Singing is listening

Michael Freeman

Photograph: WikiCommons

The Borderlands of Asia: Culture, Place, Poetry
Mark Bender (ed)
Cambria Press: 2017

As often as not, poetry anthologies have a polemical agenda, be it agitprop for their card-carrying aesthetic cadre, a manifesto for some Great Leap Forward in the genre, a paradigm for some new exclusivity. Mark Bender’s The Borderlands of Asia: Culture, Place, Poetry is such an anthology, but its hallmark is inclusivity — to the extent of evoking a regional commonality that the editor calibrates as trans-indigenous and even cosmo-political [sic], with the clue more plainly in the subtitle.

This is an annotated selection of poetry from north-east India, Myanmar, south-west China and Mongolia. The poems are presented in the shifting literary cultural dynamics of their regions, their ideological and ecological systems, the interplay between traditional and modern poetic form. But this doesn’t mechanistically reduce cultural practice to some mere epiphenomenon of the socioeconomic base. On the contrary, it speaks of a poetry that digs deeply and reflexively into the circumstances of its production — “singing is listening” as one poem puts it — and at the same time widens our grasp of the cultural and even global issues at stake.

It’s also a pragmatic handbook. The introduction lays out a heuristic framework for Bender’s reading of the texts that form the bulk of the book. His key words include: cosmography, place-competency and identity; landscapes and lifeforms; cultural and historic interfaces. He then offers a few brief glosses on individual poems and notes on the poets and the translators, one of whom is Bender himself.

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