There must be lots of others like myself, who have no literary pretensions, yet who enjoy and respond to poetry. Not always, in my case, for I have to confess I feel out of my depth with some kinds of modern verse.
I have the temerity to try to express my appreciation of Yvonne’s poems only because they have a quality that speaks to my heart and mind. Most of them are evocative and moving, while others bring a smile of recognition of their purport. All invite the reader to go along with the flow of memories in which the poet recaptures, with restraint, the felt experience of a particular event or time.
When our friendship first blossomed over 60 years ago, I knew Yvonne as an accomplished pianist. The gift was clearly in her fingers and her sensitive interpretation of classical music. It was only much later that the poetic impulse which must surely have been gestating within her for years, emerged to reveal this other unsuspected, latent talent so evident in her first published book, “A Divisive Inheritance,.” that was received with immediate acclaim by reviewers and readers alike..
Now, as I turn the pages of her second book of poems published quite some time after the first, I feel that the promise shown there is more than fulfilled in this volume.
Since, to some extent, we have a shared past, I feel an instant response within me to some of the memories and images she conjures us. If there is a single theme that dominates Yvonne’s work, it is the recurring emotion that thoughts of home (Sri Lanka), bring to the fore despite her having lived half her life in distant climes.
The pull of her Motherland is clearly seen, yet without cloying sentimentality or paeans of praise to its scenic beauty.
“Gone Away” is one of these. There is a touch of humour as when she recalls the tiresomeness of her brothers “monopolising the aural sensibilities with cricket scores from outer space” drove her to the fruit trees in the garden.
“……I could choose from
a prodigal bounty, glinting gold-flecked
guavas, until the gripe smote me down.”
And at the end, quite unexpectedly, the stark question:
“Who was it then who turned
our Paradise into a minefield?”
A “Portrait of Three Children” evokes a smile. I recognise the three who comprise the trio as Yvonne and the two brothers, Ronnie and Brad, who were next to her, posing for a formal photograph of childhood. Knowing the two siblings who grew up to be highly-respected adults, it is amusing to read that they were
“dressed to look like little Lord Fauntleroy.
their heads brushed `cuckoo’ with curls”.
The last stanza says it all:
“I felt like Cinderella placed between the two
but these were familiar scenarios:
for the power struggles had been clearly defined
to create our future cricket heroes.”
The several poems that hark back to childhood – “To the Waterfall”, “The Elkaduwa Road”, “Running Down Judge’s Hill”, “The Flame Trees of Uvaketawela” – strike a responsive chord in me. In “The Rains Camed to Wattegama” there is evidence of Yvonne’s gift for vivid imagery when she writes how the
“eddies and currents of the friendliest of waterfalls ran like deranged satyrs do….”.
And the same poem brings out her sensitivity to beauty even in the midst of desolation when she writes:
“………. In the
muddiest pools of the Elkaduwa Road
(indifferent to the mourning and the shadows),
there rose with a singular nonchalance, clusters
of incomparable blue, dreamlike flowers:
the water hyacinths had bloomed.”
The poem, “Harbour Lights”, written in 2010 after an evening on the terrace of the Mount Lavinia Hotel, gain captures her heart’s preoccupation with the country of her birth.
Her sensitive soul is not indifferent to the insurrections in the South and the war in the North that have devastated her land. There is the moving “Farewell to a Young Soldier” In “Non Pareil”, written after a visit to Horton Plains in 1988, a reference to the, “tiny, yellow-speckled butterflies,
compulsively dancing to their doom
in a seasonal pilgrimage to Samanalakande,” is followed by the lines:
“Today it seems that wild-eyed young men
sprouting beards and revolution
often lurk in these wooded places,
driven by the Fates & Furies to flutter
blindly forward and dash their brains,
(like the tiny yellow-speckled butterflies)
on the state’s monolithic visage”.
A poignant sonnet records in a few carefully chosen words and phrases, “A Private Funeral” (that of her husband, Charlie, in 2007):
“There was music, poetry and recorded pirith,
red roses, perfumed the space with
which we honoured the living
image of you: sufficient to remember all
life’s patterns, the days shifting illusions, the
value of impermanence.”
Another piece that spoke to my heart was “Anil’s Garden”, a spontaneous response to a friend’s garden in Cambridge where, again, the felicity of her words instantly conjures up the essence of its appeal.
“……………..An evening when
summer’s late roses burst their
velvet-coiffured heads in secret conclave”
And, “Years on, I shall return and, petal
by petal,.root by root, cell by cell,
wring out of my narrowing tunnel vision.
the edges crusting with memory’s scurf,
your Cambridge garden.”
The temptation is to linger and to quote more. I hope I have said enough to entice the reader to want to savour these poems for herself/himself. A rich reward awaits her/him.Let me end with just one more, from “Waiting for Spring” (in Geneva, 1990)
“The same hand that comes from nowhere will caress the earth’s brittle ice-edged crust, until it gives way to the fledgling debutantes:
a myriad cluster of buds from the almond’s dawn-blush to the sun’s first dazzle,
skimming the water’s frozen depths; to faint whispers from the willows
heard gathering their new-found strengths.”
Book facts: Yvonne Gunawardena’s “Harbour Lights –More Collected Poems”. (Bay Owl, Rs.700). Reviewed by Anne Abayasekara