‘Monuments’ by Kamala Wijeratne is a seven stanza poem that is separated into sets of lines that vary in their length. The first, second, and fourth stanzas contain four lines and can be referred to as quatrains. All the remaining stanzas are made out of five lines, also known as quintets.
It is important to note a few cultural details about this piece which most likely informed the poet. ‘Monuments’ was written within the twenty-five years of the Sri Lankan Civil War. The conflict was fought between the LTTE or Tamil Tigers, a rebel group intent on creating a free independent state called Tamil Eelam, and the Sri Lankan government. This conflict began in July of 1983 and did not end until May 2009 with the defeat of the Tamil Tigers.
Summary of Monuments
The poem begins with the speaker stating that she is on a bus that is traveling from stop to stop. At each one of these stops, she sees a memorial of one kind of another to a lost son. There are so many of these messages the losses become like a “legend.”
The next section of the poem speaks on the lives the men could’ve had if they had not been lost in the north. They could have become paddy farmers like their fathers and warmed themselves at the familial hearth.
The final lines speak of the endless images which appear to the speaker as she gazes out into the distance. These include the figures of a man and a woman who have suffered greatly in the preceding years. They do not cry, their faces are stern.
Analysis of Monuments
The bus sweeps past the swinging trees
And jolts to a halt by the road.
The poet’s speaker begins ‘Monuments’ by describing the passage of a bus through the landscape. A reader should take note of how the words are chosen for this section give off a feeling of movement. There is the “sweep” of the bus and the “swinging” of the trees. The road is seen to be “unwind[ing]” in the distance. All of these images combine together to create an off-balanced, swaying vision of the landscape.
The speaker continues on to state that the bus’s “chassis” is throwing up clouds of dust due to its “load.” The next lines make clear that the speaker is riding on the bus and experiencing every bump and turn. It “jots to a by road,” or a street which is off to the side.
The bus stops for a moment to load
“IN MEMORY OF MY SON” I get a jolt.
The second stanza, which also contains four lines, describes one moment in which the bus stops “to load” and the speaker reads a message off the side of the “halt” or bus-stop. She sees…
A wayside monument etched in gold.
“IN MEMORY OF MY SON” I get a jolt.
There is a message written, or mounted, alongside the panels of the “halt.” It is a memorial to the son of some unknown mother and father. This person, whose death is never described or expanded on, has been missed by his family. They chose to remember him through a plaque, or memorial which is seen by members of the community as they ride through the landscape and get on and off the bus. The speaker is shocked by this message. She isn’t surprised, but it strikes something within her— she gets a “jolt.”
The legend goes on, on every bus
Erected by Father, Mother and next of kin”
The third stanza is a quintet, meaning that it contains five lines. The speaker spans back from this one particular moment to take an overarching view on “halts” she has seen within her community. The message which was mentioned in the second stanza is not the only one that has been made. There are so many, and the losses are so prevalent, that it is like a “legend.” It seems to the speaker as if “every bus” contains “every name.”
The same story, with slight variations, is told over and over again. It follows the life and death of…
Who fell the north erected by
Father, mother and next of kin”
The young men who have died fighting in the northern parts of the country are being memorialized by those they left behind.
More than a dozen names penetrated my mind.
Sons of those who teased out paddy from this land
The next stanza returns to the pattern of four lines. Within this section, the speaker discusses the impact of those lost to the north and what they all had in common.
The next line mentions “Bandara” who is said to be the “master of the soil.” This rather obscure reference leads into the final line of the fourth stanza which speaks of…
…those who teased out paddy from this land.
The speaker is referring to a possible future the men could have had. Rather than being killed in the conflict they could have spent their days teasing “out paddy.”
A paddy field is a flooded area of land which is used for growing rice. These fields are the most common throughout the east, south and southeast Asia. It would have been the dominate type of rice farming done in Sri Lanka during the years of the Civil War.
They would have ploughed this soil
While the Koha sang on the erabadu trees.
The fifth stanza of ‘Monuments’ expands on the future which could have been for all those memorialized on the sides of buses. Rather than dying they could have “ploughed this soil” and “Gathered the harvest at reaping time.” This type of life would have been much simpler and guaranteed that they…
Followed their fathers with the paddy in bins
Their lives would have led them to sit at their family hearth, eating the rice which has been “scented by a mother’s fond hands.” It would have been a life full of simple pleasures and familial love.
The inscriptions hug the white walls
And try to make the broken images whole
In the second to last stanza the speaker brings the narrative back to the initial moment in which the bus travels past the “halt” on the road. She describes hearing the sound of a “Koha” singing. This is a reference to a bird of the cuckoo family found throughout Asia. It’s song is coming from “the readadu tree.” The song is occurring in the background of the scene. Her main focus is on the “inscriptions” which hang from “the white walls.” They move in and out of her vision as the bus turns corners and “swings in and out of halts.”
In the last two lines of the stanza she speaks of the miles “unwinding” in front of her. Her concepts of what the world was, currently is, and what it is becoming, are playing out in her mind. She is trying to reconcile the images into a “whole.” This is similar to the way one would attempt to make sense of landscape imagery which flashes before one’s eyes while traveling down a road.
Vague shapes rise undefined in front of me
And their faces are stern with unshed tears.
In the final stanza of ‘Monuments’, the speaker continues to describe the “Vague shapes” she is seeing ahead of the bus. They are “ris[ing] undefined in front” of her. A few of these poignant images are describes in the next lines.
A farmer in a muddied loin cloth…
And a housewife with billowing sleeves
These two portraits of residents of her town are “haunt[ing]” the speaker. She is in equal parts drawn to and horrified by them. The man and the woman are representatives of the losses which have been experienced during the drawn out years of the war.
The final two lines speak of how these images stare at her just as much as she stares at them. While one might assume the man and woman would be distraught in their circumstances, their “faces are stern with unshed tears.” They are used to the life they now lead.