Tuesday, July 31, 2007

"A Cortege of Daughters"

I haven’t been reading much poetry lately, and have instead immersed myself completely in dry, heavy but very thought-provoking literary criticism and philosophical treatise for my Masters research, so putting up this write-up is sort of a welcome break and relief.

A Cortege of Daughters

A quite ordinary funeral; the corpse
unknown to the priest. The twenty-third psalm.
The readings by serious businessmen
one who nearly tripped on the unaccustomed pew.
The kneelers and the sitters like sheep and goats.

But by some prior determination a row
of daughters and daughters-in-law rose
to act as pallbearers instead of men
all of even height and beautiful.
One wore in her hair a black and white stripped bow.

And in the midst of their queenliness
one in dark flowered silk, the corpse
had become a man before they reached the porch
so loved he had his own dark barge
which their slow moving steps rowed
as a dark lake is sometimes surrounded by irises.

by Elizabeth Smither

New Zealand poet Elizabeth Smither visited Malaysia for the KL Lit Fest earlier this year, and I was very fortunate to have sat in on her session together with Nic and Machinist. We were actually a little late that day, but the reading, having moved to the cosier and more intimate book room at Silverfish, helped us settle in easily. The crowd was small, as all poetry readings are, but it was quite lively, with a number of questions being posed. I made a remark them, of how the poems she read, evince a kind of lightness of touch, yet pa controlled measure. Indeed, this is evident in the poem today.

The poem starts out simply, describing the scene of a funeral in a church. The usual rites of the funeral performed, with the reading of a favourite passage from the Bible, and eulogies by friends, and people being led in prayer (as indicated by kneelers), but the quiet respectfulness or (perhaps) grief in the poem is disturbed by the starkness of the word “corpse” (instead of the name of the deceased) sticking out quite uncomfortably at the end of the first line. This cold distance of the funeral is also signalled by the priest not knowing the deceased personally, the awkward “serious” reading by businessmen, one of whom stumbled at the pew. The mention of kneelers and sitters suggests a further emotional or spiritual separation among those gathered there; those who are Catholics praying and participating, and those who are just attending the funeral. (The sheep and goats is a biblical reference to a similar condition.) All in all, the whole funeral seem rather ‘empty’ in a way, ritualistically lifeless as the person lying in the coffin.

But…. this first word of second paragraph, marks a change in the funeral. Daughters and daughters-in-law of the deceased form the procession of pallbearers, with their dear father and father-in-laws’ weight upon their shoulders, carrying and accompanying him in love and respect down the aisle of the church. Traditionally, it is the men who are bound to shoulder this duty, which makes this gesture all the more beautiful. The unobvious ‘rose’ as verb in the seconf line refers to the roses these women form as a part of his cortege,

One may feel the soft rhythm and smoother flow of the run-ons in the lines of this secondd paragraph, compared to the shorter, staccato-like (?) lines with caesura breaks (breaks in the middle of lines) in the first. Moreover, the gentle and unobtrusive rhyme of ‘row’ and ‘bow’ in the first and last line also completes it aesthetically, just as the third and last paragraph completes a beautiful turn in the funeral.

With his ladies-of-honour accompanying him, “the corpse/ had become a man”, no longer just a dead body, but a person and a man whose life is being cherished for all that he was. Indeed, I think I won’t explicate more, but ask you to re-read and appreciate the beauty of the final imagery that humanises death and makes it beautiful and meaningful.

Elizabeth Smither is New Zealand's Te Mata Poet Laureate. She has published thirteen collections of poems: Here Come the Clouds (1975); You’re Very Seductive William Carlos Williams (1978); The Sarah Train (1980); The Legend of Marcello Mastroianni’s wife (1981); Casanova’s Ankle (1981); Shakespeare Virgins (1983); Professor Musgrove’s Canary (1986); Gorilla/ Guerilla (1986); Animaux (1988); A Pattern of Marching (1989); A Cortège of Daughters (1993); The Tudor Style: Poems New and Selected (1993); The Lark Quartet (1999)..There have also been four novels, First Blood (1983) , Brother-love Sister-love (1986), The Sea Between us (2002), Different Kinds of Pleasure (2006); three collections of short stories, Nights at the Embassy (1990), Mr Fish (1994), The Mathematics of Jane Austen (1997); a book for children, Tug Brothers (1983); an edition of her journals, The Journal Box (1996); and co-edited with David Hill The Seventies Connection (1987)

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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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Monday, July 16, 2007

'Dear Colleague'

by Alasdair Gray

Congratulations! Our whole department
is glad you are dead. Great dedication
to material output, inner liason
needs breaks from time to time and dissolution
seems just the break you need. Should you return
to planning and development the situation
will certainly be reviewed but rest assured
we manage without you. Fear not!
We remain.

This very humorous piece is taken from Alasdair Gray's 16 Occasional Poems 1990-2000, published by Morag McAlpine.

If you haven’t heard of Alasdair Gray, by the end of the year, in our part of the world, here in Malaysia, or by coming October in the UK, you would have, if you read the same UK book reviews as I do. His new novel, from Bloomsbury, will be called Old Men in Love. The late Anthony Burgess called him 'the greatest Scottish novelist since Sir Walter Scott' . The Evening Standard said, ‘He is our nearest contemporary equivalent to Blake, our sweetest-natured screwed-up visionary' .

The first line has a very upbeat rhythm, as apropos to the subject of valediction. But the next line shocks when the listener realises the felicitation is not for the recipient of the speech, but the ‘whole department’ who is happy that the colleague (‘you’) is dead. To compound this fact, the rhyming of 'dead' and the ‘d’ alliteration in ‘dead’ and ‘dedication’ have the effect like the speaker saying : you are dead dead dead!

Even the repetitions of ‘break’ and ‘time’ in lines 4 and 5 have this similar effect, as if slowly, in time, the ‘you’ of the poem is breaking down, as ‘dissolution’, sitting at the end of the line, as a run-on, confirms.

The sentence in line 5, after the pause in the middle, looks belyingly like telling the ‘you’ that the ‘whole department’ will consider his returning. But the next lines, with ‘rest assured/we manage without you’, is a hidden threat. ‘manage’ can also imply disposing of one, so that ‘you’ can be assured of his ‘rest’, in peace, that is.

‘Fear not!’ could well be addressed to the ‘you’ in question, but it could just as well be an assurance to the ‘whole department’ that it (‘they’) will remain. Gray, when reading this, gave stress onto ‘you’, and in a Parthian shot, also onto ‘We’, so that the listeners are in no doubt whatsoever who (‘you’) is dead and who still remain.