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Romance has always been one of the mainstays of poetry, and this is exemplified in all three Sri Lankan languages. By romance is generally meant feeling directed towards a particular object. It encompasses love, but can also include sexuality, as in for instance one of the strongest love poems in English, Andrew Marvell’s ‘To his Coy Mistress’.

What I would like to look at here however is something that is quite distinct, though it falls into the same general area. I refer to sexuality without a particular target. Expressed so baldly, the concept might seem quite vulgar, but all three poets I will deal with here address the subject with delicacy as well as intensity.

The most self-contained of the poems is that by Anne Ranasinghe, the most senior Sri Lankan poet writing in English. She is however German by origin, and has lived in Sri Lanka for only a mere sixty years. For about two thirds of that time she has been publishing poetry, and is inspired equally by this country and her European roots.

‘Atteriya’ shows both these aspects of her experience, though set firmly in the Sri Lankan context. The first verse is purely descriptive, but addresses a range of senses, sight and smell and sound, all so forcefully conveyed that one can almost touch the object described. The second verse moves to the inner life, with its juxtaposition of memory and desire, key elements in Ranasinghe’s artistry.

Thus, when the poetry actually describes the fifth sense, of touch, it readily functions as a catalyst, stirring up sexuality. This is expressed through the distancing force of a quotation, the Greek physician Asclepiades being cited to assert sexual urgency, in the context of human mortality. The impact is forceful, similar to that of Marvell, with his more earthy reminder that there is no embracing in the grave.

ATTERIYA

Even through the closed windows it seeps, on this Nikini Poya night,

a scent so drenching that it drowns the senses.      I open the door

to the moon-washed garden – such stillness under the golden light

of the huge Poya moon, all branches and leaves immobile –

searching for      Atteriya, Queen of the Night;

and find it, tangled, by the side of the wall, the deep green leaves

luminous in the moonlight, and covered with delicately curling

white-petalled blossoms whose centres support their yellow-tipped stamens.

The scent flows from the arched canopy, wave after sensuous wave,

flooding memory, awakening desire.       I raise my hand to touch

the tracery of leaves, and a shower of blossoms rains upon me;

the ground is covered as with snow;

and I remember the words of Asclepiades

that the joys of the love goddess are to be found only among the living

and that we shall all lie as no more than dust and bone

in the place of the dead.

Urvashi’s poem, on the other hand, is rooted firmly in a particular relationship, which is expressed through romantic regrets initially. The impression is that of a wife missing an absent husband, the feelings made sadder by the sense that he has gone away through political commitment. The details that are introduced,  animate and inanimate nature, and the letters of the mother, create a strong sense of the physical situation. And then, suddenly, in the last verse, the poet introduces a personal element, that suddenly sets itself at odds with the firm commitment implied earlier. The surprising question arises so simply and logically from the thoughts expressed that the reader takes a moment to grasp that this poem is about harsh reality, not romance.

Urvashi is the pen-name of Juvaneswari Arutpragasam, who was born in Jaffna, but became a lecturer at the College of Education in Batticaloa, after obtaining a degree in science and mathematics from the University of Jaffna. Born in the fifties, she came into prominence with  other women poets in the 1980s.

Do you understand what I write?

Tr. Lakshmi Holmstrom

 It is of no use

to send this letter

to any address that I know.

Nevertheless, somehow or the other

it must reach you.

That you will certainly receive it

is my unshakeable belief.

Here, in the front courtyard

the jasmine is in full bloom.

Honey birds by day

and the scent-laden breeze by night

reach as far as our room.

All sorts of people whom I do not know

walk past our house, often.

Yet, till now, no one has come

to interrogate me.

The small puppy runs in circles

around the house

without reason,

its tail raised high

as if it wants to catch someone.

At night, when I cannot sleep,

I dust your books and put them away.

I have read most of them, now.

I have never opened

your mother’s letters.

The weight of her grief for her sons

I cannot endure.

And then, my love,

the thought that you have gone away

only for our people’s sake

is my only consolation.

Although this imprisoning sorrow is huge,

yet, since our separation,

I have learnt to bear everything.

One thing more:

it is this, most of all

I wanted to say.

I am not particularly a soft-natured woman

nor am I naive as I once was.

Our current state of affairs

gives me no signs for hope.

It is certain

that for a long time

we must be apart.

Then,

why should I stay within this house

any longer?

Well,

Do you understand what I write to you?

Buddhadasa Galappathy came to prominence as a poet in the seventies, as dramatist and critic as well as poet. The poem introduced here has a similar theme to Urvashi’s, though it is expressed through reference to the historic Ramayana legend. The story there depends on the absolute fidelity of Rama’s wife Sita, who remained chaste though abducted by Ravana.

The title here suggests what the poem is about, though the first two verses could well be the prelude to passionate regret for an absent husband. The third verse however fulfils the impression of the wind as a thief, since it introduces the interloper whose acceptance is asserted without delay. No other explanation is offered for betrayal of the husband laboring at sea, except a simple assertion of sexual need. 

I Am Not Sita

Tr. Ranjini Obeyesekere

The cold wind creeps, a thief

between the window panes

the dim moon shining over the desolate earth

lets a thin sliver fall.

Breaking the desolation of midnight

the waves fall, wailing, solitary

the boat that you rowed out to sea

is now a speck on the distant ocean.

The wind already is softly whispering

that he is come and waiting

outside the window of my hut.

Be not angry, my husband

think not too ill of me, my husband

I cannot be

another Sita.

The three poems are written by three very different people, an older woman, a younger one, and a man. All three however, in their different ways, deal with female passion without the romance of familiar poetic tradition. All three, I think, with great delicacy, convey an intensity of feeling that turns on its head the usual idealized image of the Sri Lankan woman.

Sunday Observer 30 January 2011

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