the commuter train from Galle to Colombo

With Galle as its starting point, the train to Colombo is somehow full as it arrives. We place our bags on the rack and settle in the breezeway resigning ourselves to a two hour journey standing up, holding onto handles, straps, anything. The regulars on the 7.00 am service are mostly men with the usual business accoutrements of smart phones, brief cases and morning newspapers.

Among fellow commuters conversations flow. They know each other well in this place where space is a premium. Reciprocal systems are in play as sitting room is shared in blocks of time. Eyes dance around strangers on the train, avoiding direct contact and noticing everything.

Out of the window near Hikkaduwa we can just see the surf, pulsing in a gentle rhythm on the rocks. Ten years ago along this coast, thousands drowned, many on a train like this that was derailed near Telwatta.

At each station, more and more people squeeze on. Only my Tom Bihn satchel bag strapped across my body provides a modicum of personal space and modesty.

As the numbers grow, the level of cheerfulness rises. Sari-clad women board, smile greetings. “Good Morning! Good Morning!” There’s still half the journey to go and everyone is smiling. Shirts remain crisp and white, faces apparently perspiration free.

At 8.56 we pull into Colombo Fort and wait and watch as everyone moves slowly and with intent out of the doors and off to their places of work.

This afternoon they will be back here to do it all again on the passage home.

the blessing of the Sofreh


Laid out before the bride and groom

on a beach of soft Sri Lankan sand,

a Persian wedding spread

– the Sofreh Aghd.


A mirror reflects sunset’s glow.

A candle flickers light.

A sacred text contains old truths.

All adorned with sweets and jewels

in hues of silver, blue and white.


And there are foods that grace this spread –

pomegranates, rose apples, herbs and seeds,

walnuts and almonds, pastries and breads.


A tiny glass of honey waits for finger dips,

the sugar cone for granules to be ground above their heads.


As night falls on Ahungalla,

all present here are blessed

as witnesses –

to this Sofreh,

this marriage,

this love.

poets I’m reading: Marianne Moore

words cluster like chromosomes

(This post appeared on my blog, Sentio, on 1 November 2013) 

In 1961, at the age of 74,  Marianne Moore was interviewed by The Paris Review for their “The Art of Poetry” series. Apart from being able to write poetry as well as Marianne Moore, I would also like to have been in a time and position, as Moore obviously was, to have been invited by Lillian Hellman to have seen one of her plays!

I am also jumping for joy at having discovered The Paris Review online with its decades of recorded interviews with writers. Some more chewy grist for the mill!  To say nothing of their essays. Not only but also Dorothy Parker, Hellman herself, W H Auden, Joan Didion and Margaret Drabble, with whom I once had the pleasure of engaging in a short conversation. As literary sites go, this is pretty special.

Here are two excerpts from Moore’s interview.


Do you suppose that moving to New York, and the stimulation of the writers whom you found there, led you to write more poems than you would otherwise have written?


I’m sure it did—seeing what others wrote, liking this or that. With me it’s always some fortuity that traps me. I certainly never intended to write poetry. That never came into my head. And now, too, I think each time I write that it may be the last time; then I’m charmed by something and seem to have to say something. Everything I have written is the result of reading or of interest in people, I’m sure of that. I had no ambition to be a writer.


Now, if I couldn’t write fiction, I’d like to write plays. To me the theater is the most pleasant, in fact my favorite, form of recreation.


Do you go often?


No. Never. Unless someone invites me. Lillian Hellman invited me to Toys in the Attic,and I am very happy that she did. I would have had no notion of the vitality of the thing, have lost sight of her skill as a writer if I hadn’t seen the play; would like to go again. The accuracy of the vernacular! That’s the kind of thing I am interested in, am always taking down little local expressions and accents. I think I should be in some philological operation or enterprise, am really much interested in dialect and intonations. I scarcely think of any that comes into my so-called poems at all.

As for the poetry, here’s one small gem which appeared in Moore’s 1959 collection, O To Be a Dragon, snapped from my copy of Penguin’s Complete Poems.


poets I’m reading: Dorothy Parker

A selection of short and not necessarily sweet poems by the redoubtable Dorothy Parker.

Unfortunate Coincidence

By the time you swear you’re his,

Shivering and sighing,

And he vows his passion is

Infinite, undying –

Lady, make a note of this:

One of you is lying.



