‘Life happens’

LODESTAR - Danton Remoto - The Philippine Star

Life Happens is the second collection of poems by the prolific poet, Professor Malachi Edwin Vethamani of the University of Nottingham Malaysia campus. The book is divided into five parts: Family, Friends and Acquaintances, Companions, Lovers and Other Strangers, The Departed / The Living.

The poet is adept at writing poems that have concerns that are social, personal, and philosophical. “A Habitation of One’s Own” is composed of short, clipped lines, but it carries with it an epic sweep on Malaysian history and culture, better than longer stories could. At the end, you could feel that the father in the poem is not the literal father of the persona, but he has become Malaysia itself – multiracial and multicultural Malaysia, with its many-layered complexities borne by culture and history.

Likewise, the poet can swing from bald poetry of statements to poems of lyrical grace. There is a deceptive simplicity in the poem, ‘Slumber now, my son,’ which reads like a lullaby one would hum to put a child to sleep, but is in reality an RX for a son in frenetic, urbanizing Malaysia.

Professor Vethamani’s keen sense of history is also seen in the poem ‘New Arrivals,’ where the persona surveys the scene and telescopes on these arrivistes. ‘Now, you arrive/ over land and by air,/ fatigued and clueless./ A piece of paper/ in your hands/ holding hope and despair/ Like so many before you.’ Notice the twinning of hope and despair, which is at the heart of all exiles in a new land – despair at having to leave their old homeland, and hope of creating a new life, and a protean, reinvented self, in the new homeland.

The lyrical and private poems are also deceptively simple. Some of them deal with the poetic terrain found in the poems of A.E. Housman: the land of youth celebrating life, but looming behind is the face of decay and death. In the poem ‘Still you,’ Professor Vethamani writes about the beauty of youth suddenly gone to seed: ‘Now your/ locks are silvery,/ gait has less spring/ eyes a distant gaze.’ This is the same poetic terrain found in the Japanese haiku, which implies the sadness of beauty, because beauty does not last. Everything breaks as quickly as the ‘dewdrop world.’

There is also a delightful suite of poems that could very well be impishly titled ‘Suburbia, of thee I sing.’ Here, the poet writes about the tranquillity of life in the suburbs, far away from the noise and lunacy of the city.

But in suburbia, the land is golden and green, the flowers open themselves petal by petal to the sun, and there is a loyal and loving dog named Duke, who is slowly growing old, who mirrors the birth, growth and decay found in nature itself. The poet writes: ‘My heart yearns/ to linger outside/ having found its/ soul mates.’ The ‘cement walls’ of the house is like a prison in the quotidian life one endures in the blur of city life.

One feels the keen sense of longing sharp as a knife in the section called ‘Transient companions.’ This section deals with fractured relationships, fissures caused by sadness and longing. This terrain covers what the novelist Carson McCullers said of the heart being ‘a lonely hunter.’

In ‘Half-empty bed’, the following lines glisten like tears: ‘As I inhale/ your last night’s/ presence in/ our half-empty bed,/ I know/ tonight you will not/ sleep alone.’

The poet also uses the new forms of technology and social media to show the alienation between people, as well as the ironic gap between the quick communications in the Age of the Internet – and its lack of depth. In the poem ‘I will text you,’ the poet writes: ‘Let me text you/ words of love./ My tongue has hardened/ from disuse.’

The stasis in relationships in the poem ‘Time passes’ is shown by the bedroom clock that keeps on ticking, while the personal lies, seemingly paralysed, in bed. This all reminds me of the late writer Angela Carter, who in one essay described a clock as like the slow but deadly ticking of a bomb.

In the poem ‘Flighty flower’, the poet laments the quickness with which sexual relations can be established in this postmodern age, but they as quickly vanish. ‘The scent now gone/ no lingering fragrance/ no real harm.’

‘Love’s Lessons’ could well an anthem of those who have loved – and lost. It says: ‘I know how much to stretch the heart./ Like a taut rubber band/ it will only yield what it can/ then break with a painful snap’. You could almost hear the snap in this poem, which goes beyond the physical and becomes a primal scream.

Clever and cunning, on the other hand, is the poem ‘Misplaced’, which deserves to be quoted extensively: ‘I could not remember/ if you kissed me good-night./ And this morning/ I could not remember/ where I had placed my watch.// As you drove away/ I remembered you didn’t kiss me/ and found the watch/ placed in the wrong drawer.’ 

But Professor Vethamani happily shows he is not just navel-gazing, for his keen eye and sharp ear also sees and hears society’s contradictions. In ‘Happy Labour Day’, the persona sits at Harrods’ Cafe, sipping coffee slowly, while watching immigrant laborers hard at work under the harsh glare of the sun. And then the persona says: ‘My FB has been receiving/ Happy Labour Day messages./ I press LIKE/ as if it were International Cats’ Day.’

There is also gallows humour in the poem ‘Not a wake’, when a book launching is compared to a funeral wake. It also has impish insights on the emptiness of sex done without love.

The poem ‘Come to pass’, shows the poet’s philosophical turn of mind, when his musings are transformed into wings of words. Listen: ‘When I’m gone,/ the night will turn to day/ the bird will sing its song// When I’m gone/ the waves will return/ the moon grow full// When I’m gone/ my sorrow will cease/ my heart stilled’.

In the last part of the book, the soul selects his own society, with its Joycean pairing of ‘the living’ with ‘the departed’. These are beautiful and painful poems about the self, society and the soul. Verily they show Professor Vethamani at the height of his considerable powers as a poet – one of the best in contemporary Southeast Asian literature.

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