Parang cuts through the tension
By Omar Musa Blast! Publishing, 70pp, $25
You Jump to Another Dream
By Yan Jun, translated by Glenn Stowell Vagabond Press, 112pp, $25 OMAR Musa’s Parang represents a contribution from several intersecting cultures: that of the Malaysian Australian (still in touch with Malaysia); that of gen Y; and that of the spokenword artist. As the Queanbeyan, NSW-based rapper and hip-hop artist acknowledges, most previous publications of these poems were in a spoken-word context.
But Parang is more than a product to be sold at gigs; Musa, son of an Australian journalist and a Malaysian poet, clearly has some investment in the printed page and in the ordering of his poems, in structures of reading.
The poems of the Parang (a Malaysian machete) section nicely balance a tension between jungle violence and the preservation of traditional culture. Locally, such poems may relate to those of Kevin Gilbert; in Blowpipe and the killing of The Old Rooster we are in interesting comparative territory: this is nothing like the pastoral violence of Philip Hodgins or John Kinsella.
We then shift to the wonderful — if somewhat awkwardly enjambed — comparative conceit of two babies, Muhammad and Muhammad, the narrator’s nephews. The poem concludes: ‘‘When Muhammad bends down/ to kiss Muhammad in the cot/ and sniff his forehead/ a wheel of fire turns in space.’’ A ring of fire might well turn in the space of Australian poetry also.
There is sympathy in these poems that stays just this side of self-regard. As the poems become more ambitious, with broader concerns, there is a corresponding broader stripe poetics.
Perhaps the video analogy of Sunyi with its pausing and fast forwarding works more dynamically in performance than on the page; the conceit doesn’t seem to particularly jell with that of the “Malay word for silence’’, though fits well enough with the melodrama of lines such as ‘‘heavy as terror and forever more’’. (The poem also contains the image of ‘‘cats pawing through trash/ with condensed milk on their noses’’.)
Homeland attempts to present both the “Second generationer’s’’ cliched image of that homeland and the truth behind that image. The moral drama and self-consciously grandiose diction (“Exile’s folly!’’) are supposed to be redeemed by the poem’s concluding image of ‘‘a woman wringing water from her hair,/ smiling’’. It’s not a load that ‘‘smiling’’ can take.
When Musa turns to issues he tends to reduce their complexity. Reading The Great Displaced as a poem doesn’t so much displace bad feeling as double it. It seems to have no object rather than to make its audience feel a displaced guilt, and reads more like a misplaced voiceover than a poem.
The Disappeared Ones, similarly, is not sentimental in the sense of emotional overreaching but it overreaches linguistically and, worse, seems to be more about the feelings of the narrator than its ostensible subject. The more co- medic My Generation is replete with pertaining to earlier generations.
Reading the later poems is a bit like reading Eminem’s often ludicrous lyrics, but without that rapper’s extreme uniqueness. The line ‘‘Numb/ I patted the heirloom diamond ring that I would never give you’’ may go unnoticed in a performance but is a bit silly on the page. These lines are written for nodders, but Musa’s best poems make Australian poetry strange.
Great poems and lines appear towards the end of Chinese poet Yan Jun’s You Jump to Another Dream, published in English translation by small Sydney press Vagabond. The poem titled April 1st, sunny and windy; we ate sesame cakes and salad for lunch is as good as anything in Yan’s (dominant) mode of phrases and spaces: ‘‘ We turned into whatever we ate/ turned into sheep peaches chicken’s feet … In the morning we ate the night in the south we ate
cliches compasses’’. It is dated 2010 at the end of the poem. From the 2011 poems there’s the line ‘‘I beckon the body’s bee colony’’ ( September 25th) and “Sugar-sweet nightclubs/ In the sea of radio waves the ocean’s corpse/ ripples night after night’’ ( November 18th).
There’s an insistence in this book on dates and chronology that does Yan no favours. I don’t want to begin my reading of a poet with the weaker early poems; nor do I want to read the year at the end of each poem. Though there are a range of poem endings in terms of their effect (roughly up, down and neutral), the feeling is made redundant by reading the year immediately afterwards. Perhaps Yan is attempting to say something about time or ageing (the book’s three epigraphs are given the collective title ‘‘Three analogies for the exhaustion of youth’’), but the effect on the page is fussiness.
The final poem from 2009 contradicts this trajectory. This Moment was ‘‘Written for the People’s Republic of China’s 60th Anniversary’’. It perhaps deromanticises the poem by placing the year of 2009 at the end, but this doesn’t seem to be the intention. ‘‘At this moment,’’ Yan writes, ‘‘China has no borders, no morning melodies … there’s no future, ignore the past, future hasn’t ever/ happened, past’s been swallowed … This moment is China without government … this is the time to drink amnesia, and spit out what was/ forgotten;/ Beijing changes shape this instant, possibility itself;/At this moment the party and the people have nurtured each other, so they are both organic; they have washed each other, hugged and cried in media art’’.
The power and originality of this poem falter in the final line, perhaps alluding to Coca-Cola’s 1990s slogan of ‘‘Always’’: ‘‘Instantly this space is joyful, Instant Cola, Coke goes bankrupt, we drink/ water we’re immortal’’.
The poem’s messages overall critique the page design, as they negate the temporal absolutely. As an introduction to Yan, You Jump to Another Dream perhaps offers too much; I suggest readers start from Section II and go back to Section I after reading to the end.
It’s only after knowing a poet that we become sympathetic to their earlier work; and it’s worth it for lines such as ‘‘You need to forgive me for messing you up/like a childhood obscured by snow’’ ( Tiger, It’s Real): an enactment of poiesis critiquing self-indulgence.
Michael Farrell is a poet and critic.
Omar Musa reduces the complexity of issues in his poetry