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This week I plan to look at poems that deal with the passing of time. The first, by Ilavaalai Vijeyendran, deals with a theme well known in poetry from the time of Goldsmith’s ‘Deserted Village’.

The situation here is made more complex by the war situation, referred to only in passing with mention of the palm that stayed standing in spite of bombs.

The main thrust of the poem however is similar to Goldsmith’s, as the countryside is abandoned by those seeking their fortune, if not quite greener pastures, in more prosperous areas. Here however it is not the attraction of the metropolis that is the problem, but the thirst to emigrate.

The poet uses descriptions of nature, trees and flowers as well as the reservoirs, to create the rural scene, but then these are used to convey his ideas too, first the children departing with the oars of time, and then the devastating comment about the case to be harvested in Canada.

The translation is by Lakshmi Holmstrom, who was awarded the MBE earlier this year for her services to Tamil Literature.

The lost ones

Hanging from the banyan tree
long aerial roots
on which we used to swing and play
further off the ponnacchi tree
smiling with flowers
towards the east, swollen with the monsoon rains
the reservoir spreading wide

Only the children
turning fallen palmyra trunks into boats
and paddling across the water
with the oars of time
have vanished

I asked the old man
climbing to milk it for its toddy
a palmyra palm that had not yet bent its head
for all the bombs aimed at it

Sadly he told me, they had all gone to Canada
to harvest the cash-fields

(Ilavaalai is the home village of the author)

Monica Ruwanpathirana looks not at a place but at people, in her description of a couple who have aged. The stress in the first verse is on financial difficulties, taking up the balance sheet of the title.

These are brought to life through transforming the gold and jewellery of the wedding into instruments of restraint, even when pawned.

The second and third verses revert to the wedding, but with a sense of emptiness rather than hope, as a preface to the account of the endless journey of married life, dedicated to keeping up appearances. The translation is by A T Dharmapriya.

The twenty year balance sheet

Songs of blessings reverberating across the village
driven in a wedding car in a procession
we who talk to you from this wedding photograph
are the same couple of yesterday
skin and flesh and veins all imprisoned
in golden finger rings;
the old ornaments that adorned the head
have become crowns of thorn.
while gold chains turned into iron manacles begin slowly
to strangle the neck
though kept hidden in a pawning house

Flower boys and flower girls we had in attendance
but the fun and joy we had with them was very little
burdened with the weight of life
the flowery smiles now long dead
no one is there today to ask
how we are getting on.

Midst the fragrance of various flowers
in the shelter of the canopy up above
stepping down from the poruwa* among the ‘pun-kalas’*
with the wedding photograph safely with us
the caravan of life began.

Endless has been the journey
endless the rent paid
from one mansion to another

Listening to praises sung by our loved ones
we came to lodge in this glass house.
In that struggle to save it for ever and unto death
we had hardly time to know each other.

With many a covenant made
and having saved these glass walls from cracking
since twenty years have elapsed
with the power of blessings showered on us
let the loved ones now know
that the time has come
to save the walls from cracking on a future day
to let the wedding smiles for ever bloom.

The last poem is by Wickramasena Jayasekera, a teacher whose first language is not English.

I was impressed when, after I began publishing the New Lankan Review, I received such poems from all over the country. We were able to publish even more of them when we set up the English Writers’ Cooperative and started ‘Channels’, which was initially a quarterly publication.

I found this poem particularly impressive, in the ease but depth with which it tackles a common but rarely considered subject, the shift of authority from one generation to another.

The poem deals with a couple growing old and seeing their son growing to a maturity that will lead to their displacement.

The steps by which the father sees the son taking his place are economically but evocatively put in place, so as to also suggest the different feelings that go through the father’s mind, pride and sentiment as well as worry.

The decision to accept that time is passing, and a new generation must come into its own, is gracefully made, with the simple but strong sketch of the wife whose youthful exuberance has passed.

At the same time the repeated image of lattice work that restricts as well as decorates suggests the limitations that each generations must live with.

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 dots.
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.

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