Lady of Situations


LoSexchange-smPhilomela’s Story:Tapestry Poem 3

Time was shattered that day. My memory shot to pieces.
An ordered life thrown into chaos, changed forever.

My head’s full of ‘if onlys’. I see myself in a distant past;
days of innocence before betrayal. He was my sister’s husband

and he came like a brother, but he ground my life to dust.
Can I blame myself because I took safety for granted?

We were travelling to my sister but he broke the journey
with his invasion of my body, his murder of my soul.

When he was done, he accused my beauty for the crime
as if the way a woman looks can drive a man to violence?

Shamed though I was, I found my voice, swore I’d find a way
to tell but he took a knife to my tongue and left me speechless.

I thought I was lost, that my story was unspeakable but there’s
a certain kind of listening that heals, even in a cavern of silence.

© Seni Seneviratne


Click to see photos of the live performance.  

Lady of Situations is a collaboration with digital artist Shirley Harris, funded by the Arts Council, which took place over a period of eight months. It culminated in an exhibition and immersive performance which combined my poetry with theatre, digital art and music.  Drawing on the classical stories of Philomela and Tiresias, the piece explored timeless themes of power, gender, exile, and survival.  I began to write the poetic voices of Philomela and Tiresias after a series of collaborative photo-shoots from which the story had developed.   West Yorkshire based Theatre Director, Amanda Huxtable, worked with us on preparing the script for a sixty minute live performance piece.  The production, which also featured commissioned artworks, was launched as part of Sheffield’s Off the Shelf Festival in October 2016.

Live Performance

The performance begins with Philomela alone and exiled in a forest.  Half-woman, half-bird, she is  confined to a large nest on the forest floor trapped in the endless present of her recent trauma and unable to speak.    Tiresias, the narrator, acts as witness to the impact of Philomela’s trauma and becomes an ally in her process of recovery and healing.  Images of Philomela’s previous life are presented to the audience, combined with a soundtrack that echoes her sadness and chimes with the playing of live cello.  Philomela, though tongueless, finds ways to speak the unspeakable, including the creation of a tapestry in which she weaves her own story with others like hers.

Philomela’s Story – Audio from performance


Extracts from the script:

Tiresias: Opening lines

TiresiasThey say I’m a good listener. And these stone-blind eyes have blessed me with a second sight. Though some days it feels like more of a curse than a blessing – it’s hard to keep my balance on this tightrope above a faltering world. When you can read the sky’s omens and know how to follow the wisdom of birds, it makes for a precarious path between vision and madness.

But I’m used to walking through fire and ruin and there’s more than two sides to any story. I should know, I’ve tasted both sides of a gendered life and didn’t rest easy in either place. There’s comfort in a certain kind of metamorphosis.

This woman’s story is a hall of mirrors. There are many versions. Betrayal is at the heart of all of them. In this one you find her in a riven place where lichen clots the bark of trees. Black slate erupts like ancient standing stones. Old voices in the wind play tricks. And nature seems to be without mercy. It may look like a harsh place to enter but don’t be afraid. Come with me. I’ve been burned by my own monsters and survived to tell the truth of it.

© Seni Seneviratne

8ec83a3b70630c0f927f802dbe656e09Tiresias: Calling for Tiresias (Scene 2)

Listen to her strange cries, her distracted rage. Listen again for the whirr of her silenced words on a wingbeat. Listen. Not as bystanders but as witnesses. From her tongueless cavern, she will begin to throw shafts of light on unspeakable things. Be assured of this. Truth, like water, will out beyond silence. A trickle or a deluge, it matters not.

© Seni Seneviratne






Philomela: Remembering (Scene 4) 


In those days, I needed the necessary rituals
of solitude. I was a woman who craved time

and space, long hours of lingering, before
blank canvas, before the naming of colours.

Accountable only to my palette and brushes,
I set loose an abundance of colour – viridian,

vermilion, raw umber, cobalt, yellow ochre,
burnt sienna, titanium, lamp black, lead white.

