Sunday, May 07, 2017

Writing the poem "Modern migration Is"


Modern migration Is

War Is flowering near 
sands where God Is Great.
It Is black and white, Isn’t it,
that the heat browns these people and 
mortal fireworks paint them red?
Neighbors don’t drop by 
their pockmarked houses anymore, 
having only shards to play Jenga with,
and these are no UFOs but Is.
Downtrodden, Mahmoud sells everything and
trudges far away from land, to
bob over surer waters.
But Poseidon claws at him, and 
tries to pull him down under.
When he finally spies wet sand,
the child with him lands face down,
and even Apollo on Lesbos,
holding it in his arms,
cannot bring it into the living.
We all watch from standing buildings,
our tears brining our glass screens.

This poem is published in an anthology of Malaysian English writings, "Little Basket 2017". The Malaysian publisher Fixi also accepted submissions of graphics, photos and comics.

If you have read other postings here, you will have come to recognise the theme of this zine: to give its readers an understanding of how a poet has composed his poem. Most of the time I parse lines technically and in detail. As for this posting, this is the first time this zine is publishing such parsing of a poem written by the writer posting the essay.

I wrote this poem last year. I intended to put into poetics the upheavals in lives of people from regions of war torn Africa and the Middle East, particularly Syria. Last year the world would already have read about the desperate attempts of these unfortunates at entering Europe. They overcrowded flimsy dinghies or rubber boats. Some died in transit, mostly the weak, the old, and the very young, usually by drowning. Especially heart-rending was this incident of a drowned child on the shores of a Greek island. I remember those pictures of his limp lifeless body carried in the arms of some official.

Prompted by those events last year, I wanted to compose a poem. But I wanted to attempt something less emotive. I didn't want to apply any of those words that state or connote sadness, grief or pity. Without utilising any emotive words at all, I proceeded to forge an imagist recounting of the migrations of these people.

At the very beginning, the reader would immediately catch the unusual balancing of capitalised words on both ends of the title. "Modern" on the one end at the start and "Is" on the other straddle small-capped "migration". There is no accidental capitalising of  those words. The intention is for the caps in "Is" to hint at the word ISIS, the terrorist organisation, not the deity.

Thereby, I capitalise the two instances of “is” in

"War Is flowering near sands where God Is Great."

If you bring these words close together, as rhymes, they spell the initials of the Egyptian goddess, whose name is now being appropriated by that organisation. As you can see, I’m not using any glottal or hard sounds in line one. I want to convey the illusion of peace in a godly land, even with the incongruity of the word “war”. The hard syllables only come in at the end of the sentence, in the glottal g of God and Great, with an added roughness in the r and a very hard finality in the t of that last word.

Instead of stating the obvious about whence these people are from, I feel that those three words beginning with "God" suffice. Most of us would have caught it ululated five times a day to remind the faithful.

I added a new line, capitalising the be words as well:

"It Is black and white, Isn’t it,"

These capitalised words straddle the words of these two colours, causing them to stand out like an on off blink. “black and white” signals to the colours of that flag. 

Also making use of colours instead of shades, I change the originally drafted “darkens” to “browns”, qualifying “fireworks” with “mortal” with that connotation of death, and replacing the former “bath” with “paint”:

"that the heat browns these people and mortal fireworks paint them red?"

The above line replaces the previously drafted 

"The sun’s heat darkens
these brown people and deadly 
fireworks bath them in red."

“Houses” gets modified into “pockmarked” to suggest bullet holes:

"Neighbors don’t drop by their pockmarked houses anymore,"

Instead of the rather generic sounding and rather innocuous “flying objects” I use “shards”: "Having only shards to play Jenga with,"

I capitalise the “is” at the end of this line : "and these are no UFOs but Is."

Originally I wrote "they" instead of "these", to point to or reference  "shards" of the previous line. But in the final published version of that line the editor of the anthology requested "they" to be replaced with either "those" or "these". I preferred "these". "these", I can now see, will make a much better syntactic connection with the "s" in "shards". 

Because I wanted to cut out any emotive words, “Saddened” now becomes “Downtrodden”. I rearrange the three lines, removing the line with “savings”, referring to this as “sells everything”.  “rides the sea” is now “bob over surer waters”, the word “surer” implying something safer:

"Downtrodden, Mahmoud sells everything and
trudges far away from land, to
bob over surer waters."

The earlier draft used to be:

"Saddened, Mahmoud trudges away 
from land, and rides the sea 
on all his savings."

These lines remain mostly unchanged, except for a small cut:

"But Poseidon claws at him, and 
tries to pull him down under.
When he finally spies wet sand,
the child with him lands face down,
and even Apollo on Lesbos,
holding it in his arms,
cannot bring it into the living."

As for the beats scheme in 

"TRIES to PULL him DOWN UNder"

The rationale here is, the metre begins to fall with the first two pairs of words. The falling rhythm initiates the drowning. But the sudden inclusion of "down" between "him" and "under" breaks this scheme. Putting two beats next to each order, this close, gives a sense of the heaviness of the body submerging. And this heaviness, this sudden tension in the falling down into the water, is compounded or underpinned by the alliteration of nasal sounds of m in him, the n in down and the n in under.

Lastly, I replace “skyscrapers lands" to “standing buildings”, to suggest that we the readers (or observers) are living in houses that still stand and are not blown away by bombs. I add  “glass” to show that our tears fall salty onto our tablets:

"We all watch from standing buildings, our tears brining our glass screens."


About the poet:

Leon Wing's poems can be found in The Malaysian Poetic Chronicles, Rambutan Literary and Haikuniverse. He has published a poetry collection, "Painting Sounds". He writes fiction, too. He has stories published in the Fixi anthology PJ Confidential, the inaugural issue of Queer Southeast Asia and a Canadian Asian literary magazine Ricepaper. His first novel, a gothic LGBT tale, “Becoming Ah Lan Toh” and its scifi sequel are up on Wattpad.

If your local bookstores do not stock "Little Basket 2017", go to these online stores:

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Blogger Unknown said...

Hi, Leong Wing. I have to praise you in your art of writing a comprehensive and beautiful piece here. I am currently writing a book review on the Little Basket 2017 for my subject, and this explanation helps me bit by bit in adding more values to review your poem. I hope to read more of your writings in the future.

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