Lisa Jardine’s excellent Worldly Goods challenges the view that galleries are secular temples, and that we should approach the tabernacle, the Holy of Holies, with a reverential hush. Not according to Jardine. She writes that, in the Renaissance, ‘Clients commissioning important and ostentatiously expensive works would stipulate particularly high-grade ultramarine in their contract with the chosen painter.’ So, when Domenico Ghirlandaio was commissioned to paint an Adoration of the Magi by the Prior of the Spedale degli Innocenti, the contract read: ‘He must colour the panel at his own expense with good colours and with powdered gold on such ornaments as demand it […] and the blue must be ultramarine of the value about four florins the ounce.’ Viewed like this, Renaissance paintings begin to look like gold plated iPhones, or iced out bling bling watches. It’s heartwarming. Those Renaissance faces flush with warmth once more and the brash lapis skies and robes remind us that twenty-first century materialism is merely the current iteration of a timeless magpie spirit.
Ravinthiran’s poem, Sigiriya, takes as its source material the Sri Lankan UNESCO World Heritage Site, believed to have been constructed in the 5th century CE. ‘Others had the same idea before me; / or something like it anyway. Old men / with limbs like burnt match-sticks, / ungrateful offspring; women / who broke the rules or had them broken / on their behalf. The leprous and deformed; / the sage; eloping lovers; criminals; / anyone who would live off the grid.’ Ravinthiran’s conflation of stories of elopement and escape makes Sigiriya feel like Ur, the point of origin, a rock large enough to have its own gravity. Ravinthiran’s language forces this world into collision with twenty-first century narratives, as living ‘off the grid’ evokes Robert Ludlum‘s Jason Bourne. At first, the reader might presume that these cultural references reveal modernity’s ephemeral worthlessness. Compared with the timelessness of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, who’s Jason Bourne? Similarly, Sigiriya’s mirror wall, now the stuff of legend, is presented in an uneasy relationship with modernity’s Sharpies and SMSs, and perhaps we detect WB Yeats’ scathing attack on the popular culture of his own time between the lines: ‘the mirror wall – its egg-white glaze / is now grey chalk reflecting only heat – / with felt-tipped love-hearts / and western txtspeak.’ The fragility and beauty of Sigirya’s legendary mirror wall sits uneasily alongside mindless graffiti and the eviscerated language of the SMS. Yet Ravinthiran invokes Shelley’s Ozymandias, and Sigiriya’s ‘king of kings’ feels ‘no anger / at the urine marking of a weaker ego… / If I lived today, my logo / would blaze on jet and skyscraper.’ It’s hard not to warm to the speaker’s whole-hearted acceptance of modernity and challenge to our instinct to preserve the past in formaldehyde.
Video games offer immersive worlds and Bethesda’s Fallout 3 is a fine example. I’m not an outdoors type and can name no more than a handful of plants and birds. This alienation from nature means that some poets and especially some of the Romantics, leave me cold. Wordsworth’s blithe throstle is all a bit much when your childhood was spent trading through Elite‘s galaxies on a Commodore 64. However, in a sense, I’ve spent years outdoors, watching the sun rising through the LA’s sublime particle physics in Grand Theft Auto V.
Ravinthiran’s sonnet, Fallout 3, is set in the Wasteland, a post apocalyptic Washington and, in his hands, it reveals its own sublimity: ‘rubble scaled by the moonlight and me / somewhere near Rockbreaker’s Last Stand / watching a tin-can frisked by the wind.’ So far, so very Wordsworthian. Then, ‘The texture maps beneath my feet / failed and I shifted to 3rd person view / taking in my jerky skull and shoulders / while minutely grooved and pitted boulders / blurred and softened by that digital flaw / turned all at once to dollops of cake mix / and the unconvincing walking physics / got my stand-in skating in no time / like Wordsworth across what looked to me / like endless moonlit plains of dirty ice.’ The coding underpinning video games is poised on a knife-edge of stability and the venture is so complex that glitches are inevitable. For the player, some bugs are enraging but others break the rules of physics with a hilarity worthy of curation on YouTube. The deceptive solidity and actual fragility of the natural world is lovingly rendered in this poem and the playful collision of antitheses makes Grun-tu-molani a savvy, iconoclastic meditation on culture.
Ravinthiran’s range of references to pop culture does not mean that anything goes and, towards the end of the collection, he draws a line in the sand. In ‘The Zany White Poet,’ he writes that the poet ‘trades / wisdom for fizz, so original he sounds / like Noel Fielding, // so liberated / from history / and ideas; // his paid-for technique / a picture of nothing / and very like.’ In Grun-tu-molani, Vidyan Ravinthiran asks this generation to question its legacy and we’re left wondering whether popular culture doesn’t represent the best of us as, historically, it always has. Ravinthiran’s on fine form and these irreverent, observant poems ask awkward questions with charm and wit.
- Vidyan Ravinthiran was shortlisted for the Forward Arts Foundation’s Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection, 2014.