Finding Mary and Jesus – A review and confession of sorts – The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín

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The best truths are sometimes found when you walk alone, unsullied by other opinions. I was surprised by how slim a volume this was. The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín is all of a hundred-and-four pages and sized small. Without reading any book reviews so easily obtainable I fell into it. A perfect size and light of weight in my smallish oldish hands and solid in its hard covers. After all some book reviews go almost as long as one hundred and four pages it seems. My only early reservation was the somewhat religious title.

I might upset some J.M. Coetzee experts by saying this. The Testament of Mary is the absent but imagined core in the riddle that is The Childhood of Jesus which I argue was part of Coetzee’s unseen intent. What did that book say that was not said. Many have struggled with that question. Quite a few reviewers have got it wrong. And this is the answer. Not that this takes away anything from Coetzee’s book which I prize very highly. Hewn in crystal clear spare language Tóibín’s pen is given over to Mary, mother of Jesus, to speak her truth, unjudged, while striving to make sense of The Childhood of Jesus. My theory and my humble-pie opinion, of course.

Mary, from the Virgin on the Rocks to the Pieta is a historical/mythological icon on whom has been projected, some may argue, idealized sexist and burdensome roles for women. Mother, virgin, mother of God. And of course that tall order that is the immaculate conception. A standard that many women are held to and who pay for not trying. Virgin of the assumption, Our Lady of the Lourdes blue and white plastic bottle with holy water in it. All defined for Mary by a male biblical patriarchy.

In The Testament Mary is a wise straight talking woman of measured precise speech who unfurls all of the ballyhoo about the Virgin Mary. Speaking for herself with authority and clarity and sometimes even with self-interest. Sacrifice is the concept least sung about and I submit this is a good thing.

This book is a rejection of what has been imposed on women through the concoction that is the mother of god. And it is done beautifully and sparsely and so movingly and most of all without risking charges of sacrilege. At least in my opinion. Remember the Satanic Verses?

When we meet her Mary is essentially alone and separated from Jesus though it is difficult to tell if it is before the cross or after. She speaks often from rooms of her own with long distance echoes of Wolf. The rooms, though not always of her choosing in which she is often alone shorn of women’s work that is the lot of many a woman with family around her especially in Mary’s day. When she does take on those tasks, either alone or around others, they turn into cameos of sorts. The rooms are sparse, the garden, the animals, the day to day tending to, the drawing of water, so simple and clearly wrought. The room and Mary’s solitude and its stillness in her escape from the world are beautifully drawn and illuminated as if in a Vermeer painting. That is how the writing registers on the heart. Ironically almost like a prayer and a blessing though it was not prayers I was looking for. I never do. Sometimes the thought of a cloistered nun jars the mind but Mary takes care of it in her articulations and assertions, banishing the concept.

Bad things happen to most people. When really really bad things happen, as inevitably they tend to for a lot of us only the one who suffers knows its lonely horror, its isolating gravity, and its deep devastating betrayal. No one else does. As was the case with Mary, the mother of Jesus.

“Each of the nails was longer than my hand.”

As you read and go into the book the time-lines are ambivalent. It is unclear if it is before or after the crucifixion until you are well into the book. The references to other persons such as Miriam, Mary, Marcus are entirely removed of religious or pious references. They become day to day humdrum individuals with their own personalities and narratives clearly drawn through their actions as seen by Jesus’s mother. These personalities heighten Mary’s clarity of thought and perceptions as to what is happening around her and to her and to Jesus. Almost as if they are filters and sometimes mirrors. And Mary’s clarity of thought is stunning. A lesson in itself.

Mary is so utterly no-nonsense that she is a virtual myth buster. Her version of events as to how Jesus turns water into wine puts some doubt on whether it really happened or if it was a set up. Sometimes the reader is made to wonder if Jesus was the first celebrity and the crucifixion the first mob justice. At times one wonders if she will take us to an entirely unknown alternate but entirely credible narrative as to what really happened to her son and to her. One almost waits for it. But just when you expect it to take some unknown twist or turn Tóibín tames the reader’s imagination and takes the reins again.

