The Splintered Face: Tsunami Poems by Indran Amirthanayagam
(Hanging Loose Press, Brooklyn, 2008)
In The Splintered Face: Tsunami Poems, Indran Amirthanayagam captures with powerful eloquence the tsunami disaster of 2004 and its aftermath. The book appears in four sections, “The Unplanned Flower,” “Silence,” “Eyewitness” and “Ghosts.” Amirthanayagam’s poems are simple in structure, all told in multiple stanzas. The lines are short, about three-five words per line, and this creates a lot of open space to read against the subject matter of the poems. This space makes the poems feel heavier, and the sparse lines demand to be read slowly for full impact.
Amirthanayagam’s language is clear and straightforward. His choice to use linear, narrative form provides a sharp contrast to the chaos of the subject matter. Like the beloved island he writes about, Sri Lanka, his poems are stripped of all fancy dressings and we are left with bare honesty and raw beauty. Amirthanayagam approaches the story of the tsunami and the “splintered face” it leaves in its wake by resurrecting the many voices it swept away. We hear the stories and voices of those who died, those who survived, and those who chose to rebuild. Amirthanayagam writes with community in mind—he recognizes that his is but one voice, and there is a collective story to tell. Therefore, he includes poems written by his father and brother to help him, even naming his first section after his father’s poem, “The Unplanned Flower.”
The first section, also entitled “The Unplanned Flower,” is about the moments right before and during the tsunami. The poems are filled with anguished questions, and seem to speak to Fate itself. He tells the stories of many individuals, describing a parent’s panic in “Belt:”
engulfed us, he would
I panicked have a better
we would to survive.
drown; I I lived.
let him go He died.
Amirthanayagam’s work is inherently political. The poems provide human context to the natural disaster while acknowledging the harsh power of nature. He critiques the global negligence that allowed this disaster to happen without warning, in a poem ironically titled “Global Village.” He asks,
it was Poya Day,
The urgency and directness of the poems will break down any distance Western readers might feel from the tragedy. I was deeply affected reading the stories one after another. With accumulative force, the enormity of the disaster became real. Amirthanayagam can engage multiple audiences with his poems. To read this book well is to realize that we are deeply implicated in and affected by this awesome human tragedy. The poems posing poignant questions that have no answers.
The other three sections slowly unravel the aftermath of the tsunami and the putting back together of the “splintered face.” In “Ghosts,” he continues his critique of the global response, commenting on the apathy of world leaders. He writes,
inhumanity, these truths we ignore
unearthed like landmines
as we move on muttering
muttering through international
conferences, forgiveness of debt
how easy, we shall do what’s possible.
Amirthanayagam’s book is not just a recounting of a natural disaster; it is a call to bear witness, to question our roles in the global community, and to live our lives with an awareness of our humanity, fragility, and connection to others.
Rebeca Holohan is a student at Macalester College.