Essays and Studies
Vol. 15, N 2, Spring 1993
Sylvia Plath’s poetry suffers from the consciousness of neurosis and the feeling of “damnation on this earth”, the poetry of Nikki Giovanni fights with the most abysmal evil in the world, the poetry of Jean Arasanayagam in “mournful melodies” struggles with both the inner and the outer turmoil. The White American’s search for identity continues and the anger of the Black pschye is very much a part of it. It is Arasanayagam’s rare achievement that while responding to the political and ethnic upheavals of her country she is able to continue the journey of self discovery. The crisis of her country is dealt with more than objectively; in a true feminine way she identifies herself with the suffering of the nation and the victims become a part of herself. This accounts for the uniqueness of her poetic utterance.
Women poets represent various modes in the evolution of poetic consciousness. Some like Anne Sexton and Erica Jong, drawing heavily on their personal life, show an involvement in intimate feminine experiences. Others, like Sylvia Plath, represent a movement away from traditional attitudes towards a neurotic poetry. The poetry of Jean Arasanayagam, like that of Denise Levertov and Nikki Giovanni, derives mostly from the masculine tradition, yet the flashes of vibrant strength emerge directly from her feminine experiences or from her femaleness with which she follows the masculine tradition.
The crux of her poems is a “life time’s search for an identity”. (“A Colonial Inheritance Part II Identity”, Arasanyagam, 1988, p.45). The problem- how does one become onself and how can one fulfill onself and become whole- not only makes her writing essentially feminine but also contemporary. Longing for self-definition for her identity exposes the underlying existential problems of our time. She is engaged in this quest for unified sensibility like her male counterpart but with one difference that she has to struggle harder because she has to cope with experiences peculiarly feminine and alien to men.
Oscillating between her past and present, her sensibility is threatened by a deep sense of alienation. A sorge, a dread, angst, gewissen, schicksal- existentialists give many names to our existence- lurk around her. The past, she feels, cannot be reclaimed and the present she finds hostile. Her present does not spring directly from her past ( She belongs to a Dutch Burghar family by birth and embraced Tamil culture after her marriage with Thiagarajah Arasanayagam) and hence an acute sense of rootlessness torments her psyche. When earth erodes and grows shallower in the present, she realizes that she has no roots to support her. The originals of her identity are “lost, archived,/forgotten locked in thombos, put away” (“An Historical Document”). Even buffaloes and snakes come wholly from the land to which “she cannot belong” because “I was drawn through sea nets and flung among the coffee berries and cinnamon” (“Roots”, Arasanayagam, 1988, p.44).
The complexity of the situation deepens when she finds that the tension is not only between her two separate identities of past and present but that each identity reels under tension. With her past Dutch experience, she weaves a rich legacy. In a nostalgic vein, she talks about her grandfather, grandmother, uncles “ in cream tussore and Edwardian collars”, aunts in “Brussels lace”, their happiness at her birth and more at her cream complexion and then the silenced dinner gong and the “rubble of a fallen house” (“ A Colonial Inheritance Part III The House of my Ancestors”, Arasanyagam, 1988, p.46). The pride of her lineage, however, gets tainted with the consciousness of guilt and shame when the knowledge that her culture was built on violence and plunder, dawns on her. The destruction and violence she comes across in the present find their echoes in the murderousness of her past.
In the process of self searching when she comes to her present self, she finds that there are ‘selves’ beyond her self- the selves that pop up from within and the selves outside her. The ‘selves’ outside are those of other women in her family whom she linked herself by marriage. These selves are caught in the flux of desire, frustation, insecurity, hatred and alienation. Her one tormented, anguished, alienated self identifies with the utter loneliness and futile existence of her mother-in-law:
time is passing it’s
growing darker my sight is failing too
soon we will no longer recognize each other
We’re both walking in the same direction,
(“Lines to a Mother-in-law”, Arasanyagam, 1988, p.98)
The female-female relationship in suffering presents archetypes and establishes the fact that all women are a part of the original woman:
You had your rituals and I mine
fire was your natural element
the fire of the sacred Yaham
the fire of the burning pyre
I too have passed through fires
for your son’s sake, the absolution
Of Sati’s flames
(“Lines to a Mother-in-law”, Arasanayagam, 1988, p.98)
It reveals the sorry tragedy of the aged woman. When the children are grown up, the husband settled or dead, a vacuum fills her life. Her attitude towards her daughter-in-law is most ambivalent; in her son she looks for a god, in her daughter-in-law she finds a double *. The woman who reigned over her kingdom like a queen, is suddenly reduced to a mere outdated, finished woman. Her body once-
was bathed in milk
Laved with jewels- cold stones that
Gathered heat from each her breast
And sparked off fire before each brilliant
Dulled and flickered to end its death
In fall of ashes
(“We see each other”, Arasanayagam, 1991, p.55)
The daughter-in-law who too is advancing towards the same future, confronts her “now stripped of silk and gold” with cold “merciless eye” no longer “blind to myths”.
