'Meeting the British,' Paul Muldoon
We met the British in the dead of winter.
The sky was lavender
and the snow lavender-blue.
I could hear, far below,
the sound of two streams coming together
(both were frozen over)
and, no less strange,
myself calling out in French
across that forest-
clearing. Neither General Jeffrey Amherst
nor Colonel Henry Bouquet
could stomach our willow-tobacco.
As for the unusual
scent when the Colonel shook out his hand-
kerchief: C’est la lavande,
une fleur mauve comme le ciel.
They gave us six fishhooks
and two blankets embroidered with smallpox.
Paul Muldoon (1951—) is an Irish poet, born near Portadown, Northern Ireland. He rose to fame alongside ‘the Belfast poets’ (which included Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley). From 1973-86 he was the arts produced for the BBC in Belfast, where he observed The Troubles at close distance, which informed two of his early collections of poetry, Why Brownlee Left and Quoof. His work is known for combining simple poetics with complex images and literary allusions. He is the current president of the British Poetry Society, as well as poetry editor for The New Yorker magazine.
'Meeting the British,' from Muldoon's collection of the same name, is a careful and precise poem that focuses on the role of language in colonialism. Muldoon's first poems were written in Irish Gaelic, but like many other Irish poets, later collections were written in English and as with most other Irish citizens, much of his day-to-day speaking occurs in English. As seen in Native American poets featured on this blog, they too write in English in order to reach a larger audience. In this way, parallels are drawn between the British colonialism of Ireland and America.
The poem recounts the infection of smallpox passed to members of the Ottawa tribe in 1763, at the end of the Pontiac war (although Amherst and Bouquet did not personally hand over the blankets, as in this imagined reconstruction).
Language takes a centrality from the start of the poem: ‘The sky was lavender / and the snow was lavender-blue’ draws our focus to the repetition of lavender and cues the reader in to pay close attention to the words in the poem. It appears again when Colonel Bouquet explains to the Ottawan (in French), ‘It is lavender, a flower purple as the sky.’ The unequal, couplet structure of the poem with its strange slant-rhymes also calls our attention to language in its careful unfolding of the story: for a reader not overly familiar with the war, we would not fully understand the narrative until the final line.
What occurs is a clash of cultures, and boundaries are everywhere in the poem, from the bleeding/reflective lavender-blue snow, to the ‘two streams coming together.’ The details of the scene are sparse but from the mention of Amherst and Bouquet it is suggested the two groups meet as equals to perform a ceremonial trade: of course, we know this is not the case. Using this dramatic irony Muldoon is able to make the case that language’s supposed neutrality can become a fierce weapon when great inequalities exist between opposing groups. This inequality is seen in the lines ‘across that forest-/clearing,’ which highlights the constructed nature of languages and culture, as well as foreshadowing the destruction which faces the land and the tribesman’s people. The British can’t ‘stomach’ the Ottawans but use charm and artificiality—in the lavender-scented handkerchief—to cover up their biological warfare.
The French the Ottawan already speaks sounds strange to him, something which doesn’t match supposed reality, such as the flowing frozen stream. How equally alienating it must be to also relate this in English, for both him and the Gaelic Muldoon. Despite the intense dread built up in this poem (also caused by the sparse lines and unequal rhythms of the rhyming lines), though, the poem overall is not necessarily defeatist: the speaker says the sky is lavender, which we discover is a word not known to him until after the meeting, suggesting the erasure his culture has suffered.
But perhaps it is because of this construction that is forced onto him he is able to see it’s artificiality and undermine it: the blurred lines of historical fact evident in the poem point to a way that language, and poetry, can be used to make history ‘living’ again. The war of the cultures has not been lost: a clear demarcation remains between the two groups, and the speaker is able to use language in shocking and surprising ways to force us to consider the horrors of colonialism beyond warfare atrocities.
'Years of the Modern,' Walt Whitman
Years of the modern! years of the unperform’d!
