Tuesday, November 07, 2006

"The Love Motel"

The following night, they went back to the love motel on the farthest side of town from where they lived to order the bubur ayam. Fucking came second on the agenda, because technically they could do it everywhere now that they were so nowhere yet everywhere, if you get the drift; besides, it had been, after all, five years.

The bubur ayam was 14,000 rupiah a portion, relatively cheap for indoor rates, and it was so deep-tasting and serious it knocked them silly the first time that they had forgotten all about the first desire. The broth reeked of garlic and oil so fragrant, could it be some sort of sesame, or coconut, or with Chinese wine thrown in, whatever it was it wasn’t the sort of show of goodwill they were used to in this part of town. The chicken was of the Hainanese kind, boiled to perfect moist tenderness with just a hint of ginger, the fried peanuts a sybarite of salt and spice. And there, wedged between the parsley, the spring onions and the fried shallots was the omelet, rolled and sugared like tamago. Though they were suckers for Chinese food, they were both Javanese – quick to appreciate sweetness in unexpected places.

Such so that they did not sleep, preferring to get their fill and refill in the six times two witching hours between sundown and sunrise, matched lust for lust. And for the first time, she did not, at the end of it all, stare into the bed-length mirrors, her breath not yet dried up, to be told something other than what she saw and believed to be the truth.

For the first time, she saw a woman sated, and that between the self and the mirror there was no alternative story.

Lakshmi Pamuntjak

I wanted to post this because I wanted to ask a question. When is a poem a poem, and when does it cease to be one? Where does the border between poetry and prose actually lie?

I had the pleasure of meeting Lakshmi (left) - when she came to KL, and again more recently in Bali. She's an Indonesian poet, but lives in Singapore and writes in English. If you couldn't guess from the piece above, she's also a food critic!

The Love Motel comes from Ellipsis which was voted one of the books of the year by the UK Herald. The book is a collection of "poems and prose poems".

So this is a prose poem ... or is it a short short story? Or are they one and the same thing?

Robert Wallace has some useful thoughts on the relationship between the two. (He gives the example of writer Russell Edson, who had the same piece of writing published in one collection as poetry and in another as prose.)

Back to The Love Motel before I get too far sidetracked googling up all the references I can find! (This question fascinated me.)

It works perfectly well for me as a short-short - it's self contained, complete and satisfying. The piece begins "The following night ..." so we're dipped into a story that extends well beyond the words on the page or the screen. You wonder how life has changed for them ... and why. You wonder at the end why the mirror used to tell her "something other than what she saw and believed to be the truth". The reader must expand the spaces.

I love the irony - here are these two seeking a love motel but sidetracked by something much more exciting and sensual ... a steaming bowl of rice porridge from a hawker's stall! What a joyous irony! They come back together after five years and it's their favourite dish they seek out first ... not the sex (which anyway cannot be so thrilling or urgent now that it is no longer so illicit). And which turns out to satisfy more more than the sex ever did.

But is works equally well for me as a poem. A poem can tell a story. A poem can be conversational in tone (as this one is with long run-on sentences give a sense of a voice telling the story). If the lines were arranged differently we wouldn't have any doubt, I think.

I'm inspired to try this foot-in-both-worlds form for myself. Leon I think already has!

Anyway, what a wonderful tribute to food. I'm so hungry now!

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Blogger lainieyeoh said...

pfft labels :P.

was just thinking it'd be pretty cool if most (if not all) of these entries came with a podcast.

5:38 PM, November 07, 2006  
Blogger bibliobibuli said...

true lainie ... but copyright would be a problem (it could be already ...)

we should arrange a reading though

btw - if you feel like contributing a poem and short discussion you are most welcome

11:39 PM, November 07, 2006  
Blogger Sharanya Manivannan said...

Lainie -- I was thinking the same thing! Especially because I recently stumbled on this site: http://audiopoetry.wordpress.com. Am fairly sure copyright can't be a problem, if they're doing it. Also know of bloggers who record in their own voices poems they like.

As for the poem, I like it, but then I think Laksmi Pamuntjak's pretty awesome. :)

I think in many cases, the prosepoem/prose distinction is up to the writer's own idea of what qualifies as either. What about "poemprose"? Writers including Vikram Seth and Jimmy Santiago Baca have written whole novels in verse, afer all. I've written prosepoems in the past, at a time when I wanted to explore the style. And I discovered that for me at least it's just a simple choice -- do I want to tie this up and call it whole, or incorporate it elsewhere? -- because my (longer) prose in general is very much affected by my sensibility as a poet, so the only difference is the length.

11:59 AM, November 08, 2006  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Hhhmmm... I am not really that familiar with this form, though I encountered a few examples of it, and being a bit of a 'stickler' at times, albeit a rather liberal one, hope you guys would pardon me, when I say I don't feel entirely convinced by this piece.

It is not that I disagree with the form and its absence of line breaks, nor its narrative quality (since there are many excellen narrative poems), it is just that the earlier parts of this piece doesn't quite 'lift' itself that much through either rhythm or diction (not that they are not very, very well written). The final two paragrahs/ stanzas, however, are almost perfect, and clinches this piece in its gradual dawning realisation of 'fullness' / 'wholeness' that has never been felt or experienced before amidst the hot and steamy bodily sensuality they 'taste' (vs the hot and steamy porridge).

Mmm... sounds like I am somewhat convinced after all, perhaps because she is so pretty :) (what to do, I am a guy. haha).
Seriously though , I would still like to know what others think, especially with regard to the language of the earlier parts which I feel could be compressed a little more.

6:02 PM, November 08, 2006  
Blogger madcap machinist said...

My first impression was that the piece was more prose than poetry. Then, keeping in mind that in prose poem a paragraph is a stanza, I read it again and changed my mind.

Firstly, if I had read only the first two paragraphs/stanzas I would have been quick to say that it was an excerpt from a short story, and would not have agreed if someone would tell me that it was poetry.

Then, taking only the third and fourth stanzas, I would agree that it was a piece of prose poetry.

It would appear that the poet had constructed the piece to be literally a prose-poem.

The first stanza sets up the scene in a conventional narrative manner, while the second stanza proceeds to describe--or more approriately, conjure up--the bowl of bubur ayam that the couple sought. From the aroma of the bubur, right down to the unexpected sweet taste of the omelet in the hidden in the jumble that is the bubur ayam.

Here we find the words that fuse the prose and poetry together: "--quick to appreciate sweetness in unexpected places." just after the poet reminds us (indirectly) that she is also Javanese, and also likely to surprise us the same way -- and she does, in the the next two stanzas.

Early in the first stanza the poet had set up two expectations: firstly, the couple would get bubur ayam and secondly, they would commence to 'fucking'. The third stanza breaks that expectation but conceals it with the by a fevered feast on the bubur ayam in somewhat suggestively erotic terms, and we are told in the final stanza that later in bed, the woman had seen herself as 'a woman sated', fulfilling the expectations that had been set up early on in the piece -- which ties it all up neatly indeed.

So is it a short short or prose poem? I think it can swing either way, but I vote for the latter... even if it's a little, um, radical.

By the way, 14,000 rupiah for a portion of bubur ayam? That's almost half the price of Ellipsis (30,000rp)! The bubur had better be that good then! :-)

7:11 AM, November 09, 2006  
Blogger Leon Wing said...

I feel a short prose can be a poem if there is some kind of rhythm, internal or not. Take a look at Mark Haddon's long prose poem 'This Poem is Certificate 18'.

Talking about books that can also be called prose poems, you absolutely must read Jon McGregor, especially his first book 'If nobody speaks of remarkable things'. One of the best books ever written. Certain passages are written and formatted like poems. Probably you can say something similar about Ali Smith's Accidental as well.

1:26 PM, November 09, 2006  
Blogger bibliobibuli said...

lainie, sharanya - hmmm am keeping an open mind re. the podcast. i guess part of my reservation is i don't know how to put one up!! (but the copyright issue still bothers me - even for the poems we are already putting up here. for some i've asked for permission but not all ...)

sharanya - had forgotten about the poetry/prose thing the other way round - a novel told in poetry form. vikram seth's "the golden gate" is a favourite of mine - when i read it i was amazed that he could keep the sonnet form going for a whole book ... and it was so enjoyable too. (if the rest of you haven't read it - you must!) haven't yet come across Jimmy Santiago Baca but will look out for him now.

dreamer idiot/ machinist - thanks. yes, i echo your reservations ... the opening does seem more prose than poetry but the story picks up the poetry as it rolls on - particularly when it describes food - (lakshmi's great love!)

it is an expensive bowl of bubur ayam, isn;t it? hadn't noticed that before

leon - thanks for the references. i must find the mark haddon poem and jon mc gregor ...

you are so right about the poetry in "the accidental". also in "the inheritance of loss" don't you think?

6:57 AM, November 14, 2006  
Blogger desiderata said...

I enjoyed It as a short story rendered poetically, as at the end I felt lifted (an outcome I used as an important criterion tro decide whether some works as poetry!)

Well, some people put out several stanzas with lines that end in rhyme -- but does that qualify as PoetrY?
I'd still want apply my "lifting" experience criterion, don't know about other writers.

I enjoy Henry David Thoreau's On Walden Pond because it contains many poems within the long running Prose -- so I guess this short story is itself Prose but holds poetry within its bosom, thighs (this comes to mind because of the Penang municiapl incident/accident?) and womb.

Knotty aside just to wan DreamerI - Others please close your ears! - Don't let thy eyes stray -- we are discussing Puisi here, not pussy!

10:16 AM, November 19, 2006  
Blogger madcap machinist said...

Came across this article today, Susan Musgrave on poetry vs. prose (while discussing Al Purdy's "A Handful of Earth").

Interestingly also, Susan Musgrave quotes Brian Brett saying: "I always add the caveat that poetry is where the language is as important as the story (which means that Finnegan's Wake could also be called poetry), but in prose you only note the story and not the language (song)"

So, another book to add to Leon's list. Finnegan's Wake. Dost thou still doubt?
Try this excerpt:

"The fall (bababadalgharagh- takamminarronn- konnbronntonnerronnt- uonnthunntrovarrhounaw- nskawntoohooho- ordenenthurnuk!) of a once wallstrait oldparr is retaled early in bed and later on life down through all christian minstrelsy. The great fall of the offwall entailed at such short notice the pftjschute of Finnegan,
erse solid man, that the humptyhillhead of humself prumptly sends an unquiring one well to the west in quest of his tumptytumtoes: and their upturnpikepointandplace is at the knock out in the park where oranges have been laid to rust upon the green since devlinsfirst loved livvy."

ROTFLMAO! James Joyce rocks!

11:07 AM, November 28, 2006  
Blogger bibliobibuli said...

thanks very much for this ref. machinist.

it is a really nice ambiguity though. i'm happy to live with it.

1:59 PM, December 08, 2006  

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