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Feeling the meaning

We’re often not sure what a poet means, not even sure what a word we know well may mean in strange poem-context.

But here, L. Kiew uses words that are entirely remote to most English speakers, scattering them in a way that invites guessing, but not certainty. The context is often strongly emotive, so the words convey nuance of feeling, even where the dictionary definition isn’t known.

A number of strong women feature in these poems. I was particularly interested in ‘Afterlife’ and its central character Laomà (the letter ‘a’ in her name should have a diacritic curl under it, but I can’t get it on this keyboard), who had ‘refused again / and again to bind her feet’. It is implied that this is why she was forced to leave her home country, probably China.

‘Stubbornness’ leads her into the arms of ‘an old husband’ and life running a shop, and a large family (not all her own). She is ‘bò-eng till the very last day’.

What could bò-eng (I can’t reproduce the ‘e’ either — it should have a smiley line above it) mean? In context, it feels to me like ‘stubborn’ or ‘resolute’. She has what in Scotland is sometimes known as ‘smeddum’.

But her ‘Afterlife’ is not only her life in a new country; it is also life after death.

In the second section we learn that ‘To hold her hand is to hold iron’. Whatever ‘bo-eng’ could mean, it is in that iron hand. With the iron, she ‘forges a railroad from room to room’ — something extraordinarily sad: this woman trapped inside, who ‘makes pomelos flower.’ The pomelo, a citrus fruit of south-east Asia, bigger than a grapefruit — and she peels the segments to release fragrance.

Then, in the final stanza, she disappears. Each detail is emotive and symbolic — the back door, the yellow wall, the greyness of a wild rodent. The final word is not English. When I looked it up, Google went straight to Images: pictures of surging grasses. This is just what I had in mind: the emotions of the poem had already led me there:

When Niutão and Bhèming call,
she escapes under the back door
along the yellow wall, scurrying
grey and fast into the lalang —

Helena Nelson