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Belonging in Spite of Yourself
by Shyam Selvadurai

Rienzi Crusz was born in Sri Lanka and came to Canada in 1965. His first collection of poetry, Flesh and Thorn, was published in 1974, a time when the presence of non-white writers on the Canadian literary scene was negligible. His writing is thus a testimony to survival. In fact his third collection of poetry is aptly titled Singing Against the Wind. Despite this sense of writing against the wind, Crusz's voice is a quiet one: thoughtful, meditative, and wonderfully ironic.
Arun Mukherjee, in her book Oppositional Aesthetics, speaks of Crusz as doing a tightrope walk, "speaking honestly in his unfamiliar `black' tongue but being careful at the same time so as not to lapse into complete obscurity or nostalgia, traps immigrant writers can so easily fall into." She admires him because unlike other immigrant poets, he has never suppressed his difference for the sake of gaining approval from the Canadian literary establishment. This is not to say that Rienzi Crusz has not won accolades. World Literature Today calls him "the best living Sri Lankan poet in English". The New Quarterly says of his work that "Can Lit has never articulated and transcended the experiences of the incomers so wonderfully."
Beatitudes of Ice is Rienzi Crusz's seventh collection of poetry. He explores here many of the themes of his earlier work, but, towards the end, it takes a different and interesting turn.
The book is divided into four sections. The first, "A Sky of My Own", deals with his relationship to Canada. His feelings about the country range from the humorous in "From Shovel to Self-Propelled Snowblower: The Immigrant's Progress", to misery at the unending winter in "After The Snowfall". "Moving", my favourite poem in the book, is in this part:
When it happens,
and your rooms are finally empty
and bare as bones,
and it's time to step out
from that old ship of sleep,
of dreams,
where you wrote your history
for twenty years and laughed...
What do you say?
What do you keep?

Every immigrant has the experience of history being left behind. Yet as one continues to read the poem one realizes that Crusz is not talking about leaving Sri Lanka but rather about leaving the house he lived in for twenty years in Canada. Suddenly the notion of his foreignness, his yearning for Sri Lanka are undercut and one is aware of a life lived, a history made here; a sense of belonging in spite of oneself.
The section ends with "Memory's Truth", in which Crusz raises the difficult question of how to "argue the diaspora," how to talk about the country one has left behind. He asks if he should let "nostalgia flirt with hyperbole." He confesses that in his poems he will "make the coconut tree/ forever straight,/without hint of midnight beetle deep/in the pink fruit's throat." In other words in recollecting Sri Lanka "the lost country (will be) ever perfect." This poem, coming where it does, is a sly warning to the reader to be critical of any nostalgia by the poet, as he moves into the second section, "Distant Rain", which deals with Sri Lanka.
In "Distant Rain", one of the central themes is the conflict between the poet and his son Michael. Rienzi Crusz explores the gap that separates him and his son in terms of their very different relationships to Sri Lanka and Canada: the gap that separates first- and second-generation Canadians:

Come Michael,
make friends with your Sri Lankan cousins...
this is the land of your fathers!
Nothing stirs. He moves clumsily
in air thick as fog.
Hates the language...
Home is where the snowman
sits on the front lawn
and waits patiently
for his return.

In the third section, which is called "A Song of Myself", Crusz's poetry takes a new direction, away from the immigrant experience to a deeply personal examination. In the poem by the same name, he relates how he has tried to describe the immigrant experience in his poetry but then asks this of himself:

But have you shared
the pain
in the shattered bird,
the silence
of the thorn that guards the rose?

In other words, questioning his own work, he asks if he has attempted to express other parts of himself, besides his sense of being an immigrant. Taking this self-examination seriously, he tries to do so by speaking of his feelings around getting old and dying, of being "in the twilight of my bones/slow dancing."
The fourth and last section, titled "For The Passionate Ones", is both a celebration and an ironic comment on the whole act of writing poetry and on poets themselves. Here Rienzi Crusz displays, as he does throughout the collection, his ability to laugh at himself. There is about Beatitudes of Ice an immediacy, a freshness, a sense of time ticking, that made me read the book in one sitting. Once I had put it down, my impression was not of any sort of building up to some grand theory or point, but simply a collection of impressions, a life lived. Beatitudes of Ice is a valuable contribution to Canadian literature. Rienzi Crusz's awareness of ambiguities, his sense of the contradictions within and without, and his quiet wit are a perfect antidote to the world we live in where polarities and shrill extremes seem the norm.

Shyam Selvadurai is the author of Funny Boy (McClelland & Stewart), which won the Smithbooks/Books in Canada First Novel Award (as it then was), in 1995, for 1994.


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