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Monday 5 January 2009

The Book of Sins by Bernice Chauly

January 5, 2009

by Suzan Abrams

in Dublin


Malaysia: This 80-page poetry & prose collection titled The Book of Sins, gallantly shaped after the eight imposing transgressions of Pride, Greed, Wrath, War, Gluttony, Love, Betrayal and Lust and later pursued by the charitable studies of Contemplation and Virtues; written by Malaysian writer Bernice Chauly and published by MulutMata, mirrored sharp disappointment for me as a literary reader.

I daresay that if I constantly thrived on children's fiction or the likes of Archer and Meg Cabot which would have symbolised a merciless but suitable immersion in simplified vocabulary, then I would have stayed silent with nary a whisper; duly satisfied.

But I'm a realist; a serious reader of thinking books bearing exquisite prose - evident surely from this blog alone - and there is no diplomatic way around it.

Several of the poems, partly inspired by the naturally industrious and otherwise talented Chauly and her bruised scenes of tragic encounters, endeavoured towards the combined unholy stirrings of cleverness and dishevellement. The poet appears to have emerged with a slight panic in an eager mission to divulge specific enlightening disclosures that mask despondent emotions. In noble attempts to portray a monumental injustice, some of the results go awry.

Although wonderful in parts, the raw sins stay cheerless, if not ready to instill boredom after the odd heavy sigh over repeated lamentations. Where the verses may have mastered resurrection with which to command an overcast bleakness and famously measured prowress to bully a reader into disturbing conclusions; the collection proved slightly sub-standard fare and did not manage to essay any kind of remarkable introspection.

First of all, the slight shock in viewing Chauly's second poetry collection firsthand, that cruelly betrayed the cover shot's initial good looks on the web.

The book turned out to be of colourless production quality and suggested a fair first impression. I didn't expect this sort publication still evident in 2008. The mediocre appearance looked anything but polished; an instantly obvious flaw when compared at first glance against the better produced books that lined the same shelf in the store. My last memory of a similar discovery was from the rows of Reading, Arithmetic and Comprehension textbooks in a few rather dusty stationery shops in downtown Dar-es-Salam in East Africa last June.

The competition for presentation is so tough in Europe - and has been for the last few years - , that every self-published book on a store shelf reflects corresponding regal features as those produced by mainstream publishers. A presentation that represents the author's integrity is after all, everything. A first book is a major accomplishment and an important step to recognition and so too, the books that follow this. No one in Europe these days is foolish enough to publish poorly. To be considered for display, a book has to pass the stringent standards for booksellers in the UK and Ireland. I'm not sure if expectations are lower in Kuala Lumpur.

The clever cover design exhibits a bloodshot red resting nicely against a faint grey and white. But a light shade will always probe evil doings for any budget cover and is telling of the cover's sins. In this case, it is easy enough to picture an invisible cutting blade that may have prised over the rectangular cardboard even if this wasn't so.

Also, the tall scrawled words and italics don't sit well on the stark white once the pages are flipped about. I feel as if I'm perusing black ink scribbled into an exercise book and that is the absurd truth of it.

At best, I would term The Book of Sins a chapbook and not a book. There is a world of difference. As a chapbook it works. As a book it may not.

At first, my sympathies lay in the beautiful poetry whose personality I felt had been locked into the amateur pages. But on reading the book twice just to be sure, this soon changed.

I didn't feel in many parts that I was reading poetry at all although the verses hinted of no other format. I wondered if many of the poems didn't work better as performance poetry...the kind of stories you read out to the public or rather shout out expressively. You shout to make an impact. You shout to create a noise and raise awareness. Then a sound lack of enigmatic allure doesn't matter. In a boisterous or enraptured audience, amid clamorous applause, thanks to the oral flow of verses, the sublime beauty of a poem happily goes unnoticed. It would be the wit of the message that suffices.

In this collection, many of the works I believe work better behind the microphone rather than as creative words that support meditation. Otherwise, some of the poems may well signify a flifelessness.

