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In memory of Leo


Leo Seemanpillai Geelong Advertiser cover

A Death in Winter

In Memory of Leo Seemanpillai  

Let me, first, take my bearings
by speaking of weather, the season.

A spell of summer in late autumn
has lasted until this first day of winter,
will last beyond it.  

I step outside, tilt my face up
to receive the sun.        
Inside the cave of my closed eyes
a cloudy webbed white
is set against lava-red;  
as in a lit cavern
there are many flashpoints of mica,
each a single flare then gone.

Soon my eyes will hold
the image of a burning man.

On this day, at 9.15 a.m.
Leo Seemanpillai
died in a Melbourne Hospital
after an act of self-immolation.

I read the newspapers,
learn of Leo's life:
of how, when he was six,
his family fled from Sri Lanka
to a camp for refugees in India.
Returning as a young man to Sri Lanka
he was tortured by the military;
beaten by police and left to die.
Back in India, more persecution.
Then the journey to Australia –
en route, detention in Sumatra,
grave abuse and cruelty there.

In sum, a tidal wave of suffering
has broken over Leo Seemanpillai
and left him on an unlit shore.

Once here in Australia
he responds to others in need
with generosity, kindness,
turns his suffering into hope,
sows hope in others.

When, two days before his death,
a loved gift, a turquoise tile
painted with a butterfly, breaks,
he laughs it off.

Leo Seemanpillai arrived in Darwin from India on January 9, 2013,
and was held in detention before being granted a bridging visa
with work rights in June of that year.

When he settles in Geelong
Leo, who knows English well,
may have seen the bumper stickers –
They came. They saw. They sank.
But here he will find friendship,
enter the life of his community.

In the week after Leo's death
a workmate will speak of his keenness
to do his job – one day a week
cleaning trucks, mowing the lawn;
of how he'd lay out his uniform with care,
finish his lunch break five minutes early
to return to work.

'Anyone who may have come from Sri Lanka should know that they will go back to Sri Lanka.'
– Scott Morrison, Minister for Immigration and Border Protection; October 2013.

A man on fire
is running from the front garden
of the house where he lived
into the street.

A neighbour who is a nurse
tries to help him.

Later that day, in a Melbourne hospital,
dying in agony
he asks for his organs to be donated.

His parents, speaking from their refugee camp,
support his wishes.

Five people will benefit
from the gift of
an eye, both kidneys, his liver and one lung  
from Leo Seemanpillai.

A man casts off and rows
across a lake of fire  
in the small boat of his body

because he feels, because
everything he knows now tells him,
that he can do no other.

This last act of torture
that will end all torture.

How can I venture
to speak of such things?

I step back now,
insist that I do not know
what Leo's sufferings might have been like.

I can only create –
for myself, for others –
a space for imagining.

A friend rings in the night from England.
Of the terrifying mayhem
that is now, (again), Iraq, she says:
'When we can see no clear way forward,
no way to offer help or hope,
the way forward
is to travel within
and dwell inside the cave of stillness.
There will be found the peace we can offer.'

But here, now, in Australia
new choices can be made,
bad decisions reversed,
so that the tortured, the persecuted,
will not be sent back to the hellholes –
old ones, new ones –
where persecutors hold sway.  

'If I'm deported back to Sri Lanka, torture is certain because I'm a Tamil.'
– from the Journal of Leo Seemanpillai
In a class on Mindfulness
I take to heart these words:
Be aware of each breath; treasure it.
You will never have this breath again.

I have started to imagine
all the breaths Leo might have had,
the days and years he might have had,
and the kindness friends and others
would have known from him,
and he from them.

Leo had, pinned to his wall, a slip of paper that read,
It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.

Leo, one of the light-bearers,
had reason, though, to fear the dark.

When a friend gave him a night-light
to help him sleep, he told her

it was like 'a shiny moon'
always there inside his room.

I watch a mica-cloud of midges
above the winter sun –
small winter suns themselves;
their shaped flux set against
that far-off cypress, like dust motes
in a green-walled room.

