From a Borrowed Land, Shash Trevett
Speech and silence
From a Borrowed Land is a lush, beautiful publication detailing the plight of the Tamils in the Sri Lankan civil war, and giving voice to the experience of being a refugee. It contains both original poems and translations. The power (and sometimes futility) of speech and speaking out is explored throughout, as is the oppressive and stagnant quality of silence. I will focus on three poems to illustrate this.
First, ‘In Your Old Age’ addresses the speaker’s father, contrasting the joyful noisiness of life before ‘the Troubles’ with the silence that follows the war. Where once the father was surrounded by ‘laughter and companionship / the tinkling of Tamil / youth’, now he ‘sit[s] wrapped in a fug of silence’. This silence has also infected the landscapes of home: ‘It clots the green of the paddy fields.’
Then the long sequence entitled ‘Blue Lotus Flowers’, ‘written in the style of early classical Tamil poetry’, explores the futility of speech when the speaker is powerless. Each poem is subtitled ‘What She Says’ and is spoken by a figure who is waiting for a man (presumably a lover) to arrive. The poems read like a Tamil counterpart to Tennyson’s ‘Mariana’. ‘He comes and goes at will,’ says the speaker, ‘I wait, but he does not come’.
The landscape of ‘Blue Lotus Flowers’ (similar to ‘In Your Old Age’) stagnates to match the protagonist’s powerlessness:
And here by my waterless well
bandits threaten my laurel tree.
I have nothing to offer them.
A lizard skittles over the cactus
of my heart.
Finally, in contrast to this exploration of silence and futile speech, ‘Psalm’ vividly represents the force of a single word when spoken by those in authority. Much of the poem is in the shape of the word ‘No’, and is made up of the names of MPs who voted against the Dubs Amendment to allow unaccompanied refugee children to live in the UK.
This is a collection which movingly explores speech and silence in the mouths of both the powerful and the powerless.