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Review: Bones Will Crow, ed. ko ko thett and James Byrne

Saradha Soobrayen, Poetry Review Vol. 102:4, Winter 2012

from the article Is Poetry The Real Mother Tongue?

The release of Bones Will Crow by Arc Publications coincides with the recent human rights developments in Burma. The mouths of poets have been and continue to be silenced. Poets and non-poets are imprisoned, tortured and made to disappear silently at the hands of oppressive regimes which are all too happy to utilise the power of poetic thought and rhetorical language to mobilise armies and justify crimes against humanity in Burma.

This is a highly-anticipated anthology of fifteen diverse Burmese poets spanning several generations, whose contribution to the continual fight against the suppression of democracy and free speech is even more necessary now. These poets are essential reading for the wider world for their historical perspective and experimental approaches to poetry and poetics.

The poet Zeyar Lynn was a featured poet as part of the Southbank Centre's recent Poetry Parnassus festival and is widely regarded as the most influential poet in Burma. His poetic practice has been informed by and reacted to the changing political struggles within Burma and around the world:

No tomb, no bone
Not even ash
I have not written my history
They have written it for me, those academics
They have written even my own death
Amid deaths and deader deaths

From My History is Not Mine

Like many of his contemporaries, Zeyar Lynn sought to create innovative poetries that traveled beyond the different movements that challenged the status quo and British colonialism. These movements included Khitpyaing, meaning contemporary or parallel with the times and Khitsan, testing the times. He is renowned for developing a Burmese poetics that is located in the head rather than the heart, in sync with the development of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetic forms and post-modern experimentalism.

The 'turn to language' by non-conformist writers provokes an uneasy dialogue with the once avant garde, now mainstream, modernist Khitpor writers whose poets are forced to face their own limitations and endorse the new generations of poets who continue to play a crucial part in the development of Burmese political and cultural life.

Ruth Padel's illuminating foreword highlights the role of Rangoon University and the Burmese student population that led the nationalist protest against the British in the nineteen twenties and more recently the fatal mass rally against the oppressive military regime in the nineteen eighties. Aung Cheimt's futuristic-looking poem 'You will read' is a reminder of the sacrifices made, and the need for the profound and the ordinary to once again coalesce:

In the future
things will be enigmatic and profound
exclamations will be used
onomatopoeia will be used
you will read

We read, take notes, study
we write.
We write, study, take notes,
we read
We read, take notes, study
we write.

The spirit of Buddhism resides at the core of the writing of later generations of poets such as ko ko thett, who speaks of the emptiness of tyranny in deceptively playful lines:

I am a chilli, you are a lime
other people are bitter gourds
the empire is overstretched
the emperor is overdressed
denizens wear nothing but the loin cloth
of law, it's no progression, it's a draw

This uncensored voice appears in another poem by ko ko thett, 'The burden of being Bama', which refers to the difficulty of being a member of the majority ethnic group in Burma:

what would you choose
want, rage or ignorance
defeatism or maldevelopment

Poems like these demand a response from the reader. There is no hiding or denying our call to respond to these poems in translation, which offer the opportunity to further understand ourselves in relation to another.

The poems of Bones Will Crow exist in their own right and should be treated with the same deference that we afford poets who are more familiar and less complex. The contradictory and imposing forces that shape Burmese poetry continue to create an evolving poetics that courageously redefines and reasserts itself, both internally and externally, to the wider literate world.

Saradha Soobrayen is a freelance poetry editor and coach, and is a trustee of Modern Poetry in Translation.