Rumpus Original Poetry: Two Poems by Janiru Liyanage





Burning Duplex

            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.

Janiru Liyanage is a sixteen-year-old school student and poet. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best New Poets and Best of the Net with recent work appearing or featured in/on The Harvard Advocate, The Australian, Best of Australian Poems Vol. 1, DIAGRAM, Waxwing, [PANK], and elsewhere. He was long-listed for The 2020 Frontier Industry Prize, edits for Hyades Magazine and has produced work for Australian Poetry, The Wheeler Centre, and The Emerging Writers’ Festival, among others. Born as the son of Sinhalese immigrants, he currently lives in Australia. More from this author →