I think of sky-loving murmurations,
of spaces within the mind, the heart,
drawn tightly close
then flowing outwards, oceanic,
within a split second.

When I look up again
the clouds are seamed with chrysolite;
no sun; the air blank.

During a stay in a Mental Hospital early in 2014 because of
severe depression, Leo tried to hang himself with a towel.

Who, exactly, is ill here?

Doctors sometimes forsake
medical language, to speak of
heart murmurs, shadows on a lung.

We live now with fear,
its murmurs, its shadows,
carried in the heart, the lungs:

the fear of losing –
even of sharing –
the smallest part of what we possess.

Some of us have
plighted our troth with fear:

in the caves of the heart, the lungs,
loving our fear.  

It is time to breathe freely, to feel.

On the day I hear of Leo's death
I pass a tall maple,
its star-like leaves, blood-red
and flame-red, irradiated.

Many leaves have fallen,
many leaves are still hanging;
all will be gone by the Solstice.

Tree of fire, tree of blood.

In search of spiritual composure,
I walk the cliff path
under a cloud-marbled white dome –
having just missed, I'm told,
two sea-eagles flying around the bay,
their eyes mapping the coast.

Back home I listen to Early Choral music
that has echoed inside cathedral domes,
caves of light mixed with incense,
each note a mica glint
ascending into the light beyond the light we see –
that further light
that presses back on us.

We live,
sub specie aeternitatis
'under the aspect of eternity'.

'We get to listen to the silence in the cave,
and perhaps we can even hear our own heartbeats.'
– Werner Herzog

And now I watch
Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams
a film that takes me inside the Chauvet Cave:
sealed by a rockslide for twenty thousand years,
newly discovered.
A held light presses into the darkness  
and that ancient darkness,
pricked with mica glints,
presses back against the light.
There are scratches from bear claws
on walls painted with horses,
wild and strange,
in the mystery of their nature,
the light in their eyes
preserved through thirty millennia.
And, among bones on the floor of the Cave –
the province now of archaeologists,
forensic scientists – there is
the skeleton of a golden eagle.

Outside, in this present world,
and less than twenty miles from Chauvet Cave,
run-off from a nuclear power station
has formed toxic lagoons where crocodiles
multiply, mutate.
A white crocodile with white eyes
curves up to the surface, to breathe.

Spirit of Life  
may you guard the afflicted,
those who have suffered
beyond reason, beyond imagining,
those who fear certain persecution –
may a haven be found for them
somewhere this side of death.

Spirit of Life  
save us from the white crocodiles.

Some speak of
the solace of eternity

some believe that in death
we become part of everything,
our spark of awareness
carried by all the winds that blow,
then above them
into the light beyond light.

May Leo
rest in peace

May his mother and father, his brothers,
know peace

May the many people here who loved him
know peace.

'We want to be by our son's side when his funeral takes place.
That way our lives will be more peaceful.'
– Leo's father

The Australian government refused the visas applied for by Leo's family
so that they might attend his funeral.

As three Tamil men at a microphone
sing a long hymn in Tamil
the Basilica fills with an undertow of sound,
a faint bass humming by many voices
that I cannot account for until, at the end,
Leo's coffin is carried out
followed by a long procession of Tamil men
who'd sat, unseen by me, at the front.

They carry their bodies, their spirits, so quietly.
Some of them, I know,
have cigarette burns on their backs
and many other scars.

We all wait in the clear winter light.

It is achieved.

The funeral car starts its slow journey.

The elderly woman I had sat beside,
who'd travelled three hours to be here,
turns down my offer of a lift,
chooses, despite her damaged leg,
to walk with her stroller
to the railway station.

'It'll be thinking time,' she says,
calmly passionate.
'There is a lot to think about.'

Poet's note on the writing of 'A Death in Winter'

I did not know Leo Seemanpillai while he was alive, but began to know of him after hearing of his death, which occurred on 1 June, the first day of the Australian winter, in 2014. The story of the immense sufferings he had endured, which led him to end his life so tragically, began to unfold in the media.

I was deeply affected by Leo's death, as were many others, and wanted to honour his memory. When I mistakenly thought I had missed his funeral, the distress I felt became a spur to writing about him. Visiting Geelong the next day I saw a leaflet about a candlelit vigil – that evening! – in one hour! – Yes! At the vigil I heard many beautiful tributes to Leo. Next day a photograph of myself, holding a candle, appeared in the Geelong Advertiser; the headline above Danny Lannen's report was: 'Geelong Lights Up Night For Leo'.

A pattern of connection now, a momentum... I attended a great social gathering of members of the refugee community in Geelong, of which Leo had been a part, then a meeting and a rally on the plight of asylum seekers. The challenge of writing about Leo had taken me away from my creative solitude and out into the streets, churches and halls, to meet many new people and hear their painful or life-giving stories. This rich experience helped me in shaping my personal response to Leo's story. On June 18th, when I went to Leo's funeral, I felt calmly present. After it, I completed 'A Death in Winter'.

Diane Fahey

Diane Fahey's most recent publications, The Wing Collection: New & Selected Poems and The Stone Garden: Poems from Clare, were shortlisted for major poetry awards. A House by the River is forthcoming from Puncher & Wattmann in 2015. Diane has received a grant from the Australia Council to support the writing of a poetry collection set in the west of Ireland.

This poem has been published in Index on Censorship, Vol. 43, Issue 3, by SAGE Publications Ltd, All rights reserved. © Diane Fahey

Topic tags: Diane Fahey, Modern Australian poetry, Leo Seemanpillai, asylum seekers



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Existing comments

I will be sending this to my local MP and to the Minister for Firm Borders and Closed Hearts. I will be sharing it with my dearest friends and carrying it with me wherever I go so I do not forget. Thank you.

Fiona Dodds | 24 March 2015  

A beautiful moving tribute. Thank you Dianne. We really cannot know or understand what moves inside another's heart. We who live in such a privileged country cannot imagine what asylum seekers have seen and suffered. Everyone deserves our respect and understanding.

Anne Doyle | 24 March 2015  

Thank you, Diane. My reaction to the poem is summed up in the saying: "It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness." Interesting you held one up at the vigil. Who knows where this sort of peaceful mindful protest may lead? It may not soften the hearts of our political leaders but it may well have a cumulative influence on the voters.

Edward Fido | 24 March 2015  

Thankyou for this

Fiona ryan | 24 March 2015  

A beautiful, most moving poem. Thank you so much Dianne for expressing your love and grief in such a tangible way. I would like to share it with The Wordsmiths of Melbourne.

Jean Sietzema-Dickson | 24 March 2015  

So moving and expressive, it gives humanity over policy. Words are an inadequate response to such thoughtfulness. I hope it gets a wide circulation in the community and with all our political leaders. Thank you Diane.

Brett | 27 March 2015  

What a deeply moving tribute and poignant reflection on a tragedy which should never have happened. May Leo's life and contribution be a legacy which might affect the future responses to those whose lives are affected by such affliction. Sincere condolences and deep peace to those family and friends of his.

Terry casey | 28 March 2015  

Dear Diane F: I worked with many immigrants/refugees out of south-east Asia, South America, Eastern Europe/western Asia - before others came from south-west Asia, from Africa - so many shards of darkness for whom Australia represented the light of safety. Why is what is clear to me - a mere citizen - that asylum-seekers rightfully fear their torture/gaol/possible deaths if/when returned by the Immigration Monster Ministers/hand-servant bureaucracatic minions - just doing their job - that there is truth in their fears! What is wrong with our political choices that these figures are damning all of us with their inhumanity and mealy-mouthed responses when tackled on the issues of their inhumanity! Your eulogy, Diane, will enter the ranks of Australian literature - and when people read this 30 or 40 years down the track - then the names of those who took away hope from people such as Leo will be rightfully clothed in shame!

Jim KABLE | 08 April 2015  

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