By Anders Sjoebohm
literary critic, Gothenburg, Sweden
Writing a poem is an act of losing myself,
a flight into the caverns of the mind
to search among those memories or dreams
and sometimes fears
which have been or are central to my life.
Rarely, when everything concurs, I find the moment
that calibrates the edge of joy and longing
and so I make a poem, and then am surprised
that what I write is hardly what I pondered
yet somehow states a truth I did not know I knew.
In 1939 a thirteen year old Jewish girl from Essen, Germany, - Anneliese Katz - arrived in England. Her parents had managed to send her there to stay with relations, but they themselves could not emigrate, and were murdered in Chelmno, Poland, five years later. Anneliese went to school, then trained to be a nurse. She met, and married, a Sri Lankan Post-graduate and settled down with him in Sri Lanka. In 1956 she became a Sri Lankan citizen. Her husband was appointed Professor and Head of Department of the Medical Faculty of Colombo, and she devoted the first years in her new home country to her young family, - three children from her husband's first marriage, and four together with him. In the sixties she began to study journalism, and in 1971 she made her debut with a slim volume of poems titled And the Sun That Sucks The Earth to Dry
Today she can look back on several collections: Against eternity and darkness, poetry (1985), Not even shadows, also poetry (1990) and a collection of short stories titled Desire (1994). In at what dark point (1991) she has collected those of her poems and short stories that deal with Holocaust together with documentation of Nazi persecution of Jews. In Mascot and Symbol (1997) she mixes poetry with prose as well as translations from the German. In Sri Lanka she is considered one of the foremost poets writing in English. She has been translated into Sinhala, Tamil, Dutch, German, Hebrew, Serbo-Croat as well as French and Swedish.
"Forty years later / once more there is burning / the night sky bloodied, violent and abused" - a quotation from Anne Ranasinghe's poem "July 1983" - in which she alludes to the violent persecution of Sri Lanka's Tamil minority. One who has herself experienced the so-called "Night of the Broken Glass" and seen friends and relatives disappear forever knows what it means to belong to an exposed minority. She also knows that against the murderers, memory is our "only shield". It is not true that the Holocaust is Anne Ranasinghe's only theme, but everything she writes originates in the knowledge
That anything is possible
Any time. There is no safety
In poems or music or even in
Philosophy. No safety
In houses or temples
Of any faith.
She is free from illusions of any kind, her poetry is naked and austere, sometimes ironic. Love, the present and frail shortness of life stand against death - a transitory light against an absolute and uncompromising darkness.
He watches them with golden eyes
Protruding from his naked head
While I watch him - his tense-poised stance
And single minded concentration
And then the sudden pounce and snap
Without the slightest hesitation
All in brief pulsating beat
A flickering of his blood red tongue
And of the weaving dancing thing
Nothing is left except a wing
Projecting from his tight-clamped mouth
And a thin
Seen through his transparent skin.
Thus for the moth the lizard's act
Is God and irreversible -
A final and accomplished fact.
I ponder his reptilian grace
Detachment and repulsiveness
And wonder of what God the face
That I shall see upon my death.
Anne Ranasinghe was also commisioned to write a book for the International Planned Parenthood Federation, titled Love, Sex and Parenthood (1978). She worked for 15 years as Executive Secretary for the Amnesty International South Asia Publication Service, situated in Colombo.
Simms, Norman: Anne Ranasinghe. Jewish Poet of Sri Lanka. Journal of South Asian Literature vol XXIII, no 1. Winter, Spring 1988, pp 94-107. (Reprinted in At What Dark Point. Colombo, 1991)
South Asian Women authors