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

D.M. de Silva, Poetry Salzburg Review, Spring 2013

... The poems do, of course, preserve a Burmese quality even in the English. Specifically Burmese and Buddhist concepts recur and there is a fair sprinkling throughout the volume of transliterations of characteristic words from Burmese and the canonical language of Buddhism, Pail. The country's political and social predicament, resulting from years of repressive and absolute rule, is reflected in the preoccupations of the poets and the responses, it occasions, of satire, nostalgic regret, and, in one way or another, rigorous self-assertion.

Nevertheless, the cosmopolitan claim is justified. One certainly has no sense reading this poems of an alien and exotic tradition of verse. From the work of the earliest poet included, Tin Moe (born 1933), to that of the youngest, Maung Yu Py (born 1981), we have a poetry which can be understood: even, it would appear, understands itself: in terms of a western poetic, a poetry that moves from modernism to post-modernism. Western cultural references: Shakespeare, Modigliani, the Beatles: abound; and when the translator gives us lines like For whom the bells tolls how plentiful is the dhamma (p85) of Dying ain't much of a living! / The lady is a crank (p87), one has the sense of a seamless collaboration of translator and translated. The verse and assurance of the writing is immense and it says something about the quality of the translation that it comes through with such immediacy.

High among the post-modernist credentials of these poets is the use, in the wide sense of the term, of parataxis. They pile up motifs, details of perception, structures of repetition, relying for effect on design and the pressure of accumulated detail...

In the finely contrived poems of ko ko thett (which are actually not translations at all but poems written in English by a Burmese gentleman with translations into Burmese added as it were to preserve the decorum of the format), images and figments of images crowd together, suggesting equally the fullness of what has been experienced and a permanence of possibilities which contradicts any notion of irretrievable loss. Ma Ei, one of the older poets of the volume (born 1948), begins one of her poems with the injunction Don't you dare touch Maung Chaw New (p85) and goes on for nine lines using the same formula, varying only the name of the person not to be touched, the names being all of fellow-poets, most of whom are also represented in the anthology. The object or addressee of the warning is, presumably, the political rather than the literary establishment. The effect is both minatory and incantatory, indicative of a vatic persona, an angry prophetess, behind the lines; an effect which is reinforced in the sonorities in which the poem continues:

Rule in your own kingdom. I do not crave
Your grapes. I go with the flow, I don't know
My own co-ordinated, I am the mother who doesn't
Think about the day of her death[.]

Speaking formally or generically, one might describe the great number of these poems (dispensing with the invidious suggestion) as harangues; which is to say, their tone is that of the public address: they speak to the reader, to the powers-that-be, to a person or persons unknown. They speak loud and clear and are, in their patterns of repetition, insistent. In fine, they will not be silenced. In a country ruled by dictators they affirm not merely the right but the obligation to speak. It is not that the volume lacks the private meditative note; but the poems are predominantly public in their focus. The national predicament is openly alluded to in the poems of Tin Moe and Thitsar Ni; it is obliquely but not less obviously the preoccupation of Pandora in her repetitively structured The siege of the City by the Daft (p239). Nor do the poems have to have a palpable subject of occasion; they express vigorously a voice, a stance, a defiant sense of life. And the gallery of personalities they rpesent is impressive: from redoubtable Ma Ei to the Byronically extravagant Maung Chaw New, to the restrained and ironic Aung Cheimt who, at the start of his poem Aung Cheimt Goes to the Cinema, asserts with a sort of stoic dash Heroes are those who dare cling / To life's dissatisfactions / With ennui to end self-deprecatingly:

On a rooftop
Under the moon
My soul sits like an aristocrat
While my body rests
In a dimly lit corner.