canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Lord of the Mountain: the Sardiel Poems
by Rienzi Crusz
TSAR publications,1999

Reviewed by Shane Neilson

Bulletin: the dustjacket of The Sardiel Poems announces its author as "the best living Sri Lankan poet in English." Read closely: that's a lot of modifiers. Try this at home: 1. "The best heterosexual Czech figure skater training in Barrie." 2. "The best Tiger Stripe ice-cream two-scoop this side of the Mississippi." 3."The greatest master of the Tinker language... with a red moustache." Whee! What fun. This silly exercise is solicited by Crusz's insecurity -appealing to the bully in me- manifested in the two pages of blurbs he prefaces his poetry with, in addition to those on the back cover.

LOTM is a retelling of a Sri Lankan legend instantly recognizable to an English audience: Sardiel is a Robin Hood-like figure whom Cruz imaginatively reinterprets for the purposes of his book. His first poem introduces the reader to eponymous Sardiel near death, using antiquated syntax. This is LOTM's first appearance of found poetry using 19th century colonial newspapers as source material, and this mode recurs throughout the book, lending a paradoxical immediacy to Sardiel's execution. Sardiel died in 1864; by writing in the present tense, using the stilted diction of the time, Crusz convincingly employs an interesting device to great effect. The poet's reverse chronology provides an early visceral kick: beginning the book with Sardiel's understated death, he establishes the stakes of Sardiel's life, giving the reader momentum to continue.

After the first poem comes turbulence. Crusz' poetry requires stringent editing. Almost every poem has good bits, even occasional great ones, but these are often counterbalanced by trite, mawkish sentiment. In the anthemic "Elegy", he blows it with a top-of-the-world-ma "Hail, Britannia, Hail" too thick for effect, too melodramatic for drama. However, his weakness for melodrama may also be his strength. When reaching, he occasionally grasps wonderful lines:

And the karma of blood?
You say: ask the Englishman
who, masked in civilization,
rushed those cinnamon shores,
caught the green land between his locust tooth
and took it all
in gunsmoke, the hell
of his dark soul.

Unfortunately, this tendency necessarily makes for some embarrassing lines. In "A house divided", Crusz writes:

A tired unforgiving father
gazes through a church window-
a forked road, a lost love
an absent son
with a heart of darkness.

The use of foreign terms adds an almost-agreeable exotic flavour. Almost agreeable? The unfortunate quantity of these, large enough to compromise flow to minds lacking command of Sinhalese, forces minds to turn to the end-of-poem glossary, looking for the unknown word that sometimes -gasp- isn't there. This is a cardinal flaw: on several occasions a foreign word isn't included in the end-of-poem glossary! Crusz is guilty of using too much native language, as if he needs it to prop up his poems with local colour. He often invokes foreign words gratuitously, a surfeit testing patience. Sinhalese words in the bodies of his poems are alternately spelled in the glossary. Worse yet: English spelling errors occur, too.Crusz loses decremental credulity with each successive one.

LOTM is a compelling story. Sardiel is a welcome character following the successive sanitized Robin Hoods that North Americans have suffered through. They desperately need one with real emotions: fear, hatred, and anger. They need a Robin Hood who's a ganja-smoking gutter-punk prince, not white-bread, not a white-tailed fox breaking into occasional song with assorted merry animal friends nor a where'd-my-accent-go Kevin Costner dancing with Morgan Freeman. Audience is key: is a modern poetry public appropriate for the poet's subject matter? Crusz does his best to make it so, thoroughly avoiding cartoon cliche. Sardiel is an unpredictable punk, infinitely honourable and dishonourable, a man in black and white, contra to past digestible presentations. So Crusz adds needed layers of moral ambiguity to the tale- is it enough?

No. Though exotic Robin Hood is infinitely better than the ones traditionally served up, but he's not enough for verse. The sentimentality of Crusz's poetry (in an entirely different way) proves equal to that of Hollywood. In "Interlude: by Menaka's Well", we're introduced to Sardiel's Maid Marian -read biblical MARIA- and we're told that she makes ... "his head a whirlpool of hot blood." Maddeningly, Crusz can't help but continue to drip wax (taken from the same poem):

...You are the wind,
here now and gone like the raven;

how your heart leaps
XXwhen the sun is high
and I'm in the pathway of your eyes,
XXbut now it falters and falls

when night invites a raging moon
XXa storm of fireflies...friends,
XXtheir embracing laughter,
the music in the rolling dice.

From "Mother and Daughter #2":

The katassa (garden lizard) is only innocent so long as it
keeps its innocence. The moment it hurts the butterfly, it's
guilty! To me, the katassa is another shape for the...bloody
English, who have taken our lands and swallowed our lives.
Remember that, girl."

Most blatantly, in "Black Magic", Crusz referring to Sardiel:

So the cowherd deserts the cattle for the mountain
dream...Reaching the top, marked by a cairn of rocks,
he clambers up, throws out his arms to the evening sky
and shouts to the valley below: I am Sardiel, Lord
of Uttuwankande! A passing crow, velvet black by evening
light, squawks a loud: AMEN!

With the preceding primer, let's play underline the cliche. From a single poem titled"Sardiel is coming. Sardiel is coming" -on your mark get set- 1. "Here, almost every soul nurses his fear like a wound." 2. "The deserted village is now only host to a single pariah dog lazing in the afternoon sun.... Aiyo, aiyo,' screams an old woman, bursting out of her hut. She reaches her prostrate child..." 3. "For a minute, only a dog's urgent bark, a raven's guttural cry." Enough.

Crusz invokes the New Testament of the bible midway through LOTM, a mistaken direction in the narrative: Crusz not only apes the Robin Hood motif, he appropriates that of Jesus Christ! The comparison between corrupt Sardiel and Lord tunderin Jesus is too improbable for words, wholly unhinging this book. Though Sardiel did factually convert to Christianity after his inevitable capture, the effectiveness of comparison is ultimately pulled off in ...execution. Crusz's wobbly taste can't validate this additional parallel legend (one is plenty), invoked increasingly in LOTM's third and final act.

Each of LOTM's poems have awkward moments, yet the book preserves a certain charm. One finishes it because it is interesting, despite the foregone conclusion that occurs at the beginning. One reads to the finish anyway because the new casting of the old Robin Hood legend is a powerful engine. The Sardiel story as told is compelling. Perhaps Crusz should have opted for all-out prose, maybe a novelization; his prose-poems don't qualify, and his subject matter might be better suited by prosy straightforwardness. This book is hindered storytelling; it falters as poetry. But there are bright, understated moments: in "Which way", Crusz writes, friend,
I'm somewhat confused at times;
things are moving too fast-
my feet seem slow...
when a man is hit by lightning
more than once,
he knows not only the meaning of terror
but also how suddenly life can end.

The appropriation of legend is a daunting task. Taking it in, expansive in unfamiliar minds, reductive in familiar ones. A poetry-reading Canadian is not the perfect audience for this book; this just isn't good poetry. Yet LOTM unevenly offers what poetry can give: reevaluation of our own mythology, ethnocentrically European, contrasted with Crusz's intentional "ethnicity", a Sri-Lankan Robin Hood-like figure railing ambiguously against colonialism.

Shane Neilson is one of The Danforth Review's Poetry Editors. He is a Nova Scotian poet who has published recently in Queen's Quarterly, The Canadian Forum, and Pottersfield Portfolio. His poetry was featured in The Danforth Review #3.







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