What you read is literally Jesus’s mother talking to you. She is nothing like the idealized or sorrowful statues you’ve seen made of plaster of Paris or those you see inside churches looking tragic and melodramatic. There is no melodrama here. No Paris and certainly no plaster. Nor is Mary anything like the plastic bottles in which Lourdes holy water is sold. The woman you meet here is spare, strong and no-nonsense. Of spartan yet deep deep un-gratuitous unadorned emotion. Mary relates clearly what happened to her and to her son though not exactly as we have been told about until now. The writing absent of filigree and uncrowded, perfectly paced yet authoritatively resonant with beautiful jewel-like clarity. As if written in light sometimes. A counterpoint to the mumbo jumbo bible thumping that the church often spews and hides behind in cryptic church jargon. And sometimes the lines hit your whole being like emotional grenades that explode suddenly in sentences that turn up unexpectedly. One stops, sometimes to let the tears that well in your eyes dry out; or on at least one occasion in this writer’s case to sit and sob uncontrollably.

In the latter parts of this sparse work of breathtaking clarity the pieta appears in your mind as a shadow or even a dream of sorts; assuming one is familiar with it. And Mary testifies as to what really happened. It is the grenades that hit you from time to time like the hammering of nails on the cross against all resistance from your own body and being that makes your heart burst like bombs and then weigh your heart down like the heaviest of rocks till you pick yourself up again and continue. Because continue you must.

“The world is a place of silence, the sky at night when the birds are gone is a vast silent place. No words will make the slightest difference to the sky at night.”

This is the silence of the sky that always bears witness to the great losses of humanity and of horrors visited on humanity by humans, especially by those in power and then the mob is always there like the Greek Chorus to applaud. The populace is complicit. And at the end of the book there is a sort of a return to a prayer for the world; almost a moment of light of what is important when she goes back in time when they were a family and she recalls the Sabbath days when prayers were for:

“… justice to the weak and the orphan, maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute, rescue the needy, deliver them from the hands of the wicked.”

A drink of sweet water drawn out from deep in Mary’s memory after the horror, mostly the gaping loss of losing her son. A manifesto.

There is also a scene where she almost comes to dealing with those who talk about how she conceived her son – the immaculate conception – but somehow Tóibín does not take us there. Instead what is left unsaid is that Mary is portrayed so clearly as a no-nonsense sensible woman that even the idea of a Virgin birth is an absurdity. You can see it in her insurmountable and silent wall of rage that Tóibín uses as markers throughout the book. Except in some of the crucial scenes where she is placed in situations where she has no agency, Mary asserts herself and affirms what really happened. The true story. Where she clearly has no agency Mary is usually seen as an observer. Equally potent. Never a bystander. Mary is also capable of potential for violence if needed to assert herself. Another revelation.

And in the telling the book testifies to the worst aspects of humanity. The mob. Untold violence. Cruelty. Bloodlust. Cold hard dehumanizing officialdom as it runs its course unstoppable. Certain aspects of the telling is almost a metaphorical trial where everything is set up. There is no justice and justice is a lie. The only justice is in its appearance as if it were dispensing justice. Not much unlike how the law is to some today and has always been.

This should be on every mother’s bed side table in hard cover, if not every woman’s. As if it were a prayer book. (No I have no bible nor any prayer books near where I sleep.) And one must read it as habit at least once a month when the full moon is out and when we are a little crazy. It is so short. A lesson spoken by the mother of Jesus about sensibility, the big lie that is justice, and the truth we must find in our own hearts unsullied by the illusions and agendas of others. And the eternal truth that is suffering and its sad dignity. I know I overused the word spare. But it is spareness and sparseness that illuminates with such clarity and sometimes breathtaking beauty; making your heart stop in clear reasoned wonder. Far better than madness.

A book like no other. Sacred. A watershed for me and perhaps for the world.

