Godfrey Gunatilleke…… Three poems from Time’s Confluence and other poems (Colombo, Unie Arts, 2014 … ISBN 978 -955-41102-0-5)
BURNING ……(Elegy on a body seen burning by the roadside during the violence in 1989)
There was no one, none at all to weep for him
Dead, lying by the roadside, quietly burning;
No friend, no brother, just some strangers, fearful
And silent. No love was left for mourning.
It was like any other morning on that day,
Life was stirring under a brightening sky,
And as we drove, alongside, all the way
The ocean heaved an interminable sigh.
Then suddenly this – limbs arched in a slow fire
Dead hands thrust upward by the baking heat
In strange mime of supplication, as in prayer
To some hidden god, for a sign, some last respite.
No solace there for him, no answering grace;
Only a sightless cruel sun, the primal source
Of this same fire, burning his hands and face
While the world resumed its ordinary course.
Would they have waited for him in some poor home,
Waited, not knowing at all, this bitter
End; that the loved face and limbs had become
This fearful thing, this strange, roadside litter?
Perhaps they knew an earlier change – wine to gall
Youth’s tendril hope turn to ravenous hate
The heart’s wild clamour crying “Kill, kill all
That bar our way. We have no time to wait.”
Or was he a hapless victim in this black time
When Innocence and Guilt together stood,
When judge and judged alike were joined in crime
And drank together in a feast of blood ?
But had all pity died within our hearts
That he, innocent or guilty, died this death
Denied all human grace? With him parts
Of us died, seared by his last breath.
With his dying, we have banished innocence.
His burning branded our own souls. Like Cain,
The denial we shall bear till we go hence;
In all our pleasures, meet his timeless pain.
We were all part of the wind that fanned
The blasting fire that struck our homes, that spread
The raiment of dark blood upon our land
And heaped a monstrous mountain of the dead.
Here was where,once,Compassion found refuge.
Oh, do not raise the lion with the drawn sword.
If only we could find beyond the dark deluge,
His face of love again, reclaim the word.
I had a night mare.
I dreamed I woke somewhere in a total darkness.
Something cold and damp lay under my arm.
At first there was a deathly silence,
After a while I heard the whimper of a child,
It had a strange sound like the strangled cry
Of a lone bird lost in the night, in primal fear.
Then suddenly a man burst in, wide-eyed,
Loose hair streaming over his face, a torch
Held high, casting a ruddy glow and lighting
A scene in hell.
There were bodies, bodies
All around me, everywhere; blood – a scarlet lace
On hands, faces, eyes. I had not thought
That death could shape so many figures
From a six-pieced thing – outflung hands,
Bent knees, heads askew, bellies twisted
In a grotesque dance, like a vast frieze
The sculptured terror of some ancient crime.
No, in my nightmare it was now; the bodies real
In postures set in recent death; the rank smell
Of blood and flesh in an airless room; the cold thing
Under my arm, a little body in a foetal curve,
The flies settling on glazed eyes.
I had not thought
That there could be so many faces, meeting sudden death –
Faces in the agony of maternal love, helpless
Before the dark descending dread, faces in lone
Terror, faces resigned, and children’s faces
Turning for succour, finding the blast of death.
And in a corner stood a single child
Who had escaped the great slaughter,
Watching the ghastly scene. I cried aloud
And through the heap of death, struggled in vain
To reach him, but the space between seemed
Like unyielding iron and I wept again.
Then I woke and found this was no dream.
(In memory of Kokkadichchlai, Alanchipothana, and many other villages in the Eastern Province, where the victims were Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim children, women and men and the killers were the LTTE, army personnel and Muslim homeguards).
Lines To A Child Traumatised By Violence
Do not be afraid, my child, this blood
On the green is really a flower
A deep red canna from its emerald bed
Greeting the light in the healing hour.
It is dawn, not the fearful night
You are thinking about. Yes, the fire
That burnt your home was near red; and bright
Sparks flew over your room, higher
Than the spray of gold which rose
From the sparklers, as your father lit
Them on your birthday. A thing that glows
Can also bring warmth, not death. Sit
Here and let the daylight’s gold
Brighten your face. The scarlet stain
On your father’s face when he rolled
On the ground, writhing in pain,
As they cut him, bears no resemblance
To this what you see, for around
You is only the bright red innocence
Of flowers and the rain-moist ground.
Try to remember that red is not always
Blood. Oh, where can the words be found
To restore the light to your little face,
How explain the ruin of the world you knew
Desolate child in your wordless night ?
No earthly love will any answer give.
Only some warmth and imperfect light.
These poems are selections from the recent book by GODFREY GUNATILLEKE: GODFREY Times Confluence and other poems_EmailFlyer
1. One of the anecdotal oral history tales from the burning, assaulting and killing that occurred in many parts of Colombo and its environs that fateful week n July 1983 is that a few Sinhala householders in a side-street off Nawala Road came out onto the head of their street with bats and sticks and stood guard prepared to face-off mobs. Godfrey Gunatilleke’s house abutted this junction and he was at the forefront of this initiative. It should mark other such initiatives and other ‘lesser’ acts by Sinhalese, Moor, Malay and Burgher householders (among them he Sangakkaras in Kandy) who sheltered Tamil neighbours and/or friends.
2. One of the images from 1958 in Lanka demonstrate the fact that the assaults were not purely the work of “lumpens,” goons and state functionaries though there is also conclusive evidence that the latter instigated and participated in acts of victimization and killing in July 1983.
3. For a description of several incidents of horrible violence including an act of burning a family alive in a car – together with the striking defiance of the Tamil man/father tapped by a mob in this car –see Basil Fernando’s poem in Michael Roberts: “The Agony and Ecstasy of a Pogrom: southern Lanka, July 1983” in his Exploring Confrontation, Reading, Harwood Academic Publishers, 1994 and Nethra 2003