Word and Violin–Spoken Word Poems

Pireeni Sundaralingam with accompaniment by Colm O’Riain

Pireeni and Colm
These are the letters I leave behind me,

dull lines written for the censor’s eye.

There are no stories here, only headlines,

statements of fact, shielding the truth.

But how can I write my life without politics

when each word placed is part of an equation?

Talk of my income will be translated

into an exact amount for blackmail or ransom;

Talk of our culture will be interpreted

as a covert call to arms.

I cannot tell you

that I am learning our language,

that I stand as a poet on a Western stage

crying out the loss of our country.

I cannot send you

photographs or cassette tapes.

You will not see my hair turn gray

or my voice change accent

as I become American.

I cannot even send you postcards

because such pictures

are considered currency in our country

and will go home with the postman

to be traded for food.

I write these words for you

knowing the line of people that stands between us:

my cousin, who will sit beside you, translating,

the villagers, hoping for news of their families,

and the government clerk, who will slit open

this letter, like all the others,

checking each word, over and over,

the most sensitive reader I could ask for.


Traipsing across sports grounds

picked clean by equator sun,

we visit my father’s school,

long-distance callers

at the museum of memory.

My father points out the places

where, giggling, his friends once sat,

names that belong to old men

in London and Toronto now, names

that could barely fit behind these desks.

His teacher remains unchanged.

Paper-dry voice crackling

he dictates the rites of duty and decorum,

the triumph of courtesy and reason

over the casual accident of race.

It is Jaffna, 1983.

It is one day in a long, hot summer.

It is one day, seconds away from war.

Decades from now, this is all that I’ll remember

of that visit to that country:

the sand dust in the air,

the sun, bleaching dry the shutters,

and the walls, empty of pictures,

not even a map of the world.


Because evening is not just the end of the day

but the drawing together of death’s dark forces,

because night is a place through which shadows stalk

and a dynasty of our ghosts still wanders,

because I am the daughter of your only daughter

when our sons are all dead

and the names of our living have been scattered,

you will weave these dark time prayers for me,

pour water, biting like steel, through my fingers,

place ash, sacred, between my eyes.


holding a house whose rooms have been emptied,

where the heirlooms have vanished

and the photographs of our men

are garlanded with silence,

you will light these camphor lamps for me,

chant mantras that pull down planets,

name stars that will stay faithful,

following my footsteps,

even into exile.


My country is a white blindness,

an absence of newsprint,

a vacuum of words,

the falling snow of radio static.

So where is there left

for me to pour out my secrets?

I will dig graves deep in the earth for them.

I will tear holes in the white silence of the page

and bury the words of witness

deep in the tomb of the text.

Let them bear fruit there,

let the sprouting grasses shout out their secrets,

let the blade-cut reeds blare out their names.

Pireeni Sudaralingam and Colm O’Riain were recent Visiting Artists at Berklee.