A short postscript. Given these times. I once knew someone who, when he got angry, grabbed a hold of my hands and then twisted them till my wrists hurt so much that I had to scream. This happens to a lot of women. As a family lawyer this method often came up as part of women’s narratives. After decades one forgets these things. But for many years the phantom pain used to haunt me. But not any longer. I am not sure if it is a good or a bad thing. Time does heal memory’s horror. But on reading this they now hurt again. And may be it is a good reminder of the horror of the world. And the freeing purity and sanctity of one’s own knowledge.

Renuka Mendis, Toronto
November 13, 2014

The Yal Devi Collection – two poems about a train

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Poem 1

Kip’s song

they say they brought
the old train back
you ask that from northrop frye
he’d beg to differ
and so will i

we can still do it
tap the sweet palmyrah
the sweetness in our hearts
from clarence to beig

to rukmani to galleface kisses
to kassapa’s topless babes
on hardrock surfaces
lovers à la isurumuniya

our songs
from kataragama
to siripade samanala kanda…
to mungo nanda’s daughter
before mungo jerry came along

we can borrow
from the cinnamon peelers
the english patients
its all here
we can do it
but Kip holds my hand,
so tight.

Poem 2

foment

the nose ring
sings
a railway map’s foment
pining
for those who cannot
smell
this sweet milk

or do they.
as they rotted sweet acrid
fermented
decomposed
piled up
the dead disappeared
dream of thosai?

the devi brings back
as you step over the dead
they
sit with you
in the railway carriage
when you wash your hands
they watch

can you see?
he sits across from you
watching
unable to dream
of thosai
she watches
pining silent
to stir the silky batter
with her bare hands.

Renuka Mendis, Toronto, October 12, 2014

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Something Very Sad Has Happened at CBC

fenugreek:

#jianghomeshi

On the more trivial side, either a public figure many of us admired was much less than we thought he was or we were deprived of an excellent radio host for no tangibly good reason. On the less trivial side, either the state (the CBC in this case) has placed itself in the bedrooms of the nation or Jian Ghomeshi got away with deplorable things due in no small part to a culture that turned the other way from his behaviour. And least trivial of all, either a select number of people have suffered battery and/or abuse or they have diminished these very serious types of crimes with false allegations.

Originally posted on Bryce J. McNeil:

It’s no secret that due to my job description, history with the station and genuine affinity for it and its content, I usually find myself listening to Album 88 during my morning commute. But there are sometimes exceptions to the rule. Being a big sports fan, I may occasionally check out the local sports stations for my favorite teams. Or I’ll check in with college radio stations from my past.

And I’ll sometimes check in on my hometown and nation by accessing the Sydney feed of CBC radio. Which means that I occasionally find myself listening to the national radio show Q.

By any reasonable standard, Q is an excellent public radio program featuring a wide range of guests on a wide range of subjects and some of that credit, at least, must go to its now-former host, Jian Ghomeshi. You might love his smooth delivery…

View original 1,101 more words

Pigs and Roses

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I am a sucker for roses. Not necessarily the flower but for its perfume. It’s the finest thing there is anywhere. The bench mark of poetry and sweet romance established for me in Sri Lanka’s hill country where a playboy friend of my father’s cultivated roses. Not the roses one runs into at gardens in temperate northern climes these days. These were roses of a myriad hues so rare and magical; perfumed by ancient gilded poetry books and cobble stoned back alley perfumeries. Ancient stories of incense and myrrh and of unknown and mysterious love. The finest of spices and sweetest honey and sugar that some of them made you almost want to eat them. That moment in my life when all the fantasies that were yet to be imagined were shown to me in the form of beauty and perfume. A promise; a pact.

Sugary sweet in notes I had never known. Some ice creamy and sublime. Some were recognizable cream soda, one had the spice of cloves but sweetened and filtered without the harshness. The perfume of strawberries which I had yet to meet and infused with a pipette’s edge with coal tar. And cardamom. There was cardamom in those roses. Caramel. Burned sugar. There were so many others sweet smells that I did not even recognize except that it was the truth of some other place or other world. Never have I seen so many perfumes and hues and beauty in one place. The layers of petals their texture their soft tenderness; the way they were arranged petal on petal sometimes tightly coiled some beginning to open. Could it be that I had already seen so many thorns that they smelled sweeter than sweet for me. A fact that this was truth, this was beauty and never to be controverted. I believed. I believed then in the tender soft chill somewhere near Nuwara Eliya and I must have been ten? twelve? I don’t know. When I was still not sure where babies came from and things like that.

