(REVIEW) RENDANG, by Will Harris
In this attentive unpeeling of Will Harris’s RENDANG (Granta, 2020), Dave Coats questions the trace of language and its soiled wounds, the colonial echo of buddleias, and Sonic the Hedgehog as möbius strip. Drawing from a year’s worth of close reading, as well as his experiences of Harris’s live performances, Dave offers a lucid meditation on this collection’s affective thrust.
[W]hat does it mean to divide identity from politics? What does it mean to put them together? – maybe I should just say: the idea that art is, or can be, anything other than identity is ridiculous. The imagination, so far from being opposed to identity, is the sum of our experiences, recollected and rendered in legible form – it is identity. This should be self-evident, tautological. - Will Harris, ‘The Ethics of Perspective’, Poetry London.
A lot of the time I sit down and write poems about fourteenth-century Flemish paintings, or the debt crisis, or rain. But the reception of [Loop of Jade] suggests that even when I don’t feel I’m writing race, race is still writing me. - Sarah Howe, Interview with Boston Review.
The dictionary, after all, was a key part of the arsenal of colonial domination. - Harris, Interview with Lithub.
Some definitions from the untitled concrete poem on the first page of RENDANG, in reverse order:
rendang (n): Indonesian dish, comprised of meat cooked slowly in a spicy paste, originating in West Sumatra. from ‘merendang’: a method of slow cooking. Rendu-Osler-Weber (n): genetic disorder leading to abnormal blood vessel formation. rendu (n): an artistically complete architectural drawing representing a design problem. rendzina (n): a fertile, lime-rich soil with dark humus above a pale soft calcareous layer. rendrock (n): a dynamite used in blasting. rendlewood (n): wood with the bark removed. render-set (v): to cover with two coats of paint.
rendling (n): an enzyme that catalyses fermentation. rendezvous (n): a meeting at an agreed time and place. from French, imperative: present yourself/selves; literally: give yourself up, turn yourself in, render yourself (to authorities). render (v): to provide/give; deliver (judgment); give up, surrender. : to cause to become, create. : to represent or depict in art. : to send covertly abroad for interrogation. : to melt down (animal fat), to clarify. (n): a coat of plaster. rend (v): to tear into pieces; to cause great emotional pain. from Old English, ‘rendan’.
The first text in RENDANG is a series of words beginning with the letters ‘r-e-n-d’, arranged in order of their earliest citations in the Oxford English Dictionary – which is not to say their earliest coinage or usage – from rend to rendang. In a Zoom reading during lockdown, Harris referred to this poem as ‘the key to the book’; given RENDANG’s intense exploration of the messiness of linguistic meaning, perhaps this not a key to a door, but a key on a map, symbols that help the reader to read, but give nothing away in and of themselves. Some the book’s major themes are indeed legible here: the problem-solving capacity of art; the possibility of accurate (self-)depiction; state violence against political dissidents; the tension between making oneself visible and making oneself vulnerable, to physical harm, misinterpretation, or surveillance. The preponderance of layers is striking, whether of rock, bark, paint or plaster, all of which protect or hide a more vulnerable substrate. Thinking more laterally, one might consider the poem as a place of rendezvous, a meeting with agreed sets of rules and expectations, in which the lyric self might present itself, or give itself away. Or be unlawfully rendered, a favoured tactic of this country’s government against people it deems undesirable; I’m reminded of the lines in ‘The White Jumper’:
I know that blood stands for race and soil for nation but blood and soil makes me think of bloodied soil. Do some people imagine themselves in the same relation to their place of birth as a scab to a wound?
But what, then, of ‘Mother Country’, spoken from an aeroplane seat above Jakarta:
Down along the banks of the Ciliwung are slums I had forgotten, the river like a loosely sutured wound.
Is the speaker of this poem one of the ‘some people’ in ‘The White Jumper’, however subconsciously? What is the difference between being a scab and being a suture? Given RENDANG’s extraordinary care with language, coincidence seems unlikely: in both instances ‘wound’ appears in relation to birth-places and nationhood. You’ll recall that the blood disease Rendu-Osler-Weber and the soil variety rendzina stand between the artist’s acts of rendering and the book called RENDANG. And that the etymological roots of ‘rendan’ in England and ‘rendang’ in West Sumatra come tantalisingly close to contact, one letter shy of a perfect circle. Is language a nightmare from which the poet is trying to wake?
Okay. Time to take a big sip of tea and turn to the next poem.
In West Sumatra they call rendang randang. Neither shares a root with rending. Oh.
