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Weekly poem feature: “The Weight of the World” by Seni Seneviratne

The Weight of the World

those long, flowing garments

Those long, flowing garments billowed like sails in the breeze.
by the baking sun

My mother’s damp bed linens, firmly hung on the clothesline under the hot sun.

She always had faith when hanging her laundry.

There is a lack of precipitation and no necessity for a request.

We expressed gratitude to each other as we lowered them.
or left to right

Should the fold be made from right to left or left to right?

Can the unsettled weight be tamed by moving from left to right?
but it definitely feels like a dance.

It is my responsibility to be knowledgeable. I wouldn’t describe it as a dance, but it does have a similar feeling.
but there were steps to learn and cues to read,

The exchange of fabric moved fluidly like a relay race.
During a relay race, she served as my guiding force.
Her right hand set west, mine tracing the east,
and slipped into the space

We shortened the distance, eased the burden, and entered the area.

Creating organization in the tumultuous realm.

This work is titled Unknown Soldier and was published by Peepal Tree Press in 2019. It is copyrighted by Seni Seneviratne.

This week’s poem by Seni Seneviratne is one of two poems about her mother in a collection that was largely focused on her Sri Lankan father’s experiences in north Africa during the second world war.

The sonnet is a type of poetry that can handle upheaval without losing its structure. Many modern poets have used it as a platform for expressing political and cultural ideas. Seneviratne’s poem highlights this sense of control. The depiction of a household activity between a mother and daughter, which is also a shared tradition, balances out their differences but doesn’t erase them completely.

The initial image conjures up thoughts of traveling. The sheets, described as “enormous sails,” elicit a sense of excitement from the daughter as she remembers, exclaiming, “Oh, how they blew…” It captures the feeling of physical pleasure in testing one’s own strength against the power of the wind. The wind is crucial for drying the laundry, but it also has its own agenda of potentially blowing away the heavy wet sheets if the person hanging them does not act quickly and cleverly. The weather seems to hold a certain kind of destiny. This subtly alludes to larger, life-altering journeys to new countries and mixed marriages.

The speaker is feeling confident, recalling that there was always the possibility of dry weather. Sereviratne was born in Leeds, and the probable location of the poem in the northern English region adds another layer of irony to the hopeful outlook on the weather. The rhyme of “hope” and “rope” emphasizes the sense of control: the laundry is firmly secured with pegs and a sturdy rope serves as the washing line.

Taking control of the story is the scene that unfolds after the “sails” are lowered and the two women work together to fold the large, most likely double or king-sized, sheets. Despite the lingering wind, there is a sense of unsettledness – perhaps from the weather or familial emotions – that needs to be subdued.

According to the text, a mother and daughter can complete their folding routine without speaking, implying that there is no need for polite expressions such as “please” or “thank you.” The daughter may feel unsure about this lack of formality, as the mother’s English manners are subtly ridiculed. The later tone suggests that the daughter may be uncomfortable with the idea that their folding dynamic does not follow conventional etiquette. A simple “please” or “thank you” could have made things easier for the less experienced daughter.

Seneviratne starts with a rhyme pattern that cleverly suggests the movements of the women as they meet and retreat, implying their initial ease of working together. However, by line six, a doubt arises about the direction in which to fold – right to left or left to right? As line seven describes the restless shifting of the fabric, the rhyme pattern begins to fade, although the steady rhythm of pentameter remains mostly undisturbed. The phrase “my job to know” may carry a sense of reluctance to fully understand. The poet’s choice to loosen the rhyme pattern further reflects the daughter’s gradual shift from dutiful obedience to independence.

The speaker declares that they will not refer to it as a dance, once again using subtle ambiguity. However, there were steps to learn and cues to interpret. Domestic rules can be complicated as they dictate and perhaps even beautify female behavior. There may be a slight connection to the previous poem in the anthology, Mapping the Future: The Complete Works Poets, where The Weight of the World is featured. The Devil’s Rope is a brief history of barbed wire, narrated from the perspective of the wire itself: “I have spanned the open plains and closed them off, / I have lined a Desert War, I have manned the trenches. / Now I am erecting Fortress Europe’s newest barriers.” The maternal “steps” and “cues” may also have a harsh side.

The word “dance” stands alone in its lack of a rhyming partner, while “batons” is the only option and leads to a different metaphor, that of a relay race. The idea of family obligations being passed down through generations is hinted at, as a baton must be passed on and accepted. Even in the context of laundry, dropping the baton could undo the hard work of taming and pegging. In the following line, the mother is praised as her daughter’s guiding force. However, the previous focus on opposites – right, left/wet, dry/please, thanks – is echoed in the next line’s use of opposing cardinal points: “Her right hand set west, mine tracing the east”. The English mother and mixed-race daughter have different perspectives. The rhythm also takes a subtle jolt.

The sonnet’s conclusion prevents any potential disruption, as the words “weight” and “world” are able to substitute for a rhyme. The title of the sonnet suggests that both women may have been burdened by “the weight of the world”. As the sonnet progresses, we become aware of the challenges of dealing with seas, winds, “vast sails”, and differing customs. However, Seneviratne skillfully maintains the structure of her poem, demonstrating that distance can still allow for a kind connection.

Source: theguardian.com