My father’s playboy friend also reared pigs to be sold for bacon to Elephant House or Goldi the then in-country purveyors of cold meat as it was called — Bacon, ham, sausages and such. Charcuterie was not a word I knew then. A luxury for most inhabitants and usually bought as a rare treat in our household. Great big animals wallowing in the chocolatey squishy luxury of mud. And just a few feet away from the fascinatingly disgusting pig pen was my father’s friend’s wondrous rose garden.

The rose and pig farmer had a peasant woman who he kept and she tended the farm with him though most of the time he was socializing in Colombo far away from the farm. She must have worked a lot. Back breaking work raising pigs and tending roses. Even at that young age I knew this was not legit but I was fascinated by the transgression of it all because I heard my parents discuss that he was a womanizer that he went out to posh night clubs with many a woman in Colombo and here he was with a peasant woman in peasant clothes not beautiful in the sense of Colombo elegance. The story was that he was an arch womanizer but he had a son with this woman and he must have been a toddler then about three or four at the most. We played together. Though the talk was of a womanizer, a playboy, a hunter, a dog owner, a rose cultivator, and his illegitimate son, I saw a certain nobleness in the situation. This confluence of a loku mahaththaya a hamu and a poor peasant woman and a child and the beauty of roses. The rose pig farmer truly loved his son even I could tell that. There was love there. But what did I know.

For our holiday those few days to a week we stayed with this playboy friend of my father’s in there country house which was more of a shack than a house and that is where I came face to face with life’s true perfume and beauty. Roses. While my father and my brothers and the other males went out hunting with dogs in tow and brought back rabbits and other small game I spent most of my hours sniffing and touching what seemed like hundreds of roses and feasting on their colours and perfume; in splendid isolation with occasional breaks to gape at the pigs.

Roses are not that common in a hot country like Sri Lanka and if one came across them they were from a somewhat ragged and leggy plant in the heat and humidity of Colombo; and the flowers were usually paltry and orphan-like. They did somewhat better in the hill country. But the roses at the pig farm were of sublime tender beauty, dewy and perfumed. Different colours from the black rose to the mauve to the pink to the white to the glorious yellow. Tea roses was a word thrown around then. Mottled, variegated. I had never seen anything like it except perhaps in the Colombo shops but there they looked artificial and often tired and unnatural in those settings. Usually red and nothing much else. No shades in between.

Every colour and shade on the earth and in the sky must have been present in that rose garden in the misty hills near Nuwara Eliya so close to those pigs. Anything that was sweet or pleasant smelling and perfume-worthy was there. Everything and anything that smelled like poetry. Like love yet unknown. And ever since then I’ve been smitten by the rose or anything rose-like in smell or taste. From rose water to Gewürztraminer. To soap.

Unfortunately where I’ve lived in urban settings I’ve never had the good fortune to grow roses. Long ago at home I did try to get them to flower and sometimes after much trouble one or two bloomed but nothing like what was grown by the pig farmer. May be in another lifetime. I have spent small fortunes buying roses or things with rose in them. While this is not a plug for Lush they have robbed me of a king’s ransom peddling heart shaped bath bomb type things that smell of roses. And when you put them in the bath about four rose buds float wondrously in the water and one can imagine you are Ophelia floating down river with flowers trailing except one is not dead. And I cheat truth buying bottles of fine rose water and put them in my water and sometimes in my tea. I even make rose jelly to top ice cream with. I know at least one woman in Quebec who makes perfect rose jelly and you can buy it in the Pembroke farmers market or at least you could when I used to visit. Then there is rose petal jam that sometimes comes here from Turkey. Again heaven with very good ice cream or even yogurt. And anyone who knows me well enough cannot escape this madness I have with the rose. I want to eat them I want to smell them and I want to see them and I want to be them. I want them in my mind like imagined secret lovers that are coddled and coveted secretly in my heart.

