Monday, November 27, 2006

"When I Cut My Hair"


when I cut my hair
at thirty-five
Grandma said she'd forgive me
for cutting it
without her permission

but I cried out everytime
I touched my head
years from then
and Grandma dead
it came back to me last night when
you said you wanted it all
your rich body grounding me safe
the touch of your hair
took me out
I saw pigeon feathers
red wool
and fur

and it wrapped me
with the startled past
so sudden
your hair falling all around us

I touched center
and forgave myself

by Rayna Green


Rayna Green is a Cherokee poet, editor and Director of the American Indian Program at the Smithsonian Institution.

This poem exemplifies very well what Malika Booker, who was in KL last week to perform and conduct workshops, described as the "narrow and deep" approach to writing a poem, which I interpret as the poet zooming in on a particular memory and excavating it, in writing, in its contextual and consequential entirety. According to Malika, this "narrow and deep" approach should reveal four things: "I", incident, epiphany and emotion. Thus, the "I" in "When I Cut My Hair" is quite clearly located in the first-person narrative, the incident is what a lover says and how it reminds her of her grandmother and the cutting of her own hair, and the epiphany is the fact that years later, she is able to forgive herself for that act.

But what I want to discuss is emotion.

This poem speaks to me, primarily, because it is a perfect rendering of the idea that the personal is political. Rather than treat multiculturalism and the loss of heritage in an objective and polemic manner, these issues are dealt with via the telling of a private story. While we do not know why she chose to do it, the poet/persona cut her hair at the age of 35, anticipating the chagrin of her grandmother. However, her grandmother says she will forgive her, and perhaps unexpectedly, it's the poet/persona's own guilt that is the hardest to bear. She carries this inner conflict for years, long after her grandmother passes away, until finally, a lover's words lift the burden away from her, allow her to let it go.

Traditionally, Cherokee women wore their hair long, cutting it only as a sign of mourning. Thus, the poet/persona's cutting of her hair was not as simple a thing as choosing a different style. Because the act in itself would mean a rejection of a fundamental cultural tenet, and because the poet no doubt is politically aware, it is a choice that is not without consequence. What she only comes to see later, however, is that the greatest consequence was the blame she inflicted on her self. Coming from a background where women's hair is an equally potent symbol (I trace maternal ancestry to the cult of Draupadi, who swore to leave her hair unbound until the day she could wash it in the blood of the man who wronged her, in defiance of social norms that equate unbound hair to unbound, unbuoyed women), I can understand the guilt that must have plagued the poet. If I may make a comparison, it is not unlike a woman from an Islamic background choosing to remove her burqa or hijab. In the modern world, a world in which we are losing, inch by precious inch, our links to our roots, it can be a deeply painful, even regrettable (as the poet illustrates) choice to make.

Particularly moving, also, is Green's way of showing us how we do, ultimately, retain our traditions: in loving. "it came back/ to me last night when/ you said you wanted it all/ your rich body grounding me safe/ the touch of your hair/ took me out/ I saw pigeon feathers/ red wool/ and fur// and it wrapped me/ with the startled past/ so sudden/ your hair falling all around us" she writes, in a richly detailed description of the moment preceding the catharsis that follows: "I touched center/and forgave myself". I know I cannot be speaking only for myself when I say that the desire to want to be loved in one's own language, in the manner that one's ancestors did, to be looked at in that aesthetic sense, is probably a universal longing. To have that, even once, is something many of us can only dream of. In this poem, experiencing this is doubly powerful: not only does she return to that secret, ancestral self with the touch of her lover's hair, she also finally finds what she needs to accept that she can still be that self, even despite the sacrilege she has committed.

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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

"Bloody Men"

Firstly, let me apologise to any of our regular readers who might have felt disappointed by the absence of two weekly posts during the course of this month. We seek your understanding, as with the case of future leaves of absence. In truth, most of us have been busy lately, and it's tough juggling everything. I have been occupied myself and was tempted not to post this week, but seeing that there wasn't a post last week, and that some of my stuff aren't that urgent and can wait, here's a short post for this week. [Guys. please don't brand me a traitor.. i'm not trying to ingratiate myself with the ladies with this poem].

Bloody Men

Bloody men are like bloody buses -
You wait for about a year
And as soon as one approaches your stop
Two or three others appear.

You look at them flashing their indicators
Offering you a ride.
You're trying to read the destinations,
You haven't much time to decide.

If you make a mistake, there is no turning back.
Jump off, and you'll stand there and gaze
While the cars, the taxis and the lorries go by
And the minutes, the hours, the days.

by Wendy Cope

Having debated with others last week on the distinction of prose, poetry and prose-poetry, I thought it would be good to put up this very short and simple poem. Interestingly, a friend honoured me recently by asking me to make some comments on a very old poem he wrote long ago, and as I wrote my reply, certain things came to mind on the craft of what makes a poem.

Well, today's poem is straightfoward and a teenager would easily understand it. The poem is very much colloquial in tone, and seems very much like one of those 'b-tching' sessions (pardon the expression) between a couple of girlfriends about the terrible fate of dating "bloody men" in general. In fact, the first line of the poem seems almost common enough, perhaps even overheard before. It's like one of those witty aphorisms that we hear from time: "Bloody men are like bloody buses".

Nothing remarkable so far, and even as one reads on, some may feel that one might have written this poem oneself. That might be true, as why shouldn't we attempt to write poetry ourselves?

Looking closer at the poem, it is clear that as simple and as down-to-earth as this poem is, it takes some effort to sustain and develop the metaphor of men being like buses that never seem to appear when one is wating or looking for one. The poem then moves to the problem of having a couple of buses all turning up at the same time, just like how the dating scene is. With this nice turn of irony, it neatly plays with two of the common problems we face. The second stanza goes further of how it is difficult to decide the best bus to take, as with the people we would like to date, not knowing what to expect from them.

While we delight in the witticisms of this poem, we might have also unconsciously enjoyed the flow or rhythm of the lines. The poem is structured as a quartrain (4 lines per stanza) rhyming abcb, with a couplet (2 lines) like division of parts (at least that's what appears to me) that ties each stanza as a whole, being able to stand on its own. It is obvious then to see the control of language and form in crafting this poem.

Finally, the third stanza sees the poem come to a close. The first line is a common truism, and together with the second line, they are syntactically structured into two parts, that give them a similar rhythm pattern. This 'flows' on to the final two lines, which are also rhythmically similar, with the pauses between the commas. Reading this final stanza again, one will feel a kind of slowing down at the end, giving it a soft but genuine sadness, of waiting for the right guy to come by.

This poem by Wendy Cope is simple, but it goes gently from the usual frustrated complaint of women on men, to the witty 'talk', and finally to what may be said to be a personal, felt grief.

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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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