Catterick Garrison
Hebden Bridge
Sowerby Bridge
Safe Words: The Million-Petalled Flower of Being Here by Vidyan Ravinthiran
Steve Whitaker, Literary Correspondent
Vidyan Ravinthiran
Philip Larkin’s sublime metaphorical distillation of the essence of existence resounds at least partly because decay and death represent a binary counterpoint in his poetics. The fact of life bursting forth like a flower from organic possibility gives meaning, almost, to the aeons of time before awakening; nothing, however, ‘contravenes the coming dark’ of death’s annihilation.

And in his brilliantly original new collection from Bloodaxe, Vidyan Ravinthiran opens up Larkin’s multiform flower of being to the reader’s scrutiny. His act is one of self-exposure, and there is bravery in his earnest revelation of all that is significant in his life and relationships. And ultimately, Ravinthiran is overwhelmed by a sense of awe at what the dynamic coloratura amounts to, which is removed from the amazement of the watchers of the skies on the book’s cover only by time’s apportioning of degrees of credulity.

Framed in a succession of sonnets, two per page, which act to extrude a huge range of themes through the silence of internal dialogue, the poet is mostly unconstrained by formal considerations; the intractably complex ‘million-petalled flower’ demands explorative freedom. But this is not to deny Ravinthiran’s lyrical positioning: the abundance of colour, striking turns of phrase and persuasive use of rhyme and assonance, cast his skill in deeply satisfying tonal shades that yield the feeling of being gently rocked, as though in an undulating sea. And to this extent, the melding of one subject into another - the natural overlap of sonnet into sonnet, the transitory nature of poetic meditation – is also oceanic. And it seems miraculous, to me, that the many subordinate clauses and hiatuses, the pauses for thought, do not disturb the tempo of the collection or hang the reader out to dry. The poems reward close reading with something approximating to reassurance - the poet’s voice is audible, it seems, his tone consolatory in spite of the difficulties he conveys.

That sense of continuity is reinforced by the frequent running-on of ideas from poem titles to the respective texts. Titles do not lead the reader down obscure alleys; rather do they reflect a starting point, like the emboldened first word of a chapter in a novel. ‘The armchairs’, for example, opens a meditation on the retrospective future from the starting point of a dusty ‘bolster’, a repository of memory, the place where words enough to anticipate and, later, encompass, a life are created, on the blind road forward:

‘  Side by side and facing out
over the sunlit grounds of the college
we’d soon leave for what they call the real world.’

The ‘we’ is significant here. The wife, to whom the collection’s emotional heart is dedicated, is the bringer of love and comfort, the omnipresent mainstay who ‘bolsters’ the poet’s resolve, gives licence, in fact, to poetic freedom. But there is little room for sentimentality: Ravinthiran acknowledges the fractious, the unpredictable and the bloody-minded as components of otherwise functional relationships. Not least because they are microcosmic representations of differences which occasion fractures in the wider world. The poet’s domestic introspection is no less than a conduit for contemplation of the troubles which define many lives. And in this fine collection, they include racism (Ravinthiran is British by birth and Sinhalese by family origin, his wife is white British), cultural dislocation, mental illness, politics and identity.

Separation demands resolution: the sense of apartness, of disjuncture, which characterises some of the poems suggests an ongoing need for private reconciliation. ‘Leeds’ is a dialogue of one overlain with a desperate desire for contact, for the touch of a wife presently elsewhere. The richly-drawn images of the outer reaches of a city shape longing into a tone which borders on the elegiac, so that the final injunction – ‘I wish you were here’ – transmutes cliché into affecting sincerity, as profound in its way as Tony Harrison’s use of the expression to recall his lost parents.

The sense of ‘we’, here, may readily be worked into a universal canvas, for Ravinthiran’s mandate is phenomenally broad-ranging. His easy acknowledgment of other writers – Frost, Larkin, Symonds, Shelley and Browning amongst a host – serves to introduce, contradict, reinforce the exegetic nature of the poet’s enquiry. How, for example, Robert Frost’s suggestion that we ‘could learn / a thing or two from sports’ is borne out in the form of strange compulsive tics which accompany the process of artistic creation, like Andy Roddick’s ‘seeking the ball-girl’s towel after every point / though his brow looked dry on the giant screen’ (‘Frost’). The poem ‘Larkin’ broaches the learning of accommodation with maturity, and it is characteristic of the poet’s ambivalence that he can condemn Philip Larkin’s ‘smirking’ racism as he declares a kind of acceptance of his wider relevance. But here, as frequently elsewhere in this teeming collection, Ravinthiran’s tone is conditional, uncertain, as beset by doubt as Larkin’s own. The synoptic brilliance of his appropriation of Larkin’s thematic voice in ‘I wonder at that white face / his ambulance retrieves from every place’ is rendered more semantically difficult by the unsure final lines, if only because it is complicated by the presence of a ‘we’ which is a reflection of Tony Harrison’s sense of ‘Uz’ as much as it is of everywoman. The dialectic between narrator and wife, and between writer and wider philosophical resolution, is necessarily ongoing:

