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An Unknown Kingdom

Joe Woods

The Burden of Being Burmese, by Ko Ko Thett, Zephyr Press, 104 pp, £9.84, ISBN: 978-1938890161

Ko Ko Thett is a widely known and important poet in both the Burmese world of poetry and literature and the Anglophone one. He co-edited and translated with James Byrne the seminal Bones will Crow anthology in 2012, which was largely responsible for introducing contemporary Burmese poetry to the English-speaking world and he is a prolific translator of poetry and literature.

His own publishing history has been erratic and understandably fractured. While attending the Rangoon Institute of Technology – the place he credits with him becoming both poeticised and politicised ‑ he published two uncensored chapbooks in samizdat. He left Burma in 1997 following a four-month detention for his role in the December 1996 student uprising in Rangoon and has since lived in Finland, Austria and now Louvain, Belgium where he is both a student and translator.

The Burden of Being Burmese is a rare case of a poetry book that’s been genuinely long awaited. Ko Ko Thett has been publishing poetry for almost twenty years now in many prestigious outlets, and the cover carries an endorsement from among others, the great experimentalist John Ashberry, who describes the book as being “brilliantly off-kilter” and a “probably reliable, guide to a virtually unknown kingdom”. This can only be interpreted as high praise from the high priest of American poetry and, in turn, a nod to Ko Ko Thett’s own modernist techniques; titles in lower case, list poems, inversions, ellipsis and an avoidance of the lyric voice but at the same time thoroughly engaging. The book is a kaleidoscopic journey through the mostly urban and rural landscapes that make up modern Burma; a road movie in which he observes with passionate indignation, eschewing sentimentality and invariably casting a cold eye. Take the opening stanza of “chaos clock”, a poem about Yangon where,

the city’s streets are ideal
for both trishaws and sports utility vehicles
motorcycles have been banned
but you can still tear around town in a helmet

Here the city is under surveillance by a poet who registers that “massage parlours are new age churches” and “where in the world can you enjoy a free funeral”? It is the city known to us but somehow refreshed when scrutinised in forensic detail. The poem closes with the line “since when did the strife end” ‑ a neat play on the “end of strife” English rendering of Rangoon.

The book is peppered with Burmese words and phrases, some already absorbed into English and many not (a glossary is provided) but the ease and fluency with which Ko Ko Thett flits between the two is indicative of his own process of writing: the poems originate in Burmese but are written down in English. He’s particularly well suited to making an impact on the international scene but deservedly so as Ko Ko Thett is a poet of great depth and range, capable of the anti lyrical “padauks in the bud anticipate the thingyan rain” to the “soilder-sock stench” of the durian fruit as he traverses Myanmar. There is humour too and poems like monosodium glutamate and encomium for mr. yew suggest great performance pieces. Performance is clearly not new to Ko Ko Thett, who appears at the end of the book as a serious young boy in a black and white photo, dramatically reciting at a state poetry competition in Pyay. A portrait of the artist as a young propagandist perhaps? His apprenticeship has been long in the making but is finally bearing great promise.

1/6/2015

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