Reviews / November 2012 (Issue 19)

Raiding the Inarticulate: The Poetry of Damon Chua, W. F. Lantry and Wong Phui Nam

by John Wall Barger

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Damon Chua, traveler's tale and other poems, Ethos Books, 2011. 92 pgs.
W. F. Lantry, The Language of Birds, Finishing Line Press, 2011. 29 pgs.
Wong Phui Nam, The Hidden Papyrus of Hen-taui, Ethos Books, 2012. 35 pgs.

In a good book of poems, craft is balanced by technique. Craft is the chosen structure, of individual poems and the book as a whole. This is the thing made: "poem," after all, comes from the Greek poein, "to make." We all know poetry that has flawless form but nevertheless lacks something. Technique, as Seamus Heaney points out, "involves not only a poet's way with words, his management of metre, rhythm and verbal texture; it involves also a definition of his stance towards life, a definition of his own reality. It involves the discovery of ways to go out of his normal cognitive bounds and raid the inarticulate." Technique not only makes—it divines.

Finding a poet who can "raid the inarticulate" is as rare as sighting a giant hoopoe in downtown Hong Kong. Damon Chua's collection, traveler's tale and other poems, draws from his itinerant life in Bristol, London, Stanford, New York and his hometown, Singapore. The craft of his book is leaky: sometimes vague, I-centred free verse, around a general theme of travel. His technique has flashes of brightness, which vanish as quickly as they come.

traveler's tale contains too many lyrical poems without clear reference points, wanting the necessary ballast of concrete images:

taking into the air
i left the land shimmering away
or was it the sea?
i'm unsure,
at least
it was
what it was ("going away")

Others are hallucinatory:

this dolphin in my
ocean knows no bounds
it rides the wave
it rides the night
i hear it calling

watered senses scoop the
land-bound vision
like hand sifting sand
and letting it stream
slowly, like time unreal ("dolphin")

Soft truths, without clarity of vision.

Although Chua's "I" voice intrudes too often, his voice can also be generous and open. His stronger poems use Singlish to ground the work in Singapore or contain specific details, as in "al-andalus vignettes" and "garden." He's also good at short, gestural lyrics, like "zairuddin":

there were some
awkward moments
about a ham sandwich
but all is forgotten
with a joke

during lunch
we repair to
the canteen, ordering
char siew fun

he sits further away

Chua is talented, but his book offers few rewards for the greedy poetry reader, who demands the results of a great struggle, who is determined to "go out of ... normal cognitive bounds."

The U.S. poet W.F. Lantry, in his slim book The Language of Birds, crafts a breathtaking structure, but like Chua his technique comes up short. Language revisits Farid Un-Din Attar's long 12th-century Persian epic poem, The Conference of Birds. "In poetry, the language of birds is imagined as a secret, perfect language, mystical, even divine," Lantry explains ("Postscript"). "The main character in [Attar's] poem is a colourful bird, the hoopoe ... I used to see them in my garden in Southern France." His first poem, "Gacela of the Garden," sets the stage for his tiny opera: "I labored to design / a garden for attracting every bird / within its boundary." The poet hides "near trellised vines" to watch, "for [he] hoped to learn their song // and understand the secrets of their wings." In each poem, a different bird arrives in the garden.

Language contains a few good poems ("Swan," "Crane"), and Lantry's herculean ambition is exhilarating, but these are not quite enjoyable verses to read. His rhythms are faint, hard to hold. Lantry wants to express "the current moving through his harmonies" ("Wren"), but his language strikes the ear as metrical, almost Victorian:

Along the tiled fountain wall, his song
almost obscured by water splashing leaves
and falling as a thousand burnished drops
onto the surface that reflects his wings ("Wallcreeper")

In considering the giant task Lantry set for himself—penning spectral tales of a soul's longing for spiritual completion in an unattainable tongue—it's worth asking, is there any poet on earth whose skill would be enough? He might have done well to pour his enviable energy into technique, not just craft. Lantry has created a mesmerising but unflyable machine, like Howard Hughes' monolithic plane, Spruce Goose.

The Hidden Papyrus of Hen-taui, by Malaysian poet Wong Phui Nam, employs both craft and technique to great effect. Craft-wise, Phui Nam presents us with a papyral document by an Egyptian priestess (both fictionalised, presumably), Hen-taui. The 32 sonnets are unrhymed, loosely structured. Technique-wise, Phui Nam incarnates the mythic mind of ancient Egypt.

Papyrus traces the curve of life itself: a single soul, nature and Egyptian culture. First is a god—Ra or Osiris—who presides in judgment: "in the gloom of a subterranean chamber / ... He sits unmoved" ("i"). Out of the brutal world—"the time of year when our fields / harden into beds of dry, scorpion-infested stone; / when sick palms claw blackened against a brilliant horizon / like spiders out of a time before we had pharaohs" ("iv")—a creature is born, "eased ... out of the closing gates of paradise" ("vii"), who grows into "a neophyte priestess from the provinces" ("x").

She is Hen-taui, our guide, whose wisdom can be summed up in two words: "certain mortality" (xxvi). She trusts in rebirth ("Old lives ended, / we were birds in in-between skies, into other lives"—)(xxi) but is sceptical of the pharaoh's glorious afterlife:

Coarse and venal men not many years hence
will break the seal of his immortality,
disturb that discovered darkness to lay hands
on saleable gods and goddesses, and golden artifacts (xi)

She, "still woman subject to tidal washes governed by the moon" (xix), falls in love and is happy for a time. "But," as always, "true winter intrudes" (xxiii). Hen-taui is relentless in her desire to keep her eyes open to the harsh facts of death:

I had not known that flesh which lies strewn as waste
when spirit unclothes itself could smell as vile
as jellied intestines flowing in bright pink coils
out of the bellies of dead strays sunning on the roads.
That was Nefer-hetepes near her end. Limp in her sheets,
on her patch of soft faeces, she gave herself over
to be savaged by mortality. How could I not turn away
my face, as I wiped the shine of sweat and urine
off her thighs? How could I not turn my nose away,
when I had my hand deep with damp rag inside her crotch?
But if I could not cup between my hands her unwashed head
and kiss her cheeks, whisper comfort in her ear,
I truly cannot love nor find life that is not shut in
like the coiled germ in rotting husks of corn. (xiv)

This is what "raiding the inarticulate" sounds like. Phui Nam takes us to the far edge of what we know, at the threshold between death and life. Dying, Hen-taui reenters a familiar glow: "Though I have about me still the odour of recent death, / I wait, in love, at this point of light, at this, my still centre" (xxxii). This still centre is "the burning eye of Ra" (xviii), the divine.

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