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Review: ‘RENDANG’ by Will Harris

To understand Will Harris’s RENDANG, I keep coming back to the poem ‘The White Jumper’, which appears at the end of the collection’s first section. It’s a poem of fragments, puzzle-pieces which expand to bear meaning on the rest of the poems in subtle, complex ways. The poem opens with a figure ‘running and jumping from one grassing / platform to another’; there is a ‘beam of light’, as though someone is searching for this person, who repeats the phrase ‘The white jumper’; it’s not clear who (or what) they’re referring to.

Deborah Tall and John D’Agata write that ‘the lyric essay often accretes by fragments, taking shape mosaically – its import visible only when one stands back and sees it whole. […] The lyric essay stalks its subject like quarry but is never content to merely explain or confess. It elucidates through the dance of its own delving.’ ‘The White Jumper’ acts in this way, but rather than a self-contained mosaic, it offers moments which the reader is trusted to hold on to and piece together as they encounter each poem.

In ‘Holy Man’, the speaker claims green as his ‘favourite / colour, or it had been’, so when the colour appears again (and again) in ‘The White Jumper’, I realise that the collection is a series of subtle connections – I’m being invited to careful, considerate work. There must be some connection between this running, jumping, ‘white jumper’, and the fortune-telling white rabbit in ‘Lines of Flight’. ‘The White Jumper’ suddenly moves to the speaker and his friends ‘at a pizza restaurant for Hugo’s birthday’. The group talks of a disturbing incident in which someone called Dan is involved in a hit and run accident. The speaker says: ‘I looked across to Hugo. I looked out the window.’ When the people discuss Dan again (‘Next week Dan flies to Australia’), the speaker notes that ‘Space folds over itself.’ Then ‘I looked across to Hugo. I looked out the window’ is repeated again, like a refrain, except it feels like a glitch in the system, a memory being trawled over, trying to be understood. When the speaker next thinks of Hugo, he realises that he ‘hadn’t seen Hugo in years’, and remembers them staying up late to play ‘Sonic the Hedgehog […] Run, jump, jump, run, jump run.’

Popular culture is integral to the collection, because it is tied to the speakers’ memories. The speaker of ‘The White Jumper’ seems to see his life as a videogame, or a malfunction in some simulation (Harris has written about Keanu Reeves and The Matrix, in his essay Mixed-Race Superman); he runs past ‘a Pret, a Spaghetti House, a Five Guys, a Bella Italia’, then a ‘Pret, Spaghetti House, Five Guys, Bella Italia’. Another person, Phoebe, dreams of Darth Vader chasing her ‘through / a tall building’. The speaker dreams of attending a Morrisey gig. Later in the poem, but back in time, the speaker is watching Robot Wars when ‘hot air billowed in like orange parachute / silk’. Harris’s poems can be lyrical and subtle, sometimes devastating, and then swerve into the surreal: the fortune-telling white rabbit, the way dream (or videogame) and reality are uncannily blurred into these nightmarish situations.

Popular culture is also how, in a later poem, ‘Break’, the speaker ruminates on a relationship:

I empty the coffee as if

you were here, not in the sense that I talk aloud to you

or picture you standing there, but that I’m aware of

something in me broken. That doesn’t mean unhappy.

I put on music and all I hear are breaks: the drum break

in ‘When the Levee Breaks’, as sampled by Dr Dre in

‘Lyrical Gangbang’.

It’s this rumination that leads him to say: ‘Beneath the surface flow of time are nodes. / You slip into the break and look around, see past and future, / love and sickness rearranged. Reordered.’ These lines seem to unlock something important in RENDANG, a collection in which life and time are ordered and reordered over and over again in a search for meaning. ‘A life should not just be, but mean’, writes the speaker, when recalling the fortune-telling rabbit (‘Lines of Flight’).

Back in ‘The White Jumper’, the speaker almost passingly mentions ‘The poem about my ill dad, my dead gran, my mum spilling prawn toast’, and then returns to this image later, in ‘Glass Case’:

When Mum first came to London, she waitressed at a Thai restaurant in

Gants Hill. She says the prawn toast would always slip off the plate as she

made to set it down and one day she spilt a whole plate on that guy who

hosted Restoration.

These three people – mother, father, grandmother – are integral to the collection’s ambitiously complex investigation of identity. In Mixed-Race Superman, Harris writes: ‘The mixed-race person grows up to the see the self as something strange and shifting’. The poem ‘Another Life’ mimics this shifting space, and opens with ‘the pasture of the green-room carpet’ (are favourite colours predetermined?) through corridors, through the ‘fire exit’s double doors’ and into a poet’s dream; from there, the speaker moves again, to:

Leicester Square in 1980 when my mum,

at the end of her secretarial course, about

to fly home, met my bule dad on the dance floor.

The speaker imagines ‘stepping out into / another life like that’, but in ‘From the other side of Shooter’s Hill,’ he states that he rejects ‘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’.

In ‘Half Got Out’ the speaker returns to Leicester Square, this time to think about Ben Jonson and W.S. Merwin, and their poems about returning to a mother’s womb; ‘I love the way the / dialogue loops back in / on itself’ says the speaker, pointing to his own circling. In the titular poem, ‘RENDANG’, the speaker says:

Some mornings I wake up

early enough that it’s still

dark and I can imagine myself

unborn.

When the speaker thinks of his grandmother, his long-awaited visit to her, things become fractured, wounded. In ‘Mother Country’, the river is like ‘a loosely / sutured wound’; his love for her might be ‘unassimilated, sharp / as broken pots’ or like ‘the carcass of a split bin bag’, groaning with bees (‘State-Building’). There is a barrier to understanding one another: his mother must translate the questions he asks his grandmother, and he thinks of identity again:

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?

(‘The White Jumper’)

The cracks then appear elsewhere: when the speaker recalls having ‘pronounced “oven” often like my mum does’ (‘SAY’), the paintwork ‘cracked and bubbling on the wall beside my bed’ (‘SAY’), the flickering striplight as two memories fuse, and ceramic ducks (‘RENDANG’). But as the speaker states in ‘Break’, to be fractured in some way does not necessarily mean ‘unhappy’. In Harris’s poems, this is something to attempt to understand, fissures vaulted to ‘theorize my own transmembered norms’ (‘Glass Case’).

RENDANG resists a simple reading, because there are no simple questions posed. Harris writes in Mixed-Race Superman: ‘It’s easy to feel like the true aim of […] all art should be some sort of ecstatic revelation and, if we don’t achieve that, we’ve failed.’ Instead of grand revelation, the collection resists, and invites me into the details, the coincidences, the echoes, to find my own meanings. It asks me to try to piece things together, as they happen, as they are reflected upon. There is so much space for me as a reader to run and jump across, and it’s Harris’s generosity and grace that lets me in.

Buy RENDANG by Will Harris from the Poetry Book Society website.

If you’d like to review for the Poetry School, or submit a publication for review, please contact Sarala Estruch on [email protected] or Chloë Hasti on [email protected]

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