Monday, July 23, 2007


By Bee Bee Tan

When we died,
I finally gave birth.
It was then the villagers called me
Pontianak, roaming vampire.

My baby on my hip,
I ride the wind;
farmwives and children quiver.
When the sky is wrung grey
and heavy clouds hang low,
it is my day to run
through the village by the river.

My baby whines.
We are blood hungry, thirsty.
Leaves whirl in wind,
and long nipah palms clash.

From the throes of birth to death,
I ride a raft bound with rawhides,
my baby by my side
On the river-raft, we pin past glades
like Shaitans released from Hades.
The Kinta River foams white;
tin sludge is carried low;
alluvium clay becomes mud.

My long hair, wind tossed, is my veil;
my shroud, my sail.
Draped in blood,
we eat the land;
my baby lives the way it dies.


I discovered this poem last night, in an American anthology of women's poetry from the 80's. I found Tan's bio in the contributors' notes first and worked my way backward, curious. A Malaysian woman poet sharing bookspace with Marge Piercy, Adrienne Rich and Denise Levertov, among others? Who was this person, why hadn't we (for the most part) heard of her, and what was her work like?

"Pontianak" was the first of two poems. I was delighted, excited I had come across something so good and also so familiar. I had to read it over, a few times.

"Pontianak" is a wonderful example of what I think of as the classic persona poem: one that while seeming to enter the psyche of an individual character actually taps into an archetype or set of archetypes; and similarly, while seeming to present an interior perspective of someone other than the self simultaneously explores what could be deeply personal situation, sentiment or allegory.

Thus, there are a number of readings that can be made of this poem. Is it really about a pontianak, or is about a woman ostracised? (To me, it is both, as above).

"When we died,/I finally gave birth./It was then the villagers called me Pontianak, roaming vampire.", begins the poem. I have another rule about persona poems about unnamed characters: if I can't imagine their lives outside the parameters of the poem, it doesn't work for me. I could imagine Tan's pontianak. I saw her, variously, as a woman whose giving birth coincided with some unfortunate incident ("from the throes of birth in death") and thus was shunned by a village blinded by taboos about the bodies of women and the dark powers vested in them, as the opening lines suggest. I saw her also, as perhaps a real pontianak, and this is the story of how she feels. I saw her, most of all, as a woman coming into her own within a label imposed upon her, embracing it, bleeding it (excuse the pun) for all it's worth.

The baby ("my baby", "my baby", "my baby"... throughout the poem) is an interesting element. It brings to mind the obvious, femaleness, but I would argue that it is also where the crux of the persona's vampireness is located. Without this baby, would she be vampire? This baby sucks her dry of honour, propriety, and possibly, the will to live. When the persona says, "I ride a raft bound with rawhides, my baby by my side", what is implied? Are they fleeing the village that condemns her, or is riding out into a storm ("Leaves whirling in the wind, and long nipah palms clash") an act of a different sort of desperation? In that same description of riding the river-raft, I am intrigued by the juxtapositioning of Shaitans (an Eastern concept) with Hades (a classical Western one), but unable to read further into it.

The poem ends cryptically: "my baby lives the way it dies". There are multiple tragedies for this persona and her child (another reading of the text, of course, suggests that the baby is purely metaphorical, and I hope you'll share you thoughts on that aspect). The baby dies, then. But if it lives as it dies (note the present tense in both words), then what difference is there between life and death? I like this ending. It brings the supernatural back into focus, thus redeeming the use of the pontianak archetype from being only symbolic.

This is a dark and powerful poem, very female, very intense.

Bee Bee Tan's bio, for the record, read: "... is presently doing research in Malaysia on nonya or Straits-born Malaysian Chinese women. Presently she works as a freelance food columnist for the local papers. She is a graduate of the english Creative Writing Department of the University of Washington, Seattle, and ranks Colleen J. McElroy as one of her major influences." An Internet search turned up almost nothing, just namesakes (I think), and a listing for another collection of writing. I sms-ed a few people -- someone said they had worked with her years before, but had lost contact.

Does anyone know how to get in touch with her, if that is possible? She was a journalist here in the late 1980s -- surely, someone remembers her?

