By Gabrielle Low
In Bernice Chauly’s small but substantial collection of poetry and prose, The Book of Sins, words indeed rage forth from the page, and they do so with a searing yet unembellished forcefulness.
It’s hard not to note, first and foremost, the urgent, pounding rhythm to some of the lines in this collection. In This Love, she writes “And she in her silence prayed that it would stop, that he would stop that he would realize that it was enough, that it was enough.” Each phrase crashes with a sort of drumbeat intensity. Each phrase hits directly at a nerve.
Other poems are distinguished by a stark immediacy. “Sweet Jesus, she cannot breathe” starts off the piece entitled Haze.
In other instances, words are staggered as if they are being exhaled bit by bit:
"When your husband leaves you
and your daughter of two
not to cry mama
You just do"
The brevity of the poems signals a conviction in her own words. In several of the poems, it is this economy of language that gives rise to a greater degree of meaning and exegetical possibilities. As she writes in Meaning:
"The world is full of metaphors
and I am one of them."
A distinctly female voice emerges from this book.
It is a voice that is, at times, victimized, as in This Love quoted above, or bitterly disenchanted (“What difference will tonight make/on this street of sin/we still spread our legs for money”), or militant:
"And so she died
for the cause
And so she blew herself up
for the cause"
Taken together, these particular poems exude a somewhat predictable brand of old school feminist angst: sisters, we have suffered for too long, let us take up arms.
But in some instances, she lets this go, and gives way to a female voice that is more voluptuous and more at ease with red lipstick — the implication is that feminism need not preclude femininity:
"Let me wear
my silks and makeup
make my entry
like a lady"
Sometimes, however, that female voice becomes more subliminal:
red depths, emerging
from many births
Dreaming through lifetimes
eating of roses, dark
wood and cactuses"
To me, those words, from the poem entitled Like He Once Said…, are a richer expression of the female than all references to virgins, mothers and prostitutes combined.
Bernice is not absolved of certain literary indulgences — poems that sound like confessionals (“I drink too much now/I cry all too much now”), or those that revel in their own melancholy (“Art is pain and pain is art”). Even the juxtaposition of carnality and religion — some of the chapters are named after a number of the Seven Deadly Sins (Pride, Gluttony, Lust) — is somewhat expected. But often, she gives her words enough color and enough truth to keep us with her, so that when she writes “and as the children slept I drank wine, smoked/while pounding pencils into powder on paper”, what comes across is not poetic affectation but words spoken in confidence. The strength of this book is that she sounds like she has lived these words.
At times, she crosses the threshold between poignance and misty-eyed sentimentality. Poems that touch on social issues, in particular, tend to lack the shades of meaning and the contemplative tone that distinguish some of her other pieces.
In Penan her restraint on romanticism and nostalgia is minimal:
ancient father of the mystic land
I bear no good news, yet
the flicker of hope in your eyes
tells of your pride
as we journey into Bakun."
The strongest works in the book are the poems that sound less polemical, and more personal, when anger and heartbreak are expressed more as a sigh than as a rant.
Some poems derive their texture from details (“the swing/you brought from the house/in Taiping -/it was white then”). Others are striking for their intimacy: “Between sheets/between breaths/between skins/That sometimes/met in secret” reads like an entry to a diary that someone has hidden under a clean white pillow.
Then there are the pieces are marked by a willingness to deal squarely with ambivalence — one theme that emerges on several occasions is the state of being torn between motherhood on one hand (“I feed them both from a bowl of rice”), and on the other, the realization that that entails giving up a degree of personal freedom:
"I now know
Why birth is a wing
And my child
It would have been too easy if she dwelled merely on her maternal instincts. Traditionalists might scold her for it, but it says a lot about her honesty as a writer.
The themes that bind most of the works in the collection – life and death, love and heartbreak, the religious and the profane – all seem to coincide seamlessly in what is perhaps the most powerful piece in the book, the only poem that makes up the section titled Forgiveness. What begins with memories of her mother and her childhood (“in the garden of my youth/that garden/your garden”) unfolds into a description of her mother’s illness (“Breathe Mother/just breathe”) and, finally, her passing:
"Let go Mother
it is time to greet
the self that still remains
that which life has maimed
in death, will recover."
First Published: 19.03.2008 on Kakiseni