Author: Asgar Hussein
Publisher: Sarasavi Publishers, Colombo, Sri Lanka
It has been a long time since I have read a first poetry collection that delivers so much power and passion. This particular aspect of the book is not evident in its opening pages.
In quiet verses, drawn possibly from the body of his early writing, Asgar Hussein begins by reflecting upon certain universal themes that haunt us all; and while the reader notes the range and variety of his subjects, it is some time before the poet's authentic and individual voice can be heard.
When it does, it establishes its owner as deeply concerned with language, and possessed of a strikingly original mind. One of the pleasures of this collection rests in the way Asgar Hussein's imagination mints, again and again, the unforgettable phrase:
I am cautious, slow, like a snail on the edge of a blade.
Asgar Hussein is a young Sri Lankan writer.
He was born in Kandy in 1972, and educated in Colombo. He worked at various places - including a pharmacy, a tea firm, a studio and a textile shop - before drifting to journalism.
For several years, Hussein wrote for The Sunday Leader, a prominent national
He has also contributed to reputed corporate magazines and literary journals.
He holds a BA Degree in the Social Sciences, and is a member of the Wadiya Group, a literary circle that is making a notable impact on Sri Lankan English literature.
Or, as in 'Waiting', where the earth longs for rain, 'lips cracked', But the sky does not tip its cup.
When this feeling for language links up with the poet's reflections on the passage of time, it does so to remarkable effect. Addressing Time in poem after poem, as the thief of life, Hussein employs a tone which beckons the reader into a conversation that is as fresh in its images as it is unusual in its approach to a perennial theme.
You grow, like a plague you grow;
You swim in my veins
Taking me to the certain mouth
Of your cave - your great democracy
So far, I have escaped your live wires, Your mosquitoes, your bolts
Of lightning, your angry fires,
Your tsunami waves and your hordes
Of viruses; You still blow
Cigarette smoke in my face,
And no zebra crossing is completely safe.
How will I enter your territory,
Your state beneath the rubble of epitaphs?
These lines from Like an Approaching Shadow pose questions that everyone face sooner or later; and those who have managed to elude them till now, cannot escape the challenge posed in a poem titled 'Time speaks to Man':
... You play with atoms and genes -You can reduce cities to ash
And tamper with nature;
You know the ways of galaxies,
Viruses and even your own psyche;
But do you truly know me?
Can you slow me down
Or concoct the elixir of life?"
`Live in the most sacred places!', 'Study the esoteric works!' and 'Perform the arcane rituals!', the poet directs through his verses. No matter how much man tries to call on his skill and genius,
...Can you prevent your decay
To oblivion and bone as I flow forth?
Shadowed by master-theme of inevitable passage of time, Hussein's verse moves from the general to the particular: the mystic, who vainly attempts to attain mastery of the `eternal truth'; a forest spirit who laments that urban 'structures' and 'cold tarred roads' have grown up where there was once a forest 'that pulsed like nature's heart'; the devaluing of currency (in 'The Centenarian's Ten Cents' and 'The Inquisition')'; a family home which is now a heap of rubble that even its ghosts have abandoned ('That House'); or a clay hill built by termites that once was home to an intricate civil society but, like everything else that comes under the poet's eye, loses its character with passing time, and its very identity.
There are many entertaining moments in this collection, in which the poet's meditations take up the ironies of history. One such moment occurs in 'Of Fungi and Beauty', when the poet notes wryly how scientific research has invaded the sanctity of gomara, the golden beauty spots on women's complexions that were much cherished by the poets of ancient times:
Village boys would have
Repeated the verses
Under the shade of kumbuk trees,
Praising their lovers
Blessed with such beauty spots,
Ecstatic in their presence,
Like bees drunk on nectar.
Alas, time has destroyed even this, for with the arrival of Dr Aldo Castellani, the Italian physician who served in Sri Lanka for twelve years early last century,
The old verses lost their flavour
Under his microscope;
Here is a fungus, he announced,
And centuries of poetry
Glared at him with cold eyes.
As the book moves to its end, its mood becomes more sombre. It is tragic but inevitable, as the nation goes through its present period of bloody struggle and flight, that the imaginations of young poets should be haunted by images of war. Some of the best and most vividly realized poems in this collection take up the subject of death in battle. In Now that I am a Man, we hear the voice of a young soldier who has been forced to 'put away childish things'.
One after another, the playful images of his childhood give way to horrific images of war: the fire crackers of 'after school moments' morph into charred body fragments flung up by an exploding jeep; liquid squirted from a bud changes into metal sprayed at men, 'my finger hard on the trigger'; and the 'winged fruit of so many hora trees', descending like helicopters over a quiet village, turn into a terrible reality:
Now I rush through grass in tumult
Into the iron thing with rotating blades;
It carries me over palmyra trees
Toward my last battle.
And yet there is room here too for meditation and reflection, as in Modern Warfare, an ironic overview of war in history. Hannibal, Alexander, Dutugemunu and Elara are eclipsed and forgotten, as war 'loses its memory', its glory and its skill, spurning 'the art of the chessboard and the valour of a wild charge':
Now you can die without a fight
Or kill without risk
War thinks the finger
is the hero
Press a button for an airstrike
Press a button for a landmine blast
Or wait at the wrong place
At the wrong time
And die without the chance
For a few seconds of courage ...
Indeed, as Hussein's poems on the subject justly say:
War does not want to inspire epics anymore
But it still needs the horror.
Altogether, this is an outstanding book, so much so that it is hard to accept it as a first collection of the poet. Hussein strikes me as a true poet, capable of unusual range and variety of subject, and possessing, most importantly, an authentic and original voice.
I shall look forward to his next volume of poetry, even as I read and re-read this on