I shamelessly charm Arjuna’s girlfriends with rose water concoctions when he brings them home to me like lovely presents and it always works like a magic potion. I’ve yet to meet a girlfriend of Arjuna’s who did not go crazy over the perfume of roses. May be Arjuna first tests them with roses to make sure before he decides to present them to me.

I cannot imagine meeting someone who does not love roses. Of course I have never checked that fact out with everyone I’ve met but perhaps it is something worthwhile to check; may be they are nicer people if they like roses especially their perfume.

A few years ago; may be five, six, seven or more Arjuna decided he needed a break from Toronto and took a plane to Paris for a week. We are not big consumers and shoppers in our family and we are not very big about wrapping gifts in fancy paper and stuff. But when it comes to love we have a way of showing it. Birthdays, Christmas and stuff. When the French Laundry cookbook came out and I was going on and on about it and Thomas Keller I did not realize that anyone noticed until late one cold mid-winter night Arjuna brought it home to me. Unwrapped of course but inscribed with a little note saying – Happy Birthday Mom!!! One day I will make you something out of this book! – that was winter 2004 and may be he was still in University then. I still remember that night. I was up late and TV Ontario was playing a repeat of Buena Vista Social Club. Arjuna walked in and he probably came on the late bus and we watched the film and talked into the morning.

You think that your children don’t notice the things that matter most to you; most of the time it looks that way. You believe as you slog through the day to day, the mundane, the horrific, the cash flow nightmares, the illnesses, the loneliness, the betrayals, the daily insults of life that no one notices what matters to you.

But when Arjuna returned from his Paris trip he brought me a little present. Once again not wrapped or decorated just a little metal box with a picture of a painting of a woman holding a rose. I assumed perhaps it was a pair of earrings or a piece of jewellery but when I turned it over on the back it was marked – Marie Antoinette Savon. Rose.

Soap. Rose perfumed Soap. From Paris. The romance of Paris in a tin box. Of course I promptly opened it and smelled it and went mmm and was utterly delighted. Arjuna was once again reassured that he knew how to make his mother very happy. The perfume pure rose. Arjuna knows. Your children know what you treasure.

I said to myself then may be I’ll use this soap only for a very big life event. May be a wedding in the family like if Arjuna partners with someone and has that party with a pretty cake. I had these visions of a beautiful sari on my bed waiting to be worn and me all perfumed having bathed with rose perfumed soap – from Paris. Could anything be more special. I doubt it.

I kept the box of soap untouched for years where I keep my most treasured and personal things. Unused. Waiting for a special day or a moment. A wedding or a particularly special event did not happen. I kept it untouched for years. And one day a few years ago I took it out when other special events happened. And I started using it. First very sparingly and I let it dry out and then once again hid it with the rest of very special personal things. Unused again.

But over the years I used it more and more. First it was for special events and such. Saskia’s wedding. Then when I first went for dinner at one of Arjuna’s now former girlfriend’s parents. And one day I used the last sliver of it. The box lying empty in my bathroom cabinet with the rest of the mess that are its contents. Half used tubes of toothpaste; little boxes of eye make up; airline toiletries, lavender bubble bath cake; more perfumed soap, except not rose, dental floss, and other paraphernalia. The empty rose soap box sat there semi-forgotten.

I did not want to look at the empty soap box because I felt I had lied to myself by using up the tablet of rose soap when I should have had more self control and made it last forever and ever and ever and ever for a very big occasion. A sense of loss and even mild failure. I did not tell Arjuna that I had used up and finished the rose soap he brought for me from Paris many years ago. It was my secret shame.

But I always said to myself I will invent a rose cheesecake with pistachios for the biggest and best day of our life when it comes. One flavoured with rose and topped with a very thin glaze of rose jelly and gold or silver leaf. A crust made with pistachios and graham cracker crumbs and butter and sugar and yes more rose water in it. Something greater is possible something greater than Marie Antoinette’s soap. And soap melts doesn’t it? At least it does in water.

