Sunday Observer Online


Sunday, 15 May 2011





Marriage Proposals
Government Gazette

Poetry of romantic passion

I make no apologies for getting back to romance, which is after all the very stuff of poetry. This week I will be dealing with passion, not sexual passion as on a previous occasion, but romantic passion.

The simplest account is by Michelle Leembruggen, whom I recall contacting me rather shyly to confess that she wrote poetry, and would I comment on some of her work. I knew her then as the glamorous actress who had contributed so much to English theatre, though by the time I returned she performed less frequently.

She had married Graham Hatch, and the two of them were seen as the senior members of the group of youngsters who had revived English Theatre in the seventies. They were a glamorous couple, and though by the eighties their marriage was breaking up, they got on well enough and continued to work together well. They appeared together in 'Death Trap' I think, where Michelle stole the show as the mad medium, even though she had to compete against both Graham and Richard de Zoysa. She was also marvelous opposite Richard as Evita, in a performance Graham directed, and I think I saw her last on stage as a heartwarming Griselda in 'Cats' - until, if my memory serves me correct, we managed to persuade her back to play Clytemnestra in Rudi Corens' British Council garden production of the 'Agamemnon'.

Michelle would bring her poems to 8th Lane, where Richard and I taught after we had been dismissed from S. Thomas'. She claimed that the house had been owned earlier by her relations, and wandered dreamily about the garden recalling her past. She never told me if it was Graham who inspired this poem. From the opening conceit, of being alone in a crowd of dancing people, the poem, though quiet and understated, is still a pulsating account of deep feeling, expressing romantic, sentimental and physical passion together.


I wait
for the time when we are alone
in the crowd of people dancing

I want
your body
its hard firmness against mine
your breath on my neck
your flesh
with just the shirt's thinness
beneath my fingers
your hands
splayed across the small of my back
our hips in fusion
my palm flat on your chest
feeling the beating of your heart.

How strongly your heart beats
how quick
it leaps under my hand
if I open my eyes I will see it move
it is the drum which keeps the measure
in our dance of love

I have not met Siri Gunasinghe, but I remember hearing of him from the time I was a schoolboy, as a daring poet who wrote forcefully about love and sexuality. This poem however is an elegy, celebrating a lost love. A plethora of nature images is used, to bring to life both the strength of feeling, and the person loved. From the anguish of the memories that tear the poet apart, the poem moves to the refreshing nature of the living 'flowing' emotion, and the appeal to the senses of its object.

The poems ends however with a renewal of the sense of loss, and a moving account of the almost palpable impact of memory. The translation is by Ranjini Obeysekere.

A memorial

Forsaking me
leaving my limbs death-stiff
she left-disappeared-
went away;
and I became a prey
to a flock of wild-beast memories
a bloody prey.

The thick dark of time shrouds
but in the flickering light from my heart
her body glows
gleams before my eyes.
Like a cool streak of water
between rough rocks
she flows
soaking my heart.

The colour of clear skies is hers.
Hers is the texture of flowers and trees.
She is all the colours of the world.

I struggle hard to shut her out
but she lurks in the very lashes of my eyes.
The tough dry skin of forgetfulness
splits apart
and your eyes peer at me, beloved
I still see the trembling of your lips
as you embrace me.

The only happiness life has
the one lovely object the world holds
is she-companion of my loneliness-
vanished now;
the only woman who shared my loneliness.

The last poem today looks at a very different ending to love, expressing a feeling that is not unusual, though rarely expressed. It is translated by Thava Sajitharan from an original by Anar, and deals with passion that is too intense to bear. This is not easy to understand in the abstract, but I recall how effectively Vikram Seth presents it in 'A Suitable Boy', when Latha decides not to marry the dashing cricketer Kabir. Having seen him as she thinks romantically involved with someone else, she is so jealous that she realizes loving him is not something she can do with equanimity. So she gives him up, and retreats to the safe and solid love of a prosaic maker of shoes.

Anar's imagery here is wide-ranging, beginning with burial of the emotion itself, and then referring to getting rid of much of what accompanied it. But then he notes a residue of memories floating like bubbles, and ends by transforming this into a butterfly.

The need to kill this love

Let both of us depart
burying this extreme love
we seized from each other
in the pits of this night,
besieged with menace.

I have strewn away in the sky
your smiles, the sweet secrets of your voice
murmured in my ears
The songs that survive, your touch
I have let float in a mirage of space
as tiny foaming bubbles,
the broken mementoes masked in the ashes of the hearth.

The first poem you presented to me
I fed on it for lunch;
no clue remains,
yet teach me how to kill
the butterfly fluttering in memory,
its colors the moments I called you by name
the fancied kisses its eyes...

Together the poems cover a gamut of the senses, sound and touch and sight and sound, that create feeling, what gives rise to feeling, and how it is pictured and preserved in heart and mind.


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