I abandoned myself to the detail of a ram’s skull
the petal of a rose, the curve of a pomegranate,

the outline of a crow’s beak. Nothing too small
for my attention, as I tracked the movement of light.

Art was my passion. It was never easy. I stepped
into the uneasy, the unknown. The time it takes

to begin, the faith it takes to continue, to reach
an uncertain destination. That’s the beauty of it.

I had fears too, that my art would consume me,
make me unloved, unloveable. Women, after all

are not meant to put our work above all else –
so many calls on our time, people to attend to.

As if what we create is not a way of paying attention:
painting a flame in the darkness, bringing the petal

of a dead rose to life again, reimagining our reflections
in this compassionate capturing of transient beauty.

© Seni Seneviratne


mg-6382da_smTiresias: Remembering(Scene4) 

Look in the mirror. Do you see yourself holding back like me in that place of uncertainty? You want to help but you don’t know when or how to step forward. In any case what’s true about a reflection? Mirrors often play tricks. One minute you exist. The next you’re gone.

It’s easy enough to disappear like that from a life. One minute you’re living it, the next you’re forced to vanish. You run away, you’re chased away, you’re taken away from everything you took for granted.   The remnants of an ordinary life disappear in the distance. You join a multitude of migrants, all carrying a story, looking for somewhere safe to set it down and build a life again.

You walk a tightrope between hope and despair. You memorise the uses of forgiveness. Someone shows you your face in the mirror and you don’t recognize yourself.   You are judged for your journey, suspected for your silence.

© Seni Seneviratne


phil15_editPhilomela: Kinship (Scene5) 

I gave up on humanity,
looked for succour in the language of birds,
in their comings and goings to a nest in the trees.

I watched how they gathered
the smallest things. How their weaving made circles.
I began to see how one stem could fit with another,

each fibre a memory in its proper place
and this damaged self learned how to build, learned
the uses of a beak. I was a creature among creatures

beginning to know the stillness of forest ways.
No judgement, no shame and water, like a sanctuary
was always running, always knew where it was going.

I gathered birchwood branches,
like time in no particular order, from the chaos
of bark, tied each one piece by piece. It took patience.

This easing of curved bark, this tying
and retying, over and over is how
I loved myself again, reordering the tricks

of time, conjuring survival. Some days,
I was tempted to make fire, burn everything
and disappear forever, surrendering

to a stolen future. But hope was another kind
of flame. In daylight, I considered the uses
of vengeance. At night, I fell exhausted

into nightmares but my own feathered nest
was waiting each morning, just as I had left it,
something to take hold of, another use for my knife.

© Seni Seneviratne


When weaving beginsTiresias: Tapestry (Scene 6)

The Lady of the Forest begins to weave her own story with others like hers. When one woman speaks out a crack appears in the wall of silence. So many more stories are chipping away at the mortar. They begin to break through, like water through a crumbling dam, weakening the walls, bringing the possibility of its downfall closer.

© Seni Seneviratne




_mg_6354Philomela: Tapestry (Scene 6) 

It occurs to me, I could be trapped here forever,
inside this magnitude of silence unless someone

knows how to listen. I’ve no use for old comforts.
Here, moss and fleece soothe the chill in my bones

as I lie under the moon’s milky light. I may become
an oak tree, gather warp and weft in the tapestry

of my branches, to make new cloth. When weaving
begins, could the truth become a kind of vengeance?

© Seni Seneviratne


Tapestry Poem 1

katehandssmallSlave Lodge

She is the woman who, after disappearing in the curse
of a ship, finds herself newly arrived under the mountain.

They call her no name, then a new name in another language,
they write her name on page 472, Slave Lodge Census 1714.

