A glance from heaven to earth | Daily News


A glance from heaven to earth

Title: The Kingfisher
Author: Wimal Dissanayake
Publisher: Surasa Publishers

Wimal Dissanayake, who is a well-known Sri Lankan poet, penned his early debut poetry collection Akal Wessa (Untimely Rain) while he was an undergraduate at Peradeniya University in 1960. Since he has published ten poetry collections in Sinhala, the latest being Ithihasaya Sinasey (History Laughs). After publishing ten Sinhala poetry books, Dissanayake bestows poetry lovers his debut English poetry collection, The Kingfisher, over 50 years after his first poetry collection.

It is not well-known among Sri Lankans that Dissanayake has been publishing English poems while he was living overseas. Some of his works have appeared in prestigious literary journals such as Atlantic Monthly.

Wimal Dissanayake, a bilingual author, and an academic (in our knowledge, Dissanayake is the only Sri Lankan who held professorships of Sinhala and English. Dissanayake’s capacity to produce world-class work in English on a vast array of subjects covering titles such as Melodrama and Asian Cinema (Cambridge University Press); New Chinese Cinema (with Kwok-kan Tam, Oxford University Press);Colonialism and Nationalism in Asian Cinema, (Indiana University Press);Popular Culture in a Globalised India, (with K. Moti Gokulsing, Routledge); Rethinking Third Cinema, (with Anthony Guneratne, Routledge); Transnational Asia Pacific: Gender, Culture, and the Public Sphere (with Shirley Geok-lin Lim and Larry E Smith, University of Illinois Press). Many of these publications are used as textbooks in various universities throughout the world, perhaps a rare academic privilege only a handful of Sri Lankan born academics could claim.

In addition to these works, Dissanayake has also published widely on communication theory (Asian Perspective) and cultural studies. These works illustrate Dissanayake’s mastery of the English language. His other two English works (Enabling Tradition: Four Sinhala Cultural Intellectuals and Sinhala Novel and the Public Sphere: Three Illustrative Moments) published in Sri Lanka examines hitherto unexplored aspects of Sri Lankan literature and cultural intellectuals.

Dissanayake’s debut English poetry collection merits attention for three reasons. First, the mastery of his English poetic diction that emerges through this collection. Second, the novelty of themes he captures and presents. Third, he provides a classic example that only a gifted and talented bi-lingual writer can display mastery of more than one language. In Dissanaykes’s case, his ability to craft excellent poetry both in Sinhala and English is evident. Dissanayake’s English poetry collection raises a crucial issue; and a relevant point about Sri Lankan authors writing in Sinhala and English, especially poetry.

Dissanayake’s collection also challenges the opinion of Sri Lanka’s poet laureate Gunadasa Amarasekara who for some time, maintained the view that Sri Lankan writers should not write other than in their native language.

In an interview with one of the writers (SM), ten years ago this month, Gunadasa Amarasekara shot down bilingual creativity (http://archives.dailynews.lk/2009/09/30/art01.asp). His views need to be reflected when we evaluate Dissanayake’s English poetry collection.

Amarasekara says:

Quote begins:

“You should write to your immediate audience. So to say, you have to write in the indigenous language.”

Quote ends.

SM quoted him back then with the following question:

“What is wrong with writing in English, then?” Amarasekara questioned the audience of Sri Lankan English authors.

Quote begins:

Writing in English indicates a certain psychological condition: inferiority complex. Some local English novelists do not seem to have read classical literature at all”.

Quote ends.

Amarasekara expressed strong views against Sri Lankan authors writing in English medium.

Quote begins:

“If we are to write a creative piece in English, then it should have a universal appeal, shouldn’t it? I don’t think our Sri Lankan English literature has a universal appeal. In fact, I have never seen our English publications in European markets.”

Quote ends.

If Sinhala literature stagnates, Amarasekara went on to say that Sri Lankan English literature should be a worse case then. Most of the Sinhalese writers are at least familiar with the local ‘pulsebeat’ (hadabasa, in Amarasekara’s words). Amarasekara has a strong opinion about Sri Lankan English writers.

Quote begins:

“English writers have to take up the challenge of making the reader familiar with the local environment. It will nevertheless sound foreign as well as alienated.

Quote ends.

