Free verse on a variety of subjects, often from a uniquely patriarchal point of view.
Malaysian poet Bhanu’s debut is an intense journey of maturation, tracing its narrators’ energies as they expand from an obsessively romanticized eroticism to broader, more outwardly directed concerns, such as environmental sustainability, patriotism and universal justice. Progressive readers may cringe, however, as the narrators repeatedly mystify and objectify female sexuality, seemingly without regard to the gender politics at play. The poems may suffer from poor cultural translation, but whether these are valid portrayals of Malaysian cultural attitudes or not, a Western audience may have a difficult time not seeing them as antiquated and offensive. Of a wedding night, for example, one voyeuristic narrator says, “The nuptial apparel drops. / The rays falling on her bare bosom / cast a shadow. / The age-old treasure / is looted under pressure.” Another describes his beloved as “my fair seraph” and as an “ornament / of the East and West,” while a third lauds the reviving power of female virginity: “Your flawless purity / of the white lilies, / balmed my morbid heart-break.” Naturally, imbuing women’s pure bodies with supernatural power means that love, for men, becomes a series of painful trials: “Her unusual silence / gelatinized my nerves / and minced me / into a ball of flesh, / lifeless, sinless / yet bleeding / with arterial blood.” It is, frankly, a relief when the poems move on to other topics; even then, however, patronizing attitudes prevail. In a poem about the use of caning as a punishment, a narrator proclaims, “Errant boys are made of tougher stuff” but protests that “Errant girls tiptoeing into classrooms / in their pony-tails and school uniforms, / in their Cinderella and Snow White images / should not be caned.” Nor are the gender politics the only difficulty here; despite the collection’s unwavering usage of short, two-to-four-beat, enjambed lines, the poems often prove difficult to digest thanks to an accumulation of ponderous Latinate verbiage—“The black kernel / of your ruthless machination / maims the succulence / of our amorous intercom”—and an immoderate sprinkling of alliteration: “My native land is divinely devoid / of devilish volcanic eruptions, / devastating hellish hurricanes / and devious earthquakes.”
An earnest but often uncomfortable collection of poems.