(Nine Arches Press, 2021); pbk £9.99
We have been reading Roland Barthes’ explorations of image and memory in our writing classes. In the second half of Camera Lucida, Barthes rifles through his trove of images of his late mother, pondering his personal loss as an existential one, something he understands through the media of photography. Photographs record the presence of someone “that has been”, but they also express a “temporal hallucination”, like a severed limb whose presence is felt viscerally, an after effect of amputation. This return to a time past in the present moment is beautifully imagined in Honorifics. Cynthia Miller is Malaysian-American now resident in Scotland, and Honorifics renders loss and separation as memorable, lingering encounters, almost hallucinatory yearnings from leaving and homecoming.
In an inventive musing on mortality ̶ a chronicle of a death foretold ̶ Miller in ‘Portemeirion’ compresses time past and time future. The poetic sequence begins whimsically enough, asking if remembering always accesses the primal event in our minds, or whether memory is imagined after effects without the original, much like stars that we see from earth,
from us, already winked
out of our future.
From this more abstract line of thinking, Miller turns to small, domestic objects all freighted with personal histories – old family album snaps, cups and plates in her mother’s possession – these seem to possess oracular power, bringing home fear of her mother’s future death,
a black hole
yawn open inside me.
Though it has yet to come,
Can one resist death and decay? In memory, imagined sensually as pickles in pantry jars (‘Summer preserves haibun’), or visually as fretwork, skylight and stained glass windows, ‘self-portrait as things that let the light in’, or as a performative liturgy of homely items, place names, events, food, tropical fruits and furniture, a cargo of equatorial place histories and atmospherics (‘Malaysiana’, ’30 things Sarawakians know’), Honorifics seems to suggest that a kind of creative poetic inhabitation is possible. Of course there are glitches, dream operas full of yearning that yield surreal scenarios and maybes but ‘Imagine memory as a whetstone. She sharpens herself on it’, the voice advises.
Yet while much might be in the mind, the magic lies in words. Miller handles the gravity of her subjects with a lyric lightness of touch and her use of Malay and Chinese words, threaded delicately through English, is beautifully controlled. The opening poem, ‘Sayang/Sayang’, laid out like a double accounting dictionary entry, uses a series of concrete situations to catch the word’s meaning as love, waste and pity, before compressing these lexical possibilities into, ‘what a pity/such a shame to waste love/love, how much we’re wasted’. The middle section ‘Bloom’, a series of poems on the jellyfish as an extended metaphor for how we treat others not like us, for how to recognise difference as beauty, is undertaken with wry irony in poems and titles such as ‘[domestication]’, ‘[threat level]‘ and ‘[moonjellies escape]’. In ‘[spineless menace]’, a prose poem, contemporary immigration policy is satirised satisfyingly: ‘Only the best and brightest jellyfish are allowed in our waters, the government announced at the launch of the joint Jellyfish Immigration and Economic Strategy’; exemptions might be granted to those ‘willing to be pulped for agricultural fertiliser to help farmers feed the nation can fast-track their applications. NO RECOURSE TO PUBLIC FUNDS will be stamped in squid ink on every tentacle.’
I read Honorifics greedily. It has a particular poignancy for me as the objects, places, names and situations the collection renders are all familiar, and those words sounded in my mouth and ear are akin to a homecoming. But the collection is expansive. It reaches outwards to where you are, much like ‘How to perfect that flip turn’ in a swimming pool,
The moment before the turn is like
opening a window to unexpected birdsong
despite the rain and the late hour. It is never
wanting for anything except the easy slip
of your body in its spandex skin.
You kick off wherever your feet land.