Your horizon rises—I see it parting away for more august dramas;
I see not America only—I see not only Liberty’s nation, but other nations preparing;
I see tremendous entrances and exits—I see new combinations—I see the solidarity of races;
I see that force advancing with irresistible power on the world’s stage;
(Have the old forces, the old wars, played their parts? are the acts suitable to them closed?)
I see Freedom, completely arm’d, and victorious, and very haughty, with Law on one side, and
Peace on the other,
A stupendous Trio, all issuing forth against the idea of caste;
—What historic denouements are these we so rapidly approach?
I see men marching and countermarching by swift millions;
I see the frontiers and boundaries of the old aristocracies broken;
I see the landmarks of European kings removed;
I see this day the People beginning their landmarks, (all others give way;)
—Never were such sharp questions ask’d as this day;
Never was average man, his soul, more energetic, more like a God;
Lo! how he urges and urges, leaving the masses no rest;
His daring foot is on land and sea everywhere—he colonizes the Pacific, the archipelagoes;
With the steam-ship, the electric telegraph, the newspaper, the wholesale engines of war,
With these, and the world-spreading factories, he interlinks all geography, all lands;
—What whispers are these, O lands, running ahead of you, passing under the seas?
Are all nations communing? is there going to be but one heart to the globe?
Is humanity forming, en-masse?—for lo! tyrants tremble, crowns grow dim;
The earth, restive, confronts a new era, perhaps a general divine war;
No one knows what will happen next—such portents fill the days and nights;
Years prophetical! the space ahead as I walk, as I vainly try to pierce it, is full of phantoms;
Unborn deeds, things soon to be, project their shapes around me;
This incredible rush and heat—this strange extatic fever of dreams,
O years! Your dreams, O year, how they penetrate through me! (I know not whether I sleep or wake!)
The perform’d America and Europe grow dim, retiring in shadow behind me,
The unperform’d, more gigantic than ever, advance, advance upon me.
Walt Whitman (1819—1892) was an American poet, essayist and journalist. He is regarded as one of the most influential American poets, and the father of free verse poetry; his merging of transcendental themes with social realism and a want to make his work as appealing to the public as possible led him to be loved publicly while retaining a strong influence over the works of future generations of poets.
I’ve feature Whitman on this blog not too long ago but I re-read this poem the other day for the first time in years and was restruck by it’s power. The typically Whitman long lines are truly used in full force here: grand, rolling lines like great waves which strike with great strength then spill their remainder over us: ‘With the steam-ship, the electric telegraph, the newspaper, the wholesale engines of war…’. Normally repetition is my least-favourite poetic device—too often I see it as stagnation or a mawkish attempt at grandeur—but Whitman really uses the repeated ‘I see’ and other refrains as a way of drumming up excitement and anticipation. It feels a lot like the repetitions are the speaker catching his breath (accentuated by the pattering of anapest rhythms ending each line) before wildly continuing, regaling with a desperate urgency his dream and hope for the future.
It’s only in the final lines that this restlessness ceases, as Whitman muses on his own mortality and the sense he will miss out on some of the grandest eras of humanity, but the fact we are only given a mere whisper of this despair adds to the poem’s power. By not overexplaining this side of the poem, it is given greater power because it so precisely contrasts with the excitement of the previous lines: the darkness is more vivid when juxtaposed with the brilliant light of Whitman’s humanism: ‘Never was average man, his soul, more energetic, more like a God.’
There are many great lines in this poem but it’s truly Whitman’s mastery of rhythm that is most prominent here, from the heavy thuds which end each section of the poem to the steadily climaxing hammering which reaches to a clamor in ‘Your dreams, O year, how they penetrate through me!’. It was a reminder to me that the simplest poetic devices can be what truly elevates a thought into a great poem.
