I will end this series, as I began, with landscapes. The first group of poems I presented dealt with water, river and sea, though these were used for a variety of purposes. Here too the poets turn their descriptions to different uses. But beneath this they all create a vivid sense of natural beauty.
I begin with a poem by Wimal Dissanayake which conveys vividly the magic of distant jungle places. We all know of strange flowers that bloom unseen, with an intensity of appeal to senses that never apprehend them. Dissanayake blends this with a sense of mystery, of nature in sorrowful sympathy with the sorrows of the world.
The translation is by Lakshmi de Silva, who as always uses rhythm and tone in parallel with the exotic theme of the poem.
On a night when the light of moon or star is forbidden
On some day in May, it is said, when the cuckoo calls
In the midst of a swamp lost in the jungle’s thick gloom
Where moaning water falls in dense groves hidden,
In a silent moment of midnight, a flower will bloom.
It is said that this flower, red as a clot of blood
Tells the world its tidings of grief in an undertone:
But the wild, without heart or mind, has not understood –
And before the coming of daylight the flower is gone.
The poem by V I S Jayapalan that I include here presents a tranquil picture of a village scene, where the beauty of the scene is juxtaposed with human activity that seems to complement it, the work in the fields, the giggling gossip of the village girls.
The poet however also gently but insistently indicates that there is more than the scene he presents to us. What he introduces too is a sense of history, the image of a fighting Pandaram planning his strategy, in terms of the landscape he knew, against an alien invader. We are made aware of the inextricable twinning of history and landscape, as Kipling did so effectively in ‘Puck of Pook’s Hill’, where he created a sense of the Sussex landscape that gave it greater life than all the passing human endeavours it had been witness to.
The translation is by Chelva Kanaganayakam, who is uniquely qualified, with his family tradition of scholarship, to bring together past and present, blending together different aspects of this country’s cultural landscape.
Gently flows the river
Amidst the plains, here and there
Scattered fields are ploughed
The din of machines hardly dispels the silence
With hardly a ripple
The Pali river flows gently
Tall weeds whispering to the winds
The birds sing their music
and the fish splash as they swim
But something sustains the silence
beyond the bend
hidden by a rock
amidst the weeds
in the sand
where the marutha tree shapes a fence
filtering the light
Our winsome girls from the village
gossip with relish
They laugh and giggle at the village news
tease and scold
wash and bathe
Silently the river moves on
The footprints of Pandaram Vanniyan are still visible
here he rested, conferred with his troops, planned his attack
then washed his dusty feet
drank from the river
content in the thought of the retreating British
he rested awhile
shaded by the same tree
Beyond the bend in the same enclave
the women still bathe
and with hardly a ripple
the river moves on
I end with a poem by Anne Ranasinghe, written if I remember correct during the horrors of the violence of the late eighties. Unlike in her early poetry, which was largely confined to Sri Lankan experience, she began to range more widely as her work developed, and wrote movingly too of the past she had known and fled from in Germany, when the Nazis destroyed her family and the life she had known.
She was able too to blend her different experiences, and draw comparisons that helped to illuminate and the contemporary situation in Sri Lanka. This poem however is unusual, because it uses only imagery from nature, to convey the anguish the country experienced. The poem moves easily from idyllic description of what her correspondent abroad experiences, to stormy weather in Sri Lanka.
The second and third stanzas could be simply an account of a thunderstorm, the sheer joy of exuberant tropical rainfall. But some of the words with which the description is introduced suggest something more sinister. This is then brought before us dramatically in the fourth verse, where the flood turns into the blood shed so copiously during those years.
The poem ends with the simple technique of repetition, but in a different rhythm, that Anne Ranasinghe used so effectively in her later work. I find the impact of this extremely powerful.
You write of a garden filled with blossoming lilac
And a cuckoo that calls joyfully early in the morning.
Everything is green and gentle – the titmouse twitters,
A woodpecker hammers and the violet lilac blooms.
Here the clouds are thick and threatening,
An ominous light, steel grey and amber,
Sinks into the trees.
They seemingly are holding their breath,
The stillness tenses each leaf and blossom –
Only the araliya whitens the weird darkness
As shadows blacken at my feet – then
Thunder falls and everything trembles,
Lightning races over the rooftops
And a sharp wind rips through grass and bushes.
And after the wind an uneasy silence
And after the silence a roaring flood
Red flood of torment in the desecrated night.
No earth can conceal such a torrent of blood.
And the voices that cried out in agony
Dispersed by the awful wind
Through the long grasses and full-leafed trees
To the pitiless sky’s infinity
And nothing remains but to mourn
And nothing remains
But to mourn
Before I conclude, I should once again thank the writers who have generously allowed me to use their work, and also Lakshmi, Chelva and Mr Pathmanaban Iyer in London, who have given so unstintingly of their work, their advice, and the collections they have put together over the years of some of the best poetry written in Sri Lanka in the last few decades.