A few weeks ago I got sick and tired of keeping my floss picks in the plastic sack it comes in especially when I wanted them handy at the end of the day and when they ended up on the book stand thing I have next to my couch. I’ve been wanting to find a nice little container to keep them in along with all my immediate needs and desires all nicely arranged. Pen, books, photo of Arjuna and me, sometimes flowers, even roses. A small note book. But the floss picks were so ugly that I was compelled to make do with what was at home. Somehow every time I went outside I forgot about the importance of looking for a nice simple box for them. That’s why two weeks ago or so I realized I could put my Marie Antoinette rose soap box to good use. Its so pretty though I never was a big fan of rich coddled women or Marie Antoinette but the sentimental attachments I have to the box are tender as you can tell. And I carefully placed my floss picks in it and there it sat right next to where I lounge around reading the newspaper, watching television or just falling unknowingly asleep. And no ugly plastic packs of ugly looking things.

The other day Arjuna was here. He was dropping off something for me and I had made him some chicken stock to freeze for future use. I had left the Marie Antoinette Soap Box by my computer because I wanted to write about the rose soap and roses. I had forgotten that it was there and as I was pouring chicken stock into containers I saw Arjuna take the soap box. He opened it and then he smelled it. He was searching for the perfume of roses. I said nothing to him about the floss picks. I said nothing at all. I wonder what he thought. May be he did not notice them and was carried away by the perfume of old soap and roses. I am sure of that.

Toronto, October 7, 2014.

Coming Back II

lost

 

 

 

 

 

 

Coming Back II

Clocks are such a waste of time.
The sun rises, sets.
Fires warm.
Water boils sleep comforts.
Found a morel in the forest
As big as a house.
Bought rose petal jam from a beautiful Francophone.
Watched the last of Lost
in a dive that gives motels a bad name.
Jack! Oh Jack.
I know how you feel.
You’ve been used.
Where is Hurley?
What happened to us all.
Be wary of who you waste your time for
They will eat you alive.
But sometimes you have no choice.
So I forgive you Jack.
And I understand.
We order pizza
To fill our false sense of time
Get fat
Eat some more
Stop, Go, Buy, Eat
Enough already.
Love you Jack.
Still, you and I,
We have a lot to learn
from Hurley.
But will we? Ever.
Go off the grid
Refuse plumbing
You will never come back.
The forest will soothe
Avoid the fast track.
No wonder you could not take it any more
So called civil society
Big trap, Jack.
Who needs it.
It is the ultimate prison
Motels, pizza on call.
And all that money buys.
From Cannes to Pembroke.
Lilacs, the forest in a storm
The only focus – the next morel.
The messy haired asparagus
Beckons.
Plop goes another stalk.
The obnoxious woodpecker
Knock knock knock
This house is mine
Knock knock – out.
What key does it knock on?
Something to return to
What key?
Brother woodpecker.
A hammock and a porch lies in wait for me.
Shit in an outhouse
Find the true meaning of life
Be here – now!
Lilacs again
They will be gone soon.
Flowers bloom, so brief
And die.
The silence of absence
Absence of the noise of silence
Its so empty here in the City
Highway 7A is still a trip – Oh heaven.
A few solitary birds
Sing – or do they complain?
Its so quiet in the City.
We come, we go
I found out that
time sits still.
It is clocks that do not.
I think that is what the Buddha found out.
Is there a balance?
Or are we far gone.
How can I bear the road again
Into the City
Cream of Asparagus soup
Tarragon
Chicken broth
Cobble it all together.
Be here, in the City, now?
Humbug.
Soup.
Take that first step
Back into the wilderness
Clocks, unstill.
Buy a carcass of chicken
Bring to the boil
Skim tenderly
Repeat, repeat
Add a peeled onion
Stalk or two of celery
A sprig of tarragon from the garden
Brush your teeth
Shower
Get to the market before it closes
clocks again!
Return the water bottles for the deposit
Start again.
Start over.
Stock, chicken stock
for Cream of Asparagus soup.
I cannot bear this.

