The Fragrance of Loss

REVIEWS, 22 Jan 2018

Daniel Brick – TRANSCEND Media Service

The Fragrance of Loss by Udaya R. Tennakoon, Copyright© Udaya R. Tennakoon, ISBN: 978-81-8253-056-0, First Edition: 2017,

Daniel Brick taught adolescents language arts for thirty-four years. He discovered as he taught students the writings of great authors he had the itch, as Robert Graves put it, to write himself. He spent at least ten years writing perfectly awful poems and a few good short stories. But sometime during the second decade of his writing commitment, he discovered his voice and his involvement with poetry has led him to post over 300 poems at the web site POEMHUNTER. This is where he crossed paths with Udaya R. Tennakoon and read Udaya’s powerful and truthful poems. This essay of appreciation is the result of that fortuitous meeting and their ongoing interaction.

Udaya R. Tennekoon is a poet of both lyricism and witness. The lyricism is the voice of his poems, the witness is their subject. The identification of this poet’s voice as lyrical has to be clarified before looking at examples. Many meanings cluster around the word – LYRICAL: it is like a sun around which many poems orbit, and these orbiting poem-planets may as different from each other as Mars is from Jupiter. So what we mean by the lyrical must carefully defined.

First and foremost, the three Japanese forms – haiku, senryu, tanka – are intrinsically lyrical, and in their purest manifestations in the Japanese tradition, each form fulfills specific criteria. In the modern world many poets have abandoned specific criteria, thereby the experience of writing creates its own formal pattern. But such poets are not abandoning the tradition; in their minds they are renewing the tradition, not sacking it. Purists disagree.

Second, focusing on the first of these forms, the haiku, we encounter a Japanese form which has become universally used by poets all over the globe. Furthermore, many teachers of poetry use the haiku as a learning tool, so that first experience in poetry writing is writing haiku. What is remarkable to me is that so much of what is Japanese in the haiku has been preserved, expanded and fulfilled in the passage across time and space. Purists disagree.

The length of seventeen-syllables guarantees the haiku poet will be concise and compressed and his meaning must be emphatically rendered. The haiku is nature poetry, and its rigorous focus on nature may be essential to its universality and longevity. The human being is always a figure in a specific landscape, the haiku is always a radical reduction of possibilities to Self and Nature. Other characteristics fan out from that central one: the setting is a specific season, with its familiar flora and fauna inhabiting real space and not an artificial stage. Its goal is very close to the EPIPHANY technique James Joyce made the center of his short fiction: a sudden insight or a spiritual illumination. And this means a writer of haiku is the humblest of writers: he or she is not pursuing the comprehensive explanation of life, as Melville does on page after page of MOBY DICK. Nor does he or she attempt to recreate a total societal context, as Hawthorne did for Puritan society in THE SCARLET LETTER. What a master haiku writer accomplishes is the expression of a simple truth which casts an immense shadow. It is the art of resonance. Just one haiku by Matsuo Basho will suffice to make this issue clear:

The cry of the cicada
Gives no sign
That presently it will die.

I believe a sufficient response is the say what Delmore Schwartz called the beautiful American word, Sure. That is, we immediately affirm the significance of the poet’s words. In his sonnet, Schwartz says, THE LIGHT BLOOMS WITH SUCH CERTAINTY WHERE THE DARKNESS LOOMED BEFORE. Sure.

R. H. Blythe wrote with considerably more eloquence:

(The haiku’s) peculiar quality is its self-effacing, self-annihilative nature, by which it enables us, more than any other form of literature, to grasp the thing-in-itself.


Commentaries on Nine Haiku

These haiku offer little consolation to the living, they are extremely honest and do not create false hopes in reader or writer. SNOWDROPS is an eerie poem of silence and sleep at the edge of winter, but that is equal to saying, “It is not yet spring, and as yet there are no signs of spring. The weight of time passing wearies us.”

RAIN AND WIND closes with “a dim light at night.” There is just sufficient light for the rain and wind to accompany the moon’s steady progress, three natural things perfectly matched, and somewhere unnoticed a human being – the poet – observes this trio.

A FAMINE is not about starvation and desperate people. The poem instead contrasts fish trapped in mud, soon to die, with a lotus rising out of the mud and blooming. The lotus is triumphant. For an Asian reader it is symbolic of Buddha Dharma and the purity of the believer in a corrupt world.

The next poem is the seventh; it is the first to use the word – REFUGEE. It does not tell us much about the refugee at night; there are few details beyond a lamp and a bench on a winter night. The phrase NO MORE sums up the desolate scene.

A CHICK CRIES perhaps compares a refugee to the lost, bewildered chick. But of greater lyrical significance is the image of A HUGE TREE blocking the sun and stunting the growth of SMALL TREES. It too is symbolic of the refugee’s status in even a welcoming foreign country.

GLORY LILIES is a poem of recovery: the violence which destroyed butterflies has passed and now new life, lilies, is gradually affirming life over death. It is a small victory, perhaps more symbolic than real, but it is resonant, and provides the hope of larger victories to come.

