Monday, March 26, 2007

"O Tell Me the Truth about Love"

I wanted to post Craig Raine's A Martian Sends a Postcard Home at first, having remembered that it was the first poem my literature teacher brought into class for Practical Criticism. A substantial part of the lesson was spent puzzling over idiosyncratic metaphors, characteristic of Martian poetry. But for now I urgently need to share this poem - the poem that kept me alive throughout my luckless Valentine's night.

O Tell Me The Truth About Love

Some say that love's a little boy,
And some say it's a bird,
Some say it makes the world go round,
And some say that's absurd,
And when I asked the man next-door,
Who looked as if he knew,
His wife got very cross indeed,
And said it wouldn't do.

Does it look like a pair of pajamas,
Or the ham in a temperance hotel?
Does it's odour remind one of llamas,
Or has it a comforting smell?
Is it prickly to touch as a hedge is,
Or soft as eiderdown fluff?
Is it sharp or quite smooth at the edges?
O tell me the truth about love.

Our history books refer to it
In cryptic little notes,
It's quite a common topic on
The Transatlantic boats;
I've found the subject mentioned in
Accounts of suicides,
And even seen it scribbled on
The backs of railway-guides.

Does it howl like a hungry Alsatian,
Or boom like a military band?
Could one give a first-rate imitation
On a saw or a Steinway Grand?
Is its singing at parties a riot?
Does it only like Classical stuff?
Will it stop when one wants to be quiet?
O tell me the truth about love.

I looked inside the summer-house;
it wasn't ever there:
I tried the Thames at Maidenhead,
And Brighton's bracing air.
I don't know what the blackbird sang,
Or what the tulip said;
But it wasn't in the chicken-run,
Or underneath the bed.

Can it pull extraordinary faces?
Is it usually sick on a swing?
Does it spend all it's time at the races,
Or fiddling with pieces of string?
Has it views of it's own about money?
Does it think Patriotism enough?
Are its stories vulgar but funny?
O tell me the truth about love.

When it comes, will it come without warning
Just as I'm picking my nose?
Will it knock on my door in the morning,
Or tread in the bus on my shoes?
Will it come like a change in the weather?
Will its greeting be courteous or rough?
Will it alter my life altogether?
O tell me the truth about love.

W.H. Auden

The thematic appeal of Auden's ballad derives from its irresistible lilt, its heady forward rhythmic rush, as if in love. (How it is consciously sought after in definition within the poem.) Like pub poetry, the language is simple and conversational. The speaker compares love to many things, particularising it ("soft as eiderdown fluff") and teasing out its character and characteristics, of which among many, is its ubiquitousness ("common topic on/the Transanlantic boats") due to an inherent mutability between objects ("pajamas" or "ham"?) and sometimes, into anthropomorphic entities ("knock on my door in the morning").

However, throughout the poem, love resists definition, plays hide-and-seek ("inside the summer-house/it wasn't even there") and at the end leaves the speaker's calls - in the form of insistent questions in alternating stanzas - unheeded, or at most, incomplete with the refrain
"O tell me the truth about love" crying out impatiently. The speaker's refusal or inability to settle for one precise definition (even when the penultimate line begs plainly for the first time: "Will it alter my life altogether?") speaks much about our human limitations of corralling love under a single pen, as so many poets writing on the subject of love do.

Still, the poem ships into our minds a catalogue of unforgettable images that ranges from the quotidian to the extraordinary, reminding us that when we are in love, love leeches in us like a vector; it hauls us to a greater, fresher signification of itself - just as the gentle undertow of the alternating metre and the cross rhymes could suggest constant revisions about love; such reflections on love, ultimately allows us
to pull through those blind sails, and see our lovers in a new light.

Before I protest too much, O tell me the truth about love.

P.S. Do check out other love poems by Auden, such as Lullaby...

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Monday, March 19, 2007

Puisi-poesy one year on

Well, I don’t want to begin with cliché in speaking of how time flies and how in a blink of an eye, a year has both come and gone for this blog… Alas, I am the least poetic among the others here in expressing these things. Words often fail me quite routinely. Perhaps that is why I am not a poet.

But, words in the hands of poets become delectable morsels that twirl in one’s mouth, explosions of tastes on the tongue, symphonies and melodies of one’s heart; bringing forth images that makes us dream dreams see beyond seeing, and sometimes cut and sear us deeply. All in all, I would like to think, that reading poetry draws us to a kind of intimacy, enjoining us in the mystery of oneself in meeting, encountering another.

Similarly, the conversations and friendships I have had through this blog has been really wonderful, and I am especially grateful to my fellow contributors here who have willingly partnered in this silly idea of mine, patiently bearing with me, enabling our blog to successfully run for a year. Frankly, I was initially worried that we may not sustain our efforts, especially with the want of support at times, but we did it!

For this ‘year’, if I am allowed a wish, I hope that more of my fellow Malaysians would read poetry, and that we here at puisi-poesy will continue to carry on well into another year.

With this, I leave a children’s poem that speaks of the simple enchantment of reading poetry.

Forbidden Poem

This poem is not for children.
Keep Out!

There is a big oak door
in front of this poem.
It’s locked.

And on the door is a notice
in big red letters.
It says: Any child who enters here
will never be the same again.

But what’s this?
A key in the keyhole.
And what’s more,
nobody’s about.

“Go on. Look,”
says a little voice
inside your head.
“Surely a poem
cannot strike you dead?”

You turn the key.
The door swings wide.
And then you witness
what’s inside.

And from that day
you’ll try in vain.
You’ll never be the same again.

by Tony Mitton

oetry isn't that forbidding, isn't it? :)

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

"Automatic Doors"

Automatic Doors
By Paul Farley

When I see some kids springing the gallery doors
I lament the great revolvers. As we enter
a new era of doors, I can remember
the thrill involved, the stately, dumb inertia

at first, before they’d give, a slow surrender
to four heaving kids, storing our power,
a glass and darkwood turbine, now whatever
effort we put in, the doors would answer

as they gathered speed, until only a shoulder
nudge was needed (and though no passengers
were carried, now and then I’d grab the bar
and dangle in my quadrant). We’d spin for hours

or so it seem: we were time travelers
fast-forwarding ourselves into the future
before we were thrown out, into an era
of never even having to lift a finger.

This poem is taken from Paul Farley’s latest collection, out last year, Tramp in Flames.

He has already won quite a number of awards : the Geoffrey Dearmer Prize in 1998; the Forward Prize and the Somerset Maugham Award for an earlier collection, The Boy from the Chemist is Here to See You; and Whitbread Poetry Prize for The Ice Age.

In this poem Farley recalls a time when there were “great revolvers”, those old-fashion revolving doors you find in grand old hotels, apartments or old buildings, which you have to push in order to get in from outside or the other way around. With “the new era of doors” the new doors would “spring” open when you get near them, because they are automatic.

Farley regrets the passing of those revolving relics, and remembers the excitement they could give. “stately, dumb inertia” recalls a slow moving and regal time, probably in Victorian or Edwardian days when trains revolved steam turbines, and ran carriages within which “passengers were carried”. See also “slow”, “heaving”, “power”, “effort”. Entering into “a new era”, these machines were replaced with faster ones (“fast-forwarding”, “thrown out”).

In the first line and first stanza Farley sees “some kids”. In the second line, a caesura or a pause marked by a full-stop in the middle signals a significant change, in time and in subject. He seems to have time-travelled back to being one of “four heaving kids” of the new subject “we”. The line appropriately and effectively runs-on at “enter”, into “a new era of doors”, in the next line.

In the last line of the first stanza we seem to have reached an end-stop with the last group of words “stately, dumb inertia”. However, reading on at the start of the next stanza reveals an extension to those words, so that “inertia” is really a run-on or enjambement, giving it a forward movement quite the opposite of the word’s connotation. The words towards which the run-on goes next sit in a new stanza, further heightening the run-on effect. These words, "at first", suggest that the object might be "slow" and "stately" initially but it can store power and gain speed.

The rhyming of “power” with “answer” makes one wonder if replacing with something more powerful is really the answer. Are we being precipitate (“fast-forwarding”) in rushing into a “future”, “a new era” in which everything is “automatic” and you don’t have to even have “to lift a finger”.

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Sunday, March 11, 2007

"of woman torn"

of woman torn
by Suheir Hammad

did her skin smell
of zaatar her hair of
exploded almonds
between the olive trees
her father lit the match brothers poured the flammable
the women they watched the women they tucked
their sex away under
skirts under secrets

in this world of
men and molotovs

family pride laid
between her thighs
honor in her panties
and no oslo accord
or camp david signing
could free her sex
from its binding

i can only pray light
a candle and hope
you were not raped
he was not rough
a relative a drunk stranger

i can only hope you were
loved once in his
arms that he touched you right
where you needed
often as you
wanted whispered loving
i hope he was sincere

where is he now

where was he when they found the swelling
of your belly proof of humanity
where was he when they stuck fists up
inside you to prove you loose

when they beat you blue
ripped each hair out your head
each one by one in the name
of god and land spit on you and
cursed the evil that is

palestine's daughter
love making can be as dangerous
as curfews broken
guerillas hidden

you join now those who won't leave
the earth haunt my
sleep who watch my
back whenever i lay
the forced suicides the
dowry deaths and

decapitated by
her father on her forbidden
honeymoon he paraded
her head through
cairo to prove his
manhood this is 1997

and i can only hope
you had a special song a
poem memorized a secret
that made you smile

this is a love
poem cause i love
you now woman
who lived tried to
love in this world of
machetes and sin

i smell your ashes
of zaatar and almonds
under my skin
i carry your bones


With apologies to Dreamer Idiot & co. for my long hiatus from this blog, I break fast with a belated International Women's Day (March 8) tribute. Personally, I think that like all designated days, IWD carries much more meaning if it is observed as a time for thought, reflection and an understanding not just of how far we've come but how far we've yet to go, than if it is celebrated superficially with no regard for our many realities.