 

Renuka Mendis – Summer 2009?

 

“Lost” graphic source:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lost_%28TV_series%29#mediaviewer/File:Lost_main_title.svg

White Butterfly

Where do i go
what can i say
when you say what you say

what makes you inhuman
is your evil comfort
that which i sensed

the first time ever i saw your voice
you will puke when you read this
be my guest

or it will have no effect
which is even worse
how can you?
say the things you say

i guess that is why
you are where you are
and i am where i am

i am surprized at how strong i am
that all i do now
is clear my mind

it is not stunned
nor bewildered
it all makes perfect sense

and my eyes pond
with tears like the gentle
calming rain

like a balm
they soothe me
like a mother’s touch

when still a child
and ill with fever
hush little baby
baby don’t you cry

i have now seen a world
that i have been avoiding
that I’ve entered in pretense

and i know why
i was right not to step out
but only make my feet wet
with boiling hot water

just enough to get burned
but my skin is thick and calloused
from working in the fields
and they will still walk

picking cotton
shackled
roughened
swinging
from trees

cutting cane
under the fiery sun
with only a song
to shelter me

with one foot chopped off
for wanting
to walk free
to some other meadow
where rats don’t roam free

i will have to deal with
dealing with the past
for opening up
as it was easier to do

it is always easier
to forget
not think
not listen to your heart

we are divided
by things far greater
than fences and walls
or borders or flags

we are divided by consciousness
history
responsibility
and irresponsibility

what we do and what we see
live on in our children
and their children’s children

i am responsible for those who are here
and for those who are yet to come
i am not an island
but a living breathing tree

tall
beautiful
dark
and strong

i carry the burden
of the hurts of the past
by those who have walked
before me

if i did not and if i forgot
i will never reach to the heavens
but stop
stand still
fall down
and die

so will my people
and their children
and their children’s children

i will live my life the best i can
and it is not easy
and not as simple

as waking up
getting on a bus
and letting the day
roll over my back

a white butterfly
flutters in my garden
i don’t know what it is doing there

i am sure
it does not know either

may be it likes
the flowers may be
it doesn’t matter
who tended them

it does not matter
what nurtured them
love, pain, solace or evil
it knows no difference

all it seeks is the honey
no matter who put it there
no matter where it came from
or what hands watered them

dug the ground
planted them
weeded and pruned

it does not matter
to the white butterfly
what those hands
have done
or what they have not done

it does not know
it does not care
it does not need to know
all it needs – is honey

the white butterfly
the white butterfly
the white butterfly

blazing whiter
in the bright
summer light
hurting my eyes

don’t come here
go away
this garden is not for you

but it still comes back
and i do not know what to do
it does not understand

and i cannot even begin
to think of
grabbing it in my palm
squeezing it lame

dropping it on the ground
and squishing it
with the calloused heel
of my only black foot

that would be a sin.

so i walk on
in the blazing sun
barefoot
blackened
shining and gleaming
with sweat

offending

singing a song

hush little baby
little baby
don’t you cry
there there
a pretty butterfly.

by Renuka Mendis – from July 1, 2000

With acknowledgements for Summertime to :
George Gershwin
DuBose Heyward

Three Awfully Immature Poems from 1993/94

These are from about 1993 or 1994 and somewhat green but I am very fond of them as they are some of the first I wrote. Though some of these lines make me cringe they were from another time and I do not wish to change a word.  I am particularly attached to Tony’s Father and some of the straight off the boat innocence of Disillusion.

 

Tony’s Father

The old man always walked
across the front yard of grandmother’s house
she saw him walk by, morning noon and night
like clockwork, like the sun rise and set.

He wore a black suit, leather shoes
a hat, a tie and black rimmed glasses
His skin was very dark, his hair was very white
He was quiet, dignified.

I walked across the front yard of grandmother’s house
Walked back and forth till I was twenty one
I played there, made mud pies, was middle pig
Played house, on the concrete slab
cooked rice in tiny pots.

