Michelle Cahill reviews “Language For a New Century”
Language For A New Century
Edited by Tina Chang, Nathalie Handal, Ravi Shankar
2008 WW Norton
reviewed by MICHELLE CAHILL
Language For a New Century, published last year by Norton, is a collection of poetry from Asia, and the Middle East. The book is a poetic odyssey, an answer to the nationalistic rhetoric that followed the destabilising events of 9/11. Compiling 400 poems by an equal number of poets writing in 40 languages, this book marks a six year collaboration between three American poets: Tina Chang, Ravi Shankar and Nathalie Handal. All three poets have experienced some form of exile, or crisis, in their attempt to interpolate an Eastern and Western identity. Their definition of the East is broad and inclusive enough to include the ruptures of diasporas, as well as other gaps such as the often-neglected poetry of Central Asia. Their categories are fluid and unstable, crossing the boundaries of religion and state, thereby encompassing countries like Sudan or Tunisia, which are classified as both Asian and African. Undeniably, the process of selection has been mired by challenges and problematic constructs, such as the balance of representation or indeed the notion of identity, which becomes framed in a particular way. The decision to publish a single poem by each of the poets is well intentioned and egalitarian. While this broadens the scope of the collection, to some extent it limits the depth to which a reader may engage with an individual poet’s work.
Nonetheless this is a bold and visionary anthology with an inspired title. The collection is an excellent resource and a generous contribution to contemporary transnationalist literature. Well-indexed and annotated, arranged thematically, rather than geographically, each section of the book is introduced by a personal response from one of the three editors, taking the form of a ficto-critical essay. I found these essays compensated for the anthology’s scope and density, which at times feels encyclopaedic. I enjoyed the extended metaphors and the commentaries provided. “Parsed into Colours” describes Handal’s first collisions with racism. She recalls an incident during a childhood spent in the Caribbean, when she was asked by a Caucasian neighbour why she was playing with three Haitian girls. Ravi Shankar’s essay “This House, My Bones” brings into lucid focus the cultural hyphenation experienced by the poet on returning to suburban America after a year spent in Madras, where he was taken to be blessed by a Hindu priest and have his head shaved and covered in sandalwood paste.
I returned nearly bald, to Virginia in the middle of the school year. I had been a rare specimen in India, marvelled at for being American, and coming back I thought some modicum of magic would remain with me..…Those were unsettled times because I was both literally and metaphorically between homes. (381)
Carolyn Forché, in her foreword, describes how the arrangement of the poems follows “nine realms of human experience”. There are obvious thematic classifications such as childhood, home, identity, exile and war. But the anthology includes poems which are equally inspired by, or evoke an understanding of mystery, spirituality, sexuality and love. One is struck, as ever, by poems about childhood, replete with vital perceptions and vivid images suggestive of those early encounters with language and otherness. Joseph O. Legaspi’s “Ode to My Mother’s Hair” is a lyric disclosure in which the mother’s hair is metonymic of protection, nourishment, absorbing the domestic scents of “milkfish, garlic, goat;”. The hair becomes an embodiment of nature. Fragile memories and emotions are evoked, balanced by a lyrical composure, suggesting the poet’s trust.
And in this river
my mother’s wet, swirling hair
of monsoon seasons
when our house,
besieged by wind and water
teetered and threatened to split open,
exposing the diorama
of our barely protected lives (11)
Here, as in many of the poems in this collection, the traumas of poverty, difference and migration cross a threshold into a space transformed.
Pak Chaesam’s haunting poem “The Road Back”, renders the mother as a central, if tireless figure, returning home to her sleeping children, after working all day. Within the domestic context, she is identified with nature’s elemental beauty.
Noone to see, no one
to comprehend when she unties
the starlight she carries back on her forehead,
and shakes loose the moonlight
that clings to her sleeves. (20)
If the mother is a grounding figure in exile’s economically harsh terrain, she is also depicted as being anti-patriarchal, sometimes subversive. Childhood marks out a space of nostalgia, of heightened pleasure or play, a space of inspiration and dreams. It’s a space soon to be challenged by the different forms of political or sexual oppression which many of these poets confront. This is a book of silenced, unspeakable and unattended narratives.
I was disturbed by the brutality of R. Cheran’s “I Could Forget All This” (204), translated from Tamil by Lakshmi Holmstrom. It depicts convincingly detailed images of atrocities committed in the genocide war against Tamils: “a fragment of a sari/that escaped burning”, “a thigh-bone protruding/from an upturned, burnt-out car.” Within the same section, “Earth of Drowned Gods”, I was struck by the starkness of the poem “White Lie” written by the Lebanese poet Abbas Beydoun and translated from the Arabic by Fady Joudah.
The truth is also blood.
And it might be a piece of tongue
or something severed from us.
We might find it in semen
or in dust if these two things
are not simply appearances (215)
The poem challenges the notion of narrations, nations and language, relying on symbolism to convey states of oppression. The role of translation is a crucial to a trans-cultural anthology, since it constitutes an inter-cultural dialogue. Through the filter of a translator, the poems take on a similar but not exactly identical shape, metonymic of difference and hybridity. There is an element of trust one places in the translator’s understanding of the text and the context in which the poem is written. A reader enters into this process, at the finishing stages as a receptor of cultural dialogue. Translations enable the reader to more fully appreciate the complexity of identity, place and culture. Far from being passive, the reader breathes life into the diverse range of these texts. Reading becomes an act of intimacy – we follow the poet’s voice as it travels across languages, cultures, landscapes and memories. One of the impressive collaborations of this anthology is the generous inclusion and careful selection of translations.
While there are poems aplenty by established or illustrious poets such as Mahmoud Darwish, Nissim Ezekiel or Vénus Khoury-Ghata, it becomes a political implement that we discover many astonishing voices scarcely known in the West, as well as those censored within their own country. Nadia Anjuman, a young Afghani poet, was killed by her husband, at the age of twenty-five, for writing against the oppression of Afghani women. Her poignant poem, “The Silenced” (230) reverberates with intensity.
I have no desire for talking, my tongue is tied up.
Now that I am abhorred by my time, do I sing or not?
Inwardly disposed, many of these writers find moments of liberation from the suffering in exile or alienation. The section titled, “Bowl of Air and Shivers”, attests to this spiritual and philosophical vision. The Tibetan poet Woeser, whose poem is translated from Tibetan by d dalton, juxtaposes the political and the divine, as a way of recording resistance.
But here, in the Tibet that is daily ascending
daylight nurtured by the gods’ ether
the devils’ fumes also arrive (494)
True to the range of styles and forms found in this anthology, there are more ironic engagements with the divine. Vishwanatha Satyanarayana’s “Song of Krishna” personifies the god as a spoiled lover, undisciplined, announcing himself inconveniently to the speaker, while she is bathing: Debjani Chatterjee’s whimsical poem “Swanning In” depicts the Hindu goddess of the arts, Saraswati as a gracious if “unexpected guest”. “Even in Fortress Britain,” the poet recognises a pervading presence in absence, an aporia, reminiscent of home, of Heaven, or “a neighbourhood in India.” In “Cycle” the Nepalese poet, Bimal Nibha, compares a humble and ordinary object with the self. The lost bicycle with all its imperfections becomes the vehicle of the poet’s body: his “weight”, his “measure” and “breath”. These poems illustrate how restraint, humour, or the supple use of metaphor can construct specificity and culturally-encoded meanings.
The achievement of Language For A New Century is literary, ethical and political. The collection provides moments of cultural dialogue: selection, commentary and memoir. It invites us to enter the margins of literature where oblivion and oppression are being resisted. As a reference book, it embraces diversity. It responds to humanity as a sweeping caravan of sentient beings who share their journey through tribulations, luminosity, irony and joy. Sometimes this syncretism fails to clarify subtle differences for the reader. The essays, at times, embody an excess of rhetoric, but overall, this is a significant and compelling anthology, which offers new and vital perspectives. Language For a New Century addresses the inherent imbalance in a canon that has, for too long, privileged the West.