Filial piety is not really a common theme in English poetry, and what I recall of it tends to include some dramatic twist, as with Dylan Thomas urging his father not to go quietly into the night. Perhaps because our family structures have lasted longer, perhaps because we wear our emotions more readily on our sleeves, the theme in a direct manifestation is more common amongst us.
Mahagama Sekera’s poem, translated by Mahinda Pathirana, expresses emotion openly, though with a slight reference to a fairly common theme in both Western and Eastern literature, the forgetting of basic roots in the pursuit of material goods. The images used to evoke the past are not unusual, given our widespread concern with education, but the details recorded add resonance to the efforts made.
You are the mother
He pressed his knees on the velvet-smooth ground
And worshipped the place
Where his mother lay buried
There had sprung a flower
White and nameless
Which he kissed, bowing his head
You are my mother who carried me in the womb
For about ten months
And brought me into this world
You are the mother who
With endless suffering, nurtured me in this world
You who, having boiled the leaves of the sweet potato
And sprinkled salt and mixed in coconut
Fed me when I cried in hunger
You got up early in the morning
And cooked the snacks to be sold in the bar
And with those small profits clothed me
You oiled my hair and
Hung the Panchayuda around my neck
Took me by the hand
And brought me to school
You walked though bushes thorny and wild
Brought the rushes and dyed them red and green
Wove fancy-patterned mats and
Taught me in childhood itself that this universe
has a pattern
I did not know, mother
Your body was a mirror
Which reflects my mind now
In your sunken eyes I saw
Neither happiness nor sorrow
Having borne all happiness and sorrow
Did you attain peace in your mind?
I earned money
Had mansions and vehicles
But no peace in mind
Through any of them
You had long known that truth
Though you had nothing of the sort
In talking of a father, P. Sathiyaseelan introduces a more philosophical element, in describing attachment based on sentiment alone, without experience to anchor it. He avoids the hackneyed tale of ill-treatment by a substitute parent, but nevertheless records the affinity felt on the basis of just biological connection. Here too the concern with education comes out, in mention of the one area in which the child feels deprived of his father’s guidance. The sudden movement from actual life to the images of the grave strengthens the impression of sad loss.
The translation is by A J Canagaratna, who did so much to bring Tamil poetry to a wider audience.
You departed this life just two months
after you sowed me in my mother’s blessed womb
and now my eyes can only circumambulate
your long grave, and my heart secretes sorrow
though I hardly understand why my eyes fill with tears
I never saw you, you did not teach me
the alphabet, did not take my child’s hand in yours
and seat me on your lap and call me ‘Child’ and
guide my finger
on the white spread out sand to make me
a small writer, chuckling with delight
I did not know your complexion or your figure
so why do my eyes become lakes?
No photograph of you either;
I had a father –
that consciousness alone
brings tears to my eyes
Rubbing my eyes
I open them again
thinking it odd, this attachment
attachment for the father I never knew
and attachment for the mother
who loves me
while I am also greatly attached
to the other who delights
in bringing me up
Isn’t attachment something which clings
to an object?
Neither seen nor heard
to what can my attachment cling?
Yet when I see the grave that has devoured you
convulsively I weep
Attachment should twine round the living
but this attachment arises from clinging
to an old, thicket-covered grave
it clings to a ruin
This mottle-filled grave should be cleaned
and when renovated covered with marble
perhaps then my heart will be eased
that I have performed my filial duty
All my learning cannot explain the cause
but the old grave holds me
and I cannot regret this strange attachment
Patrick Fernando, whom I long thought the most skilful, as well as the most thoughtful, of Sri Lankan poets writing in English, introduces a thoughtful dimension to his meditation on a father’s death. The subject is as much the son, as the title indicates, and deals with the manner in which memories are shaped by the period of consciousness.
But, having made us think of such subtleties, the writer typically returns to the simplicity of the mother’s response, which is not subject to the vagaries of a subjective view. That understanding, of the distance born of self that a child inevitably creates with regard to parents – a distancing that is not reciprocal on the part of parents – perhaps suggests the reason for filial piety not being the subject of much poetry, as opposed to the recreating of personal emotions.
Father and son
Father, twelve slow years have passed
since we hurried you out against the rain
from home to grave; the small tough grass
that visits ruins has arrived, but the stone
with its line from Romans muffled in moss
assures the careful reader of your resurrection.
I have spent more time than you’d advise
casting a hero out of you, failed and turned
on clumsy, time worn hands and tired eyes
for their lack of concentration, even blamed
the stolid faith that busied me over what I couldn’t
achieve and had you pose for me so long and patient.
From your receding shore quiet laughter
ripples slowly towards mine, hinting in
your favourite style, the true sculptor
goes for essence of being; simplifying
produces heroes – heroes are caricature;
fatherhood no heroic thing.
If you had left much earlier, certainly
a child’s hands would have placed you among
stars forever, to walk with the Virgin Mary
talking with God in the cool afternoon.
But, as if to flout that plan and make duty
difficult, you set out when my morning had gone;
When excessive proximity
spoilt proper focus,
and hero-building piety
had a touch of Narcissus
to blur your identity
and mine, foul my purpose.
My mother, smaller with age and grey,
surveys new chickens from her garden bench
more expert on these than in your day
on their ancestors. Sunlight pauses on
trees you planted, dapples her lap.
We speak of you, beginning with trees.
Her language, sparse but with a quite intensity,
borders on silence; her inward gaze
bespeaks a knowledge none can enter.