Review by Chris Searle for Race & Class, vol. 61, 4: pp. 107-108. on Thursday, April 2, 2020
When I was a boy in the postwar years, I grew into reading through dozens of accounts of wartime memoirs and experiences in the plethora of cheap paperbacks that were everywhere – Pan Books, Corgi Books, Four Square Books, Mayflower Books and many more imprints. Half a crown each, corner shops, newsagents and station booths were swamped by them – stories by ex-service personnel who were almost all male, white and officer class – narratives of heroism, tenacity and escape in German and Japanese prisoner-of-war camps, war at sea, on land, in deserts, in snow. Our generation discovered words and images in their wartime wake.
But what about the millions who returned but never told, never wrote, remained silent about their war and its shattering experiences? Unknown Soldier is an unforgettable and beautifully told story in poetry and photographs about one of those who never let on, a black man from colonial Ceylon in a white regiment whom comrades called ‘Snowball’, a radio operator and signaller in the North African campaign, written by his daughter who, as a child, found him silent about his years of conflict in desert tents, trails and trenches. He became ‘one of the returners who refused to tell’, but his daughter Seni found the most poignant cues about his desert sojourns in a bundle of sometimes faded, but more often clear and evocative, photographs taken by one of his platoon- mates. These moving and stark images, snapped in locations such as Cairo, Port Tawfiq, coastal environs near El Alamein, Jericho and Libya are the source of a daughter’s beautifully lucid poems, reflecting upon her father’s faraway life in North Africa and domestic years in Leeds, where he settled after being demobbed, married a Yorkshire woman, and where his daughter-poet was born and raised. Seneviratne’s achievement is in how she creates life and human revelation out of erstwhile silence and how she uses such crystalline narrative means to turn random and impromptu images into translucent storytelling and family history. Her imagined raconteurs are the father himself and the photographer, who document their desert life together. In ‘Troopship’ he offers a portrait of ‘Snowball’ that is brotherly and proud and in ‘Conscript Signaller’ he praises the radioman’s utter professionalism: He looks after those wireless sets like his flesh and blood. Nurtures them through all weathers. And as they swim in the sea, east of El-Alamein, the black soldier shouts out to the image-maker; ‘Here’s a black and white shot for you’, and even as Rommel’s Nazi army advances; ‘we’re just a bunch of lads larking about in the sand’. This is poetry that opens up history’s reticence and quietude, that gives words to image in deep and loving ways and holds fast to family when family has passed but is never forgotten. It is a book of signal brevity, but also a testimony of huge magnitude.
The Heart of It
This is a bursting heart of a collection, the first part speaking about personal heartbreak and the sorrow it brings. The motif of house as self is drawn upon when the narrator’s lover leaves her in a ‘house with hollow rooms’. This is a place of danger. ‘The wind is up. The boats are not in.’
The collection is rhythmic, in tune with nature and colour, blues and their connotations shading the poems within. Couplets are used frequently and are an appropriate choice for an uncoupling. The implied finality of a platitude most of us have heard is beautifully put in the lines ‘double negatives – It’s not that I don’t – were/rusted bolts closing windows against the storm. The female narrator attempts to heal by turning to the moon, ‘to the wind’s pull’, by making bowls reminding us that, amongst many other things, Seni is a ceramicist.
The second sequence consists of narrative poems in different voices – a mother whose ‘thin-skinned boy’ has returned from war broken, a person who commits suicide in the Seine, a girl who has pit- bull-like tendencies, an obese hedgehog that is put on a starvation diet. War raises its bloody head frequently and poems such as ‘This is What I Heard’, comparing the activities of the Israeli Army to those of bees ravaging a flower bed, are stunning and heart-breaking.
Top Ten Poetry Collections to Read or Re-read in 2015, written by Becky Cherriman for beckycherriman.com on Thursday, December 24, 2015
“Seni Seneviratne’s poetry reflects a fascination with the nuances of literary language. ‘Sitting for the Mistress’ employs an actual painting, the Portrait of Louise Keroualle, Duchess ofPortsmouth, French Mistress of Charles II, posing with her black child servant, Pierre Mignard,1682, currently hanging in the National Portrait gallery, as a starting-point for an exploration of margins and centre. Seneviratne brilliantly re-imagines the painting from the point of view of the marginalised black child servant. Using the imagery of a blackbird seeking liberation, the poem powerfully illustrates the revisionary capacity of poetry, as it challenges received white Anglocentric master narratives.”
Dr. Charlotte Beyer, Iota Magazine Issue 90
Wild Cinnamon & Winter Skin
“Wild Cinnamon and Winter Skin is a virtual master class between covers which represents two decades of Seni Seneviratne’s commitment to poetic craft. As in her poem “My Father’s Uncut Gems”—depicting rubies filled with fire-words, the elusive emotions of pearls floating in sea tears, and diamonds as tangled stories reflecting lovers’ memories—our guest has a special gift for noticing life’s hidden jewels of emotion, perception, sound and experience. She then transforms what might otherwise pass by unnoticed into forms that unexpectedly bring out their hidden rewards of significance.
Her pantoum—a poetic form whose roots reside in oral Malaysian tradition—uses the structure of quatrains—four line stanzas—to encompass the incommensurable chaos of the 2005 tsunami that swamped the birthplace of her father. Her poem “Last Visit to the Hospice” echoes Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” by melding the repetitive circular form of the villanelle—whose structure often lends itself to themes of music and dance—to the unexpected topic of death. But unlike Thomas, who encourages us to “rage, rage, against the dying of the light,” Senaviratne’s villanelle repeats a quiet sympathetic couplet showing one human being reaching out to another in the final stage of suffering: “I held his hand; it was the only thing to do, and quenched his quiet thirst with sips of water.”
The title poem “Cinnamon Roots” is a distillation of the poet’s search for identity triggered by the value of “cinnamon, sweet wood spice once traded like gold” from her ancestral home in Sri Lanka—filled with memories that she never experienced firsthand–which is mirrored in the yellowish brown shade of her skin now transported to the northern cold of the British Empire. Maturity at best brings with it a sense of perspective that enables celebration of what remains good and meaningful in life, and it is this quality that suffuses the writing of Seni Seneviratne. The poet’s vision is given over with consistent generosity and empathy towards the human spirit to a glorious populace of individuals—those who are probably unremarkable in the eyes of most people—but whose lives will be permanently commemorated with respect, dignity and affection through the poems in this collection. From the tableau of a daughter’s 18thbirthday breakfast table to the details of a home perm administered in the 1950s–from the depiction of a father as an isolated young boy emigrating to foreign shores to conjured images of a grandfather’s hands movingly injecting insulin for diabetes–these meticulous and life-affirming poetic portraits are unforgettable.”
Lauri Ramey, Professor of Creative Writing & English, California State University, Los Angeles. (November 2006)