Jane Wong

Mai Ei, one of the fifteen poets featured in Bones Will Crow: An Anthology of Burmese Poetry, writes in “A Letter for Lovers and Haters”: “I sow the seeds of dukkha/Until my bones fall apart.” These lines focus inwardly on the state of Burmese poetry today – as a deliberate act of ferocity, response, and necessity. Dukkha encompasses the Buddhist notion of anguish and discontent; sowing dukkha is the poet’s tireless work. In this stunning collection of contemporary Burmese poetry, bones fall apart and crow, rattling Myanmar from the inside, out.

Under the constant eye of censorship and surveillance, poetry flourishes in Burma, raising the stakes both lyrically and literally. Associated with the opposition to British colonial rule, the modernist phase of Burmese poetry known as khitsan emerged in the 1930s at Rangoon University – the site of numerous protests. Since then, poetry in Burma has retained its political and literary significance. The editors of Bones Will Crow, ko ko thett and James Byrne, note that their sample of fifteen poets is taken from a thousand active poets. As such, Bones Will Crow is only the beginning of publishing Burmese poets in translation. 

ko ko thett and James Byrne take on the difficult task of translating a language which plays with place-specific idioms and sound. As noted in the foreword, the Burmese language is full of monosyllables and tonalities, ideal for intricate rhyme structures. The translators in the anthology keep the sound as intact as possible, creating reverberations across languages. Yet, if any sound play is lost, this collection thankfully includes side-by-side translations with the original Burmese, as well as a glossary for Burmese terms such as dukkha.

The poets featured in this collection are aesthetically and formally diverse, yet all fifteen clearly articulate a sense of responsibility toward poetry and politics. As Myanmar has changed over the second half of the 20th century, these poems address alienation, exile, imprisonment, silence, history, and what language can accomplish. Yet, instead of expressing irony and apathy in alienation, these poets gather together in their marginalization. Together, they engage Burma’s complicated past, present, and future. Indeed, Maung Chaw Nwe calls poetry “a karmic disorder and a leprosy of retribution.” Diseased and uneasy, language reckons with the realities these poets face. 

For instance, disillusionment and disconnection wanders through Tin Moe’s long poem, “The Years We Didn’t See the Dawn:” 

I have passed through all this
Unheeding, as in a train
One passes stations by. 

One might think of Pound’s “In a Station at a Metro” here; yet, as a poet of exile, everything changes at the station. Rather than being in the center of “the apparition of these faces,” Tin Moe becomes the very train that moves through, faceless. Where there is the image of petals in Pound, we get the unnamable “all this.” Later, Tin Moe questions poetry in light of trauma:

And this time,
We are not poetry,
We are not human,
This is not life,
This is just so much wastepaper.

This last line engages a concern across the collection: what is the purpose of poetry? Indeed, many of these poems work as ars poeticas. Each poet has their own vision of poetry’s purpose, and Thitsar Ni sees poetry as a means to record, to say “this happened.” In his poem “Redundant Sentences,” which won a contemporary poem of the year award in Burma in 2004, he writes:

To turn skyscrapers into tombs
To turn the lights on when the sun sets
To wear a tikepon jacket
Civilized as we are.
We have learned not to learn from Darwin
To take a shower in the bathroom
To versify
Civilized as we are.

As one of the few women poets in the collection, Ma Ei’s poems stand out in particular. A propagandist, war reporter, rebel, and poet laureate, Ma Ei avoids definition. The calculated forcefulness of her language is laid out for all to see. As if sharpening her knife, she writes: “I’ve always been indiscreet,/Are all these things my faults?” Here, her words dare you to give her an answer. She continues:     

In this life I can do what I want,

Everyone will remain jealous
Even shrouded in my wounds
How many times one has to die.

In doing what she wants, she asks readers to become responsible for their actions. From “Catastrophic Rune”:

Rule in your own kingdoms, I do not crave
Your grapes, I go with the flow, I don’t know
My co-ordinates, I am the mother who doesn’t
Think about the day of her death – is that a mistake?

Ma Ei’s voice, full of “don’t”s and questions, cuts through and hones in on the very heart of the matter: the simultaneity of loss and immortality. At times, poet Khin Aun Aye also exhibits this sharpness of voice, writing: “I can knock your jaws off.”

Along with being responsive to the world around them, these poets take pleasure in experimenting with form. Indeed, Bones Will Crow offers a counter-narrative of Burma as an “exotic” land of pagodas; instead, we’re offered Facebook, postmodern ars poeticas, and what Thitsar Ni calls “anything-goes-ism.” The influence of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E movement and avant-garde poetic forms is clearly apparent.  As Moe Way writes: “The post-modern condition is not just Western, what’s happening here is also post-modern.” Poet Zeyar Lynn has translated postmodern poets such as Charles Bernstein into Burmese. Here, testing what “counts” as poetry is part of the poems themselves. Throughout, there are prose poems by Maung Yu Py, poems with space breaks, and poems reconfiguring traditional form. Throughout, form echoes content. From Zeyar Lynn’s “Slide Show”:

Life is back to normal
                    Next slide
In the West it’s a different story
                    Next slide
Shall we discuss the issue of the privileged
                    Next slide
Impossible, I have said it many times
                    Next slide

Of course, Bones Will Crow is only a starting point for publishing more Burmese poets in translation. Pandora, one of the younger poets in this collection, recently worked on an anthology of Burmese women poets. This work is particularly significant, considering women poets in Burma are often overlooked (indeed, there are only three women poets highlighted in Bones Will Crow). Community engagement is further apparent in the anthology, with each poet finding a means to advocate poetry. Moe Way runs The Eras, a leading poetry press in Rangoon that focuses on the publication of its modern writers. And Eaindra’s Aesthetic Light Foundation promotes the wellbeing of contemporary Burmese writers. Online forums and blogs have also provided Burmese poets opportunities to engage with new ideas, both inside and outside Myanmar.

After reading Bones Will Crow, we are reminded that poetry has power and influence, as a form of public and private protest. Poets will prevail! There is a force underneath these poems –an alertness to the past, present, and future. The concern is clear: what is to become of Burma, of poetry? These poems discuss and break traditions, reforming the word to say what must be said. In the same poem I began with, Ma Ei writes: “I wage wars for a world that is worth living in.” As a kind of ars poetica, poetry is her war in a world full of promise, not despite its past but because of its past. 

Jane Wong lives in Seattle, where she is a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of Washington. A former U.S. Fulbright Fellow, she holds an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa. Her poems have appeared in journals such as Mid-American Review, CutBank, Octopus, and in the anthologies Best New Poets 2012 and The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral.