Reading Maung Day’s Poems

Monkey Poem

I chained my monkey to the table,
fed him and made him write this poem.
This is going to be my last monkey poem.
This is going to be the last rocket launch by the Chinese.
I gaze upon Yangon down in the valley.
I can’t see the tree, nor the forest.
But I can see its rotten beams and pillars.
I can see the killer whales taking it away
to where the ocean is darkest.
The valley is damned beautiful, but the bodies
they found in it have made everyone nervous.
You would go into the toilet and find a body.
You slip under the covers
and there would be another dying next to you.

I stand on the balcony and look at Yangon.
Yangon looks back at me like an animal in heat.
No, it looks back at me with the eyes of a child
sniffing his first glue in an alley.
This is going to be my last monkey poem.
This is going to be the last space travel of monkeys.

Maung Day

Reading a poem by Maung Day is like watching a cult film or a midnight movie. It is raw, eccentric and intense with its idiosyncratic cynicism, obscene imagery, graphic violence and extreme sociopolitical parody. At its best, Maung Day’s poetry is a kind of hell which offers you nothing but a riot of dadaist metaphors bursting into flames of gutter surrealism. His language is frankly brutal and septic with no attempted pretension or control. Probably he is ‘the other poet’ recently emerging from our LP-dazed contemporary Burmese poetry scene.

His poetry is unique in its anti-ism stand. He even parodies LP by deliberately using violent street language which is full of gritty emotions and antiauthoritarian ideology. Most of the poems are composed in an anarchic frenzy. The backdrop of his poetry is usually a bleak or degenerate landscape of a militarized country which is not compatible for normal upbringing. Grotesque sex symbols are ubiquitous throughout his poetry. Political criticism is embedded covertly or overtly in every line. His word play is not that of a language poet but that of a subversive dadaist. There is no history, current affair or subject that his poetry ignores especially about our country like militarism, ethnic problems, environmental issues, Chinanization, degradation of social norms, child prostitution, terrorism, atheism.. etc…etc. See his ‘Monkey Poem’ as the best example. The poem opens with a simulated setting of military torture and goes on as a schizophrenic account of a deteriorating state under a brain-fucking military rule. The strength of Maung Day’s poetry lies in its chaotic vitality arising from his visceral words and putrid images.

A strong influence on Maung Day’s poetry comes from music, obviously death metal. His poetic voice is like that demonic vocal of a death metal band. His constant use of Celanic imagery is rather indebted to death metal. His pessimism and cynicism are so pervasive and complete that one is initially reluctant to enter his living hell which is none other than the reality he or his generation has experienced and grown up with. Sometimes, it is like that his poetry is a rebound phenomenon that comes out of a chronic suppression or a malignant nationalism paralysing a country and its people for decades. His poetry, on many occasions, goes from one extreme to the other till the poetic beauty dries up and a new kind of consciousness develops in the mind of a serious reader. That consciousness, which I would like to call ‘the other mind’, is our new psyche that revolts against everything we have known or thought up to this point.

Line-by-line interpretation of such kind of poetry may be a misstep which will more or less end up in a linguistic claptrap (which the poet deliberately opposes) although it is difficult for any poet to stay away from linguistic experiments, in a literal sense. Maung Day’s poetry is, as a whole, subversive. One thing remarkable about his poetry is that it is different from mainstream contemporary Burmese poetry which tends towards half-baked, LP-flavored popularist trend. Except for a handful of distinguished original poets, most are lost because they are trapped by their own nonsensical, pseudo-LP mediocre poetry. It is too early to say that Maung Day is an original voice. May be he is too innovative, too revolutionary, too premature or too obscene especially for our people and even for our literary circle. But I dare say that he is the one who has crossed the line. While others try to write with old brain, Maung Day is the one who tries to obey his gut feeling.