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This week I will look at poems that deal with animals, but from an unusual perspective. All three poems deal with a sense of loss, that draws our minds to rather depressing aspects of, not human, but natural, conditions.

The first is perhaps the most familiar in terms of its subject matter, and indeed looks at conditions which man has created. It is by S. Pathmanathan, translated as usual by himself, and deals with a side effect of the destruction wrought by war. The scene should be an unfamiliar one, but it has been all too common in recent years in the North, and the writer brings to the experience, of coming back home after enforced exile, a touching mixture of bewilderment and the assumption that life simply has to just go on.

The third verse introduces the main subject of the poem, the missing dog. The writer recreates vividly the reactions of the creature when his master went away, probably to a safe haven nearby, to escape an expected incursion. He captures too the attempt of the dog to join his master, and the latter’s need to fend him off, doubtless because the dog might endanger the refugees by focusing attention on their hiding place.

The poem brings alive the minutiae of the suffering caused by war. The abandoned lost animal is simply a tiny element in the equation, which includes damage and displacement and missing persons too, but the sense of loss, and the bemusement about what else might have been done, is expressed with great pathos – not least because of the ironic title.

The release

I returned

after a six-month exile

to find to my surprise

my house standing, the roof intact,

with the exception of some stolen items

our belongings safe

Thank god no one stepped

on booby traps.

I look around and I miss something:

yes, the jubilant welcome of Blackie.

My eyes scan the deserted homesteads

and the shrubs

that day and the following days.

Disappointed my mind darts back

to that cold October evening

When I left my hearth and home

with the young and old,

you stood sentinel over

the house I abandoned

From the sanctuary I paid fleeting visits

seeing me you leaped up in joy

licked me, snatched from my hands

the goodies I had brought

running round and round

you communicated to me

the pangs of separation

The third time you followed me

Defiantly, steeling my heart

I chased you

pelting stones

Today

memories haunting me

I gaze and gaze

at the stray dogs that shun human beings

conditioned by the shelling and firing

heard in the wilderness

You are not there

but your memory haunts me

when I think that you perished

defending the house I abandoned

I feel the pangs of guilt

I am ashamed of my cowardice

my pettiness

as I take stock of the damaged houses

the lost possessions

the missing members

the displaced persons

My balance sheet shows

a debt

bankrupt

I could ask you for a write- off

but

you’re not there

only your memory

haunts me still.

Ariyawansa Ranaweera is a highly idiosyncratic writer, who presents the world askew, to draw attention significant if generally forgotten aspects of life. His subject here is something we see all the time, the return of an evening of birds to roost for the night in their regular resting place.

I have often, when out in the countryside, against the Matale hills, over the Kalu Ganga, watched flocks of birds flying in formation to what I have thought of as their homes.

It had never occurred to me before I read this poem to think about those that did not return, for whatever reason, having set off hopefully to forage in the morning. Ranaweera’s poem, translated by E M G Edirisinghe, takes our minds to the missing, unnoticed to the horde, of significance only to a grieving mate.

The anthromophormization, establishing links between us and the birds, first by referring to the lack of concern of the majority, then by focusing on the sense of personal loss, reminds us too of how little individual loss counts in the great scheme of things, how massive it looms in the hearts of those affected.

A failure to return

In the evening

Every bird wings its way to sleep

Perched among the leaves

Atop the trees

Prattling for a while

On what and what not occurred that day

Dreaming of the day to follow

Huddled in their feathers

They fall asleep

Though one of the flock

Did not make it to the nest that evening

They do not notice it

In their thousands

They are in deep comfortable sleep

Except for one lone she-bird

Waiting without sleep, without words

Finally I look at one of the most chilling poems I have read. It is an early work by Anne Ranasinghe, when she put down simple if always interesting perceptions about the world she saw, bureaucrats in the ‘Colombo Secretariat’, a suffering bull in ‘Plead Mercy’. These were accompanied usually by a call to thought, but that could be passed over in comparison with the strength of the visual imagery.

This poem is different, in that it focuses on what can only be described as actual evil, the pleasure the unthinking can take in inflicting suffering for its own sake.

The first verse is almost cinematic in the way it sets the scene, the idyll of a beach darkened by words such as ‘crash’ and ‘drown’. The focus then moves to the writer, unable to intervene, as most of us do not, for whatever reason, which usually boils down into diffidence, unwillingness to speak – until it is too late.

When I used to teach the poem, I used to draw comparisons with what takes place during ragging, when what is presented as play to begin with allows licence for the worst excesses of human wickedness, sometimes due to perverted psychologies, sometimes due simply to the joy of power that feeds on vulnerability. My students seemed to understand, but I fear that the general behaviour did not change.

On the beach

Neither the crash

Of the morning waves

Nor the sunlight singing of wind can drown

His yelps

Three boys, one puppy

A rope

Torture on the beach.

His agony rips

Dark holes in your eyes

And helpless anger

Twists in your hand as

The rope nooses tighter

The thin stick beats harder –

Then they throw sand.

The sand fills his eyes

The sand fills his nose

The sand fills his ears

And though your tears

Taste salt in my mouth

The alien years

Have rotted my tongue

Into immobility

And people swim

In the sunlit sea

It’s an ordinary day

They cry let’s play

At burying him

And then

They bury him.

Sunday Observer 22 May 2011  – http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2011/05/22/mon07.asp

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