Locked in Translation: Burmese Poets and the Silence of Witness

By Jerome MurphyApril 16, 2014

Locked in Translation: Burmese Poets and the Silence of Witness

Bones Will Crow by ko ko thett and James Byrne


TO WALK SOME WHILE — even on the quietest road — with the companionable shoulder weight of Bones Will Crow, this sling bag of 15 modern poets from a country whose military regime scattered the bodies of Buddhist monks without batting an eye, is to hear translations of a tradition that is fluent in silence.

To walk this road to Mandalay is to recognize that its “wind in the palm trees,” as romanticized by Kipling in 1890, when Burma faced another 50 years of British colonial rule, is not in fact beckoning, “Come you back, you British soldier,” but has long been whispering in a dissident tongue meant to elude the soldier’s understanding. After England and Japan ceased a territorial tug-of-war and British occupation ended in 1948, the country fell into 15 years of internal conflict. This conflict ended with a military coup that sealed off the country under a socialist military dictatorship. This effectively created a locked door behind which all manner of abuse have taken place: ethnic genocides, human trafficking, uprisings crushed without mercy. The first firing on student protesters took place at Rangoon University in 1962. This reaction continued through the democratic uprising of 1988 and the “Saffron Revolution” led by Buddhist monks in 2007 (so named for the hue of monks’ robes).

Economic sanction is a language that loses very little in translation. While the U.N. and other entities have been fluent in speaking this language with Burma’s regime, various corporate interests have been happy to shake hands, passing currency to the country’s red-handed junta, which officially dissolved in 2011 but maintains its economic and political muscle. Kipling’s road to Mandalay is better known by Burma’s own citizens as “the road of no return.” Lately, it has been walked by state prisoners (at times literally in shackles).

The biographies of poets writing under such peril, accompanied in this anthology by black-and-white photographs, are poems themselves: “Thitsar Ni is a Buddhist with no spouse, no bank account and no master.” Many of them give an invigorating sense of artistry that is fibrously inextricable from the active, terrestrial life. The poets are children’s activists, like Moe Zaw, or war reporters and political prisoners, like Ma Ei. There are front men of dance troupes, like Maung Thein Zaw, and even quantity surveyors for construction companies, like Eaindra. Many employ pseudonyms. They have often been prisoners, like Tin Moe, exiles, or political detainees, like ko ko thett.

That Which Must Not Be Named — because your government will kill, exile, or imprison you for naming it — pervades the literature of Burma, where poetry is the prevailing literary mode. Writers here are adept at handling the unspeakable. The widening embrace of such postmodernist methods as Flarf and Ashberian rhetorical gestures (which in the West face accusations of evading the responsibilities of witness) has often reflected that urgency of witness implied by the very devices of narrative evasion.

In this context, one sees that when the poet Aung Cheimt writes, “I hear the ballad / Inside the flower,” it is not ancillary but compulsory that the same poet hears “traffic noises and the sound of hoes digging” as “ideologies drag their feet / Party conferences are here again.” He then watches as:

in the garden
a corpse dissolves,
still munching a pack of salted peanuts.

However involuntarily, this poet is always a member of the grubby “peanut-crunching crowd,” to use Plath’s phrase, of his political and socioeconomic milieu, even though he may sometimes feel raised above it by numinous spiritual insight. Aerial surveillance of time and experience is not granted to the artist at a lofty remove but after agonizing engagement with what Buddhism knows as dukkha — the travails of the body’s impermanence.

One wonders if there is a lesson here for Western tradition. Perhaps Blake, hearing “The Holy Word, / That walk'd among the ancient trees,” could not help but hear, in tandem, the “hapless soldier’s sigh.” Dukkha comprises corporeal suffering, the slings and arrows of earthly existence — birth, aging, and dying — and the dissatisfaction attendant to matter’s ultimate, shifting formlessness. A strange, soldierly stoicism, often with a jaunty undertone, settles into the work of poets finding parallels between experiences that spread across centuries — poets with a sense of ultimate impermanence.

