Three Poems from Sonali Samarasinghe’s The Land My Father Gave Me

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Sri Lankan writer Sonali Samarasinghe. Photo: Josh Barnes.

Sonali Samarasinghe‘s poems navigate anger, pride, and sorrow in the wake of her exile from her native country. For more than two decades, Samarasinghe fought for justice, freedom, and accountability in Sri Lanka. The award-winning journalist and lawyer was forced to flee her homeland shortly after government sponsored assassins murdered her husband, a fellow journalist. Produced in the wake of catastrophic loss, her work unflinchingly merges the personal with the political, evoking the emotional heft of both “a cry and a song.”

In 2012, Samarasinghe received a Hellman-Hammett grant for persecuted writer through Human Rights Watch. Among her other recognitions are the 2011 Images and Voices of Hope Award for Print and Digital Journalism, and Pen International’s 2009 Oxfam Novib/PEN Award for Freedom of Expression. In 2008, after writing a series of investigative articles that exposed the corruption of a powerful Sri Lankan government minister, Samarasinghe won the prestigious Global Shining Light Award for Investigative Journalism. She was the first woman to launch and edit a national newspaper in Sri Lanka. Sonali Samarasinghe is the Ithaca City of Asylum’s fifth Writer in Residence and the Scholar in Residence at Ithaca College, as well as a visiting scholar at Cornell University.

UNBOWED AND UNAFRAID

Dancing feverishly in a blur of mottled yellow
A tiny kite entangled in the branch
An electroformed earring dangling
A stylized dhoti of a devil dancer
Leaping and dipping to some Luciferian ritual
Prancing to the hypnotic drumbeat of the shaman
The other leaves frozen in time
Like villagers mesmerized by the sorcery

And yet, the devil dancer shimmers and shakes
He alone possessed
He alone bedeviled by the intoxicating wind
One tiny leaf boldly quivering
Thrusting and parrying with the impudent breeze
While its siblings lie silent and still
Clinging to the umbilical cord
Of the mother sapling

FREEDOM

White barks crackle in the sun
Ensemble of jungle sounds
The dry rattle of the belted kingfisher
Nasal yank of the white-breasted nuthatch
Swoosh, leap, trill and tremolo
Of the mezzo sopranos and contraltos
In feathery gowns of cobalt blue
And atomic tangerine
Into this coloratura
Through the mottled underbrush
Free like a burst clementine
The round persimmon stark against
The ebony twig that bending
Offers me sweet nectar
Slowly spinning leaves
Descend upon me
In wings of majorelle blue
A kasbah of fern arches
Leads to the laughing stream
Giggling over round yellow stones
Coquettishly circling the trout
Nosing for riparian treasure
The eel bracing itself for the thousand mile
Swim to the Sargasso Sea, so its little ones
Can find the brook once more

THATHTHI

To my father

Carefully gather the warm gray gravel
Every memory felt in its course touch
Bones lying intact, only to unravel
Between my nervous fingers, and I clutch
Every powdery element of you
From dust to dust and ashes to clay pot
Like panning river beds for gold, and blue
Sapphires, place the urn beside my bed
Each night to press my cheek against the vessel
And in its cool to fill my being with tears
Don’t let go, against maternal counsel
Maybe wear some in a golden locket
On a chain, long enough to touch my heart
You told me once how strangely the dead burnt
How as the muscles char the limbs extend
Torso writhing up to rise, unbending
I wonder if you thought you’d do the same
Remember you and I we spoke of endings
And dreamt of mausoleums and of flame
You pulled my pigtails mocked my childish fears
And with your eyes you promised not to die
Laughed at my scheme to be always together
In a vault; but my plans have gone awry
Three years it took to lay you down to rest
In the shade of the frangipani tree
Its jasper green leaves heavy with white milk
Pink and white blossoms sifting down to thee

These poems by Sri Lankan poet and journalist Sonali Samarasinghe appear in the chapbook The Land My Father Gave Me, published by Vista Periodista in association with the Ithaca City of Asylum.

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