Review by Alfie Bown
Koko Thett and James Byrne (eds,), Bones Will Crow: An Anthology of Burmese Poetry (Northern Illinois University Press, 2013) pp. 266.
Last week, Burmese poet Koko Thett recited poetry in Hong Kong’s New Territories, having been invited to read at Hang Seng Management College as part of a Translation Studies research project.
I’ve taught poetry for many years, to university students and to school children. Throughout this time, I have remained deeply suspicious of it. Especially with contemporary poetry, where we are dealing with speaking in a form that has long since made contact with anyone other than the bourgeois, poetry seems to be at least somewhat self indulgent and pretentious.
These suspicious were confirmed by the other poets speaking on the night in question. These talented lyricists spoke of loss, grief and homelessness, evoking emotions across the room. But there remained, in each of their poetic recitals, a tone of nostalgia and a strange celebration of aesthetics (beautiful words, beautiful voices) which stuck me as unsettling and probably even ideologically dangerous. The work of translation departments seems to throw open questions of language and nature, in this case showing up what can be an uninterrogated belief that our words come from within us. In any case, at worst, these recitals conformed to expectations, rehearsing cliches about why poetry exists.
Against this backdrop appeared the lines of Koko Thett, a genuinely humorous man with a talent for how to use language and make it unsettling, confronting the listener with a string of philosophical problems and making them face straight up the problems of modern poetry and its nostalgia, as well as their own modern subjectivity and its anxieties. Thett’s lines, these from the poem ‘Anxiety Attack,’ include:
you will fill a museum
from your first baby cry to your last breath
dissection of your skin colour, or your sex life
should give them a surprise or two
This embodies his humour. At first reading, it is a joke about a sex life that will shock the repressed people of the future dissecting the body’s remains. This cleverly points to the fact that we wrongly (Foucault) imagine that everyone who lived before us had worse sex than our free and liberated modern selves. Secondly, if we read the lines back again, we see that this is in fact a joke about the dissection of skin colour: mocking the shock that people feel when their lineage turns out to be something other than the one they believed in. The joke asks us to interrogate what poetry in translation is about, warning against believing too doggedly in our apparently natural heritages.
Alfie Bown is an assistant professor of Literature in Hong Kong and co-editor of Everyday Analysis.