SHORT REVIEW: Dipti Saravanamuttu's 'The Collosseum' (2004)

Readers of Australian poetry will have welcomed the appearance in recent months of a long list of titles from local publishers, among them a new Five Islands Press collection by Dipti Saravanamuttu. Her first book in eight years, The Collosseum gained shortlisting for the 2005 NSW Premier's Literary Awards (awarded to Sam Wagan Watson), and in August won The Age Poetry Book of the Year Award.

In these poems Dipti Saravanamuttu sifts through Sri Lankan childhood memories along with those of her travels in various locations around the globe - New York, Eastern Europe and here at home in Australia. The personal is always close at hand; the time the writing came hard ('You're twenty-one, that eloquent year / I didn't write a single line'), the heartfelt convictions that failed to last the distance ('At twenty-three, I truly believed / in wild passionate sex with you / for an entire lifetime - and / you didn't believe in wasting time'), the adult negotiations with her Sri Lankan heritage. Visiting her childhood home, the poet is inordinately glad '... that I still speak/ Sinhala with ease, can greet everyone/ as I would like to, where I wish..' Yet on her return to the island she feels to an extent estranged.

'... I'm greatly relieved that a distinction
exists, that people do not behave as though
I threaten them beyond existence. Perhaps
the point is this; that it matters less to them,
than to not intrude - to not bring your own shit
to bear on everyone and on everything.'

Saravanamuttu's concerns range from the metaphysical to the contemplation of small matters, the mildly sensual appraisal for instance of the qualities of lavender. Her poem 'The Figure of Envy', alludes to the struggle with a nature prone to envy, epitomised by the opening lines 'My head is invaded by stinging insects/ and a poisoned snake-mouth/ leaps and flashes into my darkened eyes.' In 'Revive', the poet writes of being overcome by grief

I had to walk to the Medical Centre, and twice
to the chemist with raging cystitis and no food
in my stomach, throwing up. I lived like this for days.
An illness brought on entirely by grief, as though
beauty were fleeting and charm were deceitful.
Thinking I was going to die. Some who knew of me
maintained I was having an identity crisis.

which, if one can make assumptions about the poems reflecting personal experience (always fraught with risk) might explain the nature of Saravanamuttu's endnotes in which she thanks those who supported her through the melancholy of an eight year break from writing. [What can it mean, personally, when one is no longer able to write? Under such circumstances, does one any longer say - to one's self, let alone others - 'I am a poet'? How tenuous a thread is it to cling to, this lingering lull till the muse returns?]

Despite these examples, it would be a mistake to suggest of Saravanamuttu's work a preoccupation with personal adversity. In 'Fragments' ('May those who love/ release the heart of a bird in flight'), 'Dingo Trails' ('Write of love and you'll find it, of peace/ and it is there. Perhaps we do exist as paradox,/ all accidental meanings considered;') and 'The Gift', for example, Saravanamuttu shifts registers to facilitate the natural optimism of a poet 'em>... bidden by the charm of life'


                                                  The baby
and her mother contemplate each other
curiously, out of identical eyes.

I look on amused, and then suddenly
embarrassed. Even my clearest lines
seem disconcerting; my failure at love,
at odds with my family. My erstwhile
illusion of belonging. The permanent
struggle not to hate with my entire soul
those who are cruel. There is suddenly
an innocent and separate kingdom to
which the tiny baby wholly belongs.

I hand back the pristine bundle,
wishing her love, and love of everything;
wishing her painting, sculpture, music.
A good surfboard on the clearest of oceans.
Language and all the gifts of the Magus,
all that unites earth and heaven.

                                                 (from 'The Gift')

(Dipti Saravanamuttu, The Collosseum, Five Islands Press, RRP $18.95, ISBN 1 7428 043 5)