Parang cuts through the ten­sion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Michael Far­rell


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

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