of a Million Women’
Poetess – Shirani Rajapakse
An author publication
The chief merit of this memorable and thought-provoking collection of poems by Shirani Rajapakse consists in the fact that it is a cogent and arresting endorsement and a refreshing re-statement of the dignity of womanhood. The poetic ‘discourse’ it stimulates goes well beyond what are seen, traditionally, as women’s rights issues; although such concerns continue to be exceptionally relevant and need to be kept alive. The collection is essentially also all about the ennobling presence of the Woman in the world. This aspect of the ‘Chant of a Million Women’ imparts to the collection a timeless dimension.
The poem from which the collection derives its title sets the tone and the fundamental substance of these poems. What is particularly relevant about this poem is that it transcends the domestic plane, pertaining to the challenges faced by women, to the indignities and suffering borne by women in conflict and war world wide, over the ages. This broad context lends to the poem a topicality as well as a universal significance. The woman’s body, we are reminded, is her own; a precious part of her that must be kept inviolate and whole. It cannot be abused and belittled, among other things, by contending parties in wars, to further their respective agendas. Hence, the reference to ‘collateral’, ‘appeasement’ and ‘rewards’.
‘My body is my own.
‘Not yours to take
when it pleases you, or
use as collateral in the face
of wars fought for your greed, or zest to own,
Not give to appease the enemy, reward
the brave who sported so valiantly in the
trenches, stinking of blood and gore.’
The freshness of perspective in many of these poems prevents us from viewing them as expressive of trite themes, such as, the ‘battle of the sexes’. Instead, what we have here are portrayals of the stark socio-political realities faced by women, which have the effect of throwing their dignity and humanity into strong relief. For instance, the speaker in the poem ‘Sadness’ says of harsh words that were flung at her:
‘a piece inside smashed into
smithereens, pierced by your words
as I walked away. Forever.’
In the poem, ‘Standing my Ground’, the speaker says about her individuality and independence in an impersonal world bent excessively on material pursuits and consumerism.
‘But no one notices in the millions
surging forward that
I stand my ground, refusing to
move an inch, waiting as I am, here,…
my face lifted to the sun shining down
through diaphanous clouds flittering by,
bathing me in gold and orange….’
‘To Dance with the Wind’ is memorable for the evocative use of imagery and its deftly handled rhythm that help capture the central mood of the poem which centres on the wistful yearning of repressed women for liberation in every vital aspect of their lives. Among other things, there are striking metaphors here that are suggestive of the dehumanizing impact of formal religion:
‘hidden behind a black wall while
all she wants is to soar with the winds,
graze the clouds, turn her face to the sun,
let her curls dance, dance, dance
like a myriad hands moving out to catch
pieces of the sun..’
The ‘Chant of a Million Women’, consisting of poems written by Shirani Rajapakse over the years, and published in local and international journals, could be considered a refreshing input to local creative writing on the meaning of womanhood. Very hard to beat is the poetic sincerity and strongly felt emotion running through this collection. The collection succeeds because it provokes profound reflection on what it means, and what it has meant to be a woman in a mainly patriarchal, repressive world.