To own what we are, to accept what we feel and to come up with that without any mask, in full knowledge, with no intention of “telling it slant” is the new direction of women’s writing. Elaine Showalter in her book A Literature of their Own charts out three phases in the evolution of female literary tradition and calls these Feminine, Feminist and Female stages. During the feminine phase women writers attempted to equal the achievements of the male culture. The feminist phase enabled women to reject the constraints of womanhood; they made literature a stage of dramatizing the suffering of women. During the female phase women stopped protesting and imitating men and turned instead to female experience. They now try to redefine their image by their experience and bring for us “enriching and imprisoning retreats into the celebrations of consciousness”. Jean too makes her poems the axe to cut the “frozen sea” within her.
The large number of poems written on her mother-in-law is an indication that her self remained parched in her new family. What it is like coming to a new home, new people, new land, new culture can only be experienced by a woman. “The Lonely Spider”, “A Different Heritage”, “We see each other”, “His Family”, “Mother-in-law”, “Women, goddesses and their mythologies”, “Lines to a Mother-in-law”- reveal a kaleidoscopic shift of feminine feelings- hatred, anger, fear, defiance, guilt, compassion. The austerely tragic poem “The Lonely Spider” is a good example that reveals the play of conflicting emotions in a woman’s psyche. The poet’s cruel sense of satisfaction is clearly felt. The mother-in-law is now condemned to a prison where
It is only the spider that misses her shadow
Now waits for her return
In an empty room
The floating feelings of satisfaction and relief are restrained by the pristine compassion of the poet. She feels for and therefore identifies herself with the loneliness of her mother-in-law. Pity is, therefore, the structural emotion of the poem. Pity is yet another guise with a tinge of sarcasm- pity that is associated with someone’s ignorance, is again the structural emotion of “A Different Heritage”. Her mother-in-law is a rich mendicant who stretches out her hands, “the only alms/She importunes the gods for” is life. How arrogant, how ignorant, she is:
That love’s denied her
To her quenched heart
Ashes on its altars
Is no matter.
“Women, goddesses and their mythologies” with extraordinary vividness evokes the episodes of anger, frustration, defiance and finally resignation. Transition form androgyny to femininity is complete. There are no more masks, no more hypocrisy. Rage and rebellion are seen in their naked form. No fruitful relationship could be established between two women in the same house. The problem reveals the predicament of the human situation- each of us has one wounded corner in our personality which remains and suffers for that reason for being incomplete and unfulfilled. This is how the universal blends with the personal. In these poems the quarrel is not with the cruelty, callousness and egotism of her mother-in-law but with the self. The images of longing, of loneliness, of rebellion and of bitter acceptance, of past and present play out the drama and reach the relentless conclusion: “We were lost, each in our own myths/Wherein lay naïve deception and duplicity”. (“Women, goddesses and their mythologies”, Arasanayagam, 1991, p.29). The underlying conflict in the relationship between the two states remains unresolved. Women recognize that many conflicts including this are without solution.
These are strictly intimate experiences, experiences essentially feminine, experiences totally alien to men. This aspect of troubled consciousness, however, does not tie Jean with a state of paralyzed perplexity as is the case with Sylvia Plath who at certain moments experiences a genuine terror of being alive. She represents the sick Western psyche that feels drowned in the quicksand of emptiness. Jean Arasanyagam represents the Eastern consciousness which, though it feels endangered by the encroaching dread of existential problems, still have enough vitality left to sweep away all the accretion of the ordinary. This is the reason why her voice, never losing its basis in her personal life and self, nevertheless develops in other directions.
Her other self identifies itself with the larger crisis of her nation. In a true feminine way she identifies the nation with its plants and jungles and animals and waterfalls with the female body “as the site of sexual passions and the trauma of birth”. Norman Simms in his introduction to her latest volume of poems Reddened Water Flows Clear extends the metaphor of the flesh and blood image of the land as the body of a woman: “Indeed, in many ways, like prisoners in Kafka’s penal colony who have their crimes inscribed on them with a grotesque needle-machine, so the very body of Sri Lanka often seems to be a female torso tattooed by the pen of politics and warfare” (Introduction, 1991, p.x).
