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Bread and Scythe (1993) – Elsie Russell

To say something new or striking about Death as an abstract concept is not easy for a poet. It has long been a subject of poetry, along with the inevitable passing of time and the approach of death.

The three poems published here this week all however have something unusual about them, which I believe well worthy of special notice.

Rex Baker was British Council Representative in Sri Lanka from 1984, though by the time he left in 1990 he was called a Director, and the Council had turned into a commercial outfit – though thankfully that did not prevent at least a couple of his successors from taking forward also the altruistic work that had been the hallmark of the Council in the past, when wonderful characters like Bill McAlpine held sway.

Rex encouraged many Sri Lankan initiatives, drama workshops and regular local productions, the English Writers Cooperative and its regular journal ‘Channels’ and also many low cost books which students all over the country found extremely useful.

I realized however that the writing was on the wall when, under his successor, London declared that it was not the task of the Council to take bread from the mouths of British publishers – not realizing that developing the reading habit widely was one way of actually promoting sales of books at higher levels in the future.

Rex did not contribute to ‘Channels’ while he was here, if I remember aright, but after he had left us he sent the occasional poem. I was particularly pleased to use these, since after Richard he was I think the first poet we published who had command of unusual rhythms.

As befits a Classicist, he uses effectively here the Tum-ta-ta of dactyls, but note also the slow spondees in the last lines of the second and third verses, at the beginning and end respectively of the lines.

Though the poem is in one sense a conceit, a vehicle to convey skill with language, the ideas resonate, and the likening of death to winter takes on a new dimension in the last line. With the comparison between men and leaves sustained throughout, the notion of men forgetting the leaves is particularly telling, even for those of us who have not experienced a bleak winter.

Too old for tears

Such as the falling of leaves, so is the passing of men;
Such as the stirring of trees, so is the breathing of men;
Winds move the sighing of myriads, loose
In the rhythm of dying,
Ready to fall from the restless movement of being.

Each generation cries with the coming of seasons
And the old will remember the wind in the
stillness of noon,
The infant will cry unheard in the tremulous silence
When treetops sway in the ominous peace of the sun.

Such as the movement of stars, so is the living of man
And as the living of man, so is the weeping of years;
We crush through the brown dead leaves uncaring
And thrill to the impotent blasts of winter
For we have grown too old for tears.

Such as the man, so is the juggling leaf in the wind;
Such as the foliage, so the ephemeral flock
of immortals;
Only the winter is barren of fear of the wind
When the seasons have ended and men
Have forgotten the leaves.

Gunadasa Amerasekera’s poem approached Death directly, in opposing the standard philosophical acceptance of death to the emotional unwillingness to face it.

This harshly realistic approach is well brought out in Manoj Ariyaratne’s translation, which also however recreates movingly the intensity of the ambiguous feelings involved.


It is certain
That after a few days more
My life will turn to death

Is it all right for me
With a mind full of experience
To worry as I think of it

It is presumed that
All beings will die
Death is presumed
At the moment of birth

Life is uncertain
As morning dew
Only death is eternal
So why worry?

But unawares
The thought of death bursts out
Breaking my heart
Without my knowing it
My eyes fill with tears

Life is like a chain
That starts with birth
And death is simply
Its last link

Though it is torment
For those who think of it
A scholar will realise
That there is meaning in death

It is eternal
And another will replace me
in this world

Is the meaning of death
So, knowing life clearly
Why do I worry like a child?

The thought of death bursts out

Is this my end?
Is this the last time
I shall see the world?

Sunrise, sunset
The beauty of the world
Will I lose it

Is this
The last time
I shall see the world?

Is there nobody to free me?
Oh God
Is there no help
For me?

Cheran’s poem is entitled after the god of death in Hindu mythology, but it would be naive to see death in the abstract as the subject of the poem.

Mention of night and a lurking shadow suggest that it is not simply death that lies in wait, and rouses fear, but perhaps the intruders who took so many lives in the North over so many years. The poem evokes simply but forcefully the feeling of those awaiting death, tossed between fear and resolution.

The images from nature that suggest vibrant life provide a sharp contrast to the suspense of the opening stanzas. The translation is by Chelva Kanaganayakam, and the last stanza of the poem is particularly powerful, in the manner it combines positive perspectives from nature with the helpless resignation of the opening section.


The wind falters
as fear
fills the night
I gasp at the stillness
between the stars

Whose shadow lurks by the door?

I would not know
nor would they
It happened

No reason
no justice
values and virtues freeze where they stand
in the oppressive silence

In the dark
lost in flight
pigeons pound and pound again against the door
My resolve to endure slips

Do the butterflies
disdaining life
shed their colours in the prime of youth?

As sunflowers, their golden petals
untouched by dust
as lotus flowers that bloom at the touch of water
as stars
they will be born again

Until then
at the edge of the lake
stare at the waves

Translated by Chelva Kanaganayakam

Sunday Observer 3 April 2011