Maria of Ceylon, counted, accounted for in the roll call,
in a pebbled courtyard where she counts stones,

digs at the dirt in cracks between the stones, marks hours
until the hour when the doors are opened for the pleasure

of free men. No, in any language, should be understood,
but she is the silenced goods and worth three inches of tobacco

to the man who’s trading her. When men with strange voices
fall on her in turn, she is the woman with numbers rattling

behind her teeth – eka, deka, tuna, hatara, paha, haya, hata,
ata, navaya, dahaya – counting stones, counting shapes

in the red of her eyelids, who is unravelling threads of herself.
She pulls them out, lays them warp and weft, on the stone floor,

reweaves the fabric of her flesh. She is the woman who is waiting
for the rain, waiting for the Yala Monsoon to uproot her silence.

© Seni Seneviratne


Tapestry Poem 2

_mg_6428A Girl in the Woods

I make myself clean in the forest,
I brush my arms over the ferns.
It’s better when it rains and
the forest is sighing with damp.

It holds water like a sacrifice.
I give it blood. It holds blood.
The trees give me their silence.
Always there, under the moon,

I walk in the forest until my lungs ache.
I walk fast, up bouldered paths. I lose
the way. It’s better like that, losing
your way. No hope of being found.

There’s nothing to lie in the dark
waiting for, biting your lip. Nothing
to wait for and want, so it’s over and
done with. Nothing to be blamed for.

You don’t have to be clean, or worry
how you look. You can get clean there.
You can lean against the bark of a tree
and make yourself clean. No-one sees.

Muddy girl in the woods, painting it red.
And leaves make good bandages.
You fix them like a bracelet. Fix them.
Fix everything. No-one ever needs to know.

© Seni Seneviratne


Tapestry Poem 4

When one woman speaks outIf Only

She takes diazepam to numb the shape
of those lip-read messages she collides

with in the attic where the coronation tin
is full of Uncle Harry’s medals.

She could spit on them or make up any story
amongst the bric-a-brac. It was easy to pluck

one red leaf and squeeze it between the pages
of old books until it resembled parchment.

And no matter what she did, no-one else
did their best. He may have died a hero

but his bones are quieter than she needs.
It was never her nerves and it could have

been otherwise if only someone had netted
the butterflies and let them speak.

© Seni Seneviratne


moving-forwardPhilomela: Leaving the Forest (Scene7)

I thought I was silenced forever, but
nature brings its small mercies and

I have conjured the means of survival
inside this endless present. New wings

can grow from the smallest beginnings
of courage. This kinship has brought me

a new kind of listening. It breeds hope
not vengeance. I mark her out now

as my witness. My enemies will be called
to account. I will return the gaze. I will

have my wild justice. This lady of the forest
is awake and my wings mean to fly.

© Seni Seneviratne

Photos: S Harris

Feedback on live performance:

“Beautifully remarkable. Remarkably beautiful. A poignant mixture of sensuous experiences: intriguing, emotional and inspirational. You took me on a journey to a special place – one that is freeing and evocative; thoughtful and spiritual. Beauty in essence and form. Props were masterful and sound resonant of all levels of feelings. Poised movements and intoned words shed light on our own personal stories and our troubled world.”

“It is a joy – and very healing to watch something when you can feel that every detail has been thought about and polished to shine the deep meanings without laboring them.”

“Yes, it’s all locked in my mind with fleeting, haunting imagery and the rich tapestry of music, voice and text. I was struck by Tiresias’ blighted visionary sight and Philomela’s searching and penetrating look as the means by which they work together to enable Philomela’s flight to freedom.”

“Beautifully performed and executed. Lovely set and words to remember.”

“Very powerful and evocative – a fully engaging, thought provoking piece. Fabulous.”

“Last night on my way home with my hand on my heart looking forward to thinking about this work for days to come. Thank you.”

theatredeli front….Yet if the gods

Are watching, if heaven’s power means anything,
Unless my ruins shared by all the world,
You’ll pay my score one day. I’ll shed my shame
And shout what you have done. If I’ve the chance,
I’ll walk among the crowds: or if I’m held
Locked in the woods, my voice shall fill the woods
And move the rocks to pity…

(From Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Book VI )

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