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Poets to Come: A Poetry Anthology

What better way to celebrate the 200th birthday of Walt Whitman than have an anthology of poems from poets that came after him. Over 200 poets are featured in Poets to Come. My poem “On a Saturday Morning” is on page 346.  This is one anthology that is definitely something you must have.

 

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The Island – July 11, 2018

This review appeared in the Island on July 11, 2018. You can also read it below.

Poems of Dignity and Defiance

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.

Lynn Ockersz

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Magnolia Review -Vol 4, Issue 1.

Thanks to Suzanna Anderson for the review of Chant of a Million Women in this issue of Magnolia Review. Go to pages 179 for the review.

Phoenix Rising 12 X 12 Clayboard jpeg

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The Friday Influence – February 16, 2018

Jose Angel Araguz has featured Chant of a Million Women and my short essay on two of the poems in the collection. Check it out here.

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A Page to Turn – January 24, 2018

Here’s another great review of Chant of a Million Women from Bobbie at A Page to Turn. The same was also posted on Amazon.

A Page to Turn Blog of Bobbie Stanley

Reading Books in a Southern State of Mind

Review | Chant of a Million Women by Shirani Rajapakse

January 24, 2018

Bobbie

Rating: 4 stars

It’s hard for me to review poetry.  Prose makes it easy because grammar, flow, characters, and plots come into play.  Poetry, though, can’t be dissected quite the same way.  This book, while technically fewer pages than a lot of the ones I’ve reviewed, took significantly longer to read because it pulled me through so many experiences.  To say that I enjoyed it wouldn’t be quite accurate; each poem in this book made me thoroughly feel something, but most often those feelings were desperate, angry, and painful.  They shed light on lives and experiences I will probably never have a chance to understand through my life path.  They forced me to see things I would rather ignore and called out my typical American behavior of overlooking the hardships women face outside of this country.

There were times while reading this that I felt overwhelmingly guilty for having been born into a life that some people will never know.  I felt guilty for taking for granted the freedom that we have and for failing to use my voice when I have so much more opportunity to do so than women in more countries and societies than I can count ever will.  There were times when I felt embarrassed for the way that our society has taught people to behave.  Not all of these poems were particularly enjoyable in their experience, but every one of them sparked thought and brought up very real questions that we should all be considering.  That is the true value in this work.  It is not a light read.  It is not something you’d carry with you to the beach or enjoy over a night, relaxing vacation.  There’s nothing relaxing about this.  This is a book that sparks movement, that demands action.  If you are prepared to be dragged into a reality that most of us would prefer to ignore, this is a great way to do it.  Let these words show you the things you haven’t learned yet.  Let them make you angry.  Let them draw you out and call you to action.  Well done, Shirani.  This is a powerful collection, and I hope it calls forth the action and attention it deserves.

 

 

The Poems in Chant

Several issues are discussed in Chant of a Million Women. There’s also quite a range of emotions carefully placed between the pages. In the following weeks I’ll talk about a few poems.

Image may contain: shoes and text But I’ll start with the first poem. “At the Side of the Old Mandir” This not only sets the stage as it were to the collection but it also kind of pulls in the idea of the role of women from history to the present not being very different.

The influence for the poem was a statue of a woman at the side of a mandir (temple) in India. The old beautiful carvings on the outsides of temples depict women in many poses. Almost all of them are of women with large breasts and voluptuous hips.

I’ve traveled a lot in India and seen many interesting places. Since I like art, history and culture my travels tend to take me to places where I can find all of this in abundance and the old temples are a definite must see on my itinerary.

Viewing the statues and images I came across an interesting find. In quite a few of the images of women in the carvings in mandirs and abandoned places the breasts were darker and I used to wonder why, until one day I saw why when I turned a corner in a lonely mandir and surprised a devout follower of whatever God resided inside that mandir.

The image of that encounter I witness stayed in my mind although I wrote about it many years later.

At the Side of the Old Mandir

 

They come to this place every day

to touch you.

Lonely men with desires unfulfilled.

Can’t afford the real thing, costs too much

these days, a glance, a caress.

They can barely afford food for the day.

 

You’re the best they can have;

voluptuousness in stone.

They ogle and marvel, then

gradually draw nearer.

A furtive glance in every direction to check

if anyone’s watching and a hand

lifts up to cup a breast.

Human and rock merge for a blissful moment.

An eternity passes as time

drags itself to a screeching halt.

Sighs of contentment escape.

 

Satiated temporarily,

they return to a place at a distance,

to admire and hope.

 

Later, moving inside they speak to God, plead

with him, cajole, sometimes demand.

Karma always questioned in times like this.

A truth hard to accept.

The reasons why never defined, lying hidden

in the cosmic ether beyond their

comprehension.

 

Your breasts are a shade darker than

the rest of your body,

colored from constant caresses of

lonesome men seeking stolen pleasures.

A slow smile playing on your lips, one arm

resting on a hip pushed out to the side,

the other raised from the elbow,

fingers encircling lotus, you stand waiting

for what might be, as they shuffle past,

circumambulating

like the devout, softly singing praise

of the one within.

Quietly taking in their fill they return to

homes devoid of love and desire.

 

Who are you,

proud woman standing nonchalantly

gazing into the distance as they walk past?

What was your fate?

Willed by the hand that chiseled

you from a large rock hewn out from

another place one sunny day eons ago.

Who was the man that yearned for you so,

he cast you in stone in remembrance

to watch over the years

and give hope to

a multitude of desperate souls?

 

This idea behind the incident I saw and the image of the dark breasted statues reminded me of something I saw in a telephone booth on a street in London. This was a time before the mobile phone and if you needed to make a call you’d use a public phone. I don’t know if those still exist, but one of the things that greeted you when you entered one of those phone boxes was a whole load of calling cards with photos of women, much like the statues of the women in those ancient temples. It appeared as though modern women were trying to emulate the statues which were probably carved out by men who were seeking the ideal woman and not finding that around them, they were creating images in stone.

It seemed very sad. We’d come so far yet as women we hadn’t given up the notion of pleasing others – of turning our bodies into objects of pleasure for men and it didn’t matter that we were getting exploited as well. “On a Street in London” ends the collection. Between those two poems there’s just about every emotion and situation women have faced, put down in verse.