Rumpus Original Poetry: Two Poems by Janiru Liyanage
after Jericho Brown
The story doesn’t translate
My father sends a Facebook video of a Sri Lankan Buddhist monk setting himself alight
I watch as the monk’s face pixelates to stone; as his hands lift like heavy bowls of light
In one version, the match is only a metaphor for a wing & not its slick throat of wood & sulphur
In another, the world is nothing but dead & heat & what is grace if not this faithful ruin; if not spark spun & sulphur
Last night, I dreamt a field slaughtered in music; found a nocturne of brown boys, alive & circling the water in loops
Last night, I couldn’t sleep. I stayed up, licking the shine clean from my knuckles, & kept the video on loop
I filled with grief the way the dead deer filled with the wild– inside this forest, I made a tidy butcher of all its ghost
Inside this boat, in its sacred language of hunger & limb, the only word I can say is ghost
Look, how every stupid metaphor hangs our guilt, gilded between us like a moon
Look, how gently the torched monk walked. How cruel a son I’ve been– yes, I poured the fuel; I sung the moon
& at the customs office, my father doesn’t understand what the border patrol agent is saying
& I keep quiet. At the mirror, he works at his jaw– its softness & new english like clay: Say red, say smoke; say
red relentless smoke; say I know, I get it: this story will never translate
Rising tensions in Sri Lanka through the 1900s saw a string of racially and politically driven Sinhalese killings by Tamil revolutionists and violent atrocities by Sri Lankan government officials to Tamil soldiers and citizens. These tensions escalated to a day known as Black July (23rd July 1983), a series of deadly riots that saw countless killed. The exact number or names of victims are not known. Black July is generally regarded as the start of the Sri Lankan Civil War.
The story always begins with you singed to the dark, slaughtering the forest in wet music
The story thrummed its bruise open and never stopped
In the boat, I became a parable of dogs whose could not understand each other’s hunger
In the boat, I became a parable of boats
It was the year [ ] died and I spent the night pouring cold light over the village
It was the month [ ] lived and I balmed my tongue in compass oil
By all accounts, he was a kind son
By all accounts, he was murdered; maw twined shut like a goat dizzied on the spit
Was it his father, feet bound in red dirt, who threw the first stone?
In the forest, I stood unmoving like a metaphor and what God can love me then if I cannot die / cannot be lost?
Was it the cypress? Knife? Rope? Bullet making a soft church of his body?
No, but here’s a door. Here’s a kingdom full of wings. Here’s a field clotted in light where every word means open
Listen, the body can be drawn like any map
Listen, the body can be drawn like any good blade
Everyone said he was so lively, so sweet, so tender– no one deserved it less than him
Everyone said he died yet did not end but he did; right there by the river, floating in its mouth
Like a poem?
No, like a drowned boy
Photograph of Janiru Liyanage by Saman Liyanage.