Vidyan Ravinthiran is a research fellow at Selwyn College, born to Sri Lankan parents , and Grun-tu-molani is his first collection of poetry. This is a large first collection: large in its desire to encompass everything from the poet’s history to the complexities of prose-style. Ravinthiran’s enthusiasm spills off the page but never outstrips the joy of his technical mastery. However, the difficulties here are two-fold: the first is Ravinthiran’s nervous relationship with the confessional mode, and the second is that his poetry can feel over-enchanted with its own cleverness at times.
First, the question of the confessional; Ravinthiran thanks Leontia Flynn for editing assistance in the book’s acknowledgements and, certainly, her influence shows. Flynn is a master of confessional poetry that carries its broader significance lightly, and which easily manages to gesture out towards difficult truths through subjective experience. Ravinthiran, forgivably in a first collection, lacks this levity, and this can make his confessional poems feel a little self-conscious. The opening poem in the collection, “Killing Fields”, documents the poet’s complicated relationship with his Sri Lankan heritage, finding strange echoes of himself in a documentary about the killing fields:
in the fired-on no-fire zone
with a name like mine.
Here Ravinthiran is razor-sharp: the staccato rhythm of ‘the fired-on no-fire zone’, the casual utterance of the impossibility. But the poem never quite ties up its threads, and ends:
I start to write this poem. Downstairs
plugs are pulled from sockets and I hear
a too-loud argument about defrosting.
These tiny domestic details should unsettle the reader or, perhaps, act as ballast to balance the content of the previous lines but instead falls slightly short. We’re too aware of the poetic-voice-as-poet, and too aware that what we’ve been reading is created text. Of course it isn’t inappropriate – nor is it new – to draw attention to the artificiality of poetry or the presence of the author – but Ravinthiran intrudes on his own narrative in a way that somehow short-circuits the poem.
Both “MTV” and “Zany White Poet” – poems where the first person voice is subsumed into wider cultural commentary – are more engagingly consistent. Here, Ravinthiran demonstrates himself to be a keen observer of culture, a satirist, and an excellent prose stylist. In “MTV”, the poetic voice is
far from our parents’ marble
we hastened to concur
while they hasten to occur
to fill every second with data.
The “ideally kinetic” images of dancers on MTV, or at parties, blur the discovery of identity – frenetic movement erases “the culture/ hesitations you get/ from a long take/ of anyone at ease”. An excess of information here slows the understanding, allows it to blur pleasurably, shifting from intellectual comprehension to aesthetic experience. “MTV” is a fascinating poem, which repeatedly drew me back.
Clearer in its mission, “Zany White Poet” is an excellent satire. The zany white poet “so liberated/ from history and ideas” that his work is empty: “a picture of nothing/ and very like”. History and ideas – the importance of genuine subject matter, engagement with lived and living political questions, is something that Ravinthiran values, even above poetic style, and “Zany White Poet” reminds us that poetry, as much as anything else, is a field where backward and elitist views still flourish.
It is worth saying that Ravinthiran’s poems are extremely self-conscious, particularly of accusations that he is a “too-smug stylist”, who compares the feeling of falling in love to that of encountering spontaneously written email prose so moving that it “reaffirms his faith in subject matter”. This is both charming and irritating. This investment in the act and status of poetic writing is understandable, but these assertions attempt to pre-empt or de-rail reader’s response, to lessen that ability to form independent conclusions about the narrative voice. Yet the collection doesn’t create an impression of smugness, – it showcases instead a fresh, interesting voice that would be all the fresher and more interesting if it stopped listening to itself so closely.