The Concrete slab has been there since time began for me
One evening the old man walked back home
across the front yard of grandmother’s house
He tripped and fell, they called the ambulance.

The old man could not get up
They put him on a canvas stretcher
He’d hit his head on the concrete slab
The children were chased into the houses
they did not want us to see the blood.

Tony’s father was hurt very bad
His sisters cried, we wondered why
The next day, there was a big black box in their house
With tall white candles on silver candle sticks.

Tony’s father was in a big black box
white satin-lined, satin tasselled outside
The lid had a tiny glass window
To let the sunshine in? for a last glimpse?

Tony cried, Frankie cried
We heard their wails at the end of our house
Everyone went to the funeral
We could not go, for we were children
We saw the procession pass by
from a crack in the back door
We were quiet and very very curious.

The old man does not walk
across the front yard of grandmother’s house
The old man paid rent to my grandmother
now his children do
They paved the front yard, there is no concrete slab
No one will trip, be put in a satiny black box.

There is a monsoon of snow outside
Tony’s father walked in the steamy monsoon rain of long ago
The front yard is paved over, the concrete slab lies beneath
The old man walks
Across the front yard of grandmother’s house.

by Renuka Mendis circa 1993/94

 

 
Labour

A needle stuck in my arm, the pain comes in waves
I am in it, there is no way out
The books did not tell me it was anything like this!
Amma is with me, she holds my hand
I cannot sit or sleep, I want to walk
I bleed like an open tap.

I writhe too much, the needle comes off
It goes back in, in another spot
Amma looks concerned, as she always did
when I was ill with chicken pox, when a little girl.
She gives me comfort, I know I won’t die
But this is going on forever, there is no end in sight.

The needle pops out, it goes back in,
In another spot,
The pain goes on forever.

The hours seem like years
The waves are higher, intense, and there’s no relief
Does the baby feel the pain? it did not occur to me then.
I want it to be over, I want to sleep
Please put me to sleep, the nurse looks at me
as if I were a child.

They take me to a room, put me on another narrow bed
It will soon be over, I tell myself,
But no, she has “more time” the matron says.
Is the needle in or out? I do not know
I do not care! just stop the pain, please!

The needle pops out, it goes back in,
in another spot
The pain goes on forever.

I push and push, but no such luck
She has more time, the doctor says
I am exhausted, I want to give up
They ask me to push, I push and push.

Sweet relief! a messy blob of life
All covered in blood as red as a beetroot
You scream and cry, the pain is gone,
I am excited, did I really do that?
I have given you life!

When you are far away and when I miss you
I think of that needle and the pain
It reminds me you are real, you are there
The pain tells me of that invisible,
retractable umbilical cord.

by Renuka Mendis circa 1993/94

 

 

Disillusion

I was mesmerized
the crystal, the china, the shining pots and pans
Mannequins in glass cases, golden haired.
Strings of diamonds lined the streets – viewed from a plane;
gleaming and shiny – cars on the ribbons of highways.
Tense people – running about
I still don’t know where they run to
Do they fall over a cliff? like lemmings?

In Amsterdam -
they sold rubber penises in the name of free expression
my eyes could not believe.
Above all this, windmills turned
church steeples reached out to the starry night
Museums -
graced by lacemakers and pearl necklaced ladies
and crazed, terrified pictures drawn by a lost man.

Keep the crystal, the china, the shining pots and pans
Keep the mannequins and the golden hair.
Give me my clay pots, covered in soot,
The smell of burning wood and smoking coconut leaves,
The sound of a bull drawn cart
rolling along to a song of human proportions.
I’ve seen enough of the lost man’s crazy pictures
I prefer the face of the devil in the jungle
I am tired of long stemmed roses in vases.
Oh, bull drawn cart, take me to the forest
where the orchid blooms, and the bright hued birds sing.

The smell of cow-dung is still in my memory
The feel of cold fresh water out of a well
The reek of coconut husks rotting in a pit
To end up as coir ropes,
Ropes that make swings for me to fly in!
The fragrance of treacled sweets frying
The innocent music of the language
spoken by villagers.

by Renuka Mendis circa 1993/94