'I hear the twang of the mid-string,' Empress Kōgyoku
Presented to the Emperor Jomei by a messenger, Hashibito Oyu, on the occasion of his hunting on the plain of Uchi.
I hear the twang of the mid-string
Of his royal birchwood bow,
Which my Sovereign, ruling in peace,
Loves to handle at break of day,
And fondly leans against with dusk.
Now he must be out for his morning hunt,
Now he must be out for his evening chase;
I hear the twang of the mid-string
Of his loved birchwood bow!
With horses drawn abreast
On the open waste of Uchi,
This morning he must be trampling
That grassy land!
Empress Kōgyoku (594—661) was the 35th and 37th monarch of Japan (briefly abdicating in favour of her brother before his assassination), ascending to the throne after the death of her husband and uncle, Emperor Jomei. She was the second of eight empress regents.
This poem is found in the first book of one of the most famous collections of traditional Japanese poetry, the Man’yōshū. Compiled sometime after 759 AD, it is one of the most important works in the study of Japanese literature, including some of the earliest examples of features which are now seen as quintessentially characteristic of both Japanese poetry, and Japanese language. The writing system used in the Man’yōshū, named after it as man’yōgana, is a prototype of modern Japanese kana, using modified Chinese characters to describe syllables of the emerging Japanese language.
Unlike many Western languages Japanese has little variety in the tone and stresses of particular syllables. So while the organisation of traditional Western poetry has focused on meter—the alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables—in Japanese poetry it has more typically revolved around the larger rhythms of syllabic verse: usually patterns of lines with five or seven on (slightly different to syllables in English). Traditionally it is also less concerned with metaphor than Western poetry, and those it does use are hard for readers not familiar with the tradition to spot. Japanese literature is more likely to use ‘pillow-words’; repeated phrases used in association with typical words which allude to a rich tradition of imagery.
We can see in this poem how these differences in the ‘tools’ of poetry are used to create a radically different poetics. The form is a chōka, a series of 5-7 couplets closing with a final line of 7 on. Each couplet presents us with a clear, brief image, which are used in juxtaposition to complement and contrast the other images of the poem. The ‘envoy’ is a secondary poem, which again is used to juxtapose the rest of the poem.
The contrasts in this poem are chiefly of time: ‘Loves to handle at break of day / And fondly leans against with dusk.’ We sense the poets obsession through the repetition but also the acknowledgement she has thought of her lover throughout the entire day. She can picture him so well that she can imagine the resonance of his favoured bow. In this case, ‘birchwood’ is a translation for one of those ‘pillow-words,’ azusa, which signifies good fortune as well as the imperial family. In this period, the shamanic and animalistic qualities associated with azusa might also signify the vibrancy which which she can see him.
It’s through these subtle contrasts that we can feel the intensity of Kōgyoku’s emotions more than a series of overly sentimental metaphors and similes. The envoy too, by being a far more active depiction of Jomei, contrasts to show the adoration that she feels for him. Typically emotions are shown in how the speaker reacts to the world around them, but in this example it is also seen in how it colours her imaginative depiction of her lover. A meditative contemplation, we can see through it an example of momentary obsessions in thoughts which overtake us all.
'An Ancient Gesture,' Edna St. Vincent Millay
I thought, as I wiped my eyes on the corner of my apron:
Penelope did this too.
And more than once: you can’t keep weaving all day
And undoing it all through the night;
Your arms get tired, and the back of your neck gets tight;
And along towards morning, when you think it will never be light,
And your husband has been gone, and you don’t know where, for years.
Suddenly you burst into tears;
There is simply nothing else to do.
And I thought, as I wiped my eyes on the corner of my apron:
This is an ancient gesture, authentic, antique,
In the very best tradition, classic, Greek;
Ulysses did this too.
But only as a gesture,—a gesture which implied
To the assembled throng that he was much too moved to speak.
He learned it from Penelope…
Penelope, who really cried.
Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892—1950) was an American poet, born in Maine, best known for her sonnets. While Millay was one of the most well-known poets in her lifetime, earning immense public popularity, critical appreciation of her poetry has varied wildly: she was the first woman poet to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1923, but fell out of critical favour with the emergence of the modernist poets such as T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, causing her work to be seen as rigid and outdated. In the 1990s, however, she was ‘rediscovered’ by feminist scholars who praised Millay’s strong independence voice, and many present scholars extol the subtle mesh of modern sensibilities with historic lyric poetry forms which can be found in her poems.
'An Ancient Gesture' was one of the last poems Millay wrote, first published in her posthumous collection Mine The Harvest. It uses the myth of Ulysses and Penelope to explore themes of grief and loneliness, among others. Penelope, Queen of Ithaca, while awaiting the return of her husband Ulysses from the Trojan War, had to put off the advances of multiple suitors in order to maintain her faithfulness. She did this by saying once she had woven a shroud for her father-in-law she would pick a new husband, but unpicked her work during the night so it would never be completed.
Millay connects this mythical figure with the modern day quickly and undramatically, stating simply, ‘Penelope did this too.’ We are not sure what the main character of the poem is doing, but from the mention of ‘apron’ we can surmise it has something to do with kitchen activities, placing her within the traditional domestic sphere of the woman.
Written after the death of Millay’s husband and focusing on the uncertainty Penelope experienced while waiting for Ulysses to return, we can guess the absence of the woman’s husband is prolonged, perhaps even permanent. But there is a stark lack of melodramatic language in the poem, which focuses on discrete concrete details: ‘Your arms get tired, and the back of your neck gets tight.’ It is described matter-of-factly, as if the woman is trying not to dwell on it: ‘I wiped my eyes on the corner of my apron,’ suggesting this is an unexpected and unwanted breakdown. The allusion to Penelope’s weaving is not only reflected in the shifting rhythm of the poems but also in the lines ‘you can’t keep weaving all day / and undoing it all through the night,’ which to me imply the woman’s attempts to push through the grief in mundane daily activities fail to stop her nighttime contemplations.
The allusions to Penelope are not just for the purposes of poetic analogies, however. Millay deliberately twists the myth of Ulysses, placing his wife as the primary character, and therefore highlighting the heroic qualities of Penelope’s grief and faithfulness. The woman’s grief is small and solitary, perhaps viewed as an annoyance, but by comparing it to Penelope it becomes the ‘ancient gesture’ of the title: suddenly gaining a long context, and in the illumination of history can be appreciated in a new light.
There is even the suggestion in the lines ‘Ulysses did this too / …He learned it from Penelope,’ that unlike the tears of Ulysses (who cried to manipulate the Phoenicians into granting his passage home) that tears of women are more ‘unique’: the authentic feminine gesture went unpraised while Ulysses’ appropriation granted him power. In this way Millay causes us to re-evaluate the more passive nature of Penelope’s heroism and not view the gesture of crying as a weakness or breakdown of proper composition, but instead an important aspect of the human condition which has lasted for millennia.
'Elegy For My Father, Who Is Not Dead,' Andrew Hudgins
One day I’ll lift the telephone
and be told my father’s dead. He’s ready.
In the sureness of his faith, he talks
about the world beyond this world
as though his reservations have
been made. I think he wants to go,
a little bit—a new desire
to travel building up, an itch
to see fresh worlds. Or older ones.
He thinks that when I follow him
he’ll wrap me in his arms and laugh,
the way he did when I arrived
on earth. I do not think he’s right.
He’s ready. I am not. I can’t
just say goodbye as cheerfully
as if he were embarking on a trip
to make my later trip go well.
I see myself on deck, convinced
his ship’s gone down, while he’s convinced
I’ll see him standing on the dock
and waving, shouting, Welcome back.
