More than once someone has remarked to me that everyone in Burma is a poet. The last to do so was Petr Lom, the director of Burma Storybook as we walked down 40th street in Yangon. Poetry is often claimed to be the most popular form of expression. Poets in Myanmar themselves are careful to point out the distinction between poetry and writing, that they are not in fact writers, but poets; much in the same way that the inheritors of ethnic traditions in Myanmar see literature as being separate from their culture.
Many of the internationally recognised ‘writers’ from Myanmar tend to be poets, Tin Moe, Zeyar Lynn, Khin Aung Aye, Maung Day among them. Fortunately, poetry chapbooks are also frequently translated into English, perhaps due to their length, and, in the past, the ephemeral nature of poetry allowing broader risks to be taken during the censorship era.
Seeing as how the Monsoon will be returning to Myanmar in the next few weeks it seemed appropriate to start the first of the poetry reviews with San Oo’s Rainy Season Setting, translated by Nyunt Wai Moe.
It begins with ‘Monsoon’ a prologue of sorts that hints of things to come:
‘So pretending to be a storm,
To make the sea tempestuous
Provoke it again and again’
San Oo’s provocation is to liken a door open a jar, only to be closed again and again. A sense of place is evident everywhere, the same door perhaps in the same house. In Setting ‘a painted flat house and blooms of flowers without roots’. In Split Night ‘Strong winds came into the house, doors screamed noisily.’ Only in In an Evening’s Sketches, does he venture outside. Here we find prose cut, reimagined but still leading back to where we came:
A boat at the edge of the bank,
He headed back and trudged,
To his house that
Looked like a castle.
In his way, San Oo shows his reader the tempestuous sea, ascending and descending rhythms that push and pull. At first a slow, meandering ride it escalates. The subtleness of San Oo’s voice shifts, from civility to a harshness unexpected. In Venom, the vitriol of the title spews forth without check:
Get blackened and rotten,
With what they robbed and swallowed
They got stinking.
Foul smell filled
But then it is gone, once again softening, guiding us over the crest of the final wave and ending with a ‘Gift’
The fireflies were happy in the river.
The mist fulfilled the river.
Soft strumming of the guitar
At this moon-lit dawn
As much for himself as for his reader, San Oo’s gift is appreciated. Throughout, the senses are lulled by a cadence brought on repetitious cycles, yet, Nyunt Wai Moe’s impressive translation, never falters never bores. The Rainy Season Setting is to be read in a single sitting, to do otherwise would be to disrupt the voyage.
Seikku Cho Cho will feature regularly in these reviews. Owned by Than Swe, SCC have for years been at the front of the houses publishing works in translation, both Burmese to English and English to Burmese. SKK rises above the others due to the variety of works they choose, ranging from autobiographies, to dramas to short story anthologies to poetry. This publication is no different from the others in maintaining the standard that Than Swe and SKK have become known for. Despite its publication over a decade ago (and during the censor era), the paper is of the best quality available during those years, thick, tinged, with no tellmarks of degradation or curling. The fly leaf, as required by the Ministry of Information, contains the 3 national causes and 16 objectives of the Junta in Burmese and English. There are no illustrations, which is unusual for a book on Burmese poetry. The book is slim, as expected, at just over 70 pages, where the bi-lingual verses rest easy next to each other.
The Book Matter:
Title: The Rainy Season Setting
Author: San Oo
Translator: Nyunt Wai Moe
Publisher: Seikku Cho Cho
Pub Date: 1st Edition 1996/2nd Edition 2006
Circulation: 500 Copies
Cost: 700 MMK