So as much as I would have liked to tell you to take a cue from Maya Angelou and jump up and "dance like [you] have diamonds at the meeting of [your] thighs", I thought it might be more interesting to remind you just why that ought to be such a hell of a celebration, and in spite of what.

Suheir Hammad is a Palestinian-American poet and spoken word artist -- and a tremendously good one in terms of the latter (she won a Tony award for her stint on Def Poetry Jam). Having been a fan of her performance style, particularly this powerful rendering of being Arab and American in the aftermath of 9-11, when I came across this poem, I could literally hear her reading it aloud in my head. Searches for videos or voice recordings of Hammad reading "of woman torn" turned up nothing, sadly.

Discussing this intense and heartbreaking poem as a piece of writing is difficult because I see it, or hear it rather, quite unequivocally as a performance. Something to be listened to, something to be told. This is not to say that Hammad falls short of word-wise brilliance, but the rhythm inherent in her words lends itself so fittingly to an aural approach. This rhythm is achieved not just by the use of alliteration, but lists also: short lists of atrocities, events, peace accords, transgressions, secret pleasures, etc, which one imagines delivered with a breathless, machine gunfire rapidness. The rejection of conventional punctuation and syntax serve to heighten this effect -- that it's some instinctive rhythm that drives the flow of the words, not one on paper.

Spoken word is taking off in huge way here in KL, and I honestly feel that that's not a premature assertion, based particularly on the last few poetry events I've been to or been involved in here. But there is something which I am uncomfortable saying, but may as well given this opportunity: it's easy enough to put on a show. But sound is just sound until it has soul.

And if the test for every poet behind the mic is channeling not just loudness but also love, and all that emerges rooted in it however dark or light, then Suheir Hammad passes with ultrasonic resonance.

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Tuesday, March 06, 2007

"Why I Am Not a Buddhist"

I love desire, the state of want and thought
of how to get; building a kingdom in a soul
requires desire. I love the things I've sought-
you in your beltless bathrobe, tongues of cash that loll
from my billfold- and love what I want: clothes,
houses, redemption. Can a new mauve suit
equal God? Oh no, desire is ranked. To lose
a loved pen is not like losing faith. Acute
desire for nut gateau is driven out by death,
but the cake on its plate has meaning,
even when love is endangered and nothing matters.
For my mother, health; for my sister, bereft,
wholeness. But why is desire suffering?
Because want leaves a world in tatters?
How else but in tatters should a world be?
A columned porch set high above a lake.
Here, take my money. A loved face in agony,
the spirit gone. Here, use my rags of love.
Molly Peacock

I came cross this poem on a blog, and it immediately struck a chord so I printed it off to keep. I found myself rereading it with real pleasure every time I "accidentally" came across it again in my big box of "might-be-useful-one-day" print offs and cuttings. And since I couldn't chuck that poem out, I clearly needed to blog about it!

I am a great admirer of Buddhism, and certainly went through my Buddhist phase in my late teens. (I've tried on and failed at almost all of the world's principal religions in turn!) I liked that the starting point of the religion was not belief (which I have terrible problems with, as one of nature's unredeemable cynics) but observation and reason. Four noble truths? Fine. An eight-fold path? It made sense but I couldn't quite get round to implementing it in my own life.

And whilst I can see that all suffering in the end comes from attachment, I couldn't even imagine not being attached to things and people.

Isn't loving and getting our stupid hearts broken, trusting and getting let down and disappointed, what makes us human, and in the end makes us grow? How do we experience joy without desire?

The speaker in the poem has a quirky and idiosyncratic list of the things that she would find it hard to let go of. I think that any one of us could supply our own list and it would be, like hers, composed of both the petty and the overarchingly significant. Desire is, as she says, ranked. Not everything we want has equal weight.
How else but in tatters should a world be?
This is the pivotal question of the poem, and of course, rhetorical. How could any of us begin even to know how to answer it?

I have some difficulty with the last three lines. What is "the columned porch" to which she refers? Why does she offer money? How does the face in agony fit with the idea of desire? I'm not sure this ending works (dare I say?).

But the last image: "my rags of love" is effective. This is all I can give you, but you're welcome to it.

And I love the conversational tone and the flow of the piece. As if the speaker is talking to us directly to her lover, building up her argument thought by thought, piling on thoughts as they come to her. And I think this is a case worth making!

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