In a number of them like Pride, Heat, Haze, the rambling I am Her and especially What Happened After Sylvia Died, the joys of a ravishing start to each poem were reduced by weak endings.. These endings read as straight liners from an ordinary script. It was as if after some enchanting seduction, the poet suddenly discovered the need to shout a declaration in prose. This spelt total disarray. For me as the reader, the biq question was if I was stumbling on to prose or poetry and once that puzzlement singled out confusion, the poem was instantly ruined.

Some years ago, when my own poetry appeared in Rupert Loydell's Stride magazine in England, I was warned by Loydell against the futility of throaway lines....single liners that hung at the end of the poem to make some kind of an impact, when in fact, they could have done just as well being clustered together into the poem as a whole.

I was reminded of these looking at Chauly's work and of how Loydell may have frowned long and hard. Words like the sudden tell-tale rejoinders of Funny Mamak Men in Contemplation, Freedom in I am Her and Mother in What Happened After Sylvia Died robs the reader of a sense of expectation...of delving into any cryptic clues that would befit the particular poem or receive a gratifying sense of mystery. The reader is spoonfed by Chauly. Solutions and conclusions are rendered in black and white. Nothing is left to the imagination and so too, the death of excitement predicted.

I was also slightly irritated in being forced to mull over repeated words to a particular poem, especially in Love. A stylised recapitulation that failed to draw me as a reader into any dark night with the exception of inspecting if Chauly's vocabulary could have succumbed to limitations. And these type of repetitive words like flash cards, peppered many other lines in the book and exhibited a flourishing misadventure. As a result, I felt pained by my task as a reader.

Many of the stories in the grandiose themes have been heard before. Injustices especially those that feature the oppression of women need to be expanded on and to serve a distinct identity and not just as another stale story. Many appear to be utterances, wailings and lamentations but since the lines appear as straight prose, it is very hard to rest on these disclosures as poetry even if that's what they're meant to represent.

Also, there was a slight bit of wrong tensing about the place. In the sadistic prose piece at the start of the book titled, This Love, "He had stopped still and had lit a cigarette," would have read more correctly as "He stopped and lit a cigarette" or "He had stopped to light a cigarette." Stop means still. They are one and the same. The new tensing would have sounded kinder on the senses as well.

This Love was indeed a wonderful dark piece with brilliant ideas had it been fostered with the brutal ambition of finesse. How raw its displacement and how cleverly it worked. Still, I was convinced after a slow second reading, that it lacked refinement...that many lines were straggly even if the poet decided on a supporting creative energy through conversation or reflections; the lines continued to remain loose and stolidly lacked grace.

Also, when such a strong piece is placed upfront, this possibility destroys the shock value for the ones that trail behind. When such a strong piece numbs a reader at the start, the rest of the work can't succeed with impact. The reader has no capacity to keep feeling wounded. A better technique would be to build up loneliness, grief, darkness, dejection and pain as the reader continues to turn the pages instead of the other way round.

In the poet's defence, the poems do appear more cleverly-crafted towards the end. Some gems I held to be stunning and even tenderly disembodied were Dead Cat, The Brown Mat, Anatomy of Marriage, The Symphony of Roses and Pattern. Sleepwalker was full of riddles and it dazzled the mind. I wish Chauly had followed up with more of such promising tones.

Poems that held conspicious lines as in waiting and waiting for someone to return the poet's calls or lines like Remember how you this.. and remember how you that... that's very secondary school, is it not. These are the kind of poems my classmates and I wrote as teenagers. And then we grow up and our writing and perceptions as with everything else matures.

The last section on the terminal illness of Chauly's mother would best have been featured as a brave sentimental letter or a general work of prose. Except for I will embrace you..., none of the other pieces work as poetry but they serve quite well as thoughtful conversational pieces.

Perhaps the hardest job for this poet was to separate technical ability from emotional engulfment that lay simply too close to her heart. Skilled detachment is a priceless gift and to be conjured up only for a few.

I loved the idea of the Malay poem thrown in right in the middle and found it a soothing, romantic read. I thought that to be an adept inventive technique and an eloquent gesture.

But a chapbook and a book? Someone who loves Chauly and with real honesty should sit her down; minus the effusive gushing and usual consolation noises and tell her this simple thing.

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