Andrew Hudgins (1951—) is a American poet currently living in Upper Arlington, Ohio, where he has a position at Ohio State University—one of the few poets to hold the position of Distinguished Professor of Research. Born in Texas, his father was a member of the U.S. Air Force and Hudgins moved frequently as a child before the family settled at the U.S. air base in Montgomery, Alabama. Much of Hudgins’ poetry reflects his love of Southern America and his strict Baptist upbringing.
'Elegy For My Father, Who Is Not Dead,' appeared in Hudgins' 1991 collection The Never-Ending. It plays on conventional elegies by mourning before death occurs—striking us with the confrontational title, before unfolding his rationale to the reader. We know from the outset father and son are somewhat separated: ‘One day I’ll lift the telephone / and be told my father’s dead.’ For whatever reason, Hudgins is sure he will not be with his father at his death, and will receive it as unceremonious albeit shocking news. As the poem continues, it is clear religious differences are at least one aspect of this separation.
While elegies typically have mourning as their most prominent emotion, here anxiety is most at the forefront. Hudgins’ conversational prose matched with impeccable control of meter gives the language a confessional tone, as if spoken to a therapist. The iambic tetrameter is slightly shorter than the pentameter typically used for meditative contemplations, and Hudgins repeatedly uses a structure of long flowing lines broken up by short sentences: ‘He thinks that when I follow him / he’ll wrap me in his arms and laugh, / the way he did when I arrived / on earth. I do not think he’s right. / He’s ready. I am not.’ There is a feeling of shortness of breath, while the unambiguous declarative statements suggest a resignation to the situation.
What are the roots of this angst? I believe that from the very subject matter it is obvious Hudgins’ cares for and will miss his father, and this is the immediate focus of the poem. But I also think the key lines are ‘I see myself on deck, convinced / his ship’s gone down, while he’s convinced /
I’ll see him standing on the dock.’ The repetition of ‘convinced’ shows the surety both father and son have in their beliefs, which are irreconcilable. But it is also significant that they are already on separate ‘ships.’
The differences in their beliefs in life after death cause anxiety for Hudgins as he feels he is watching a tragedy he is unable to intervene in, and that his father is oblivious to. He will miss his father after his death, yet also realizes their differences are so fundamental that they are already deeply separated. Hudgins’ father will say ‘Welcome back,' upon greeting him in heaven, pleased to see Hudgins return to the fold and family of Christianity, but the way they view death—and therefore life—might in the extreme even divide the two into two entirely disparate beings.
'Mmenson,' Edward Kamau Brathwaite
Summon now the kings of the forest,
horn of the elephant,
mournful call of the elephant;
summon the emirs, kings of the desert,
horses caparisoned, beaten gold bent,
archers and criers, porcupine arrows, bows bent;
recount now the gains and the losses:
Agades, Sokoto, El Hassan dead in his tent,
the silks and the brasses, the slow weary tent
of our journeys down slopes, dry river courses,
land of the lion, land of the leopard, elephant,
country; tall grasses, thick prickly herbs. Blow elephant
trumpet; summon the horses,
dead horses, our losses: the bent
slow bow of the Congo, the watering Niger…
Edward Kamau Brathwaite (1930—, often referred to as just Kamau Brathwaite) is a Barbadian poet, born in Bridgetown, who received his education at Cambridge and the University of Sussex. He is most well-known for his Passage trilogy of poetry books and his study of Black cultural life within the Caribbean and other African diasporas, as well as his scholarly and poetic works on creole language. He currently teaches Comparative Literature and New York University.
'Mmenson,' comes from his collection Masks, the middle part of his Passage trilogy, which largely deals with the slave trade and the recovery of African cultures in the New World. The title refers to a West African instrument made from the tusk of an elephant, closely associated with processions and inaugurations of kings and other officials.
Brathwaite uses this allusion to recall the majesty of classical African cultures, which throughout Masks he argues was not lost in the passage to the Americas but merely hidden through codes of ritual by the slaves of the colonial projects. Other allusions build up this atmosphere of past glory: emirs, caparisons, beaten gold.
However, it’s also created through his poetics: the most obvious feature is the repetition in the last two lines of the stanzas. Even though the linebreaks are used to stress and bring attention to the words, Brathwaite varies his line-length to prevent the repetition from becoming boring—instead creating a slow, hypnotizing cadence. There are also subtle uses of internal rhyme and assonance: ‘horn’ and ‘mournful,”horses’ and ‘losses,’ ‘dead’ and ‘tent.’
This stately, thudding cadence progresses us through the imagery of African landscapes and civilization, and through this evocative poem Brathwaite manages overall to suggest not distance but how readily this cultural memory can be recovered, as if it lies only beneath the surface, waiting to be freed.
'The Widow's Lament in Springtime,' William Carlos Williams
Sorrow is my own yard
where the new grass
flames as it has flamed
often before, but not
with the cold fire
that closes round me this year.
I lived with my husband.
The plum tree is white today
with masses of flowers.
Masses of flowers
load the cherry branches
and color some bushes
yellow and some red,
but the grief in my heart
is stronger than they,
for though they were my joy
formerly, today I notice them
and turn away forgetting.
Today my son told me
that in the meadows,
at the edge of the heavy woods
in the distance, he saw
trees of white flowers.
I feel that I would like
to go there
and fall into those flowers
and sink into the marsh near them.
William Carlos Williams (1883—1963) was an American poet and physician, born in Rutherford, New Jersey. Although closely associated with both the Imagist and Modernist movements his work is too idiosyncratic to fit neatly into either category, creating a modernist style that was far different from the intellectual elitism of T.S. Eliot, focusing intently on the prosody of the American language.
(Guest post by Rex Ybañez):
'The Widow’s Lament in Springtime' is a monologue. Williams was focusing on Imagism with Pound, which meant using clear language, writing in flowing free verse, and giving direct treatment to '[n]ot objects, but in things' (Spring and All; Paterson). So, with whatever Williams wrote prior to Spring and All, he gives you less fluff and tells you just enough for you to understand what he writes. For instance, the title itself tells you enough information. With this information, he does not reiterate anything about the title into the content of the poem, like beginning the poem with ‘I’m lamenting about my dead husband,’ for that’s simply redundant.
Since Imagism is a school reflecting the work of Chinese/Japanese poetry into English verse, it’s important to note the art of juxtaposition, especially with what the persona of the poem (the widow) says and sees, like the juxtapositions presented between Chinese couplets in Tang poetry. The first line begins:
Sorrow is my own yard…
Also note that certain words do repeat in the poem, like ‘years,’ ‘flowers,’ and ‘today.’ This is nothing special, but it helps ideas interlock with each other, enabling ‘leaps’ into the next image/sentence. From ‘this year,’ the persona then says, ‘Thirtyfive years / I lived with my husband… .’
The widow is an older woman, and because women married young during the early 1900s, it’s safe to put her in her early 40s-late 50s. It’s not known how the husband has passed. Since the poem was published three years after WWI, it’s plausible to assume the husband was a soldier in the war, but the publication date (1921) is the only context given.
Suddenly, a shift occurs when the persona declares that her plum tree is white with abundant blooming—this becomes the beginning of the first juxtaposition in the poem, where instead of merely going on with a description of the melancholy, the persona is reluctant, and returns to something that makes her happy; the cherry branches loaded with white flowers (whether the persona talks about cherry plums or makes another shift into cherry blossoms—not the same kind of plant).
The reason I personally make a connection to the shift of cherry blossoms is simply because of the Japanese symbolism revolving around cherry blossoms, for it is a symbol of mortality due to their transient nature—they bloom fast, and their petals leave their branches shortly upon blooming. The symbolism of cherry blossoms would be something Williams would like to flesh out in this poem, knowing that Imagism reflects Japanese verse.
Despite the way the branches are beautifully perceived by the persona, her mourning is ‘stronger than they / for though they were [her] joy / formerly, today [she] notice[s] them / and turn[s] away forgetting.’ The juxtaposition does end at this point, but the persona is surely not done with her fascinations, for the next sentence goes:
Today my son told me
that in the meadows… he saw
trees of white flowers
It’s not known if these trees are in fact cherry plums or cherry blossoms at this point, but it is because they are ‘white’ that she makes a correlation to them; she finds her peace in spring in ‘white flowers’ regardless, though the white melancholy she shows in her monologue desires this need to fall where the white flowers have fallen, expressing the ideation of suicide when she wants to ‘sink into the marsh near [those white flowers or those trees].’
Simple and rhythmic with flowing verse, the repetition of words concerning petals and time, and the juxtaposition between her grief and the fallen blossoms are all forced into that crucial last line, which makes the melancholy of the widow indeed ‘bloom.’
In respect to the saying ’Show; don’t tell,’ Williams does so through symbolism and imagery rather than utilizing the verbosity of a long narrative. Concise and clear, the reader is able to really feel the heaviness (like the weight of white flowers found those heavy woods) that the persona relays.
'Pantoun for Chinese Women,' Shirley Geok-lin Lim
At present, the phenomena of butchering, drowning
and leaving to die female infants have been
—The People’s Daily, Peking, March 3rd, 1983
They say a child with two mouths is no good.
In the slippery wet, a hollow space,
Smooth, gumming, echoing wide for food.
No wonder my man is not here at his place.
In the slippery wet, a hollow space,
A slit narrowly sheathed within its hood.
No wonder my man is not here at his place:
He is digging for the dragon jar of soot.
That slit narrowly sheathed within its hood!
His mother, squatting, coughs by the fire’s blaze
While he digs for the dragon jar of soot.
We had saved ashes for a hundred days.
His mother, squatting, coughs by the fire’s blaze.
The child kicks against me mewing like a flute.
We had saved ashes for a hundred days,
Knowing, if the time came, that we would.
The child kicks against me crying like a flute
Through its two weak mouths. His mother prays
Knowing when the time comes that we would,
For broken clay is never set in glaze.
Through her two weak mouths his mother prays.
She will not pluck the rooster nor serve its blood,
For broken clay is never set in glaze:
Women are made of river sand and wood.
She will not pluck the rooster nor serve its blood.
My husband frowns, pretending in his haste
Women are made of river sand and wood.
Milk soaks the bedding. I cannot bear the waste.
My husband frowns, pretending in his haste.
Oh, clean the girl, dress her in ashy soot!
Milk soaks our bedding, I cannot bear the waste.
They say a child with two mouths is no good.
Shirley Geok-lin Lim (1944—) is a Malaysian poet who has lived in America since 1969, after doing her pHD at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. She currently lectures at the University of California, and along with her poetry, fiction and memoirs does much research and criticism in Asian women’s poetry, particular in the ways it remained closeted and underground for many years.
The pantoun (or pantoum/pantun) is a Malaysian poetry form that originated in the 15th Century. Similar to the villanelle or triolet, it functions on a scheme of repeating lines: the second and fourth lines of each quatrain reappear as the first and third lines of the following stanza, until the last line of the final stanza repeats the first line of the poem (in some cases the third line of the first stanza will also be the second line of the final stanza).
'Pantoun for Chinese Women' recounts the tradition of infanticide of female newborns, with allusions to the method of suffocating the child with ashes that are collected in the last trimester. As the pantoun develops, subtle changes in language and context infuse lines with new meaning, and Lim utilizes this to encompass the entirety of the phenomenon.
The lines ‘The child kicks against me crying like a flute / through its two weak mouths…Through her two weak mouths his mother prays,’ for instance, show us the pervasion of the helplessness of women in Chinese society: both granddaughter and grandmother are powerless to change anything.
The objectification of women is shown in these details and two key metaphors. ‘Broken clay is never set in glaze’ says that women are born broken: there is no uses wasting energy on ‘fixing’ them; ‘Women are made of river sand and wood’ in its first reading suggests the malleability of women under the rigidity of tradition; in its repetition, suggests they are either fuel for the kiln or source of the ashes—in either case, nothing but a resource for the patriarchal Chinese society, and unwilling tools of their own oppression.
The poem never assigns blame and the speaker, the mother, has long accepted that this will come to pass: ‘We had saved ashes for a hundred days.’ This repeated detail, in fact, points to a tool of oppression whereby tradition and ritual are used to normalize the event, even as suppressed trauma rises to the surface. The cycling of the pantoun overall suggests a resignation to events, as the lines inevitably cycle round until we are left with the final fact: ‘a child with two mouths is no good.’
'Not Like a Cypress,' Yehuda Amichai
(trans. Chana Block & Stephen Mitchell)
Not like a cypress,
not at once, not all of me,
but like the grass, in thousands of cautious green exits,
to be hiding like many children
while one of them seeks.
And not like the single man,
like Saul, whom the multitude found
and made king.
But like the rain in many places
from many clouds, to be absorbed, to be drunk
by many mouths, to be breathed in
like the air all year long
and scattered like blossoming in springtime.
Not the sharp ring that wakes up
the doctor on call,
but with tapping, on many small windows
at side entrances, with many heartbeats.
And afterward the quiet exit, like smoke
without shofar-blasts, a statesman resigning,
children tired from play,
a stone as it almost stops rolling
down the steep hill, in the place
where the plain of great renunciation begins,
from which, like prayers that are answered,
dust rises in many myriads of grains.
Yehuda Amichai (1924—2000) was an Israeli poet. Born in Würzburg, Germany, his family emigrated under increasing Nazi oppression when Amichai was 11, moving to Jerusalem in 1936. During World War II he served in the British Army, and later fought for Israeli forces in the Israeli War of Independence, Sinai War and Yom Kippur War. An advocate of colloquial Hebrew, Amichai’s immense popularity led him to be considered ‘Israel’s National Poet.’ Much of Amichai’s poetry dealt with themes of war and death, and the tension between his Israeli identity and secular beliefs.
'Not Like a Cypress' is—from the title—a poem predicated on contrasts. Amichai's use of enjambment introduces and splits images line-by-line to make us take in his similes, and their implications, with careful consideration: 'Not like the sharp ring… / but with tapping, on many small windows.'
But what elevates the poem above a mere set of call-and-response images is the contrasts within lines as well. In ‘like the grass, in thousands of cautious green exits’ the word ‘thousands’ seems to be reassuring compared to the image of the single desert cypress, until the word ‘cautious’ suggest to us a foreboding threat.
There is also the layering of contrasts throughout the poem: death reappears in the ‘thousands of cautious green exits’; ‘ring that wakes up / the doctor’; ‘the quiet exit’; and the allusion to Saul’s reign and suicide, compared images of life in the ‘many children’; ‘rain…to be absorbed…and scattered like blossoming’; ‘many heartbeats’ and ‘prayers that are answered.’
There’s also the repeated contrast between single items and plurals, suggesting overall—like many postmodern poets—that the speaker ultimately feels a fragmentation of identity, one that struggles to be reconciled. We might try to consider, with the equal obsession on death and the vibrancy of life, this fragmentation stems from the many deaths and atrocity Amichai witness contrasted with his still-present optimism and love of life.
Death surrounds him, and this poem, but how might he overcome it? To be ‘not like a cypress’, ‘not like the single man, / like Saul,’ but instead to be the multitudes: to be small and humble, immersing himself in the rain of the world, the ‘many heartbeats’, the ‘myriads of grain’ that dust rises from—in the face of nihilism, slinking away in solitude cannot help, but embracing humanity can still provide us with meaning.