Vidyan Ravinthiran’s second collection – a private sonnet series to his wife, the writer Jenny Holden – is at once a succession of private missives to a private love, and arranged, as a sequence, to portray the sum total of the day to day in a marriage between two writers, a brown person and a white person, one receiving treatment for their mental health and one not.
The sonnets range from meditations on ‘the world you’ve shown me how to love’, to their landlady, who ‘looks at / one of us only when she talks’. Holden is not a muse figure, some lofty remote woman whose charms are enumerated in the Early Modern mould: she walks through a poem undressed, but as little more than a woman on the move, with things to do: ‘While asleep I picked my lip till it bled / – a side effect of the medication, /… Your body walks in completely naked. / This is how you prefer to clean the bathroom’. The body of the beloved is pragmatic, filled with purpose, possessing a nakedness with no delusions of nudity – and justifiably wary of bleach stains.
Sonnet sequences are a useful mode at present for the ends they can be put to, and the manner of their subversion. For Terrance Hayes, whose American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin explores themes of race and masculinity in contemporary America, they ‘have love in them, which makes them a great form in which to talk about someone trying to kill you’. Ravinthiran’s subversion is much softer: he employs the form to present a series of vignettes of daily life, renouncing the loftiness of Sidney, Spenser, Shakespeare, or any others who first come to mind when thinking of sonnet sequences. With their soft-spoken quality, Ravinthiran’s sonnets are more akin to Elizabeth Barrett-Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese (the Barrett-Brownings get a look-in here, their marriage ‘A leap / not of faith, but of the imagination’), and follow in the footsteps of Adrienne Rich’s The Dream of a Common Language, with their focus on politicised love (in Rich’s case, a same-sex relationship) refracted through the quotidian.
Ravinthiran’s choice of title and epigraph, from Philip Larkin’s ‘Old Fools’, denotes a focus on small and varied experience, citing the ‘unique endeavour / To bring to bloom the million-petalled flower / Of being here.’ As Ravinthiran told the Forward Foundation, Larkin “uses the pronoun ‘we’ unanxiously, feeling he can speak, if not universally, then at least on behalf of a community. Which is harder to assume these days. But what I’ve tried is to enlarge that pronoun beyond the situation of two people in love, so that readers, of whatever background might feel included”.
In his poem ‘Larkin’, Ravinthiran puts it more bluntly: “Reading that racist’s words in bed / I float with his genius from ‘you’ to ‘we’”, and on to the next sonnet, which begins ‘The poem of happiness / isn’t written yet’. Ravinthiran’s is a world where fully-bodied presence, being here, is of more import than simple happiness, the ‘peachy glow’ which ‘gleams like advertising for a culture / that descends on thought’s corpse like a vulture’.
Unlike traditional sonnet sequences, poems appear on the page in pairs, one above the other, and are listed in the contents as ‘Trying / Artist’ or ‘Our first house / A gift’. The monolithic pagination of traditional, one-sided sonnets has been eschewed. This is befitting of a sequence whose arc investigates cultural exchange in a romantic pairing, and it displaces the volta from within each poem to between them: on a page where poems are titled ‘Brexit’ and ‘Leave’, Ravinthiran vaults from guessing who voted how at the Durham train station during the 2016 referendum, to the greeting card his wife receives at work to mark her taking leave. It is a rather wry handling of our expectations, or perhaps of his southern Facebook friends’ ‘conventional snobberies’.
The sonnets waltz on, capturing the many quiet joys of love in sometimes staggering turns of phrase. He records the anger that lends his wife ‘a hurtling grammar’ and, later, ‘this eggshell-lovely phase’. A regretful aubade is made new with the disruptive flashing of a work email on a phone screen, sending up the generational lament ‘our jobs aren’t safe and we still rent’. He pushes back on certain nativist perceptions: in Leeds, the description of a Norman church ‘with its arch of hewn aboriginal stares’ startles with its acuity. Or an exchange in a dry cleaner’s which chastises those conventional snobberies again:
[…] Unlike some
others – of no uncertain terms –
I do trust those who struggle with my names.
The lady in the dry cleaner’s, for instance,
saying I’ll need you to spell that out, pet!
Am I to believe this kindly Geordie is a bigot?
Her humour in this common circumstance
is as bright-shining a part of civilisation
as the David’s chiselled, white, not-quite fist
At times Ravinthiran’s adjectives make a swallow-dive for the Homeric: ‘the sun-smitten sand’ of Sri Lanka, which his family left during the civil war (‘Dubrovnik’). ‘In Films’ lauds the ‘thigh-smooth page’, where reading in bed shuns the scale of the heroic in favour of a calm eroticism: ‘To read in bed / is to be alone, and timorous, in that place / domestic bodies should be wed’. But this cinematic shorthand for sex gets it wrong, he pleads: ‘For when we sit together, both with a book, / solitudes meld’, and the shared passages which move to mirth or mockery are read aloud, and linger, ‘like a passionfruit’s long, gum-piercing, pang’. ‘Union’ called W.B. Yeats’s ‘Politics’ sharply to mind: (‘How can I, that girl standing there, / My attention fix / On Roman or on Russian / Or on Spanish politics’):
The sound of the sea from a distance is lonely
and as the fabric of the informal, off-white dress
you’ll marry me in slides over your skin
I’m talking to you, and someone is listening in,
of a certain or uncertain politics. Whose line
am I repeating or crossing or about to colour
outside now a voice says ‘You can look’?
It’s with you love I try to love that stranger
who walked so far to read this page.
Yeats was writing in 1938, as the world rolled towards war. Ravinthiran holds tight to his wife in the shadow of depression or anxiety, or both; in a town where he is stared at, ‘misspelled or mispronounced’; where he faces ‘This anxiety / I can’t escape without your idiom / passed securely down the generations, in this country’.. He flickers between the humdrum of the day-to-day and the ‘separate politics’; from the joys of working side by side (‘The Armchairs’) to the effects of his medication in ‘Another side effect’ (‘I see how beautiful you are and don’t / do anything about it’). His sonnets are simple, but their beauty and ability to move is cumulative.
This is a collection both about the particulars of shared domestic life, and one charged with greater, uninvited, forces. It is about the persistence of that love, and how it might be brought to bear on the wider world; how the intercultural understanding which exists in a couple, if scaled up, has the power to make the world anew, to bring into being new and wondrous modes of coexistence. It is a moving treatise for handling each and every thing with tenderness, cupping happinesses great and small in the palms of one’s hands, in a world where ‘each moment with you’ – and, like Larkin’s ‘we’, this ‘you’ floats from the particular to the general – is ‘abrim’.
Buy ‘The Million-Petalled Flower of Being Here’ by Vidyan Ravinthiran from Bloodaxe Books.
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