By Anna Graubaum

It was International Poetry Day last week on the 21st of March. I arrived at Lit Books, located in the Malaysian city of Petaling Jaya, at around 7:30pm. ‘The Noise of Time’ was organized by the cultural non-profit PUSAKA.

Little silver bells, which were attached to the door handle from the inside, dinged. The bookshop smelled like wood and paper and I instantly felt comfortable. The light within was indirect and discrete.  The interior was rustic and practical.

I silently and carefully walked through the aisles, trying to avoid the noise.

I stopped at the shelves to look at the books of poems. I was greeted by W.B. Yeats, Robert Frost – Khalil Gibran, of course! – as well as Pinksy and ‘Leaves of Grass’ by Walt Whitman.

I continued looking around at the books. ‘Anna Karenina’ stared at me, as well as ‘Moby Dick’ and Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Grey.’

The first readers – recognizable by the distinct folded A4 paper in their hands – began to stream in the bookstore.

“What a great idea it is to read poems in a bookstore,” I thought. I always find that only a few places carry this special kind of silence – this silence that is so heavily stuffed with focus and concentration that one can almost grasp it in the air. Places like libraries or as in this case, a bookshop filled with people devoutly listening. This atmosphere lasted the whole evening and was just interrupted by jokes by PUSAKA founder Eddin Khoo or the sound of a breaking glass.

The lights were dimmed at around 8:15 pm. And then the evening with poems in eleven languages began.


Elaine Lau, proprietor of Lit Books, reading the English translation of a poem by Wang Wei. Picture courtesy of PUSAKA.
The organizer Pauline Fan reading ‘Eros’ by the German expressionist poet Else Lasker-Schüler, followed by her own translation into English. This year marks Else Lasker-Schüler’s 150th birth anniversary. Fan later read an excerpt of a poem by Vladimir Mayakovsky in Russian. Picture courtesy of PUSAKA.

The night started with a contribution by Khoo. Renowned author and journalist Hafiz Hamzah then read two of his own poems.

The great writer and sociolinguist Dipika Mukherjee, whose 2011 novel ‘Thunder Demons’ was long-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize, helmed the third reading. She recited a poem in Bengali by Mallika Sengupta, accompanied by its English translation:

‘Mother of the Universe’

Unbound, my hair spread over the sky

created dark storm clouds.

My green dhanekhali sari

became the lush fabric of forests.

Stealing the melody from my throat

birds chirped into morning song,

the babble of my words became

mother-tongues of vast populations.

My sweat mingling with menstrual

       blood

is the aroma of rain on the parched

       ground.

Nurtured by my hunger

Tendrils of rice and wheat burst ,

    through the ground,

to bathe me were the rivers born

to dry me spreads the sunshine.

My anger made flintstones

flash the first flicker of fire.

My fierce need for love created man,

and into my body he burst his seed.

Then, in my womb, was born this

    universe.

I found the intonation of the poems recited that night impressive, the reading melancholic and enthusiastic and stirred the audience, even though I am not capable of speaking most of the numerous languages recited that night.

Pauline Fan, who was the event organizer, told me later that evening that poems are something intimate. “For me, it has something of stripping away – even if you have more formal poems, more structured. I always feel that the most powerful poetry is stripping away rather than layering, like it is the case sometimes with fiction.”

The tenth contribution of the evening was by Mwaffaq Hajjar. He read parts of Mahmoud Darwish’s letter to the late thinker Edward Said, a poem by Nizar Qabbani and one of his own poems which no doubt touched my love for the Arabic language.

‘Jasad’

Like shiny new grass, it is mellow

Like the glittery sand of a vast desert, it is

gold

As rain touched the garden on her breast

Upon her skin, a violet serenade, a poem

yet to unfold

Like a drunk spike of spring, it sways and swings

Like the wind is worried, like the sea it is

uncontrolled

Like wine in pottery, this body is fermented

A sip is all you need, to put on a blazing

blindfold

If it wanted you, a thousand branches of

green,

& if it denies you, it shall be wolfberry to

behold

Guillermo Lauriano reading Cesar Vallejo’s poems in Spanish. Picture courtesy of PUSAKA.

More poems were recited that night: Contemporary ones such as those by Indonesia’s Goenawan Mohamad, the tremendous Tita Lacambra Ayala (who died in January this year), Hafiz Hamzah and Zahid M. Naser, while the past poems were those by Persian Omar Khayyam and Wang Wei from the Tang dynasty, as well as by the likes of those by the Peruvian César Vallejo, the French Paul Éluard,the Russian Vladimir Mayakowsky and the German expressionist Else Lasker-Schüler.

It seeped into me that poetry transcends the boundaries of space and time. This form of literature is not to be preserved by one particular culture, language or period. People today still feel what someone had written a thousand years ago.

Fan explained to me that the evening tore down the divisions of language and stereotype. “One of the reasons we wanted to organize this poetry reading in different languages was that in Malaysia, I feel that sometimes the readers, and writers and lovers of poetry … sometimes don’t meet each other enough, because we operate in different languages.”

“Many of our literary communities are defined by language: Malay language writers know themselves but don’t know much about English language writers and those two communities don’t know much about the Chinese language writers and we know very little about the Tamil writers. And so an occasion like this is an opportunity to also get to know each other, in terms of the different people that are reading and writing poetry in Malaysia,” she added.

The evening ended at 10 pm. People began leaving, chairs were stacked. A few groups of contributors and listeners stood outside in conversation with each other. The silver bells were dinging again as I left the bookshop, without trying to avoid the sounds.

About Anna Graubaum

Picture courtesy of author

Anna Graubaum was born in Germany in 1990. She graduated from the Institute of Islamic Studies, Freie Universität Berlin (Free University of Berlin) in 2019. Graubaum has worked for the organization DAAL – Research and Media, including writing an article in Arabic about foreign students living in Cairo. She has lived abroad in various countries such as Saudi Arabia, France and Egypt and now resides in Malaysia.