LANGUAGE FOR A NEW CENTURY: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond

edited by Tina Chang, Nathalie Handal, and Ravi Shankar
W.W. Norton ($27.95)

by Craig Santos Perez

Not since Pierre Joris and Jerome Rothenberg’s Poems for the Millennium has there been an anthology of such impressive scope. Six years in the making, Language For a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond weighs in at almost 800 pages and includes over 400 poets from over 60 countries writing in over 40 different languages—all translated into English. In the preface, editors Tina Chang, Nathalie Handal, and Ravi Shankar frame this anthology as an interventionist response to the aftermath of 9/11. They ask: “How could we respond to the destruction and unjust loss of human lives while protesting the one sided and flattened view of the East being showcased in the media? What was the vantage point we could arrive at in order to respond on a human level, to generate articulate dialogue, conversations that did not fall into rhetorical fallacies of us vs. them?” To create a more complex view of the “East,” the editors provide the broadest interpretation of the “East” possible, including such diverse countries as Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Sudan, and Syria—to name only the countries starting with “s.” Taken as a whole, Language for a New Century truly transcends any narrow definition of Eastern culture, with all its “voices [converging] in the dream of shared utterance.”

Instead of organizing this anthology alphabetically, chronologically, or nationally, the editors arrange their vast materials into nine thematic sections covering childhood, identity, language experimentation, politics, mystery, war, homeland, mortality, and love. The editors juxtapose this organization with various cultural applications of the number nine: the nine-pointed star of the Bahai faith, the nine land divisions of feng shui, the nine primary personality types in the Sufi system, the nine-day South Indian festival called Navaratri, and the sum of the three letters that make up the word “truth” in Judaism. In addition, the editors claim that their organization “represents an entire cosmology of planets that . . . offers a glimpse into the complex array of voices that make up these regions’ poetry.” For pragmatic readers, the nine sections simply make the massive anthology more readable; I finished reading Language For a New Century in nine days. More strikingly, the thematic sections suggest that the poets gathered—and, by extension, all poets East and West—share similar human experiences and “a devotion to the transformative power of art.”

Another beautiful aspect of this anthology is that each section begins with a personal essay by an individual editor that introduces the theme, discusses a few of the poems in the section, and relates the theme to that particular editor’s personal experience. In the first essay, which introduces the childhood section, Tina Chang describes her memory of her father’s death in New York when she was only a year old. A year after his death, her mother sent her and her brother with their grandmother back to Taiwan. Chang remembers saying good-bye to her mother at Kennedy Airport, unable to translate her feelings of sorrow. After a discussion of some of the poems, Chang ends her introduction: “The most intricate of human emotions may have no lexicon, but the poets gathered here have offered a glimpse into that complex and wondrous realm.”

Throughout each section, the poets offer a glimpse into various complex realms of human experience. At the same time, because each poet is only represented by a single poem, the book outlines the breadth of rooted and diasporic “Eastern” cultures and poetries. In that sense, Language for a New Century is truly an “unprecedented collection,” as heralded by Carolyn Forché in the Foreword.

The sections “Earth of Drowned Gods” (politics) and “Apostrophe in the Scripture” (war) are perhaps the most powerful, offering a diverse range of possibility for political/politically-engaged poetry, emphasizing poetry’s role as defiance and witness. The sections “In the Grasp of Childhood Field” (childhood), “This House, My Bones” (homeland), “Bowl of Air and Shivers” (spirituality), and “The Quivering World” (love) are the most emotional, capturing experiences of exile, diaspora, memory, relationships, family, and God. “Buffaloes Under Dark Water” (mystery) and “Parsed into Colors” (identity) are the most complex, complicating simplistic notions of identity and lyric poetry. My favorite section is “Slips and Atmospherics” (language experimentation) because it presents a fascinating portrait of an “Eastern avant-garde.” This section features some excellent, well-known poets—Cathy Park Hong, Paolo Javier, Etel Adnan, Tan Lin, Jose Garcia Villa, Brian Kim Stefans, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, and Jenny Boully—along with poets completely new and fascinating to me: Yang Lian, Rukmini Bhaya Nair, Che Qianzi, Arun Kolatkar, Yu Jian, and Ricardo M De Ungria, to name a few. As well, Ravi Shankar writes an intriguing introductory essay for this section.

Returning to the preface, the editors describe their belief that “looking outward toward a wide spectrum of poetry would give us the opportunity for discovery and transformative wisdom.” Indeed, this is true. However, this is just the first step; another lovely aspect of this anthology is the Country Index at the back of the book, providing readers with a possible guide for future reading. The editors’ vision of a shared community and of an ongoing dialogue between East and West will surely help “lay the foundation for a poetics of a new era.” Language for a New Century gives us hope that the renewing power of language will not only matter in the 21st century, but will also help make the century new.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009