A millennium’s influence of Buddhist mantra is evident in the cyclical, circular sense of refrain and in the panoramic view of even modern Burmese poets’ work. There is an increasing Western influence of the New York School and Language poetry. These techniques make a perfect marriage with the Burmese sense of upheaval and disruption that accompanies the nation’s internal conflict. The use of anaphora, for example, offers one such coupling. It is a gesture that points to a long-bottled, explosive need for open expression:

You can stay here as long as you want to
You can stay here as long as our ideologies are impervious


I fear being inhospitable and irresponsible
They are moving into our streets with removal vans
We begin to blow vuvuzelas
We blow our existential vuvuzelas, anxiety-toned


We resemble the multicolored flags
Painted on our cheeks, on our foreheads, inside our heads
Flags that will demast someday


On the finest football pitches
We blow and blow vuvuzelas


We are vuvuzelas […]

At times there is even the sense that life with all of its dukkha is a “Slideshow,” as in Zeyar Lynn’s poem of that title, which begins, “Life is back to normal,” before describing various stages of existence to illustrate “lives that have been barely alive and gone,” a progression that blurs into “Next slide / Next slide / Next slide.”

This sense of distance from experience may be the true key to the subversive playfulness that is so often on display in this collection. What might at first be characterized as the flippancy of the avant-garde Khit Por movement of the 1970s toward the staid formality of the Burmese rhyming tradition (and by extension, the stylistic decorum period) might in fact be seen as continuity. The poets’ sense of samsara, or karmic rebirth, gradually suggests to us that existence itself is a continuous tradition that is constantly subverted, and extended, by the permutations of sentience. In Eaindra’s “Pitch for a Playful Mind,” the observation that “In this life / I’ve become a woman, crisped / In her daily bath of ultraviolet” is characteristic of how notions of recurrence are funneled into an exquisite openness to those more immediate shocks to which flesh is heir. With its constant reconception, consciousness itself is the avant-garde.

The alloyed perspective on events past and present imbues much of the work with an eerie combination of topicality and timelessness. While referencing the martial sieges of various times and places, the nightmarish satire of Pandora’s “The Scene of the City Siege By the Daft” could easily be a news report torn from a dystopian zombie apocalypse:

the daft have been hunting and gathering  they have climbed up the Great Wall
rambunctiously they have shooed the Trojan Horse into the city


the daft syndrome has to be cut
down quickly or else one will be become daft  the daft virus is airborne the daft
symptoms are feverishness and words flowing out of all the nine holes of the body
in twenty-four hours the patient becomes absolutely daft


as the daft
population grows the non-daft have to pretend to be daft

[… ]

Surrealist imagery and narratives swirl in to fill the void left by a subjugation and a brutality that cannot be explicitly named. The atrocity of life under the junta is implied. There’s culturally charged significance to those “nine holes of the body” from which language flows like blood. Surely this is meant to evoke not only our own bodily orifices but also to skewer the supposedly auspicious nature of the number nine, which Prime Minister General Ne Win so took to heart that, in consultation with numerology, he had Burma’s currency reissued in 1987 in denominations divisible by nine — to the ruin of those who had their life savings in older denominations.

Which is more of a comedic nightmare then: Pandora’s poem or what took place in everyday life? Living under such a regime, one could only laugh or cry. In this collection, poets have found a way to do both at once, and in such a way as to undermine the authorities. A careless government censor might overlook political critique when it is slyly encoded in surrealist detail. Refusing to identify the army as such, “The Scene of the City Siege By the Daft” is a variously interpretable text whose certainties are that the daft are violent and oppressive. (They “have ordered an atom bomb from Einstein.”) By making the identifying distinction of this city’s invaders their mindlessness, the poet cobbles a boot that no authority would want to admit fits perfectly.

