The Unquiet, Lisa Kiew
Offord Road Books, 2018
The first lines of the first poem ‘Swallow’ in L. Kiew’s The Unquiet leave the reader in no doubt that ‘Grammars gather on powerlines’ and that language is a risky business.
It indicates the tussle which continues throughout the pamphlet, where the lines between comprehension and confusion blur with cool precision, as in ‘Cryptography’ where
understanding comes sometimes
and only sometimes clear
Equally plain is the way that attempt at fluency in two or more cultures leads to inarticulacy, or perhaps para-articulacy in all:
When I took my Scots partner home
speaking proper English he asked
‘Honey, di’ye ken ye jest switched
[‘Learning to be mixi’]
That the questioner himself speaks Scots adds another layer of linguistic complexity. This while highlighting that the poet has blended her own vocabularies to the extent she finds her face licked with ‘dialect like a blush’.
Geographical clues to ease the reader’s own disorientation are sparse. In ‘The Catch’ we are in a land of storm-smashed papayas where catfish brought home from market bring a kind of shame on a house. In ‘Dinner’, we are in Tesco.
All the time, the poems hover tantalizingly between broken (and superbly articulated) English and words rendered into the familiar Roman alphabet from another language. The mixture is alluringly, almost intoxicatingly, questionable.
When ‘Hokkien’ is named in ‘Foreign Language Syndrome’ — I fled with relief to the internet to find this is a dialect of southern Min Chinese, also spoken in Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, and the Philippines. It perhaps illustrates my increasing disquiet that I didn’t assume this is the second language interspersed throughout.
What is certain is that the directly accessible descriptions are often terse and vital (‘I resented you / as an ox resents mire’ in ‘The boy I wasn’t’), and at other times simply beautiful (‘My dress is red shantung; / its last occupant is / heartbroken and tugging / on my hem’ in ‘Haunts’). But the mixture of languages remains unsettling.
Sometimes, this has the effect of keeping the poem at arms’ length. While understanding that the shifting boundaries of articulacy invite me to one understanding of the poet’s own experience, they also shut me out, discomforted. But that is probably the point.
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