This article is corrected by:

  1. Errata: Erratum to Cultural Anthropology 23.2
    (June 2008)
    Volume 23, Issue 3, iii, Article first published online: 31 July 2008


“The Coolie” is a selection from a larger “epic poem” about Tamil labor on the plantations of Sri Lanka. It is written in three tercets of iambic hexametrical, 12-syllabic lines in the terza rima structure, so as to preserve truths present in oral history and ethnography that would be made distant or secondary in prose. The influence of Derek Walcott is acknowledged with admiration. An analogue of this pairing of poetry and prose and prose in poetry is found in the way ancient Tamil grammar conceptualizes vowels and consonants, as goddess is to god; as power is to form; as oral history is to documented history. By narrating the ethnohistory of the Tamil coolie in this form of verse, the certainties of prose are neither absent nor neutralized but are given a supportive and constraining role. The narration concerns how 19th-century colonialism transformed over 30-million human beings into coolies, and the violence this plantation economy—one of colonial capitalism's most productive enterprises of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries—wreaked on the land.