Between reading RENDANG for the first time (February 2020, roughly twelve years ago), cross-referencing the online dictionary, cooking up a unifying theory of the collection, and then re-reading it, I had completely forgotten that the first gesture of the first poem proper is to brush off my whole line of thought. On one level, the concrete poem really is an arbitrary series of words related only by accidents of sound and spelling. Hunting for connections throws up satisfying patterns and coincidences, but ones the poet cannot really answer for. Again, RENDANG is too carefully composed for such an unusual opening to be purely arbitrary, but the first lines of ‘In West Sumatra’ seem a clear warning against any single, simple interpretation. My theory, for example, is hamstrung by the fact that ‘rendang’ in its English incarnation – and by extension the specific words which comprise the poem – is shaped by a failure of transliteration, a consequence of Anglophone carelessness toward colonised languages and cultures. The concrete poem of my imagination crumbles like plaster or a malformed blood vessel. And yet, I believe Harris when he said this poem is the book’s ‘key’. This whole process, of attempting to impose a system of meaning and having that imposition refused, deferred, or undone, really is at the heart of RENDANG.
What makes the book so compelling, however, is how deeply Harris implicates himself in this process, consistently undercutting the poems’ inclinations toward authority and coherence. As the speaker of the deeply meta ‘From the Other Side of Shooter’s Hill’ puts it:
If I say this in a poem, it isn’t to defer responsibility but because I reject the possibility of narrating any life other than my own and need a voice capacious enough to be both me and not-me, while always clearly being me.
This may read as being overly cute depending on your taste, but to me it feels like a canny stage actor (or comedian, or pro wrestler) playing to the crowd in a way that acknowledges the confines of the contract between artist and audience, and, in identifying those boundaries, creating new space for imaginative play. Or: what made you think all those other poems were real? In ‘Seven Dreams of Richard Spencer’, for example, the speaker turns into ‘a boy and girl who had lost their parents / and we hugged each other, crying’. By this point, the reader has been so primed to consider selfhood as a wilful, malleable construction that the salient feature of the image is not its strangeness, maybe not even its emotional intensity, but its precision: the specific feeling of feeling utterly forsaken even in the act of mutual comfort. It’s an effect that cannot be achieved in mere coherence, and one that flows throughout the collection.
As Harris argues in his essay, ‘The Ethics of Perspective’, there is no safe distance between the artist and the art: imagination is experience is identity. The poems’ layers are both invitation to and protection from public scrutiny, a desire to know and be known in full knowledge of the pain and rupture that desire entails.
* * *
While there’s been a fascinating trend in recent years for whole collections built around a single theme or quest, the poems in RENDANG feel more like an extended cinematic universe. There are dozens of links between poems, elaborating their thinking or opening new perspectives, nowhere more so than in ‘The White Jumper’, perhaps the book’s centrepiece. Here, the poems in the reader’s hand appear on stage:
Karmar dragged his keyboard up the hill. I went through my set. The poem about my ill dad, my dead gran, my mum spilling prawn toast.
These are all poems in RENDANG: ‘Say’, ‘The White Jumper’ itself, which features a passage about the speaker’s grandma, her ‘white-frilled / coffin in a marble / room… wearing only / white’, and ‘Glass Case’, respectively. In his essay on the untrustworthiness of art, ‘Both absent and present’, Harris examines Michael Donaghy’s anxiety about the ways art warps human perception, admiring how the poet reaches through the page to buttonhole the reader – ‘Don’t look so smug. Don’t think you’re any safer’ – and how Donaghy’s poem ‘Upon a Claude Glass’ refuses its final full stop, leaving its magic circle unclosed, or uncloseable. The persistent self-referentiality of RENDANG feels similar; it plays with the fourth wall to keep the relationship between poet and reader contingent, on edge, as if at any moment we might see ourselves reflected in the lens.
There are no innocent bystanders in Harris’ poems. This fallacy appears in the form of the nightmarish ‘great eyeball’ in ‘Seven Dreams of Richard Spencer’, variations of which recur throughout RENDANG. The image invokes Ralph Waldo Emerson’s formulation, in his 1836 essay ‘Nature’, of the transparent eyeball as the ideal viewer of nature/God, having emptied oneself of all earthly concerns, the better to allow the natural and/or divine to flow in. But ‘The White Jumper’ is also concerned with debunking the delusions of white nationalism, prime among which, pace Emerson, is whiteness’ self-deception as neutral, unmarked, raceless, a pristine vantage point for a God’s-eye view. In ‘The Ethics of Perspective’, Harris argues that what flows into Emerson in his moment of presumed kenosis is profoundly shaped by the mores of the specific time and place of his subjectivity, or, in Harris’ terms, ‘the sum of [his] experiences’. In the Chinese-Indonesian traditions of the speaker’s grandma, for example, white may denote decay, disease, or death, as opposed to the beauty, purity or sanctity propounded by Théophile Gautier in ‘The White Jumper’. Harris’ poems counter the essentialisms and chauvinisms of white nationalism by placing them back into conversation with the real, messy, unpurifiable world.
