Tuesday, December 19, 2006

"Death of a Village"

Here
intimations of death
hang
heavy in the air
Everywhere
there is the stench
of decay and despair

The river
strangled by
exigencies
of industrialisation
is dying….
and nobody cares

The fish
in the river
poisoned by
progress’s vomit
are dying….
and nobody cares

The birds
that feed on the fish
in the river
poisoned by
progress’s excrement
are dying….
and nobody cares

And so
a once-proud village
sustained
for centuries
by the richness
of this river
dies….
And nobody cares

To that mammon
DEVELOPMENT
our high priests
sacrifice
our customs
our culture
our traditions
and environment
and nobody cares

We blind mice
We blind mice
see what we’ve done
see what we’ve done
We all ran after
Progress’s wife
she cut off our heads
with Development’s knife
have you ever seen
such fools in your life
as we blind mice?

By Cecil Rajendra

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Before discussing the poem itself, let me first begin by introducing the poet, Cecil Rajendra – one of the few Malaysian poets writing in the English language today, hence the reason why he is also the first Malaysian featured on this blog so far. Personally I have not read much of his poetry and would also confess to not being a particular fan of his poetry, but I have a deep respect for how his poetry gives voice to the socially marginalised and act as a conscience for the environment. Not as widely read in Malaysia, Cecil Rajendra’s poetry has travelled far and wide, cited by WWF, UNICEF, UNESCO, National Geographic and Amnesty International.

Bluntly (or sharply) direct, this poem is probably one that discomforts us, sitting uneasily with some of our sensibilities. We would agree that the environment should be protected, but is development wrong? Can progress be bad? Well, whether we agree or not, I think this poem still has some important things to ‘say’.

The first stanza confronts and assails our senses with rotting smells of dead and decaying matter. The word “hang” plays not only with how the air reeks, but how it is a kind of death by ‘hanging’, choking out the clean air we need to breath. How has this come about? We need not look further than the following stanzas to know that it comes from the excesses and wastes produced from industrial development that have not been properly cleaned and disposed of.

In a repetitious cycle, the stanzas of the poem take us along the ecological trail of destruction, from the polluted river to the dead and rotting fish, to the dying birds that eat the poisoned fish, to the slow death of the village which depends on the river for water and livelihood. Yes, not everybody live in villages, but the point made by the poem is that we are still bound to the environment; and regardless whether we like it or not, whatever we do will ultimately have an effect on the balance of the whole ecological system with us in it as well.

As much as the poem seems to denounce urban and technological modernity in causing the death of the village, I would suggest we take the village less in its literal sense, and see it metaphorically instead as a reference to developing nations that are moving from a self-sufficient agrarian economy to an industrial one involved in the global production of goods. These developing nations have often gone on a headlong drive towards rapid development, losing sight on the need for environmental management and protection, hence resulting in environmental degradation that come back to haunt later.

One need not think far then to recall how a mercuric sludge discharged from a factory in China last year cause widespread panic for people living along that river. Closer to home, Malaysia has seen its own share of environmental problems recently such as how the poor management of a waste dump caused severe health problems for residents living in the area and the landslides caused by indiscriminate and ill conceived housing development on hilly slopes.

Such blind pursuit of ‘progress’ is indicted as a form of false worship, where everything is sacrificed in the name of mammon, the false god of greed and money. The ‘progress’ sought after leaves behind its metaphorical “vomit” and “excrement” that spills over into the supposedly better lives improved through development. The sharp satirical tone here powerfully undercuts and questions what we believe is ‘development’, forcing us to rethink and reassess the manner in which such development are being carried out.

At the end, the final stanza, in keeping with the tenor of the poem, parodies the well-known nursery rhyme “Three blind mice” into “We blind mice” - we who in our blindness have become fools. Instead of innocence, the ‘nursery rhyme’ becomes a bitter satire, recalling the angry and resigned refrain “and nobody cares”. How sad this is.

