Sunday, December 25, 2016

Anne Ranasinghe and the torment of forgetting

Somewhere in my youth, I started reading Keats. I took to him and his poetry, his way of looking at life and his way of treating its vicissitudes with equanimity. There was something about his odes, his sonnets, and his paeans of love, anguish, and torment that enthralled the morbid adolescent in me, and so (for better or worse) I appreciated his poetry.

My praise, however, was not unqualified: just as much as I liked his use of imagery, I spurned what I felt to be at times his refusal to engage with the political, the social. Not that I could blame Keats himself, of course: he was 25 when he died, and like all young poets, he thought he knew everything when he did not.

I wonder, though, whether we prefer keeping out of the social as a means of avoiding the realm of reality. I wonder also whether poets, or at least the vast majority of them, are tormented by memory so much that in what they write, and what they say, they consciously (or otherwise) shy away from the pain of memory. They are not alone in this, because after all that’s what a great many of us, frail as we are, like to do. Still.

Anne Ranasinghe, who died last Saturday, wrote poetry. She wrote it with a sense of anguish which convinced us that she knew, intimately and painfully, what she was writing about. Some write about remembering and the pain of remembering. Anne wrote about forgetting. In her best poetry, as she herself informed us, she tries to forget, to get away. She could only tell us to live, even as those around us died. We didn’t always agree, but we didn’t have to. She was a poet. She had lived. We were the readers. We had not.

And to a large extent, that had to do with her life. Born Anneliese Katz in the town of Essen in Germany, she witnessed the horrors of war at an early age. She saw the rise of Nazism, saw her town’s synagogue being burnt, and more than anything else, saw the night of broken glass in November 1938. Her parents, naturally frightened, sent her to an aunt in England, where English became her adopted tongue and where, until much later, she wouldn’t hear of their deaths and the deaths of every other relative back in Germany. She was not quite 15 at the time.

After passing out as a nursing sister and meeting a medical student (whom she married), D. A. Ranasinghe, she moved to Sri Lanka where, in 1956, she became a citizen. Her husband began teaching at the Colombo Medical College and this encouraged her to obtain a Diploma in Journalism from the Colombo Technical College. Of what she learnt, she recounted much later: “News reporting. The law of defamation. Novel writing. Practical journalism. Short story writing. The Polytechnic journalism section had a nice logo on their stationery: a hand holding a pen inside a heart! With the slogan ‘with heart and hand’.”

That’s all biography, of course. They reveal, however, the artiste in the woman. Anne, who made Colombo her permanent home in the sixties, saw from afar the trials and tribulations of a world (in particular, Europe) trying to shed its past. Sri Lanka, as she (rather) correctly inferred, was not burdened with those tribulations, so in whatever form of chauvinism or extremism she encountered in Sri Lanka, she encountered in gushes and torrents and then turned into poetry. We were not, after all, aware of the horrors of the War, at least not to a great extent, to make us forget.

For that reason, she will be reflected on more than anything else for the theme she resorted to the most: the thin, fragile line between the past and present, between forgetting and remembering. In her most potent poetry – derided by some, read by all – she drew parallels between the Sri Lanka she was in and the Germany she had been in.

Take, for example, this passage from “July 1983”

Forty years later
once more there is burning
the night sky bloodied, violent and abused

and I - though related
only by marriage -
feel myself both victim and accused

The last line in particular makes us aware of her painful, self-contradictory character: by marriage, she was bonded to a culture of privilege, yet she was already bonded to a past where she had been a victim. Did she ever resolve this tension within herself? Perhaps.

My two favourite poems of hers, “At What Dark Point” and “Plead Mercy”, however, tell a different story. In the latter, her daughter encounters a "bullock yoked to a cart" and asks whether life, for him at least, is preferable to death. Those who refuse to hope, who know the world for what it is, would say “No!” Anne, however, can’t give up on hope even though she herself is no optimist:

I tell her what I know
Is not true, that life
Is always better than death

In "At What Dark Point", on account of which critics took her to task over what was perceived to be her indifference, she witnesses a peasant on the road in front of her house, twists and turns fibre into rope. The peasant evokes in her memories of Kristallnacht. He compels her to ask us, “Who knows if the past can come back to us?” We look at the peasant, perhaps make a snide remark or two, and refuse to answer. We were the readers, after all. We hadn’t seen what she had.

And to a considerable extent, that explains why some critics disliked her. They contended, and not without reason, that she was refusing to answer questions that she herself had raised. To that the only sensible response would be that artistes aren’t born to equip us with answers. We read what is written, filmed, or sung. We read what is performed. We make the questions. Not up to them to answer. That is why (with much reservation though) I can forgive the later Wordsworth, who sought refuge in inertia to atone for the revolutionary streak he had indulged in his youth, and that is why I still enjoy Keats.

Personally, I prefer Lakdhas Wikkrama Sinha to anyone else. A pity he isn’t read or taught (for reasons that warrant another article), but then Anne wasn’t too bad either. As someone who grew up reading (into) her, as someone who believed that the role of the poet was to help us see, not want for more, I can only quote what this late, maligned, and much lamented lady had to say of her uprooted identity, translating Rose Ausländer’s harrowing account of the Holocaust:

My fatherland is dead.
They have buried it
in fire

I live
in my motherland
of words.

Anne Ranasinghe, who was 91 last Saturday, left behind her poetry and taught us, even at death, that forgetting was more tormenting than remembering. For that alone, we should be grateful.

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, December 25 2016