Those are the central mountains,
the surrounding plains,
the coasts of mangrove, lagoon, river delta.
This is the temple compound
where the rite will begin this morning
exactly at the hour of Buddha’s enlightenment.
A muttering rises from the roadway
where already, the curfew lifted,
the prawn sellers are out.
That is a tea estate,
where coolies live and die.
There is a graphite mine
where they dig on their knees.
This is the assistant in the ceremony arriving,
who otherwise drives a three wheel taxi,
and these are the brushes, the paints,
the ritual mirror he bears.
The koha birds begin their proclamations
to the boutiques in the new town,
the tenements in the old town,
to the enclaves of the Tamil Hindu minority,
the Sinhalese Buddhist majority.
Those are the relics of the Portuguese occupation,
of the struggle for independence.
Here is the ladder propped before the sculpture,
and this is the artist, regally attired,
climbing meticulously, rung by rung,
his back to the carving,
who otherwise keeps records for the tax collector.
The sun rises again on the headlines,
the beggars at the railroad station,
the fish drying on the beach.
Those are the sites of bloodshed
between the government and the insurgents,
villages where massacres have occurred,
rooms where captives were tortured,
grounds where they were surreptitiously buried.
This is the assistant holding the mirror
for the artist to view the stone face,
and here is the artist painting, over his shoulder,
the eyes of the statue,
whereupon it is transformed into the god.
Someone wails behind the rusty bars of a window.
That is a convoy of tanks,
an elder fixing his shoes under an umbrella,
a boy in a bullock cart with a rag around his head,
a film of smog on the palm leaves,
debris from the bombing of a casino.
This is the artist being led away blindfolded.
A dog fight breaks out in the schoolyard.
That is a souvenir shop,
attended by a girl in a white sarong.
From The Gettysburg Review
Volume 17, #2 Summer 2004