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?