Indeed, we need to care, though sometimes it is not that nobody cares, but rather nobodies care, who are also not able to care.

On a short note: During his early days as a lawyer, Cecil Rajendra set up a free legal aid service for rural communities. In this light, the village mentioned in the poem could also be a reference to rural and/or indigenous communities whose lives are threatened when corrupt greed allows unfettered and unmonitored development.
This poem may well be timely with this, Loggers and Penan Blockade, and this Forest Resources Depleting

Labels: ,

8 Comments:

Blogger Sharanya Manivannan said...

You forgot to mention that Cecil Rajendra was nominated for last year's Nobel Prize in Literature. Amazing, huh? If you weren't aware of it, no surprise -- only one local newspaper, as far as I know, even mentioned it.

1:14 PM, December 20, 2006  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Haha, yeah, I heard about it, but had my doubts since nothing was confirmed.

I've only met a few poets in my life, so was really happy to have meet Cecil Rajendra in person last year, though I was too shy to ask for his autograph. He can be politically and intellectually quite intimdating. :)

7:12 PM, December 20, 2006  
Blogger bibliobibuli said...

and one blog!!

8:00 AM, December 21, 2006  
Blogger bibliobibuli said...

the subject matter of the poem is something i think about a lot.

there was a statistic in the paper the other week - it's something like one in three rivers in peninsula malaysia is severely polluted. to me a nation cannot consider itself "developed" (and a society cannot view itself as deeply moral) when the environment around is destroyed by greed and indifference and a lethargy to make things better. i would echo the sentiments of the poem 100% and the message should be writ large and everywhere.

a poet has a job to be political, and cecil rajendra relishes the role

but this piece seems more a rallying political speech
chopped into lines than a poem. the language is ... what word am i searching for? ... flat? tired? cliched?

the only bit i really like is the "three blind mice" parody at the end which is clever because it pokes fun at the stupidity of society. quite a bitter dig!

the biggest problem with the poem i think is one of generality rather than specificity. if the poet had focused on one river and made it real to us and shown us the specific fish and birds and people etc. it would have stood much more effectively as a symbol of all the other rivers in the country.

can any of you, hands on heart, say that this is a good poem, and that it affects you in a way that changes you? (more so than say a newspaper report?)

i do applaud the poet's stand on issues though and i look forward to cecil's book on rose chan and other writings.

7:02 PM, December 26, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Generalizing can be a good thing, (as DI has) we can pick specific examples to illustrate the poem. But you are right, the poem drew a blank with me... that is to say, it didn't come to life for me, though the last stanza did make me smile :-)

Anyway, Sharon's comment reminds me of a poem by NZ poet Naomi O'Connor which is at the other end of the 'general vs. specific' question.

So you don't belong, pohoot

What can you do about it, eh tree.
Suck the water and see, maybe--
send your roots out through rock,
tie yourself in knots to the bones,
spread a blanket for summer picnics.
Act confident, act like you're blossoming
like you have a lot to offer. Look as good
as you can--grey green in the lonely cold,
scarlet and proud in the heat. Open up,
Take each day for what it's got. Take
a leaf, unfurl it, take the next, unfurl it.
What do pieces of paper have to do
with you, a tree, alone on the shore
already burning?

8:29 PM, December 26, 2006  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Yeah, I agree with the both of you, that is why I wrote that I'm not exactly a fan of his poetry. Yes, the poem for me is rather flat and the rhythm is a bit weak, but as Machinisr said, the last stanza gives a nice touch. :)

1:09 AM, December 27, 2006  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Machinist, thanks for sharing another poem, I think it illustrates a key difference in both presenting and representing a subject matter. For one, it uses a fresh point of view.

1:11 AM, December 27, 2006  
Blogger bibliobibuli said...

i love that naomi 0'connor poem ...

am not done with this general/specific argument. will resurect it later on!

8:36 AM, January 03, 2007  

Post a Comment

<< Home