In HOLY RIVER there is an ironic balance of destruction and recovery: A monk crosses a bridge and sees the vibrant current cleansing the river as it sweeps debris toward its delta. The odds surely favor recovery.

A male and female bird prepares a nest for the births of their offspring later in spring.
They are completely confident. The remnants of winter are not only disappearing –
They are dissolving to zero. (A BIRD COUPLE)

THE FRAGRANCE OF LOSS returns us to the solitude of A REFUGEE’S NIGHT. They are both poems of crisis in which the poet is the agonized witness of what has been irreparably lost. What can possibly replace these losses? Everything darkens around the refugee, because nothing is left of the fragrance of the Home Land. Even memories are dimmed by the darkness of exile.

These haiku illustrate Udaya’s use of the lyrical voice to express in concrete images from nature the plight of the refugee. His poems do not portray or detail the life of a refugee; they do not aspire to be a diary of refugee existence, with its compromises, desperate hopes and frequent disappointments. He does not dramatize himself, We feel his presence as an agonized witness, not mourning his fate exclusively, but making us aware of the lonely days and empty nights of countless exiles: those ghosts whose identities have stripped from their existence are his focus. And Udaya the writer of haiku, what of him? Like haiku writers before him, he loves the world and its inhabitants. They and their natural environment give him joy even in his loss, and he displays them with affection so that we can share that joy, that lyricism that transcends even the sorrows of exile.

The Poetry of Witness

“One duty of the poem is to bear witness to the truth.”
— W. H. Auden

The first part of this Essay of Appreciation focused on Udaya’s poetic voice which I characterized as lyrical. This second part will detail his subject matter which has made him a Poet of Witness. His role as a poet of witness derives experiences in his Sri Lanka homeland, and his poetic nature responded to that stimulus. Instead of blithely enjoying a privileged status in his homeland, Udaya sympathized with the Tamil minority and supported their rights. However just his position was in the abstract, it was simply rejected by the majority population which meant Udaya’s friends and family as well as anonymous masses. The Tamil issue was simply not open for discussion much less dissent. Udaya acted out of moral purpose, and the consequence was first condemnation in his native land and finally exile from it.

Exile is a terrible word: its root meaning is compulsion, a forced departure from the home which is a physical place on earth and a place in the citizen’s heart. The exiled citizen is severed from the dearest place in his existence and condemned to a perpetual foreign residence on earth. And this element of compulsion does not depend upon an official decree of exile. A so-called self-exiled person is still the victim of compulsion.

In the Auden quotation above, the emphasis is placed on the issue of Justice which is the truth the poet witnesses. But Udaya’s experience adds another virtue to the Poetry of Witness. It is Empathy. If our troubled planet is to survive indefinitely and its civilization is to prevail, it will happen because Justice and Empathy will triumph over fear and greed, ignorance and prejudice, privilege and exploitation.  At some future time we may look back and assess our success as the result of acts of justice and commitment to empathy of individuals like Udaya whose moral purpose proved persuasive to the majority of earthlings. We must first realize that individuals can make an impact, and many individuals over time make change happen. In the bitter conflict between France and Algeria in the 1950’s and 1960’s people on both sides called the writer Albert Camus THE JUST MAN because his moral position was fair to both sides. We need more such JUST MEN; we need a global village of such JUST MEN.

Diaspora Poetry as Poetry of Witness

Poetry of Witness is mean for the largest possible audience of committed readers.

We live in one world, not because there is universal peace or because we have a world government. In fact, nation-states are just as divided and competitive with each other as ancient kingdoms and empires were. We are one world because the limited natural resources are being consumed or used up at an alarming rate. There is one immense global economy but there is no unity of purpose or rational planning. The planet is divided into fractious units which are unwilling or unable to cooperate. It is a world that was cracked and broken before our age. And the damage to humanity and our only natural environment continues. Who speaks for the Earth? the late scientist and visionary, Carl Sagan. One clear answer is POETS OF WITNESS, including Udaya R. Tennakoon.

The modern English poet, W. H. Auden, defined Poetry of Witness in moral terms:

ONE DUTY OF THE POEM IS TO BEAR WITNESS TO THE TRUTH. This is a bold statement by Auden because it assumes we can agree upon the truth!  But we have to start from a common position, and then take our commitment into an ever changing and challenging world. I see no reason why that common position should not be stated as positively, even as idealistically, as we can conceive it.  Let the current events that will run parallel to the reading of these poems and this essay by some future person modulate his or her responses.