The poet’s pen cuts deep into this flesh and with a woman’s experiences penetrates into the spots of pleasure and pain. This woman once so “Full and rich” (“Departure from the village”, Arasanayagam, 1991, p.9) is now dying:
Does anyone record the graphs
Of dwindling pulse, hold a mirror
To the dying breath, still the spasms
Of the wounded breast? (“Numerals”, Arasanayagam, 1991, p.65)
The flesh cries out, “The long cuts gape to show the hard bone.” The body of mother has been used:
The nipples clenched themselves against tongue
And teeth now with dessicating flesh we carry
The Depleted Kuruni baskets of our lives
With the remnants of the last repast
Packed in for the final journey
(“Departure from the village”, Arasanayagam, 1991, pp.13-14)
In “Puberty rites” a poem with no political issues, the nation and her own female body are interwoven so intricately that both become one, both mature simultaneously and both feel the signs of degeneration. The wash-woman
Poured pot after pot of water on my head
In ritual cleansing of the strains that new dreams
Left from wet leaves that brushed and clung
To my new breast from the thick knit forest of dark
From the fruit that ripened, split, bared
It’s teeth, bit into flesh
My long hair swathed with water
Her hands soothing the turmoil
Of weltering waves now dipped with
The richness of irrigated fields
Streaming with rivulets….
Days bound in white napkins
As blood sped from my body (“Puberty rites”, Arasanayagam, 1991, p.50)
Abundance of body images makes her poetry truly feminine and reveals her pride and belief in the uniqueness of womanhood. The self of the poet is like an iceberg. The tip of this self braves the icy winds of longing, hatred and alienation but still succeeds in holding its identity and therefore vanity. But the larger chunk of her self effaces its identity and merges itself with the large sea of suffering humanity. The victims of violence become her part; the walls of separation tumble down and her “I” becomes the needle on a gramophone amplifying the muted sounds of sufferers. Once it was no concern of hers:
I had my own identity
safe from marauders
I watched from afar
The burning had not reached me (“1958…’71…’77…’81…’83”, Arasanayagam, 1988, p.10)
But her womanly involvement and compassion did not let the things pass like that:
but now I’m in it
it’s happened to me
at last history has meaning
when you’re the victim
when you’re the defeated
the bridges bombed
and you can’t cross over (“1958…’71…’77…’81…’83”, Arasanayagam, 1988, p.11)
Even though no longer in prison she
handcuffed dragging my chains
took my prison with me
wherever the road with me went (“Prisoner”, Arasanayagam, 1987, p.91)
The old woman’s hunger becomes her hunger, the groans of woman “so soon after labour” and the silence of the sick boy do not appear in the poem for their own sake but become part of her more general vision of moral and emotional truth. The identification with the sufferers is complete. The good old days of Narcissus who could endlessly love the reflection of his beautiful self in clear pond: “Where self entwined with self becomes/Its own inamorata” (“Narcissus”, Arasanayagam, 1991, p.93) have disappeared:
now the mirror shows
A myriad faces and through their eyes
Appear a thousand others to tantalise
And set ablaze the frozen fire of silver vein. (“Narcissus”, Arasanayagam 1991 93)
The suffering is further aggravated by a a sense of guilt because we all are killers of our brother:
On our brows eating into skull
We bear branded the mark of Cain (“A Question of Identity”, Arasanayagam 1991, p.85)
In a true feminine way, the political gesture takes on tremendous emotional force. Simone de Beauvoir’s remark (Beauvoir, 1988, p.726) that men go for transcendentalism and women for immanence is true but contrary to her belief, immanence does not necessarily shut them up. In the case of Arasanayagam, her tormented self becomes the springboard for straining towards the higher things in life. She has widened her poetic field. She will go a longer way.
BHU, Varanasi 221005, India
NOTES AND REFERENCES
- Arasanayagam, Jean, Out of our Prisons We Emerge, Ariya Printers (Kandy, 1987)
- Arasanayagam, Jean in Rajiva Wijesinha, ed., Contemporary Sri Lankan Poetry in English, The British Council (Sri Lanka, 1988).
- Arasanyagam, Jean, Reddened Water Flows Clear, Forest Books (London, 1991)
- Showalter, Elaine, A Literature of their Own: British Women Novelists from Bronte to Lessing, Princeton University Press (Princeton, 1977)
- * Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex