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.
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 ‘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 —