Review of Indran Amirthanayagam's The Splintered Face

The Splintered Face: Tsunami Poems, Indran Amirthanayagam, Hanging Loose Press, 2008, pp. 103, $16.00

(published in Book Mark)

When the tsunami hit much of the South Asian coast of India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Indonesia, we read many heart-breaking news stories about its devastation of land and humans, the rescue operations, and the lives of survivors. Indran Amirthanayagam in his latest collection of poems, The Splintered Face: Tsunami Poems, takes us to the core of this natural disaster, as only a poet can do.  In his poetry we are brought close to the experiences of the violence of the sea, the physical and psychological experiences of the survivors, and the changed geography of the land.

Amirthanayagam explores the displacement of the people, the separation of parents and children and their hope for reunion. Irony becomes the overwhelming energy in the experiences of displacement, as we see in”Baby 81,” where not only does the title bear the weight of  the statistics of loss, but also in the line of mothers waiting to claim a child but are turned away with “consolation prizes . . . coffee / mugs, posters, this poem.”  In another poem, “Transport,” we see the irony of the fishermen who are given makeshift homes far away from the coast, their displacement in fact separating them from their trade, fragmenting their sense of self. Instead of “dragging … the catch right to their doors,” they return “perturbed, with yet further to go / when they get back to shore.”  Another irony is that the “price of fish has doubled, while / the number of buyers / has dwindled to a handful / of curious strangers, / visitors, exotics” (“Fish”); the absence of the local population is poignant.  The poet underlines the experiences of displacement of the survivors with his own survival as mourner and eyewitness in the alien geography of the United States:

If I could take India
into my hands like
a ball of rice and curry
and eat in front
of everybody, pierce
the billion names
of god into one god
ring rattling
from my nose
that would make
my neighbors swoon
and me feel at home…” 

On one hand the tsunami provides the material for Amirthanayagam’s story telling, but on the other hand, it is not merely news, but an opportunity to penetrate the vulnerability and strength of humans and animals alike. The animals in his poems as well as the inanimate icons of gods are imbued with a strength we do not notice in our daily life.  For example, in “Elephants” he eulogizes them as “heroes among men” and lists the variety of help elephants provide for humans and suggests the just reward for their hard work: acres of forest that will be preserved and freedom to roam city streets, ideas at once playful and serious. The tsunami makes the philosophy of the interconnectedness of humans, animals, and the inanimate icons very evident. For instance, the surviving statues of temples and churches come up in many poems, underscoring the belief among the survivors of the indelible strength of their faith in God. Therefore, the people in coastal South India and in Sri Lanka do not wish to abandon their land. Instead they look upon the sea as the mother and themselves as her children. They say, “Give us your fish /again, your fragility / in coral, / free passage” (“Eyewitness”).

Here is the voice of a survivor:

Would anybody
like to join me back
on the island?
I will plant a garden.
There are coconuts
and fish. The sea
is gentle
most of the time.

Acceptance, faith, and the will to carry on outweigh the narratives of grief.  The Splintered Face is an eyewitness account of a natural disaster, and more. It plumbs the depths of how humans act in the face of terrible loss. This collection of poems teaches us to pay attention to nature and cultivate faith to deal with terror.  By recording the multiple voices of survivors and listing the many places, flora and fauna that disappeared in the floods, Amirthanayagam’s poems is a beautiful memorial paying tribute to the victims and the survivors.

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