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Blogger Unknown said...

ok, to think tht a poem so msian, so simple would it to an american not underestimating it but amazed...i think we msians generally dont appreciate wat we hv here...but like i said, a poem so typically msian, i mean anyone would associate the pontianak with msia...a poem written in such simple words yet allowing for deeper understanding..

8:20 PM, July 23, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Or Indonesia. Very good find.

10:43 PM, July 23, 2007  
Blogger dreameridiot said...

Wow... wow... This is really dark, as you say, and the force of the voice in the poem is strong, determined and vengeful. I can see why you were attracted to this poem, haha.

Like you, I am intrigued too, who is Bee Bee Tan, or Tan Bee Bee? If only there were more information. This goes to show that there have been, and, I believe, still are talented Malaysians out there writing. It's a pity how some of these writers 'disappear', so to speak – perhaps, out of a lack of love or appreciation from the general public [more Malaysians to read. i.e. that's my hope for puisi-poesy]

Sharanya, I really enjoyed this write-up, and your reading of it really enhanced my understanding. Elliptical, the poem opens up a variety of possibilities of who this woman is and how and why she is suffering. Indeed, one can only keep guessing. My own reading is that the woman gave birth to the child out of wedlock, and is perhaps either an unmarried woman or an adulterer.

She faces both social scorn and hatred by her village folks, which feeds and fuels the rage that grows within and out of her, and either metaphorically or literally, turns her into the legendary monster – the pontianak, bloodthirsty, as her blood is spilled when she is stoned or struck to death. The “we” in the first line, could possibly be the adulterous couple, she and her lover… and she rises as a vampire to avenge.

It’s really haunting how the literal and allegorical are simultaneously played out, as both being alive and dead at the same time in the figure of the pontianak. This duality lends the poem its doubled edged complexity and ambivalence.

4:46 PM, July 25, 2007  
Blogger Spot said...

Thank you Sharanya, for unearthing this piece...thereby allowing the voice of this woman (the persona, not Tan Bee Bee) to be heard.

It's hauntingly beautiful. I found myself caught up in a sense of fraught urgency reading it...there's so much movement (ride, whirl, raft, foams, wind tossed,sail)'s as if we the readers are being swept along in a the wake of a wailing banshee.

I hear the voice of a woman, like Sharanya said - ostracised. Her baby represents her shame, the cause of her being expelled from her community.

Yes, she flees, carrying her shame with her. But I think in owning that shame, in owning whatever it is she did to bring the scorn of her community upon her, it's as if she's liberated herself. "it is my day to run"

The baby is metaphorical. The baby brings me pain, shame, burdens me...but it is my baby.

In death, there is birth. There can be redemption in a fall from grace. Note that her shroud is also her sail.

I love how the opening lines mirror the folklore on the Pontianak - a woman who dies in childbirth (the child stillborn), is "reborn" a vampire.

Would have preferred if instead of Hades she used Neraka instead. Only because I love the deliciousness of how dramatic the word is! I too, wonder about that particular dichotomy. Maybe it's in keeping with the yin yang dichotomy theme that's underlying the poem.

The imagery of the Kinta River, the mud and sludge adds depth to our identification (and thereby appreciation) with Pontianak from a cultural perspective.

But what I really like about this particular imagery is how it also brings to my mind the word "detritus". Which to me, is kind of what a vampire is. Something that was once alive but is now rejected, yet unable to integrate into the opposite state.
No longer belonging in the mainstream yet not able to become part of the stagnant earth. Existing as a layer of detritus (defined as "non-living, particulate organic matter") - in btwn states.

I love this. Thanks for a pleasantly interesting morning!

12:09 PM, July 26, 2007  
Blogger ericlow said...

I find it to be a rather bad poem and rather undeserving of the eloquent commentary given by Sharanya. While it had an interesting idea at the beginning, it starts awkwardly (1st 2 lines) then rapidly descents into clichéd descriptives for most of the poem. Consider the line - “Heavy clouds hang low”. Like a standard line plucked from a trashy romance novel of forgettable title and by an even more forgotten author. Then imagine mimicking that? After that, (perhaps, the poet realises the cliché) she tries to turn another old cliché - “blood thirsty” into something respectable, so she arrives at blood hungry. which I can ehhhh… maybe reluctantly grant some small award of imagination, but immediately after, she suddenly runs out of courage (why?) and adds in a most unnecessary “thirsty”. That could demonstrate a low level of trust in the reader on the poet’s part.