My land is bare of chattering folk;

The clouds are low along the ridges,

And sweet’s the air with curly smoke

From all my burning bridges.


George Sand

What time the gifted lady took

Away from paper, pen, and book,

She spent in amorous dalliance

(They do those things so well in France).



Authors and actors and artists and such

Never know nothing, and never know much.

Sculptors and singers and those of their kidney

Tell their affairs from Seattle to Sydney.

Playwrights and poets and such horses’ necks

Start off from anywhere, end up at sex.

Diarists, critics, and similar roe

Never say nothing, and never say no.

People Who Do Things exceed my endurance;

God, for a man that solicits insurance!


From The Penguin Dorothy Parker: Penguin Books Ltd, 1973. (Revised and enlarged edition of The Portable Dorothy Parker published in 1944)

Myanmar inspired haiku



in the evening at

the Shwedagon Pagoda

women sweep in lines.


across Myanmar

gold htis adorn pagodas,

precious parasols.


from her cafe seat

the Shih Tzu in the pink dress

barks at the street dogs.


on a Yangon street

men adjust their longyi knots

catching a warm breeze.


Myanmar women

decorate their faces with

yellow thanaka.


Ichiban-Kan, Yangon

Near Aung San Stadium

at the Ichiban-Kan restaurant,

Japanese businessmen

bow, exchange business cards,

smoke filter cigarettes

and giggle over their gyoza.


The proprietor,

elegant in black dress and white pearls,

misses nothing;

watches each slurp of ramen,

accounts for every sip of sake,

notices any slip in standards.

For her customers

this place is like a tiny talisman,

comfortably tucked into a pocket of Yangon.

on Nai Yang beach in Thailand

late in the afternoon,

bathed in sweat and caked in dust,

workers from Myanmar board trucks

and travel from construction sites

to their overnight quarters,

while I float,

suspended under sunset sky,

in the waters

of a sea, dense with salt.

poets I’m reading: Nicolette Stasko

After I selected this poem by Nicolette Stasko, I came across a post from Southerly in which Nicolette Stasko interviews Nicolette Stasko featuring Reading in Bed. Enjoy.

Reading in Bed – Nicolette Stasko

I love old books

except when they were owned

by students

and other earnest types

scored in black lines

asking questions that

can never be answered

Wallace Stevens’ Collected

thick cream pages heavy wine

dark cover

filled with bright blue ink


when you open it


Elizabeth Bishop just now

quietly Questions of Travel

each hard gained insight

marked carefully

pencilled comments

so obvious

the poem unable to speak

for itself it seems

whole sections ruled

block wisdom

swallowed like a dose

and delicacy

of line and phrase


I sit here

filling the bed

with eraser crumbs

From: Abundance. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1992

poets I’m reading: Not Waving but Drowning by Stevie Smith

Today’s offering is the best known of Stevie Smith’s poems.

A poem, she once told a friend, was a relatively light thing; it could be carried around “while you’re doing the housework”.

Rachel Cooke in The Guardian – 6 April 2015


Not Waving but Drowning – Stevie Smith 

Nobody heard him, the dead man,

But still he lay moaning:

I was much further out than you thought

And not waving but drowning.


Poor chap, he always loved larking

And now he’s dead

It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,

They said.


Oh, no no no, it was too cold always

(Still the dead one lay moaning)

I was much too far out all my life

And not waving but drowning.


poets I’m reading: Colours by Yevgeny Yevtushenko

The page marker in my copy of Yevtushenko’s Selected Poems is decades old. I reproduce the poem today in deference to that younger reader.

Colours – Yevgeny Yevtushenko

When your face

appeared over my crumpled life

at first I understood

only the poverty of what I have.

Then its particular light

on woods, on rivers, on the sea,

became my beginning in the coloured world

in which I had not yet had my beginning.

I am so frightened, I am so frightened,

of the unexpected sunrise finishing,

of revelations

and tears and the excitement finishing.

I don’t fight it, my love is this fear,

I nourish it who can nourish nothing,

love’s slipshod watchman.

Fear hems me in.

I am conscious that these minutes are short

and that the colours in my eyes will vanish

when your face sets.


From: Yevtushenko. Selected Poems. Penguin Books, 1962 – Translated by Robin Milner-Gulland and Peter Levi