Aisyah Shah Idil, The Naming (Subbed In 2017)
Emily Crocker, Girls and Buoyant (Subbed In 2017)
Subbed In, described on its website as ‘a DIY literary organisation based in sydney’, organises poetry readings and other events, often in the East Sydney dress shop Funky Bruiser. Its directors, Dan Hogan, Stacey Teague and Rory Green, aim ‘to provide grassroots support for new and underrepresented voices as well as helping emerging writers to achieve publication or performance’.
In September they launched three chapbooks – the two I’m blogging about here and Parenthetical Bodies by Allison Gallagher, of which I haven’t bought a copy and haven’t read (sorry Allison!). I’m not sure what ‘DIY’ means in this context. Perhaps it’s just a way of proclaiming a hipster ethos. It certainly doesn’t mean slipshod or amateurish. These books are beautifully designed inside and out, and lovely to hold in the hand. The Subbed In logo manages to make an ibis perched on a garbage bin look elegant. (There is at least one typo – see below – but not as many as turn up in non-DIY poetry books.)
The Naming has an epigraph from the Qur’an – ‘And He taught Adam the names of all things’ – and its poems are rich with reference to Islamic practice, Malaysian folklore, and Arabic and Malay language. They are also rich with feeling and playfulness.
For example, ‘Malay Sketches’ consists of three one-page versions of the same poem. In the first, headed ‘Jiwa’, all the words have been blacked out as if redacted; in the second, ‘Malay’, about a quarter of the words are visible; in the third, ‘English’, nothing has been redacted.
At first, you might tentatively think the subject is censorship – that some things are not allowed to be said in Malaysia. But no. Of the first line, the English has ‘Bobbing heads circle platters of rice’, and only the Malay for heads (‘kepala’) and rice (‘nasi’) remain unredacted; later, only curry (‘kari’) survives from ‘Fingers covered in curry point to the sink’. Surely there’s nothing censorable in this, or in the sweet picture of family domestic life that follows. I read it as enacting the loss of language by a second generation migrant: the poem was composed in English, and the speaker’s attempt to translate into Malay was thwarted by her lack of knowledge. I’m pretty sure the details will yield nuances to readers fluent in both languages: for example, the last line in English, ‘We figure God has seen us in less’ becomes (I think) ‘God has seen us’ in the Malay .
Which raises the question of the completely redacted ‘Jiwa’ version. I guessed that this was a more local language, completely lost to the speaker. But a web search made that seem unlikely. ‘Jiwa’ means ‘a living soul’. Perhaps, then, the blacking out of this section is enacting the impossibility of speaking directly what is in one’s heart.
Then I found the place where the poem was first published, on the Language on the Move website (you can see the whole three-part poem at the link), and there the first version is headed ‘Jawi’ rather than ‘Jiwa’. A Wikipedia describes Jawi as ‘an Arabic alphabet for writing the Malay language … and several other languages in Southeast Asia’, it seems likely that ‘Jiwa’ is a typo, and that the blacking out signifies the speaker’s inability to read the Jawi alphabet.
For once, I’m not just irritated by a typo. This one took me into a deeper reading of the poem: it is about the loss of language, but the metaphorical force of the Jawi/Jiwa typo brings home what a terrible loss that is.
Not all the poems ask for so much research. It helps to know that ‘Pontianak’, about the grief and rage of women, is named for a female vampiric ghost in Malaysian folklore. ‘Laylatul-Qadr’ is named for one of the last days of Ramadan, called the Day of Power in English, but the poem, which celebrates the birth of a baby and laments the murders of Muslims and Muslim defenders, all in the context of Ramadan, works well without that knowledge. ‘Instances of Allahu Akbar’ expects you to recognise ‘Allahu Akbar’ as a common exclamation among Muslims asserting the greatness of God, and possibly offers a corrective to the assumption that it is exclusively or even primarily a war-cry. The first ‘instance’:
My mother, after
a long period of somnolence,
where getting up is only possible
through divine assistance.
And the last one:
a newborn sleeps.
The title of Girls and Buoyant says a lot. There are no boys in this book, and the girls are doing OK.
The opening line of ‘Smashed’ evokes the milieu of these poems, and the intelligence in them:
Avocado, I didn’t want to settle down anyway.
This is a voice from the generation that’s forever being reprimanded by millionaires and (mainly) conservative politicians. It’s speaking to people who recognise the reference to smashed avocado and it’s speaking with good humour, irony and its own confident point of view: slightly grungy, vegetarian, inner-city inflected.
There are so many lines I’d like to quote. From ‘Aoraki’:
I realise I’m waiting for a way to see the earth
not as a tourist.
From ‘Guyra’, a visiting-the-family-on-the-farm poem:
for both of us to see what I am made of
My brother loves good men.
Wins meat-raffles like a vegan.
_________________________________ Time does not pass
with the quiet awe of a monk. It bustles by,
blows us down, and grumbles when we don’t keep up.
It’s the love poems that hit home most for me. Like ‘Plate’, which begins:
‘Ceremony’ has a dirty taste
but for the way we eat.
The ritual of back and forth
of olives off your pizza.
The potatoes off my plate
when you give me too many
with all intention of
eating them yourself.
Or ‘Covers’, which my partner had to explain to me was about a partner with period pain rather than suicidal depression; or ‘Illawarra’ (roadside scenery seen when driving with a lover); or (spoiler alert, I guess), the ending of ‘Gaps’ , the last poem in the book:
You make me conscious of the void
and how blessedly we inhabit it.
The Naming and Girls and Buoyant are the twelfth and thirteenth books I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge.