Nothing prepares you for ‘Stitch your eyelids shut’

Saturday, 12 February 2011 00:02 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Marianne David

When I first took Vivimarie VanderPoorten’s new book ‘Stitch your eyelids shut’ into my hands, I wanted to read every single word from the very first page onwards, before the poems even began, because the volume was slim but the appetite wasn’t, when it came to savouring her work – and therefore I didn’t want to miss a thing.

As a result, getting to the contents page was akin to being given a very early (or slightly late) Christmas gift – so many poems, 107 in all! At this point, I offered up a prayer for her generosity, for not withholding some for her next book and offering up so much in this one instead.

But as I started absorbing the poems, it turned out the gift was a knife.

To steal a phrase (unrelated but apt) from another poet who introduced me to her writing – Malinda Seneviratne, through a review he did just before VanderPoorten won the Gratiaen Prize in 2007 for ‘nothing prepares you’ – the book is, in fact, mostly knife... and unguent sometimes.

In the foreword, Indran Amirthanayagam says: “She fulfils the ancient role of the bard, telling us what takes place under the cover of night, in the interstices of the heart, in whispers and prayers beside the burning pyre.” Yes, she does. In her very own inimitable style. And he is spot on when he says she has “already become a voice for the voiceless”.

Above all else, ‘Stitch your eyelids shut’ is unputdownable – until the knife point reaches beyond the heart (which is already used to being knifed) and slices through to another place.

That one slim volume can contain so much of the world, so much of pain, so much knowing, is unimaginable. That someone out there can hold so much inside and bring it forth, and offer it up... a strange kind of blessed, indeed.

‘Stitch your eyelids shut’ is a book that grips you like black magic and it is impossible to prise oneself away – that is where the magic lies.

But there’s no magic in writing; that is where the poet bled, here and here, and still shared, regardless.

Her writing is tender and almost always heartrending, based on war and love, and tightly intertwined with loss. Take, for example, this excerpt from ‘Love, Displaced’:

and my love for you

is a bullet lodged

deep in the belly


when I sleep

I dream

we are

making love and waking


is barbed wire

slicing the lips.

And this, from ‘Extraordinary’:

It dawns on me that you weren’t

extraordinary at all

another brick in the wall

but that I loved you


and that’s why I am dizzy with grief

that I lost you.

In ‘Crossing: a memory map,’ she describes dividing grief into manageable chunks, and one cannot help but wonder if this helps, if it can be done. If the heart understands the concept.

The poems about family and children and people whose lives have been torn apart by war, those are heartrending too; while some, like ‘My Sister’s fish,’ stay with you for other reasons, the last line of which brings it all together like a slap.

There’s ‘For Abdulaziz Dadahnov,’ a journalist, educator and activist, imprisoned in Uzbekistan:

I can only pray

that your courage will not fail you

That they will spare you Lomka

That sodium hydroxide will not burn you

Will not ignite or blind you

And that the goodness in your heart

will be your rubber gloves

against an unfair and

corrosive world

you tried so hard to change.

(Lomka is the Russian word for ‘breaking,’ used to refer to torture in prison camps, Vanderpoorten notes.)

‘Departure Lounge’ is a lament that leaves one wondering, unable to imagine exactly what came next, only knowing that it was loss, eventually:

In this one you are


Too youthful to be my dad

Did the camera see what I could not

That night

That the rest of your life was

Six months of time

And that you would decide to leave


At an impossible hour.

There’s the irony in ‘Einstein was a Refugee,’ ‘Paying Homage’ and ‘Dying can be Funny,’ and then there’s the raw pain and truth in ‘Verb to have,’ about losing a baby, which reverberates in the mind:

Emptiness is a vessel

Large enough to store the universe.

When reading this book for the first time, I imagine that for everyone there will come a point when they cannot absorb anymore – savouring (and suffering with, for it evokes much pain – and remembrance, too, in fact) the book with my morning tea, I reached that point where I could not go on anymore when I saw the word ‘Lasantha’ below the title of the poem ‘Death at Noon’.

Until then, I was (only) fighting to breathe (sometimes fighting back tears); from that word on, I was shaking. I didn’t have to tear my eyes away; they fled from the page at that point. But prising the book away from my hands was hard. I was able to set it aside only for a few minutes. And then it gripped me once again.

Incidentally, when I went down for the Literary Festival this time, it was on Friday with the intention of attending VanderPoorten’s reading at ‘Tea And Poetry’. But that was not to be since the tickets were all sold out.

Speaking to her later, I was surprised to find out that she had opened her reading session at Amangalla with the poem ‘Death at Noon’.

VanderPoorten does more than weave mere magic with words. She bleeds them in this book. And for me, therein lies the breathtakingly tragic beauty of these poems.

They are barbed wire intertwined (sometimes) with balm, slicing back and forth across the heart.