The thing about reading a poetry anthology like Malchin Testament is that you get the book out of curiosity, a love for poetry, or to support local writers. You then dive into its pages to find pleasant – and unpleasant – surprises awaiting you.
To the reader, the joy of reading such an anthology is rooted in the search, page by page, for works that resound meaningfully. To stand the test of time, the collection should be able to serve as an archive.
Malchin Testament: Malaysian Poems, edited by Prof Malachi Edwin Vethamani and published earlier this year by Maya Press, features the works of 57 established and emerging poets ranging from veterans of the local literary scene like Shirley Geok-Lin Lim and Muhammad Haji Salleh, to contemporary poets such as Sheena Baharudin, Melizarani T. Selva and Jamal Raslan.
The anthology’s title is taken from a poem by Salleh Ben Joned, a piece attributed to “Engmalchin”, a movement started by local writers in the 1950s to create a new language informed by the languages of Malaysia’s main ethnic groups that did not take off.
This collection aims to document how Malaysians are utilising the English language in poetry. It emphasises the importance of claiming Malaysian English, along with its multifaceted variations, as ours. All poems in this collection are in English, with some a bit “rojak” and a few written in full colloquialism – a delightful defence against the tyranny of “proper” English.
“We true Malaysians, you no,
we pree people, you no: pree
to make english not english
but our very own, you see.”
– from “Malchin Testament” by Salleh Ben Joned.
Poetry transcends the prosaic in many ways. It allows space for the momentous parts of the human experience to be set into language. It gives those difficult memories a chance at being articulated through imagery, rhythm, and metaphor, shifting language from mere words on paper into a tool to feel with, to tell stories and remember with – documenting personal and public histories, a protest against forgetting.
“As now more and more distant,
bitterness, recrimination day by day subside,
ashes on flower, leaf and shoot
in the sparse valley of a memory.”
– from “Kuala Lumpur, May 1969” by Ee Tiang Hong.
In contemporary Malaysia, poetry is an art form whose function is easily misunderstood or ignored. This betrays the country’s rich poetic past, where stories set to rhyme and verse were carried orally from one generation to the next. This anthology provides a fair example of the many ways poetry, now, allows Malaysians space for self-expression and social commentary.
The pastoral, celebrative of human’s return to nature for recalibration, features predominantly in this anthology. Perhaps this is one way Malaysians are claiming their poetic language – in the face of rapid development or stressful current events, the meditative quality of being immersed in nature provides space for reflection and empathy.
“In a world of barren sun an
earth-coloured insect leaps over sand,
betraying a universe not seen.”
– from “Limestone Cave” by Catalina Rembuyan.
Unsurprisingly, poetry about food makes its way in here too. For many, food plays a foundational role in building connections within a community – it has such positive connotations in the hearts of many Malaysians, and these poems reflect that.
“You shy in a season
when durian reigns king
your deep purple surface
in bunches unsung,
each juicy white segment
curved neatly to shape
sits waiting for mouths to suck
flesh from the seed.”
– from “Mangosteen Crumble’”by Charlene Rajendran.
Peppered throughout are also poems that act like vessels for catharsis for a poet’s difficult memories. The articulation and sharing of personal experiences inform and enrich our larger collective memory, linking the private to the universal, and the personal to the political.
“I will embrace you in
this symphony of many bloods”
– from “Forgiveness” by Bernice Chauly.
The absence of poet’s biographies anywhere in the book compromises the anthology’s strength as an archive. It takes away context from poems and poets – with six decades of literature pressed into the space of one book, this missing link could not only have helped new readers in getting to know poets they have never heard of before, but also to form an understanding about the worlds of older and contemporary poetry.
This context could potentially have helped in justifying why certain poems were included and some not – what does inclusivity, in the space of this book, entail? Does the aim for diversity justify the inclusion of poetry with problematic or irrelevant rhetorics? How does this affect wider representation within local creative scenes?
Malchin Testament is an ambitious collection, and there are elements missing from it. In the parched landscape of locally-published poetry, though, this collection plays an important role in introducing the diverse possibilities of poetry to Malaysians – readers and writers alike. Here, finally, is a collection that brings together the established and emerging into one space.
Malchin Testament: Malaysian Poems
Editor: Malachi Edwin Vethamani
Publisher: Maya Press, poetry