Guest Review : Zoë Brigley on 'Language for a New Century'

A New Hybrid Muse

Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia and Beyond, ed. Tina Chang, Nathalie Handal and Ravi Shankar, New York and London: Norton, 2008. ISBN: 9780393332384. Pbk, 734pp.

Language for a New Century begins with a question about the meaning and value of poetry. Yet in this anthology, the question of value acquires all the more meaning, because the poetry comes out of postcolonial and diasporic settings. In their preface, the editors suggest that ‘Where the opportunities for fatal destruction, between people and between nations, are intensified, the same age-old questions still exist: What is the role of poetry? What can it do? Can poetry still matter?’. What this anthology offers is a poetry attuned to needs of particular cultures. It is a poetry that works for these needs, by reinventing form, syntax, the lyric mode and themes such as childhood, identity, politics, war, homeland, spirituality and the body.

The writers included originate from regions traditionally sidelined by the West: South Asia, East Asia, the Middle East and Central Asia; as well as other territories like Morocco and Sri Lanka, and the diaspora in Western countries. Some of these poets are well-known while others are relatively new, and the editors only include one poem by each poet, a strategy that aims for the highest possible inclusivity. To create an anthology that gathers these voices together is a remarkable achievement in itself. It is also admirable not simply because it points away from traditional poetic canons, but because it makes such great claims for the value of poetry as a tool for representing the identity and politics of postcolonial and diasporic subjects.

In 2004, Brent Hayes Edwards noted that postcolonial poetry had gained less attention than the short story or the novel and he suggested ‘The point is not that poetry is less prevalent or less important … but that it is less convenient’. The editors of Language for a New Century do not try to make the poetry presented into a convenient product. This can be seen in the structure of the book, which is not defined by an A-Z of poets, but by particular themes or issues. Take the section ‘Buffaloes under Dark Water’. The title is taken from Moniza Alvi’s ‘The Wedding’, a poem in which a bride describes an arranged marriage to a man and a country. Written out of Alvi’s connections with Pakistan, the poem is about encountering a strange or alien person/place that must soon become familiar, and Alvi describes how this dictates sacrifice for both parties who repress their thoughts ‘like buffaloes under dark water’. The editors explain in the preface that this phrase works as a section-title to represent ‘mysterious, shrounded, duende­-tinged luminescent bursts of lyric that resist the notion of taxonomy’. The approach to structure may not serve the researcher so well – what theme is ‘Earth of Drowned Gods’? can anyone guess what ‘Bowl of Air and Shivers’ means?! – but it does present the idea that concepts like home, war and spirituality are complicated, poetic and cannot be reduced to simple concepts.

But this is an anthology that never claimed to be simple in its outlook, and how could it be when it covers such a multitude of voices and outlooks? What is fascinating though is that many of these poets are Anglophone, though the anthology does contain some translations to English too. ‘Slips and Atmospherics’ is a particularly important section in relation to language, because it gathers together poems that ‘stretch[es] the cords of syntax, exploding normative lineation and familiar imageries to present an avant-garde sensibility’. This statement applies to a great many poems throughout the anthology, which feel refreshingly detached from traditional forms and from the kind of uncomplicated lyrics that sometimes dominate Western poetry. The poets writing in English are certainly deterritorializing the language and making it their own, forcing it to work for their own purposes and political needs. It seems to be what Jahan Ramazani in The Hybrid Muse describes as ‘a rich and vibrant poetry … issued from the hybridization of the English muse with the long resident muses of Africa, India, the Caribbean and other decolonizing territories’ – in this case the Middle East, Asia etc.

In Language for a New Century, poetry humanises the experiences of poets working in this hybrid muse, allowing them to maintain their cultural specificity, whilst also creating a seed of familiarity that flowers to understanding. Tina Chang sums this up in introducing the section on the lyric. ‘What is it that we seek to glean from poems but a shadow of our own human experience? When we subtract rationale, logic, even narrative consistency, we are led by the essence, feeling and raw energy of the song, the purity of a given moment.’ And this sympathy, of course, is desperately needed. The East is still a mythic place created by Orientalist discourse, as has been shown more recently by Judith Butler’s Precarious Life which considers how the suffering faces of subjects in the Middle East are not grieved and are even incomprehensible as lives in Western discourse.

This kind of perception unravels in poetry. When, in Saadi Youssef’s America, America’, the speaker challenges the soldier: ‘Why did you come to me from your Nevada desert, soldier armed to the teeth? / Why did you come all the way to distant Basra, where fish used to swim by our doorsteps?’. When Nadia Anjuman writes of ‘The Silenced’ finding a voice: ‘I am not that weak willow twisted by every breeze. / I am an Afghan girl and known to the whole world’. When Suji Kwock Kim writes of the peace in ‘The Korean Community Garden’: ‘All things lit by what they neighbour // but are not, each tint flaring without a human soul, / without human rage at their passing.’

Altogether the breadth of work in Language for a New Century is hardly broached by a short review like this one. It is a pioneering anthology that, for myself, is a roadmap to poetries that I have never encountered before and I find it both inspiring and heartening. Overall, I am inclined to agree with Carolyn Forché , who in her foreword to the book, laments poetry’s lack of meaning in Western culture but tells us to ‘take heart’: ‘We have entered a different epoch, and this anthology is, let us say, our guide and interpreter’.

Zoë Brigley