Tuesday, August 29, 2006

"Some Like Poetry"

Some –
not all, that is.
Not even the majority of all, but the minority.
Not counting school, where one must,
or the poets themselves,
there’d be maybe two such people in a thousand.

Like –
but one also likes chicken-noodle soup,
one likes compliments and the color blue,
one likes an old scarf,
one likes to prove one’s point,
one likes to pet a dog.

Poetry –
but what sort of thing is poetry?
Many a shaky answer
has been given to this question.
But I do not know and do not know and hold on to it,
as to a saving banister.

by Wislawa Szymborska

Translated by Joanna Trzeciak

I won’t say this is one of the most memorable Szymborska poem (not that I have read many), but there’s an interesting personal story why I picked this poem today. :)

Being not altogether a widely read person, I only remotely remember Wislawa Szymborska as some Nobel Prize winning Polish poet, until Gilbert Koh mentioned her name offhand to me in an e-mail, leading me to search online, finding a few of her poems here [link]. Liking what I read, I decided to purchase Miracle Fair: selected poems of Wislawa Szymborska during my recent trip to Singapore, for someone whom I felt might enjoy it as well.

After a pretty long week there, I finally boarded one of those long overnight bus home. As I began to gradually doze off, the bus inexplicably broke down. The bus driver told us, one part of the engine had overheated and the bus couldn’t go any further. A replacement would be despatched from the nearest town and should reach us in about two hours. It was 1am, right smack in the middle of some rather ulu (remote) place. Fortunately, the bus driver managed to stop at a petrol kiosk, where there was a rather dirty but still usable toilet.

Escaping the stuffy bus, I joined some of the passengers outside in the chilly night air. There were a couple of street lamps, so it wasn’t altogether that dark. I fish out the collection of poetry from my bag, sat by the kerb and started reading. It must have been a really amusing sight, a guy reading poetry in the dead of the night, under a street lamp, next to a broken down bus. in some near God-forsaken place.

The replacement bus never did came, at least not at the promised time; and was despatched only much later the next morning, finally coming to our rescue after an interminable eight hours later, at 9am. During that long night, a few makciks (ladies) were cooing and soothing their poor children who fidgeted and cried on the bus. As for myself, I was safely ensconced in poetry, lulled to a quietness of spirit amidst all the dire desperation, through the soft words of Szymborska’s poetry.

Why do I read poetry? To quote Szymborska: “… I do not know and do not know and hold on to it,/as to a saving banister.”

BTW, to my fellow Malaysians out there, Selamat Menyambut Hari Merdeka!

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Some of Carrie Etter's poems online

Carrie Etter has a blog of her own! and some of her other peoms can be found online here [link]. (Thanks Machinist for the tip up and Leon for introducing her poem "Divorce" in the first place :)

Tuesday, August 22, 2006


by Carrie Etter

Forced to apologise
for the dirty sheets, he looks
proud in his shame.
I left that bed years ago
and have returned to collect
a forgotten book, a favourite blanket.
He knew the names of trees better
than makes of cars, but neither well.
He remembers which sister
I like least and asks
how she is doing.

First off, this poem is found in the latest issue of the British Council-sponsored New Writing series, this year’s New Writing 14. Actually, the poet Carrie Etter is American, but if you live and work in England – or anywhere among the countries under the Commonwealth - you are eligible to send your work to the New Writing project. As it is, she teaches creative writing in Bath Spa University, working there as an Associate Lecturer.

As I’m writing this I’ve completed reading through a third of NW14. No, you won’t be able to get this book in Kino or in any bookshop in KL now – I already booked a copy months back, and last I checked, last week or so, the bookshop didn’t stock it yet. How is it I’m reading it? I got a free copy from the British Council, KL, about two weeks back, as one of the first 20 winners of a little contest (Answer this and be the one of the 1st 20 people to get a free copy).

At this time, I still haven’t chosen poem to post in here. Incidentally, I’ve just finished the short story section of the book, and the next one is poems. I have quickly gone through those pages, and I stopped to read Divorce – that’s it, then, I found the poem to write about.

I really like this poem, because I’m looking for a short poem to work on, and it is actually the type or style of poem I myself would aspire to write: something not too long, with spare but telling details. Carrie doesn’t tell you what is going on in this divorce; she’s showing you.

Divorce is a short piece but is so very leaden with tension and conflict. The first three lines show a conflict of emotions here : he is ashamed and also proud of the dirty sheets. But why apologise anymore if he’s already divorced? Then, she’s saying she’s left his bed years ago. Conflict again: but why is she back after all these years, just to retrieve some “forgotten book, a favourite blanket”?

Notice the mirroring of these pair of items is foregrounded for us by the initial sounds from the “f” and “b” consonants (even if the first “f” sound is inside a non-stress syllable). Is this implying that he and she are still a pair, a couple, albeit in conflict? Or implying that she is still drawn to him, as from some force of habit? Could this paired items be symbolic of a kind of recurrence, of old habits, of some wont?: he cheated on her in their bed once, and now he is sort-of doing that again.

And what in the world is she doing being that close to his bed? The lines “He knew the names …of cars, but neither well.”: conflict – he knew, not know, these things but really he didn’t that well. Tension here: in the last three lines we can imagine him, now, goading her on by asking – probably very casually, very unaffectedly - after a sister of hers, whom she likes the least. The alliteration in “like least” tells loads about this sister. A very good guess what kind of relationship this sister had – or has - with the husband.

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Friday, August 18, 2006

"Your laughter"

Take bread away from me, if you wish,
take air away, but
do not take from me your laughter.

Do not take away the rose,
the lance flower that you pluck,
the water that suddenly
bursts forth in joy,
the sudden wave
of silver born in you.

My struggle is harsh and I come back
with eyes tired
at times from having seen
the unchanging earth,
but when your laughter enters
it rises to the sky seeking me
and it opens for me all
the doors of life.

My love, in the darkest
hour your laughter
opens, and if suddenly
you see my blood staining
the stones of the street,
laugh, because your laughter
will be for my hands
like a fresh sword.

Next to the sea in the autumn,
your laughter must raise
its foamy cascade,
and in the spring, love,
I want your laughter like
the flower I was waiting for,
the blue flower, the rose
of my echoing country.

Laugh at the night,
at the day, at the moon,
laugh at the twisted
streets of the island,
laugh at this clumsy
boy who loves you,
but when I open
my eyes and close them,
when my steps go,
when my steps return,
deny me bread, air,
light, spring,
but never your laughter
for I would die.

Pablo Neruda

-- I am back again after numerous weeks of forgetting to post right after Sharon!! Thanks for the reminders Eugene and apologies as I have been caught up with the constraints of travelling and losing track of days. No excuses - here's Your Laughter - one of my favourite poems because historically it was the first ever poem I received from a boy :) I used to laugh a lot as a child.

I remembered it today as I was driving and heard the words "laughter the best medicine" and it evoked memories of the poem and the warm feelings that I get whenever I read it. Let me know your thoughts.

Sunday, August 13, 2006


Kerrenga di dalam buloh,
Serahi berisi air mawar.
Datang hasrat dalam tuboh,
Tuan seorang jadi penawar.
Now I'm the first to post up a Malay poem on this blog!

It is of course a pantun, a form familiar to local readers, but not very well known elsewhere. (I had an American friend who was interested in exploring and using Eastern poetic forms, especially haiku, but had never heard of a pantun.) That's such a pity, because pantuns would work just as beautifully in English, I feel.

Some time ago I posted several of them on my blog and was surprised by the strong reaction from readers they evoked - with several other bloggers linking to them. There is, it seems, a hunger in Malaysia for this form of poetry.

The pantun above was written down in my notebook by poet Salleh ben Joned one lunchtime in an Indian restaurant in Bangsar. We were discussing the difficulties of translating Malay poetry into English.

Salleh said that he is at work on a collection of pantuns, and feels that the pantun above is one of the finest he has come across.

I can't render it into an exquisite English pantun (I leave the challenge to you guys!), but the gist of it is (and please excuse inaccuracies):

Red ants in the bamboo,
Vessel full of rosewater.
Come passion to my body,
You are the only one can satisfy me.

The first two lines of a pantun always contain an image from the natural world. The second couplet tells a human story.

Pantuns, say Salleh, only really work when the natural image reflects in some sense the content of what follows. (This certainly makes sense to me.) He points out that this is not the case of many of the pantuns which have appeared in anthologies.

In the patun above, the ants are drowning in the rainwater that has collected between bamboo stems, turning it as as red as rosewater.

How does this image echo the human story? Red is the colour of passion and rosewater is sprinkled on the bride and groom during the bersanding ceremony of a Malay wedding to bless them. (The word serahi also surely conjures the unspoken word berahi, meaning passion?)

But there's something a little less comfortable in the image. The sting of red ants is particularly painful. Like love, perhaps?

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Tuesday, August 08, 2006

"You Bring Out The Mexican In Me"

"You Bring Out The Mexican In Me"
by Sandra Cisneros

You bring out the Mexican in me.
The hunkered thick dark spiral.
The core of a heart howl.
The bitter bile.
The tequila l�ágrimas on Saturday all
through next weekend Sunday.
You are the one I'd let go the other loves for,
surrender my one-woman house.
Allow you red wine in bed,
even with my vintage lace linens.
Maybe. Maybe.

For you.

You bring out the Dolores del Río in me.
The Mexican spitfire in me.
The raw navajas, glint and passion in me.
The raise Cain and dance with the rooster-footed devil in me.
The spangled sequin in me.
The eagle and serpent in me.
The mariachi trumpets of the blood in me.
The Aztec love of war in me.
The fierce obsidian of the tongue in me.
The berrinchuda, bien-cabrona in me.
The Pandora's curiosity in me.
The pre-Columbian death and destruction in me.
The rainforest disaster, nuclear threat in me.
The fear of fascists in me.
Yes, you do. Yes, you do.

You bring out the colonizer in me.
The holocaust of desire in me.
The Mexico City '85 earthquake in me.
The Popocatepetl/Ixtacc�huatl in me.
The tidal wave of recession in me.
The Agustí�n Lara hopeless romantic in me.
The barbacoa taquitos on Sunday in me.
The cover the mirrors with cloth in me.

Sweet twin. My wicked other,
I am the memory that circles your bed nights,
that tugs you taut as moon tugs ocean.
I claim you all mine,
arrogant as Manifest Destiny.
I want to rattle and rent you in two.
I want to defile you and raise hell.
I want to pull out the kitchen knives,
dull and sharp, and whisk the air with crosses.
Me sacas lo mexicana en mi,
like it or not, honey.

You bring out the Uled-Nayl in me.
The stand-back-white-bitch-in me.
The switchblade in the boot in me.
The Acapulco cliff diver in me.
The Flecha Roja mountain disaster in me.
The dengue fever in me.
The ¡Alarma! murderess in me.
I could kill in the name of you and think
it worth it. Brandish a fork and terrorize rivals,
female and male, who loiter and look at you,
languid in you light. Oh,

I am evil. I am the filth goddess Tlazolt�otl.
I am the swallower of sins.
The lust goddess without guilt.
The delicious debauchery. You bring out
the primordial exquisiteness in me.
The nasty obsession in me.
The corporal and venial sin in me.
The original transgression in me.

Red ocher. Yellow ocher. Indigo. Cochineal.
Pi��n. Copal. Sweetgrass. Myrrh.
All you saints, blessed and terrible,
Virgen de Guadalupe, diosa Coatlicue,
I invoke you.

Quiero ser tuya. Only yours. Only you.
Quiero amarte. Aarte. Amarrarte.
Love the way a Mexican woman loves. Let
me show you. Love the only way I know how.


This time around, I'm sharing a poem by one of my favourite writers. Cisneros is a Mexican-American feminist poet and author, and this is from her 1994 poetry collection, Loose Woman.

It's a steamy, sexy, sensuous love poem -- and you can almost hear a celebratory parade in the background (or maybe that's only because I'm listening to baila right now). You can hear Cisneros reading her poem here. I'm unable to open the link myself, but maybe you can.

The basic structure of "You Bring Out The Mexican In Me" is that it's a list poem, a long reel of place names on a map of the interior, if you will. From the grandiose -- tragedies, heroines, legends -- to the personal -- tequila tears and single womanhood -- a whole plethora of memories emerges. Her lover has teased all of this out of her. He has made it possible for her to reach these previously esoteric parts of herself. She is all things -- the pre-Columbian, the colonizer, the colonized, the immigrant, the second-generation Chicana. And with sass and with tenderness, this is her response. It's a grand, horns-blaring kind of poem, but under it all, even during its most audaciously in-your-face moments, is a pervasive sense of awe and quiet gratitude -- hers is the kind of lover who restores her soul, smoothes over the scarring of life between cultures, repairs the fractures of her past. He brings out the Mexican in her -- he brings out her deepest knowledge, and deepest secrets.

"You", she says. You. Thus it's intimate. Who is this lover? Who or what provokes Cisneros thus? Does s/he exist? Perhaps it doesn't matter -- she needs the Mexican in her, with all its roaring glory and its hideous grief.

I am immensely influenced by Cisneros' work because to me, she's one of the few writers I've encountered who are able to successfully juxtapose a supposedly exotic identity with the supposedly more profane language of her expression. She navigates this interface with such skill -- and more importantly by far -- such sincerity, which is why she can offer up the most succulent exoticism there is and never once seem contrived or pandering to Orientalist tastes. And I applaud Cisneros for avoiding the use of a glossary, that most tell-tale of "exotic" devices, as doing so speaks volumes about the nature of her craft. In the case of this poem, I personally also feel it's unnecessary, because the spirit of the work shines nonetheless.

And speaking of influences, I've read some "after" poems based on this one (e.g. "You Bring Out The Klang Valleyite In Me"). Here's a suggestion to anyone who wants to take it up: if you like this, why don't we write our own after poems modelled on its structure and its soul, and share them, perhaps at the Puisy-Poesy reading? A few examples I found on the web are here (by a performance poet called Bao Phi -- this one's amazing), here (scroll all the way down) and here (this one's by a 6th-grader!). On that note, I'd also like to open up the floor again on the subject of Puisi-Poesy readings (or, if that's too intimidating, gatherings)... what are your thoughts? Would be great to hear from non-contributors especially.

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Tuesday, August 01, 2006

"Hong Lim Park"

Since this poem is context specific, here’s a bit of background information. Hong Lim Park is a public park in Singapore with a Speaker’s Corner. To read more, click here, and search under Singapore.

Hong Lim Park

a fat man stands
announces an opinion
as if it mattered

in the hot sun
the trees yawn and
almost sigh

the retirees wish
they had their
park back

by Gilbert Koh

Note: First published electronically by Softblow. Permission to reproduce here granted by the poet himself. Thanks, Gilbert.

To read Gilbert’s other poems, go to his blog Reader’s Eye, which is listed on the sidebar of Links.

Although very simple, this poem is ambiguously complex, and far from being didactic like other more overtly political poems, it allows the reader to bring his/her own reading to it. As such, it is necessary then for me to lay down my own ideological stance here (to each their own). Distressed over certain worrying trends in Malaysian socio-political landscape, I decided to put this poem up as a little food for thought.

Hong Lim Park represents Singapore government’s very strict and sometimes near draconian control over free speech. At the speaker’s corner, people can’t just go up impromptu and speak on a topic, but need to apply for a permit to speak from the nearby police outpost. As it is known, strong political dissent and opposition in Singapore are often clamped down hard and there is little room to publicly express differing political viewpoints on issues.

The first stanza of the poem plays out the tensions on the ‘freedoms’ that are allowed at the speaker’s corner. The word “Announce” though suggesting something important brought to the public’s attention is quickly understated and reduced to being only an “opinion”. The sharp irony in “as if it mattered” further dismisses whatever weight that “opinion” might have. Indeed, if the “opinion” had been allowed, it certainly wouldn’t have mattered too much – not political nor too big a social issue, since the speaker and the speech made would have been first checked and given approval. .

In fact, would anything addressed at the speaker’s corner interest anybody at all? The mention of the trees in the second stanza mark the absence of any listening party in the park, just as their animation with human expression of boredom (“yawn”) suggest a complete disinterest or apathy to whatever is being said.

At the poem’s close, retirees sit around comfortably and want more than anything else to enjoy the nice greenery of the park. Having somebody yakking and ranting away seem to be a nuisance and disturbance of the peace. To them, why would anybody seriously bother standing there talking “in the hot sun”?

Some other questions to consider:

- Is a different reading of the poem possible?
- Does the arrangement of the poem create a certain effect or ‘feel’?
- Does the word "sigh" in the second stanza complicate my reading of apathy in the poem?

BTW: For those Malaysians who haven’t heard or watched Danny Lim’s short film 18 (the film itself takes 18 minutes) which won Gold for short film documentary at the Malaysian Video Awards and came up runners up in the amateur category at the 2005 Freedom Film Fest, please click here or here (it is copyright free).

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