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Indran Amirthanayagam’s The Splintered Face: Tsunami Poems embodies its own lyrical deluge. Poem after poem takes up different subject positions: a family who was able to escape by train after the initial tsunami waves roll in, or the bodybuilder who was not strong enough to hold on to his family members as they were ripped from his hands and cast out to sea. The reader is pushed outward and into a poetic watery churning, trapped beneath undertows, and almost at some points, drowning in painful lyrics. Amirthanayagam is one of the few Sri Lankan American poets that have produced a number of works, including The Elephants of Reckoning and Ceylon, R.I.P. Not surprisingly, The Splintered Face takes as its central locale, that of Sri Lanka, and then gradually extends outward from that location, calling attention to India, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and various other South Asian locations devastated by the tsunami. In the preface to the poetry collection, Amirthanayagam writes “I hope these poems made in the urgent hours, days and weeks after December 26th—with the distance now of time and the sad accumulation of other disasters—will help the reader remember, bear witness, pray, kiss the beloved, run outside and shout to the birds and flowers we are alive and we are grateful for the borrowed day, the extra time.”

The question of memory is fascinating as it seems as if in the wake of other events that the Indian Ocean tsunami already had seemed distant when I opened the first pages, however, the lyrics immediately bring one back the horrific nature of the event. As with any talented poet, Amirthanayagam twines an incredibly beautiful aesthetic to trauma and tragedy. In this respect, the dissonance between content and style energizes the reader forward in a grotesque manner.

A representative poem appears here:

Silence

Bodies float in my silence,
trees are uprooted, waves
masticate timber, split
roof beams, in my silence,

babies tossed into palm
fronds, old man alone
on a beach engulfed
by seething mobs of foam

and spray, in my silence,
moments of clairvoyance
seeing whole populations
of islands and coastal wetlands,

inlets and lagoons, splits
and wedges of sandbars
and sandy points, convulsed
by churning of dirty grey

water, this starfish-laden
fish-spouting sea
turning blue again slowly,
in my silence.

I find this poem indicative of the collection’s larger aesthetic. The refrain, “in my silence” that appears in numerous lines stands in stark contrast to the motive nature of the lines in which the tsunami becomes personified. The speaker’s mind experiences a psychic transference where walking through the coastal areas serves to trigger a “re-memory” of the event itself. However, from the exterior, the speaker appears “in my silence,” as if there is not much going on, yet internally, there is a will to un-forget. In this respect, this poem embodies exactly what Amirthanayagam desires out of this collection. Importantly, proceeds of this book go to victims and families affected by the tsunami—truly an activist-centered work that yet twines together an aesthetic texture.

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