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Poetry does not often deal with property. In itself, I suppose, this does not seem a very poetic subject. And the three poems brought together here are really about feelings, not property. The juxtaposition may also seem facile, in that the feelings depicted are very different in character. Still, it is interesting to explore the use made of houses and furniture to convey essential aspects of the Sri Lankan experience.

The title of the first poem, by R Sivanandan, encapsulates its subject, though the contribution to the problem of the anxiety to satisfy others should also be noticed. The technique of progressive exaggeration, whereby money has to be borrowed even to provide the lenders with a cup of tea, is unusual and effective.

Passion for furniture

Tr. S. Rajasingam

 

I took a loan from a bank

sold the jewelry in the vault

my wife’s necklace, bangles, strands of chain, all

and built a house

Just two rooms to satisfy my desire

no more;

for lack of funds

abandoned the project midway

but the children moved freely

played on their own

in a spacious hall

Exhausted with play, the children

never needed to be lulled to sleep

there were no beds, no mattresses

even pillows were never needed

They had a wonderful time

and slept sprawled, on mats

I brought a bench

positioned it against a wall

to relax

Not satisfied,

for visitors to use

acquired two good cane chairs

and a teapoy

for tea things

To satisfy the wife

and children

I added a cushioned sofa

and a sette

though they somewhat crammed

this house of mine

It was truly beautiful

But unlike before

no room to move freely

to sprawl and sleep

or even relax

Today I stand

shrunk, diminished

the furniture closing in on me on all sides.

Polished and varnished

the furniture shines

though there is no rice

in this beautiful kitchen of mine

for the next meal

We stand wearied, wasted

without a clue

how to break free from this pretty pass

For want of space

I got into unnecessary scrapes

fell foul of friends

earned a dirty name

Since the house is full of furniture

the children often times trip, fall over

This is the month before the rains

oppressive the heat, night and day

the house is crammed

The children cannot lie down in comfort

furniture, furniture everywhere

we trip, we fall

Money lenders

who gave us credit

visited us to advance fresh loans

even to have a cup of tea

Now as if plagued

feel wretched, driven to frenzy

———————————————————————————————————————-

Though the following poem was written originally in English, Wickramasena Jayasekera is not from an urban English speaking background. His subject however is a common phenomenon, that of ageing and yielding to a new generation, which resonates beyond the simple images that encapsulate it here.

TO MY SON, HIS INHERITANCE

In my double bed

Which is now old

I recollect,

Not in tranquility,

The lattice work of my life.

My son now

Wears my sarongs

Without folding them in half

To shorten their full length

As he used to a few years ago.

Last week I saw him

Searching for my razor blades.

I heard him sing and whistle

And the tune seems so familiar …………

I picture my wife

As she first came to me

In a bright red cotton frock

With white polka dats.

I muse ………………

Remember my son

This lattice work

May be a lattice fence

For you some day.

In our old double bed

My wife and I

(Her hair all grey now)

Crouch like two old animals in a cage

Peering through the lattice work of our house.

While our son, his chest bare

And gleaming in the sun,

Reclines on an easy chair.

My wife takes

A long, sidelong glance at me.

I interpret

her message.

Yes, we will

Give this bed to him

And sleep

Elsewhere.

———————————————————————————————————————-

The third poem here is essentially a social critique, by Parakrama Kodituwakku for whom that was the very essence of poetry. The strength of his work lies however in the way he also creates a forceful sense of character, and piles on convincing details that convey a whole range of social problems. The life of a schoolmaster who is subject to the vagaries of government service from which those who choose can exempt themselves; the hazards presented by animate and inanimate nature in rural areas; moral hypocrisy and prurience; all these combine with the compelling image of the cats that travel along with this endlessly mobile family.

On Moving into a Rented House

Tr. Ranjini Obeyesekere

 

Gnanawathi, Gnanasena

buried down beneath the baggage

loaded into the half-lorry

ears uplifted

eyes wide open

why do you keep looking out?

Cats, can you not keep count?

This will be the 17th rented residence

that we now head for.

The 16th rented house we have just left

To the 17th rented home we now proceed.

It struck me during the history lesson

our life was like

that ambling steam engine

that Watson once built.

In the giant tree of life

let us live like birds

flit from limb to limb

in search of ripening fruit.

But gentle sirs forgive us, listen to our tale

we move from one house to the next

not because we want to change.

We pay our rent

and would so like

to close our eyes in peace

safe in a single place.

But the government by telegram

from Her Majesty the Queen

transfers our father from school to school.

We’ve already moved from seven

because he does not care to creep

beneath the Parliamentarians’ feet.

From house to house we slide

our goods and chattels packed

our bag and baggage clutched

sliding, slipping, shuffling, shoving

a vagrant life.

Why we moved out of one house

was when we couldn’t take much more.

The moment we put out the light

countless roaches rained on us.

In the rafters lived a snake

His underbelly whit e and slithering

moving up there overhead;

little sister screaming, shrieking

as if nearly dead.

Then in a twin house once we lived

in perfect amity

passing dishes back and forth

in friendly harmony.

One from this house

one to that house

one from that to this

feeling there was no distinction

between this and that

until one day

Buddhadas, the boy next door

kissed little sister’s breast.

To preserve her (golden) future

We hurriedly packed and left.

I swear it’s true.

There was one house

on the banks of the broad Black-River,

so beautiful it looked almost

like something in a movie.

Then without any warning

not a letter or a note

the Black-River maiden

ripped her cloth apart

and crept into our house.

The three watches of that night we spent

awake

upon a beam.

‘This world is an illusion

this life a drop of dew

all carrion and waste

a mere ball of spit.’

so said our next landlord

a saintly gentleman

who

because mother picked up a coconut

that fell from his tree

gave her notice, at once

with great equanimity

to quit the house

in twenty-four hours

Gnanasena, Gnanawathi,

Cats, I have some questions

which I will put to you.

Our 17th rented house

has just one room.

They say there is not space enough

for baby sister to crawl.

Do you think then when she grows up

she won’t be able to walk?

Because I will not have a room

in which to read and write

Will I not have a chance

to become a famous poet

one day?

Living in a single room

will my young sister ever

find herself a lover?

Flitting thus from tree to tree

will my mother and my father

turn to birds?

Sunday Observer 13 February 2011  http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2011/02/13/mon25.asp

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