‘Reading to you that racist’s words in bed
I float with his genius from ‘you’ to ‘we’ – as if
it were in the poet to speak for all of us
of a national – a human? – loneliness.’

It is typical of Ravinthiran’s poetics to reflect on commonplace racism, or racism as a corollary of resurgent national identity, in a laconic and entirely reasonable way. His acute observations and self-effacing tone do not, however, blindside the reader to the phenomenon’s worst excesses; rather do they act to foreground it, to draw attention to its perverse rigours and dystopian fantasies. And there is real skill in pulling this off. If his Sinhalese roots provide clear justification, they are subordinate to the poet’s subtlety of engagement. An unredacted view is concealed as cleverly as Larkin’s use of formal measures, but the reader is left with a clarified take on subjects that she barely knew she understood.

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Attentive reading works to the reader’s advantage: amongst the hail of worked-through ideas and images emerges a vision of England beset by snobbery, populism and its close associate racism. Relevant in its agglomeration of unusual detail, this collection yields an incisive picture of the disturbing changes presently being wrought in our society. Ravinthiran finds such re-emergent manifestations in the woodwork, in railway stations, on trains, en passant, and they are the more powerfully resonant because overheard or viewed by chance. The absurdity of the proprieties of political correctness taking precedence over genuine concern for abuse deliberately skews the poet’s angle of approach in the poem ‘Brexit’, whilst elsewhere he finds an intriguing, but persuasive, linguistic prototype for declamatory xenophobia in the snowballing, self-regarding solipsism of Shelley. A tirade against Eastern Europeans on a train is described coolly in terms of the language in which it is delivered, in the deeply ironic poem ‘Inspiration’:

‘The tirade has the scintillating
onwardness of Shelley,
in the form he took
from Dante and his vulgar tongue
into English where it doesn’t belong,
is insecure
and beautiful without footholds.’

Anyone who has read Being Shelley by Anne Wroe will recognise the parallel: monochrome thinking bears its own destructive momentum.

Vidyan Ravinthiran’s collection is both bracing and complex, and it is difficult to give a comprehensive review of such a diversionary, inclusive body of work without venturing into essay territory. But a sense of non-specific, mild anxiety, of the feeling of the ground moving beneath his feet, pervades his poetics. And there can be no doubt that the current socio-political climate is feeding the narrative of family concerns, of cultural dislocation, of mixed-race marriage. Against a backdrop of mutable urban dereliction where a sense of stability is craved, the poem ‘Transition’ struggles to locate meaning when it is most necessary. Grappling with an ‘abstruse system’, as the filmic character of Daniel Blake does in the contrapuntal ‘Contrarieties’, the seeker of answers in ‘Transition’ is met with a wall of jargon whose obfuscatory mechanisms are both deliberate and frightening:

‘Hems and haws replaced their spoken prose.
The language of HR became a carapace. Who
were these evasive strangers I thought I knew?’

The sense of limbo is reified by the context of the narrator’s experience, and the impulse to retreat, to escape the intractable and problematic, is no surprise. The scales fall away in the sublime ‘In films’ which yields an insightful expression of what it means to be pointing in the right direction whilst in separate harness. Love, in this poem, consists in the simple act of reading together in bed. Far removed from filmic ‘givens’ of connubial bliss where the ‘timorous’ alternative is tantamount to being alone, Ravinthiran instead endorses Saint- Exupéry’s view that ‘love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking outward in the same direction’. And if this poem helps to bring resolution to some of the anxieties which precede it in Vidyan Ravinthiran’s wonderful collection of sonnets, then it has fulfilled its wider purpose:

‘for when we sit together, both with a book,
solitudes meld – as between the sheets – lamplight
warms the thigh-smooth page.’

The Million-Petalled Flower of Being Here is published by Bloodaxe Books.
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Safe Words: The Million-Petalled Flower of Being Here by Vidyan Ravinthiran, 8th July 2019, 15:09 PM