Unknown Soldier by Seni Seneviratne
PBS Autumn Recommendation 2019
This is a collection of huge depth and resonance. Its stimulus is a collection of photographs of the poet’s late father, then a young man, originally from colonial Sri Lanka, who was serving as a radio operator in an otherwise all white platoon in the 1939-45 desert war in North Africa. As for so many who came back from war to start or resume a family life, there was a great gulf of silence, an unwillingness to speak of those experiences. The collection begins and ends in an imaginative recreation of the life suggested in those photographs, many reproduced in this collection. There is connection with a much-loved father, but also a sense of the unknowable.
Speaking in both in the voice of the father and of the unknown photographer, poems explore the mix of male camaraderie and casual racism of that experience, but also the deep affection hinted at in the way the photographer has framed “Snowball” in his lens. From this imaginative core, poems move out to make connections with the remembered and known life of a father who died too soon, to self-reflections on the poet as remembrancer, creator and actor in the world. There are moving poems on the meaning of inherited objects – a paper-knife, letters – and inherited ways of being – the birdwatching that provides a rich source of imagery. The personal moves out to the resonances of what was, in its origins, a story of migration. Here the father’s success in finding of a home in Yorkshire is seen to contrast sharply with the tragedies of migrant deaths in the face of fortress Europe.
This is a work of great beauty, whose lucid simplicity of language is married to a rich complexity of structure and the bird-flight of images that connect poem to poem. There is humour, too, in the revenant voice of the mother who inserts herself into the poet’s memory and demands in her “broad Yorkshire vowels […] ‘Why is your dad getting all the attention?’”