‘The White Jumper’ is also a poem about Sonic the Hedgehog (1991), Darth Vader nightmares, and getting called the c-word by a punter outside Bella Italia. It says a lot about Harris’ poetic agility that the poem keeps running and jumping through some seriously heavy domains. There’s a whole essay to be written on Harris and Donaghy, I think, not least in ‘Half Got Out’, a breath-taking piece which, like ‘Upon a Claude Glass’, ends with its tail in its mouth, like Sonic’s mobius strip.
* * *
RENDANG’s thinking is deeply embedded in its formal composition. Few books are so alert to the meanings inherent to poetic form, the messages readers receive just by encountering a page full of neat oblongs or regular rhyme schemes, informed by one’s training within higher education, or exclusion from it. In a fascinating short essay, ‘Fortress Craft’, written in response to Rebecca Watts’ ‘Cult of the Noble Amateur’ for PN Review (January 2018, c.17th century), Harris names a network of defensive aesthetic positions designed not for literary discretion but for the maintenance of social and cultural hierarchies within a literary realm. As ‘Fortress Craft’ notes, Harold Bloom once dismissed Sylvia Plath for her ‘sincerity’, while Watts uses ‘honesty’ pejoratively throughout her piece; the targets change but the stratagem remains.
And yet, Harris is a remarkable technician across a variety of forms, and the structures and conventions of lyric poetry clearly hold great esteem in his creative practice. Pieces like ‘Holy Man’, ‘My Name is Dai’, and ‘Say’ employ such long, fluid lines that it’s easy to mistake them for prose on the page. Here’s the opening of the former:
Everywhere was coming down with Christmas, the streets and window displays ethereal after rain, but what was it - October? Maybe I’d been thinking about why I hated Tibetan prayer flags and whether that was similar to how I felt about Christmas: things become meaningless severed from the body of ritual, of belief.
In performance, Harris reads this poem unusually fast, as if trying to explain something complex on short notice, or to invoke the feeling of naturalistic speech. On the page, the artifice is clear, from the evocative not-quite-idiom of the opening phrase to the two instances of readerly expectation being primed and swiftly thwarted: first regarding the poem’s backdrop (not winter but autumn), then as the speaker’s grousing about high street decor gives way to a much deeper thought. It continues:
Then I thought about those who see kindness in my face, or see it as unusually calm, which must have to do with that image of the Buddha smiling.
Have you ever thought this about Will Harris? The poem draws attention to the speaker’s physicality, and the reader is left to imagine the face on the inside cover of RENDANG (Granta, 2020) or a completely fictional one (but whose?). Either way, the contract between poem and reader is rendered hypervisible, as are the assumptions about the poem’s – and its creator’s – origins, which are too often boiled down (‘rendered’ as in animal fat) or ignored in contemporary criticism. It’s also very easy to miss the smooth transition from ‘maybe I’d been thinking’ to ‘Then I thought’, from an uncertain past tense to a solid one, as the narrator steps into the experience of a story they seemed at first to have been merely recollecting. All of this happens in eight lines: more dramatic and tonal shifts than in most entire poems, and all of it on a level that makes no intrusion upon the flow of ‘Holy Man’, its deft line-breaks, that startling ‘ethereal after rain'.
Contrast this to ‘The White Jumper’, which works with compact rhythms, repeated lines and motifs, and moments in which the poem’s music becomes so dense it seems to be collapsing in on itself:
despite being in Covent Garden we were on a ridge above a forest looking down our feet in thicket dark our heads in thickest stars Men walked out from behind a pick-up truck. She gripped the overhead handle. Their machetes gleamed. She gripped the overhead handle. Everywhere was green. The mind’s white rind, not the white rind’s mind.
Or look at ‘Buddleia Not Buddha’, a pocket nightmare in which a speaker flees through a forsaken London without hope or destination, pursued by some existential threat heralded by the eponymous refrain. It closes:
buddleia not buddha chanting in bloom grey it grew and far from home until I had to stop - my bundling found me on a bus and eyes closed there I cried waiting for the sky to gape and let me crawl inside buddleia not buddha chanting in bloom buddleia not buddha buddling on my tomb
The lineation wrongfoots the reader: the rhythmic units end not at the line breaks but at ‘stop’, ‘cried’ and ‘inside’, and deploy a weirdly regular iambic heptameter that runs just a little too long for comfort. The word ‘buddling’ in the last line is, as far as I can tell, a neologism (‘to buddle’ means to wash ore from a mine), but is perfectly parseable as a blend of ‘bubbling’ and ‘budding’, conjuring up the uncanny sudden growth of flowers, or perhaps ‘buddleia’ itself as a verb. There is more, of course, below the surface: buddleia is endemic to just about everywhere but Europe, but is named after an English botanist, Rev. Adam Buddle, and is now ubiquitous in English gardening. Go back to ‘Holy Man’ and the speaker’s preoccupation about his perceived buddha-like calm, and the poem begins to take on a tortured, dream-logical terror of invasive species and invasive interpretations, colonial appropriation and orientalism, the speaker trapped between a gaping sky and a blossoming grave.
* * *
Here are the lines that close the poem ‘Glass Case’, which run clockwise around a photo of a looted mask in the British Museum:
What have you taken? What you have taken I have taken nothing from you Then I have taken nothing What have you taken? What you have taken What have I taken? What you have taken from me
The exchange – I read it as a dialogue, though nothing is a given in RENDANG – follows the speaker’s somewhat despairing negotiation with demographic bureaucracy:
OTHER, MIXED is what I tick in forms though some drunk nights I theorize my own transmembered norms
There’s something like a broken ballad meter going on here – the assonant ‘mixed/tick’ and ‘nights/theorize’ meeting the full-rhyming ‘forms/norms’ – so that on a second read it feels like a phrase is missing between the first and second lines. Given this, the dialogue around the photo might feel like a contest between a representative of empire and a representative of the colonised, the former demanding that the latter admit no wrong has been committed. The second voice sounds wise, (unusually?) calm, as if, despite their entrapment in this cycle of accusation, they are gaining an upper hand. If the poet’s voice (whatever that means) could be found anywhere in this exchange, I initially assumed it was among these canny responses.
Moving on to the final image in ‘RENDANG’, however, which closes the book:
RENDANG, I whisper. RENDANG. I lay the pages of this book around me. I talk to them. No, they respond. No, no.
Plainly put, it’s easier to locate the poet’s voice here. The poem uses the first person, is engaged in a very poet-y activity, and identifies an ‘other’ voice in response. Unlike the circular conversation in ‘Glass Case’, the ambiguity is in the tone: how are the pages saying ‘no’? Is it a sighing dismissal? Something more urgent, like a plea for mercy? Disgust? Indifference? What does it mean to ‘whisper’ in all-caps? Here, the poet is, quite clearly, playing the role of an insistent but inadequate interrogator.
Rereading ‘Glass Case’, then, my first assumption feels, if not plain wrong, then at least incomplete. The question of where, exactly, Harris, or his lyric persona, or the poem’s various selves, stand in relation to either the imperialist project of the British Museum, or – maybe – the speaking voice of the Indonesian mask, is left in tension. I go back to those ‘transmembered norms’, which draw on a passage earlier in the poem:
I thought that only suffering was real and happiness pain’s absence. I told myself that art should be like glass. When Hart Crane sings the silken skilled transmemberment of song, his pained voice carries across (or through) unmaimed. No one should have to say they’re sad.
Does that devastating last line connect to the poet’s own drunk transmemberment? Is there a subtextual suggestion that no one should have to say they’re ‘OTHER, MIXED’? The speaker here is looking back on a past self who thought that ‘art should be like glass’, a loud echo of Emerson’s theory of the transparent eye. Is the past self, then, being rebuked? Does the poem close on a dialogue not between historical antagonists, but past and present aspects of the same consciousness? Perhaps the questions posed by this fluidity are what gives ‘Glass Case’ its power; perhaps to transmember is to destroy in order to change, something the poem does, and keeps doing, every time I think of it.
I realise I’ve asked more questions in this essay than just about anything I’ve written, and I think that’s partly why this book has stuck with me as long as it has. I can think of very few collections that say so much, so eloquently (and in just twenty poems!), which leave a reader with so much work to do, and which trust the reader to be that catalysing enzyme that takes a poem off the page and into the body. An audacious exploration of love, family, language, form, fascism and national myth, I suspect RENDANG will be part of me for a very long time.
Text: Dave Coates