In the social conflicts in his native Sri Lanka, Udaya witnessed the unjust treatment of the Tamil minority. He supported the Tamil cause because it was a just protest and he felt empathy for the oppressed.  Justice and Empathy are the two higher qualities; some would call them virtues, because they can only be acquired by personal action at the source of the conflict. Udaya’s actions and intentions were misunderstood by his countrymen as a betrayal, and many Tamil people were suspicious and unconvinced by his empathy. And so he became the solitary witness to a truth that neither side could see, blinded by their partisanship. He is the man who follows what the philosopher, Immanuel Kant, called the Categorical Imperative, that is, we do the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do. We have other options: he can hide, we can remain willfully ignorant, we can loudly denounce the truth as impractical, we can surrender our conscience to the crowd. All of these things are options, but the Categorical Imperative tells us we have only ONE CHOICE: it is the moral option to act out of Justice and Empathy, regardless of prevailing societal opinion, regardless of the cost to oneself. This is the Moral Choice Udaya made and it has become the moral center of his poetry.

Before returning to the Diaspora Poems, I want to highlight several earlier Poems of Witness Udaya wrote without the lyrical framework of Japanese verse. These poems speak directly and forcefully on societal issues from a moral point of view. In FLOCK TOGETHER TO DEFEAT EVIL, Udaya’s foals are JUSTICE AND HUMANITY, but he does not name human enemies. Rather he isolates the mental, emotional and immoral attitudes that cause people to turn against each other. His underlying idea is to eradicate these false ideas and purify people. Then it will be a good community that joins to fight evil.  The last two stanzas emphasize both his practical action and idealistic goal:

Evil covets to creep into (your egoism)
and you are decayed unknown
so you subject
remove your old clothes and masks
and flock together to struggle
and to drive away the evil
for the freedom
with humanity and dignity

In I AM STAR BECAUSE OF YOU SO FAR, he claims that his BRIGHTNESS AND LIGHT / MORE POWERFUL THAN THE SUN.  These grand images of light refer to the truths of a better world he shares, his moral values, in other words. Bur he does not promise an easy or quick victory. The poem announces the beginning, not the end of people’s struggle.

In HEY JUSTICE!!, he cites even the side he supports, the cause of universal justice, has problems, and is filled with confused, not fully enlightened members. The message of hope he want to spread has not reached that critical mass when it becomes the habitual behavior of people.

The very brief, WELCOME REFUGEES, does display hope, because the refugees knowing the cause of their suffering stems from their persecutors warped ideas. They must be awakened from this sleep of values and BREAK THE MIND BORDER so that they see the cause demands freedom, humanity and dignity.

In HANDS-UP RIGHTS AND REFUGEES, he closes with a forceful praise and summons to the person who understands the moral goodness which must guide their mission:

(IT) is a duty to extend the dignity
and to pay back the future

The lyric poet in Udaya turns his gaze everywhere, takes within his heart and mind the manifold beauties available to people with eyes to see. That is one way of putting his present reality, but it doesn’t reveal the complexity of his interface with the world. He is haunted always by injustice:

Hunger eats the mind
Around continents blister.
Wars grant death . . .

Udaya would probably like to sink into the seductive calm of this heightened experience of common reality:

Calm night, timeless space
Oblivious to the clock noise
Old secrets stroll and
Nocturnal flowers blossom
In a candid sleep till dawn

Without revealing any of his emotions Udaya reveals himself to be a Man of Desire. This is a definition of the poet coined by Rene Char, the French poet of the 20th century. He does not say a Man of Desires, which would be an inventory of desires that multiply but do not deepen the poet’s personality. Rather Char is identifying a core truth.

IN MY HEART OF HEART, as Hamlet put it, to respond to people, events, the world itself with love. But instead of this flow of love, Udaya’s existence is wracked with anger:

A silent sea sleeps
Kept inside to soften, a
Storm cries in a dream-
Suppress excessive anger
Do not let your blood boil

In another poem, he speaks of the vigilance necessary retain his composure:

In the squared room
Boxes are filled with desires
Lock the door!
Let happiness wake up
So not let sadness enter

The need to LOCK THE DOOR against contact with the world, the hoarding of desires rather than allowing them to freely pursue their objects, this is the psychological cost of exile. Even one of his virtues – his tolerance – is frustrated:

Oh! my tolerance
unknown path, no clear goals

His life is narrowed, his activities stunted, but he is personally capable of grasping and promoting the sheer Joy of Life:

To the Universe
Earth is a star to a lens
How big you and me

In his Poems of the Diaspora Udaya does not just speak of the sorrow of being a refugee himself. He is lending his voice to the voiceless, speaking not just of personal pain, but the pain of a whole community. In this way, he conquers both despair and anger, and creates space of hope his fellow exiles can inhabit with him and restore their common humanity.

Of one thing in our world we can be certain: the art of poetry is an expression of our common humanity. Poets come forth from diverse and distant homelands and identities. Their poems follow forms indigenous to their culture. However, over time these national forms are adopted and used creatively by other poets. Udaya’s poetic output has been enriched by adopting Japanese forms, and those once foreign forms, now intimately his forms, have carried his voice through despair to a new expression of hope.


Udaya R. Tennakoon – Lives in Switzerland. Poet/ Diaspora Writer, Journalist, Dramatist, Peace, Human Rights and Political Activist. Master of Art in Peace and Conflict Transformation. More about the poet may follow this link


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 22 Jan 2018.

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