On reading Shirani Rajapakse’s “Chant of a Million Women”

In Shirani Rajapakse’s Chant of a Million Women (self-published, 2017) we have poems that narrate the lives of Sri Lankan women and their relationships with men. It is at its core, a criticism of the innate sexist culture of Sri Lanka and the poems vibrate with action, gesture, and compassion, describing horrible realities. However I have to note that, sadly, there are too many faults of language, concision and sentimentality. The author, I have to say, is guilty of bad editing. Where perfect endings, lines or stanza breaks, could exist, the author adds too many superfluous elements, sometimes whole stanzas that unbalance otherwise perfect poems. The ideas and content discussed and described in the poems are incredibly moving and hit close to home to a third world native like myself, but the bad editing fails the book. Too many examples of this; in the poem “She Thought She Knew it All,” a poem about poetic identity in the said country, the failed editing surfaces. The lines "and feel the solace that someone / empathized in a world / full of no meaning" are sentimental in the expression of the emotion described and have a grammatical error, things not forgiven to poets. The emotion expressed feels childish, unedited, uncrafted, and I am left confused by the line "full of no meaning" where 'meaningless' could have done fine. Lines should be crafted by necessity and this is a recurring problem in the book: the author is guilty of superflux. Then the poem continues and still holds effect up to the 27th line, the perfect ending having been nailed at "No one else gave a damn," but the author adds 5 more unnecessary lines which prolong this spirit of sentimental superflux and my negative criticism of the book. Instead of being charmed, I am left regretting.

 

 “They rode in cars with tinted glass.
They read a different verse.
She was not counted.
But she didn’t know.
Ignorance is such bliss.”

 

What about the “tinted glass”? How is it relevant to the poem that “She was not counted”… or couldn’t there be a better expression, one with more poetic cadence and that also solidifies the trajectory of the poem? The last line crushes whatever effect the poem had created, and I am left wondering about its necessity and also about the author’s command of her craft. If we take the poem, “In The House at The End of The Road,” it was full of potential, but some unnecessary lines hurt it as well.  

 

“She plucked
her breasts because
she said they didn’t fit.
She was
meant to be male, but

they had grown on their own,
large and voluminous
sticking out for all to see like buoys in the sea.
Obstinate, rude and beckoning
to all. Come see me
defy the rules.

I stand up to gravity.

They cramped her style.
She couldn’t move her arms
or bend down to touch
the ground.

So she ripped them out,
one by one.
Unlike the Amazons, they only removed one.
It was an occupational hazard.
That’s what they said.

They couldn’t aim their bows
to defend their realm.
But she had nothing to defend.
Except her annoyance at
being female.”

 

Some minor changes in line preserve the humor and meaning of this poem while not killing the effect and main intention on the reader.

 

She plucked her breasts
because they didn't fit

they had grown on their own
large and voluminous
sticking out for all to see like buoys. 
Obstinate, rude and beckoning
to all. Come see me 
I stand up to gravity 

They cramped her style.
She couldn't move her arms
or bend to down to touch
the ground.

So one by one
she ripped them out
unlike the Amazons
who only removed one.
An occupational hazard
is what they said.
They couldn't aim their bows.

But she had nothing to defend
except her annoyance
at having breasts.

 

Just minor editing modifications bring back an element of sharpness to the poem and preserve its humor. As we travel along with the author into places where few Americans have been, places where men feel entitled to a woman’s body, places where money and status can also make you own people, the poem “Dream of the House Maid” captures the purpose of the book beautifully. It is both a tender and direct poem that tells the tragedy of a housemaid tortured by her employers. I think lines 4-6 capture this well:

 

“You got much more than you bargained for,
with a salary paid in nails.

Hard as hell.”

 

This poem is sharp and takes the reader to a place of emotional torment. The poem following that poem, “Mutilated,” also grounds us in the abuse this sexist culture imposes on women. It is a heartbreaking portrayal of womanhood and the imagery is powerful, that of a woman’s lips sealed shut and the woman left seeing the world through “vermillion tears / in the rain, running all over.” These are two of the good poems in this book and they show the poet’s talents: “Lips, inviting, delicious pink, sealed / shut. / Words are damned, can barely trickle / out. / Sewn up tight, threads crisscross an / ugly /design like embroidery by / an unknown hand done hurriedly…” (“Mutilated”). She creates a powerful and symbolic image in the poem’s main persona, a Madonna who, instead of bearing a son who will die for others, is herself the martyr who “finds it hard / to sing sweet songs of longing…”

I am not saying that all the poems in this book are bad. Nor am I saying that the poet is bad. I am, however, saying that the book as whole is bad because the poet failed at editing too many poems that seemed like first drafts. I hope Shirani Rajapakse takes my criticism as constructive and pursues poetry. And that next time, I’ll be writing a praise instead of a criticism.

 

 

Darryl Wawa

Darryl Wawa is a Port-au-Prince born Haitian-American who studied Photography and Creative writing. He enjoys chocolate and good books. That said, maybe a movie is a good book. He loves to work with images and words and their pairing.

 

Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Saturday, November 10, 2018 - 23:12