Writers like Kanchana Priyakantha are path breakers for a new breed of writers: writers whose first language is not English yet who choose to use English for whatever the reason in their compositions. Being a path breaker is a tough job. Literary forests, unlike those in the fairy tales Priyakantha seems to love so much, do not accommodate adventurous outsiders by bending sideways to show them their destined paths. In fact the field of English language writing is inbred to the extent that relationships among practitioners of this genre are almost incestuous. Most of these men and women guard their acre of the literary earth with such territorialism that trespassing is not recommended for the fainthearted. Therefore, the possibility of being laughed off of the foothills of the fragrant mounts frequented by the English speaking Muses and their male counterparts and the subsequent financial loss that is sure to follow could never be far from the mind of an outsider to the field of English literature in Sri Lanka. Looked at from this point of view, Priyakantha is doubly bold; for, not only does she write in English but also publishes her own books and books written by writers like her with scant regard to the sensitivities of the established.
Priyakantha’s The Virgin Wife is a collection of poems that falls within the traditional range of sensibilities of the writer’s age and socio-economic sphere. Her poetry deals with themes such as female agency, love, soul, self-discovery, identity, and relationships.
Female agency is a main theme in Priyakantha’s work. In “Another Eve”, the poetic persona is Eve, the first woman (?). Interestingly there are no references to either Adam or God. The Serpent is a-sexual. Therefore one could say that this poem is gynocentric in its outlook. Eve is an outsider who goes to the Garden of Eden. It does not seem as she belongs there. She has pre-knowledge of a particular tree being forbidden but chooses to fall asleep under that very tree anyway. Is this an indication of an inherent streak of rebelliousness? In her sleep Eve dreams and in her dream the serpent comes to her. Is this a subliminal desire in her for knowledge and agency? With words like ‘silly’ and ‘sweet’ thrown both ways, the dialogue between the serpent in Eve’s dream and Eve borders on playful bantering or even outright flirtation. It is significant that the poet choses to spell serpent with a lower case ‘s’ which deprives it the traditional agency conferred on the Biblical Serpent. Then what does this particular ‘serpent’ represent? Is it a representation of evil, patriarchy, or something entirely different and positive?
As in the Biblical version the serpent tries to compromise Eve. However, the poet adds a new twist to the old story – Eve in the poem is a carnivore. It would have been interesting had Eve eaten the serpent! Here, it is Eve, not God, that condemns the serpent to hell: “So, go to hell and suffer.” Eve, the narrator of poem as well as woman in the dream, is a woman with agency. But the narrator can be assertive only up to a certain point; thereafter she has to resort to dreaming. “Flightless Birds”, too, is a delightful poem on the powerless claiming agency. Being called an ostrich awakens a sense of inherent power in the poetic persona. So she says [sic.]: “But do you know/ what it’s capable of?/Don’t know?/Discovery would do some good.”
Soul, losing one’s soul and the rediscovery of it, is a prominent focus in the collection. In “For You”, the first stanza the poetic persona presents a desire for a safe haven for her love to dwell. The use of “déjà vu” implies that this meeting of souls in an out of the world place is something that had happened before. It is implied that some essence of the two souls is always left behind in the haven so that there would not be a complete severance of the bond between the two.
The narrator of “Farewell to Charms” is lost in a misty “deep dark wood” – Is this an echo of Frost’s poem “Stopping by the Woods”? She is searching for a well-lit path. The narrator has lost her soul due to “freakishly fake” flattery and “sweet sour promises” which were predestined to be broken. Who/what is this soul? She is issuing entreaties for the soul to resurrect itself. Donne-like, the poetic persona declares that she has not lost faith and the pain will heal itself as soon as the soul and she get together. The connection between the title and the content of the poem is not really clear. Does it imply a renunciation?
Another often revisited theme in this collection is relationships and the pressure they impose on one’s identity. “Anticipation” is a play on what women said to expect from their lovers. There are references to well-known 19th century lovers: Rochester, Heathcliff, Darcy, and Eugene. The Great Gatsby – a 20th century American lover - is also thrown into the equation, probably to give it a more modern twist. The poetic persona says she is waiting for a lover like one of the above. She is not quite sure of who exactly would please her. In the meantime she has to present a tranquil surface to the world. She feels that this effort puts too much pressure on her and she compares herself to a volcano ready to erupt. Ultimately, she rejects all the fictional lovers and settles on some unnamed lover. Yet even at the end of the poem she is still waiting unfulfilled, it seems.
In “Encounter” the poetic persona confesses to a dream in which she has met someone. Interestingly, the eyes of the two ‘lovers’ never meet thereby indicating that there is something false about their relationship. The relationship is never specified: “neither foe nor friend”; “Not acquaintances but more”. However, the narrator feels a deep attachment towards the other person: “I call your name”. But she is not sure whether that person feels the same about her: “wonder you do the same”. She senses that their relationship would end soon. She seems to feel that theirs is a holiday romance – a stopgap measure for the male to while away time. So she asks whether the other party would leave at the end of the winter.