We have no intention to question the wisdom of Sri Lanka’s poet laureate as we grew up and read his work with admiration. Many bilingual scribes have caused the miscarriage of Amarasekara’s theory. That caucus includes Ediriweera Sarachchandra, a contemporary of Amarasekara, and the contemporary Sri Lankan writer Daya Dissanayake.

As we know, Professor Dissanayake uses English language only in his academic works. He has also published on several subjects in Sinhala introducing modern literary concepts in Sinhala covering modern theories on literature, criticism, and cultural studies, and have received national awards.

What has for so long been hidden – or wilfully ignored – is now on the public domain as a crisp white book of poetry in English penned by Dissanayake. Dressed in a kingfisher attire, the title builds the wall. Yes, the title is ‘Kingfisher’.

Amarasekara’s argument may not win the case in Dissanayake’s latest poetry collection. For someone well familiar with Dissanayake’s Sinhalese poetry, the verses found in the English language is either equal or superior to his Sinhala work. This notion we fail to see as there is Otherness in the writer. With that thought in mind, we began reading Dissanayake’s English poetry collection.

William Shakespeare wrote in Mid-Summer Night’s Dream (Act V, Scene 1): “The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling, doth glance from heaven to Earth, from Earth to heaven; And as imagination bodies forth the forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen turns them to shape, and gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name; such tricks hath strong imagination.”

This Shakespearean quote could be used to summarise a bulk of the work appearing in The Kingfisher as Dissanayake directs us how he has shapes and given birth to powerful metaphors and images proving that talented poets could “shape, and gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name; such tricks hath strong imagination.”

Dissanayake’s English poetry collection contains 79 poems. We are compelled to resist the urge to review every poem in this short piece. However, some poems call special attention. The first in this collection is, yet not the only one. Dissanayake’s innovative metaphors and imagery very much exist in this poem as in his Sinhala poetry. In this poem, he presents us a poem about a bird that we all know. Dissanayake infuses a universal presence to the creature. A poet’s business is to see what others see uniquely, as Shakespeare’s quote highlights.

In that case, some may argue that Isaac Newton was a poet because he experienced something extraordinary at the very moment an apple fell from a tree. It was an ‘aha moment’ for Newton. Thoughtful Archimedes forgot to dress after he discovered the theory behind rising water in his bathtub giving humans a new theory on mathematics. It was a Eureka moment for him. This famous anecdote of Archimedes running in the birthday suit is a case in point.

It reminds us that the poets also come under greatest innovators. The best poets are the innovators of language; who can give new meanings to words. They are morbidly obsessed with the third eye, which is termed imagination in the common man’s parlance.

Of Sri Lankans, it is hard to find someone who has not seen a kingfisher. At least they have heard its name in Sinhala: pilihiduwa. We have seen enough kingfishers sitting on a branch of a tree in our backyards, and suddenly rising to the skies with a fish in its beak, at times. But none of us had an aha moment. Nor a Eureka encounter.

This spell, though brief, has injected distinctive contemplation into Dissanayake. In turn, he converts that collective experience into words – a sublime kind of transliteration. Dissanayake sees what most of us do not see through his poetic imagination, mastered with finely crafted diction. If someone needs to delve into the gulf between observation and understanding, they must read this brief poem to appreciate Dissanayake’s poetic craftsmanship.

The Kingfisher

Sits at the edge

Of the branch.

That much, we all see. But in the line that emerges comes Dissanayake’s subtlety of observation.

Cunningness folded

Into a leaf.

Kingfisher is cunning by instinct. But we see Newton’s metamorphoses into Dissanayake who sees a different perspective when he considers the cunningness folded into a leaf.

Holding a fish

At the hook end of

His thoughts.

Has the Kingfisher made his hunt? We think not. It is still meditating upon the right opportunity to dawn. However, as readers, our first reading makes the impression that it has made the hunt. The next line reminds us that we are in the wrong.

It is encircled in


In poetry, Dissanayaka is sparse in his choice of words. Yet, he chooses silence twice. It just makes the phenomenon more powerful. Dissanayake’s Kingfisher is not the same nefarious creature we have seen before. He embodies the intense concentration that is an integral part of Orientalism which gradually seeped into its counterpart. This moment of intense focus offers an opportunity to appreciate some best poems penned by a widely acclaimed Sri Lankan born poet, and an academic offering a rare opportunity for readers beyond our narrow shores elevating Sri Lankan poetry to larger oceans and horizons.

Reviewed by Dr Sunil Govinnage and Sachitra Mahendra

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