Sean Wai Keung reviews Cynthia Miller & Khairani Barokka

Two new collections from Nine Arches Press: Cynthia Miller’s striking Honorifics and the strident Ultimatum Orangutan by Khairani Barokka.

Whether it’s an occupation, as in ‘Dr’, a rank, as in “Cpt” or a symbol of social status, as in ‘Sir’, an honorific serves as an attempt at definition, or at least of conveying expected, or assumed, definition. All it takes is a few small letters in front of a name to tell a story about that person, even if that story is built only upon custom and tradition. It’s therefore a fitting and wonderful title for Honorifics, by Cynthia Miller, a collection which explores definitions, especially as they relate to concepts including memory, nostalgia and heritage. Miller uses the poems in the collection as a chance to question expectations of love, home and time, just to name a few. “There is no good reason / at present for this / anticipatory grief” she writes in Portmeirion, a poem which begins with an epigraph from Carlo Rovelli, the Italian physicist famous for his studies of time. Yet, grief does play a role in many of the poems, as Miller explores language’s inability to fully explicate the wholeness of a person or concept. Sayang / Sayang, for instance, uses the form of dictionary entries to imbue words includingwaste” and “pity”with personal memory, food and history. There is no specific word in English for, meanwhile, challenges the notion of translation by describing the untranslatable nature of certain words in Hokkien. Then there is also Bloom, a series of poems which use jellyfish and their hard-to-define, somewhat-animal-and-somewhat-plant qualities to challenge perceptions on identity, migration and consumer structures.

Throughout Bloom, jellyfish are variously described as reverberations, radio waves and distance accordions; and also as domesticated beings, to be sent into space and sliced into salad bowls as humans desire; and also as powerful, unstoppable, self-protecting living things that can and will poison anyone who dares get too close. These poems could very easily be overdone, especially with some of the more in-your-face metaphor of pieces like [spineless menace] (“Only the best and brightest jellyfish are allowed in our waters, the government announced…”), but through variation in form, tightness of language, and splashes of humour, Miller manages to keep each page and poem filled with unexpected treasures.

“I hope you never feel unsafe in your own body

                                                of water

                                    night is dark enough as it is”

                                                                                                            – [cassandra]

Oceanic imagery permeates many of the other poems in Honorifics too, and provides a through-line between topics as broad as space, in Proxima B, and memories, in Scheherezade In The Care Home. Another highlight is Homecoming, a poem after Hala Alyan, a brilliant and touching series of alternate histories which explore some of the questions common to second and third generation migrants – what if things before me had been slightly different? Each of the sub-sections in Homecoming starts with a central premise, “In this version, you never”, “In this version, you leave” and “in this version, you never leave”, before spiralling outwards. This poetry of possibility, of fulfilled and unfulfilled potentiality, makes for an exciting, twisting and caring collection.

Khairani Barokka’s Ultimatum Orangutan is similarly concerned with intersections of understanding, especially as it relates to the relationship between global society and apocalypses. In i. natural history museum, we see fossilised victims of previous extinction events placed directly in relation with the concept of museums as tourist destinations: “visitors to kensington allowed to fly home / upon quiet capture by gift shops and cctv”. It’s gloriously unsubtle while also setting the tone for further poems that place nature in direct contrast with technology. The title poem, for instance, includes references to King Kong movies and Donkey Kong videogames alongside the use of orangutan imagery within anti-palm oil campaigns and Gauguin paintings, as well as the effects of colonisation on local people and places, all to create a withering criticism of global media’s relationship with the natural world.

The way Barokka manoeuvres between languages also adds to the sense of urgency. Indonesian is often used, as are English portmanteau, as in “I understand visualchimp language” in Ultimatum Orangutan and “screamwaves thrilling through rattling cans” in on lying down, apocalyptic. Meanwhile, other poems make great use of single-word repetition. The unrelenting repeated refrain of “melt” in situation report and “the same” in So Many Accidents is heartbreaking, and once again interrogate the separation between text and reality. No matter how many times we may hear or read about climate change, it still doesn’t stop the real-life fact that the ice caps are melting. No matter how many museums we may go to, it doesn’t change the urgency of our own impending apocalypse.

Despite this frustration, however, Ultimatum Orangutan is not a collection of despair. Poems like My mother calls me Srikandi and latifah explore the strength of inter-generational womanhood, while others, like Poem (With Panic Affirmations) and abcedarian for other alphabets, use their form as a means to celebrate linguistic expression, while also admitting its limitations.






                                                                                    – Poem (With Panic Affirmations)

There is also an ever-shifting musicality to the poems, even at their most apocalyptic. The four Terjaga poems serve as a journey through different aspects of colonialism, including slavery and genocide, with the phrase “(aren’t we) / tired of being told to…” forming a repeated motif. Much of these poems are lists of clauses which jump between descriptions of horror, working together to form a cacophony which blurs language and syntax, a death metal where each individual part combines with its siblings to create emotional resonance. The way each of the four Terjaga poems is split throughout the collection then creates points of high tempo action, balancing some of the more subtle and orchestral flourishes in the rest of the poems, such as in mediterranean lyric:too much foot / is in liquid, human / can’t be mer- / population”. Together, these poems form a concept album which challenges expected definitions of ecopoetry while managing to maintain high emotion throughout.

Sean Wai Keung is a writer and performance-maker based in Glasgow. His pamphlet, you are mistaken, won the Rialto Open Pamphlet Compeition 2016 and his first full-length title, sikfan glaschu, will be published by Verve Poetry Press in April 2021.

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