“Embrace” is an entreaty to someone to take the poetic persona as she is. She finds the hesitation of the other party a form of “intoxicated indecision”. A book that is worth reading, this is how she sees herself. The prospective reader is either blind to or sceptical of the value of the endeavour. So, she offers herself again to be read: “Here I am/ Once again”. But she herself does not know how long she would remain thus: “but till when?” she asks.
“The Key” refers to the ‘high society’ practice of exchanging partners at parties for variety in sexual experiences. The reference to the lipstick, “the blood red one”, implies bold sexuality and desire for sexual gratification. The woman advices her partner not to forget the all-important key “dealing pleasure”. However, the woman seems to have mixed feelings about the experience: “Distasteful holy pacts,” she calls the practice. But then in the next line she advices her partner (or is it herself she is advising?) to forget what she said and tells her “darling” “never/forget the key”.
“Colours” is an entreaty to celebrate life in the memory of a departed loved one. There seems to be some imbedded references to popular films like “Walk to Remember” and “Last September” in this.
“The Scream” is about how people present a happy facade to the world even in the face of great adversities – something as profound as one’s soul being in intolerable pain. But the poem ends positively with the poetic persona waiting to be healed.
“Fairy Tale” is an interesting comparison of life and fairy tales. Our desire to believe in fairy tales and the possibility of fairy-tale like relationships despite the mounting evidence against the advisability of harbouring such ideas is explored. At another level this is about our unwillingness to give up hope or our deep desire to believe in the comforting truism that good begets good and bad begets bad.
There are several poems that focus on the theme of self-discovery. The poetic persona in “Definition” (at the beginning, at least) appears untroubled by self-doubts. Then someone steps in “like a cop” and questions who she was. This plants doubts in the woman’s mind about who she was; she then contemplates on a series of options: is she a bitch or a goddess? She wonders whether she is someone sinister like Mr Hyde and Dr Jekyll; Alex Rover’s drover Alexandra Rover; or even a hibernating volcano that might erupt at any moment. She is doubtful of ever finding who she was and wonders whether it would really be important to the “cop”. In the end she remembers something said by Bernard Shaw: “You see things as they are;/ and you say why? I dream things/ that never were;/ and I say why not?” The entire endeavour leaves her exhausted.
“The Fake” on the other hand is about someone who plays many parts. He is entrapped by his own play acting so there is no ‘real’ him. He is incapable of real feelings. In the end he is warned of being checkmated by the ‘queen’ and thrown into the oblivion away from the limelight he craves from which “recovery is a bluff’. And finally in “The Request” the poetic persona feels that the other party is losing himself by playacting and warns him against this possibility. It is an appeal for someone to be true to himself. She sees being oneself as being in a state of grace.
Priyakantha looks at familiar tales from a fresh point of view. “The Magic Mirror” is sequel of the popular fairy tale Snow White. The poem explores our fear of aging. The tale has come full circle. In the poem instead of the wicked stepmother it is an aging Snow White that stands in front of the magic mirror trying to reassure herself that she still was the prettiest of them all. In “The Black Swan” (which is undoubtedly based on the tale The Swan Lake), the poet adds a new twist to the well-known story: the prince chooses the black swan on his own with no magical interferences to speak of.
Natural world too gives inspiration to Priyakantha’s work. In “Heaven”, heaven is defined as a place of togetherness. This view certainly is a blow to the individualistic values upheld by the present-day society. “Clouds” on the other hand is a delightfully whimsical description of clouds and their supposed functions.
Priyakantha’s use of language swings from Renaissance to modern colloquial. I feel that her work would have benefitted more had she been more careful in her selection of words. In “Hear Me” she says:
This conundrum is a plague
The desire to get a glimpse of you,
The craving heart is so fond of you.
The passion wrapped in compassion.
The sanction is impassioned.
However, the poet is capable of using language with stunning effect when she chooses to be careful. In “Embrace” the first line, “hesitation is an intoxicated indecision,” attests to this.
Priyakantha is often crippled by her preoccupation with maintaining the end rhyme. Lines that could have ended more profitably for the poem are often saddled with ill-sitting words only to maintain the rhyme. In “Entreaty”:
Oh, Father, be gentle and let me plead;
The sour hear, it wounded and rudely does bleed.
Be the light, show me the path and please be the lead.
Let me rise after the fall to have the souls freed.
In “Unforgettable” the poet goes a step further and engages in a rather disastrous experiment with assonance in her attempt to create an internal rhythm:
In a bleak blank black day
So desperate dragging a dream dark,
A tricky trap trampled trust,
Miracles manipulated meanings mauled.
Yet, poems like “Clouds” in which the poet has not been too preoccupied with maintaining the end rhyme or internal rhythm tend to be effortless reads.
In general Priyakantha’s work deals with the sensibilities of a young urban middle class woman. There is a sense of genuineness in her attempts at self-expression that is often lacking in many other writers today. The quality of her work would have improved vastly had the poet sought the services of an editor and a proof-reader. Sadly these are facilities that are hard to come by for an aspiring writer who is outside the golden circle of the established English literati.