Bones Will Crow is often quite funny — even if in context, the jest “prove piercing earnest,” as Emily Dickinson once put it. The reader may smile, too, at the razor-flashes in the poems’ pitch-black humor:

what’s your key
majority in minor-c or minority in major-d
cease-fire in flat-b or cease-identity in sharp-g
give me a falsetto
let’s improvise
no need for harmony


“I can only do two things for them,” Wisława Szymborska writes of the plummeting human figures in a photograph from 9/11, “describe this flight / and not add a last line.”

It is a seductive but false conclusion that poetry of witness is more potent when less explicit. One could argue that such texts are singularly affecting when they are, in one definition, participatory — operating with an intimate sense of how the reader will fill conspicuous absences, or those created by indirect disclosure.

Szymborska’s ironic testimony is that the poet cannot avoid her last line. Here we have the writer’s paradox. To esteem the written word as our superior vehicle for inhabiting other selves is to keenly feel its inadequacies in the face of a shattering experience. “From the open mouth,” Joseph Brodsky writes, “gushes silence.” Strategic absences of articulation delineate the unspeakable.

American voices of poetic witness tend to be direct and bombastic, reflecting our entitlements of speech. But Richard Blanco’s inaugural poem, “One Today,” was most affecting in the moment when it mourned —

[…] the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever.

— limning not only an absence, but an absence of commensurate language. It is often by such means that, like the mystic who attains his transcendence through bodily subjection, language engages its own material constraints to transcend them.

In a striking case where absence is more audible than visible, Patricia Smith’s “34” from Blood Dazzler channels the voices of the drowned found in St. Rita’s Nursing Home in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Smith’s poem, in numbering these victims and giving them voice, demarcates an absence in our national narrative of those who are otherwise forgotten or unknown. The poem counts off the number of victims in fractured but vivid utterance, giving a sense of the impending disaster:


The walls are slithering with Bayou spit, tears, the badness that muddies rivers. We flail in that sin, alive and bended beneath a wretched Southern rain. We sip our breath from that filthy ocean. Only some things float.

But in readings, Smith will often start the count of one section (often 18, 19, or thereabouts) and follow it with a long silence, eliminating the text, before starting the next section. The audience, half-expecting this, half-shocked by it, freezes as the silence expands into the room, gaining the heft of what various listeners assume it suggests. Silence collaborates with the audience in writing its own story.

It’s oddly apt that post-9/11, Dickinson, for whom “wars are laid away in books,” and who concerned herself with the Civil War in only the most roundabout narrative sense, has become a touchstone for such postmodernist techniques as erasure. In Janet Holmes’s The Ms of M Y Kin (its title blotted from The Poems of Emily Dickinson), poem 1872.17 runs in its entirety: “I got my eye put out — / my Heart / split, / The Meadows / The Mountains / All Forests — / finite / The Motions of / Morning’s / news strike me dead —.” Many of Holmes’s erasures could lodge comfortably in Bones Will Crow.

Dickinson’s lightning-struck lines come “pre-erased” as Susan M. Schultz puts it, not only in their incredible rhetorical compression but also in their resistance to biographical reduction. Her utterances, however searing, are remarkably ambiguous. The poem from which Holmes erases asserts in its original version that

Before I got my eye put out
I liked as well to see —
As other creatures, that have Eyes
And know no other way —

One gathers that the speaker pines for an unidentified Other, for whose presence she would gladly trade her mystic vision for mere eyesight. But one never learns the specific identities of the players, or how and when the speaker got her eye “put out,” despite that phrase’s graphic suggestiveness. The speaker spends the remainder of the poem in dialogue with mountains, birds, and the “stintless stars” to make her case. Dickinson bares a soul, not a life. “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant — / Success in Circuit lies.”

