Poem of the week: The Weight of the World by Seni Seneviratne | Poetry

Poem of the week: The Weight of the World by Seni Seneviratne | Poetry

The Weight of the World

Oh, how they blew like vast sails in the breeze,
my mother’s wet sheets, pegged hard to the rope
of her washing line. There was always hope
of dry weather and no need for a please
or thanks between us as we hauled them down.
Whether to make the fold from right to left
or left to right, to tame the restless heft?
My job to know. I won’t call it a dance,
but there were steps to learn and cues to read,
the give and take of fabric passed like batons
on a relay race. She was my due north.
Her right hand set west, mine tracing the east,
we closed the distance, calmed the wayward weight,
bringing order to the billowing world.

From Unknown Soldier (Peepal Tree Press, 2019) © 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 form well-adapted to bearing disruption without falling apart. A number of contemporary poets have made it the site of controlled political and cultural explosions. Seneviratne’s poem emphasises the control. In the portrayal of a domestic mother-daughter activity that’s also a shared ritual, distances are harmonised but not entirely smoothed over.

The first-line image evokes travel. The sheets, seen as “vast sails” are welcomed with a thrill of exclamation by the remembering daughter: “Oh, how they blew …” It captures the physical pleasure of trying your own force against that of the wind. Essential to drying the wash, the wind has its own intentions of sending the heavy wet sheets flying away, if the person trying to hang them doesn’t act quickly and cleverly. The weather is a kind of fate. So the bigger, more life-changing journeys of new countries and mixed marriage are almost imperceptibly evoked.

The mood is confident, the speaker remembering “there was always hope / of dry weather”. Sereviratne was born in Leeds, and the likely setting of the poem in the English north adds an extra touch of irony to the meteorological optimism. The “hope/rope” rhyme reinforces the grip on control: the sheets are “pegged hard” and the washing-line itself is a sturdy “rope”.

Dominating the narrative, though, is what happens later when the “sails” are “hauled down” and the two women cooperate in folding the large, probably double or king-size, sheets. The wind is still blowing, and there’s still the “restless heft” – of weather, of family feeling? – to be tamed.

Mother and daughter, we’re told, don’t need to speak to accomplish their folding ritual; there’s “no need for a please / or thanks between us”. The English manners of the older woman are gently mocked. Is the daughter reassured, or made slightly uneasy by the laxity? Because of the tone that emerges later on, it seems there might be some unease around the assumption that the sheet-folding relationship operated outside conventional courtesies. A “please / or thanks” might have smoothed the way for the less-practised daughter.

Seneviratne has begun with a rhyme-scheme that nicely suggests the meeting/retreating movements of the women, and implies at this stage their ease of cooperation. But by line six, a doubt intrudes, “whether to make the fold from right to left / or left to right”? And after the “restless heft” of line seven the rhyme-scheme fades out, although the stately iambic pentameter continues, mostly unperturbed. The comment “my job to know” might carry a burden of reluctance to know. The poet’s decision to relax the rhyme-scheme further devolves the daughter’s sense of rule-abiding duty towards independence.

“I won’t call it a dance,” the speaker declares, subtly ambiguous once again. “But there were steps to learn and cues to read …” Domestic rules are tricky: they circumscribe – and aestheticise? – female behaviour. Perhaps a faint shadow is cast by her previous poem in the anthology, Mapping the Future: The Complete Works Poets where The Weight of the World appears. The Devil’s Rope is a short history of barbed wire spoken in the voice of the wire itself: “I’ve crossed the open plains and closed them in, / I’ve edged a Desert War, I’ve manned the trenches. / Now I’m raising Fortress Europe’s latest fences.” The softer boundaries set by maternal “steps” and “cues” may also have a ruthless edge.

“Dance” is an end-word that lacks a partner in full rhyme; “batons” is the only candidate, and it leads in another metaphorical direction, that of the “relay race”. Generational family obligations are suggested: a baton must be handed on, and it must be accepted. Dropping it, even in the laundry context, might undo the previous good work of taming and pegging. In the next unrhymed line, the mother is honoured as her daughter’s “true north”. But the previous emphasis on antithesis – right, left/ wet, dry/please, thanks – recurs in the next line’s choice of opposite cardinal points: “Her right hand set west, mine tracing the east”. The English mother and the mixed-race daughter take different bearings. The rhythm takes a gently disturbing jolt as well.

Whatever disruption has threatened, it’s averted by the sonnet’s final two lines, as if “weight” and “world” were after all close enough to stand in for a rhyme. The sonnet’s title has implied that “the weight of the world” might have been on the shoulders of both women. As it unfolds, we’re aware that there are seas, winds, “vast sails” and different customs to contend with. But Seneviratne keeps the action pegged to her formal rope, showing that distance can be gracefully maintained and doesn’t necessarily exclude kindly connection.

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