For the entire poem, the poor sexless baby is used as a prop. Which actually isn’t a crime; this is poetry after all. But if she could have ran with the baby farther, explore more. But in this poem, I only see the baby used as an indicator of the speaker’s gender (or to enforce the gender since Pontianak already establishes the speaker’s gender as female, but ah, I suspect since this was printed in some 80s era American anthology, the poet may not have trusted her readers to do a little background research and hence baby’s engendering role is required) and then reluctantly bundled along for the rest of the poem.

After the baby, comes a bunch of Shaitans, who by their mere mention, add some exotic excitement to an otherwise bland clichéd descriptives, so perhaps there is some saving grace forthcoming? But no. These interesting fellows are immediately shown the door and the wrong door at that; to Hades they are shoved, where they will probably get lost, since they do not speak the language. Additionally, the mention of Hades here, look glaringly like a rather pathetic (and of course, erroneous) attempt to rhyme with “glades” from the previous line as she had already did with “rawhides” and “side”. Why the intent to rhyme so late into the poem? And why no follow through after? I have no idea and I doubt the poet did either. Even if there was no such intent, she should have minded her line breaks to dissuade any such misinterpretation. It is glaring and distracting and lowers the readers’ opinion of the proficiency of the poem. (lacking anyway in this case)

The last stanza is the poem’s most promising part, but here it feels too little too late, and then it ends, as awkwardly as it had started.

6:05 PM, August 01, 2007  
Blogger sharanya said...

Eric -- :) Thanks! It's great when someone with a "dissenting" opinion actually says something, for a change, here on PP!

6:29 PM, August 02, 2007  
Blogger ericlow said...

was fun. must fight drivel whenever able. :)

1:58 AM, August 03, 2007  
Blogger Madcap Machinist said...

eric, cunning observations, and you're quite right.

I like what Spot said about the constant movement in the poem, and the final line is intriguing. Maybe if BBT had started with that line the poem would have interested me more.

3:05 AM, August 03, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

sebentar aku jumpai wajahmu sebelum senja tumpah seperti serapah (sebab akulah yang selalu malam) mengucap mimpi di ujung cahaya memerah yang lebih bermakna dari darah yang
padahal kita selalu punya tapi tak tau akan dibagi untuk siapa.

6:53 PM, November 17, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bee Bee Tan studied at the University of Washington in Seattle during the late 70s and earlier 80s, she returned home to take care of her aging parents in 1983. I took classes and workshops with her. I too wonder where she is and if she is still writing.

kathy mcdaniel
norther Montana, USA

6:15 AM, December 31, 2008  
Blogger dreameridiot said...

Thanks so much for the writing and telling us about her. Wherever she is, I do hope she is well and happy! The same to you too for 2009!

3:20 PM, December 31, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello everyone and especially Kathy McDaniel,

I just wanted to say "Thank you for all the kind commentaries." Yes, I am still alive and well...recouping from hip surgery.

I currently work and live in Portland, Oregon and have been here since the 1990's. I believe my last publication was during that early 90's in a anthology of literature from South East Asian Writers called "Tilting The Continent" which was edited by Shirley Geok-Lin Lim, another Malaysian writer, editor, feminist mentor...

9:33 AM, January 10, 2009  
Blogger dreameridiot said...

Wow..Wow... Great to hear from you yourself. What a surprise. It's amazing what a blog can do, haha. Good to know that you are well in Oregon. We (in Malaysia) do hope somehow we could contact each other.

I am one of the founders of this blog, but I don't dare leave my e-mail around, but if you would like to contact us, you can write either to Sharon Bakar, who's profile is listed on the side and yahoo email is there. She facilitates many of the literary events (along with Bernice Chauly, who's recently published her book of poems). Then, you could ask my email from her. The other person is Leon Wing, who runs Malaysian Poetic Chronicles as a space to foster Malaysian writing and his email can be found under submission. Sharanya who first brought the poem to our attention has returned to India, she's also a poet in her own right, and her e-mail can be found in her profile on the sidebar. Oh, you could them on Facebook too!

Hope you'll be able to find your friend Kathy MacDaniels too! Wish you a good recovery from your surgery and all the best!

3:56 PM, January 10, 2009  

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