It may be impossible to achieve the Great American Poem of Witness. Yet that poet will come close who plumbs national triumph and tragedy deeply enough to locate their resonance in the past and in the future. That poet must also be actively familiar with the spaces where the echo is more effective than the bomb. Toni Morrison’s Beloved has made a prominent claim to being the contemporary Great American Novel of Witness, not least because it contours the national psyche by concerning itself with remembrance rather than documentary. Beloved examines whether memory itself is the trauma. This is why critic Stephen Metcalf’s objection that the novel’s most traumatic sequences seem more oblique than explicit serves rather to highlight its sophistication than any deficiency. Obliqueness and absence, as imaginative strategies, occasion a mutual haunting between text and reader.

Similarly Sharon Olds’s “Q,” a brief, musing recollection of the speaker’s various encounters with that odd letter that lands squarely and devastatingly in its last line on the “Iraq dead,” is so effective precisely because of the elliptical path that it takes to reach its true subject. It gains further cogency in capturing the immediate through the zoom lens of history. (“No one was / quite sure where it had come from, but it had / travelled with the K, they were the two voiceless / velar Semitic consonants, they went / back to the desert, to caph and koph.”) Here we find again the long view. By situating the Iraq dead in the context of the English alphabet, Olds can suggest how profoundly, how permanently, the paradigm of American citizenship has been altered by this war.


A readership alert to the confinements of its own security may find it catalyzing for Bones Will Crow to land ashore at this hour when a particular strain of criticism (best exemplified by Mark Edmundson’s remarks in Harper’s) laments “[while] collective issues — communal issues, political issues — are pressing, our poets have become ever more private, idiosyncratic, and withdrawn.”

There is, of course, ample irony in the fact that, while Burma’s government begins to release long-held political detainees and to lift prohibitions on operating private newspapers, American vigilance is intensifying.

As Orwellian specters cast shadows over our dialogue on federal surveillance, Bones Will Crow instructs us on how poets have deployed our own oft-reviled modern and postmodern techniques to bear the most high-stakes witness possible. As a testimonial from that territory where trees whisper behind soldiers’ backs, where poets can pre-erase their work by baiting the censors with distractingly overt statements of protest, government surveillance has long been known as a life-and-death affair.

That Which Must Not Be Named is rather that which is too atmospheric, too inhalably pervasive, to contain by naming, paradoxically inviting acts of identification more explicit than those found in Bones Will Crow. Though Timothy Donnelly might also share a flowing ellipticality, a razorline playfulness with the Burmese poets, the voice of a work like The Cloud Corporation is self-implicating with respect to the sinister ubiquity of corporate control. There may be Ashberian turns of syntax and baroque rhetorical spirals, but the stakes of complicity and protest are unmistakable. The gravitas of the work is that it manages to bear witness to our privileged First World ennui.

In a larger sense, such voices attest that the most content among us may be deafest to the ballad in the flower, the holy word in ancient trees. A collection like Bones Will Crow admonishes readers to never become so familiar with prisons — physical, psychological, or economic — that they become permanent dwelling places.

Writers may face literal imprisonment, or march with protestors under gunfire, and attain the statues of heroes. But the travails of dukkha — the war against the entropy of our earthly existence — is one into which we have all been drafted. Amid the slings and arrows of everyday fortune, to achieve heroism of expression along a more quiet road, the writer must surely heed Aung Cheimt’s proposal that

Heroes are those who dare cling
To life’s ennui
With dissatisfaction.


Jerome Murphy received an MFA from New York University, where he currently acts as Program Administrator at The Creative Writing Program. His reviews have appeared in the column Outwords, which he authored for Next Magazine from 2010-2011, and in The Brooklyn Rail.

LARB Contributor

Jerome Murphy received an MFA from New York University, where he currently acts as Program Administrator at The Creative Writing Program. He assisted Diane Middlebrook in researching Her Husband: Hughes and Plath, a Marriage. His reviews have appeared in the column Outwords, which he authored for Next Magazine from 2010-2011, and in The Brooklyn Rail. You can read more critical writing at: http://www.brooklynrail.org/2012/02/books/answers-without-questions.


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