Mukahang Limbu reviews ‘The House of Thirst’ an LGBTQ+ focused issue of Modern Poetry in Translation

Modern Poetry in Translation is a quarterly magazine edited by poet and friend of YPN Clare Pollard. Co-founded by Ted Hughes in 1965, MPT seeks to introduce Anglophone readers to fantastic new work by poets and translators all over the world. We asked Foyle Young Poet Mukahang Limbu to read and review the latest issue of MPT, called ‘The House of Thirst’ and primarily focused on LGBTQI+ poets and experiences.

As Clare Pollard, the editor of Modern Poetry in Translation, states in her editorial, translation is a ‘discipline that is inherently queer – it is full of men trying on women’s voices; girls speaking as boys’. In the poems and essays in ‘The House of Thirst’, we see again and again how translation, like identity, is constructed and full of possibilities. I love how the translator’s process is foregrounded in MPT: each poem is accompanied by the translator’s own reflective commentaries on their process, their relationship to the poem and the self-discoveries they made through the translation. These intimate accounts of their journeys make me as a reader feel so much closer to their work, as we hear how the translators construct their translations, in the same way that identities are constructed.

The poems celebrated in this issue range from contemporary queer Indonesian and Korean poets to the works of French surrealists and a collage made from a medieval text, ‘Homoerotic Hebrew Poetry’. This issue also contains many poems that are not about LGBTQ+ issues, my favourite being ‘You’re Wading Through Your Leaden Clouds,’ by Polish poet Mazanna Kielar, translated by Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese. In the translator’s notes, Wójcik-Leese thinks about ‘nature, which includes our bodies, which requires constant naming’, something which will re-appear throughout the queer poems of ‘The House of Thirst’. This tragically beautiful poem captures the comforting nature of old memories with such moving lines as, ‘The morning newly hatched, / scrambling out of the nest, kept warm by the sun.’ But the poet simultaneously expresses the pain of loss as being like ‘when crows peck clean thick ribs’. The poem is filled with paradoxes and oxymorons: the poet describes ‘ice lava flows’ and ‘leaden clouds’. This tension reflects the poem’s navigation between two opposing spaces: the past and the present, memory and reality, and the living and the dead.

At the heart of the issue are queer poems which are at turns captivating, melancholy and darkly funny. One satirical poem stands out for me: ‘A Flyer’, by Indonesian poet Norman Erikson Pasaribu, translated by Tiffany Tsao. As Tsao states in her commentary, this poem is ‘a response to the communitarianism pervasive in Indonesia’. Communitarianism is a type of social order in which the individual’s needs are overridden by the community’s, which can cause huge tension and distress for individuals in many societies. The poem’s narrator is a robotic, cynical voice, who advertises a programme for ‘happiness’ and explains its criteria:

This software will assemble a series of steps that
will guarantee you’ll be happy for the rest of your life.

The poem is a clever extended metaphor for society’s confining expectations. Though the communitarian society in which Pasaribu lives claims to have the key to being ‘happy for the rest of your life’, for outsiders and particularly for queer people who don’t fit its heteronormative expectations, these steps create a sense of shame and imprisonment, not happiness. The use of programming and computing language, used throughout the poem (‘Software’, ‘assemble’, ‘generate’), reflects the need to construct a self artificially, a self that is contrived and insincere, to fit in. The narrator makes it clear that there is no place for ‘a lesbian who has a love / for cats and classic poetry’.

‘The House of Thirst’ also celebrates the beauty of homoeroticism. ‘Geography’ by Indian poet Jayan Cherian, translated by Richard Scott (a contemporary British poet who often writes about homosexuality), is an epic ode to gay sex. Although filled with witty plays-on-words and humorous innuendos, such as ‘unbuckle his / asteroid belt / grope / for his black / hole’, the poem is an honest account of an intimate experience. The short lines and lack of punctuation make the readers’ eyes trail down the page, reflecting the act of intimacy, and the white space on the page after each cinquain is a beat left for breath. The poem blurs the boundaries between nature and the body to evoke its sensuality and the human magically merges with geography itself as ‘the brackish / nile divides your shoulder / blades’. Just as in ‘A Flyer’, the poet shows homosexuality and queerness becoming one with nature, not contradictory to it.

In her essay at the core of this issue, Hong Kong-born poet Mary Jean Chan explores how speaking two different languages means her identity is also multiple. Chan explains how she identifies as queer, ‘in all senses of the word’, in English, but that Chinese doesn’t have a word that ‘evoke[s] the ways in which [she has] become – and [is] still becoming – queer.’ Chan describes coming out to her friends and family in 2012 and by the end of the essay, begins to find comfort in both spaces, allowing herself to ‘simply be’, and to play with language ‘the way a child might – as if language itself was a safe place in which to roam.’

This resonated with me as a bilingual LGBTQ+ poet inhibiting two cultural spheres. In my Nepalese sphere, homosexuality is not socially acceptable, so I have become used to expressing my identity only in English. ‘Coming out’ doesn’t even exist as a phrase in Nepalese, which is part of the reason that I haven’t been able to come out to my Nepalese family and friends. But in English, I can write about my queer identity because the people in my Nepalese community have a limited understanding of the language – just as Mary Jean Chan found solace in queer texts in English which her parents couldn’t understand. This means that although I have the freedom to explore my sexuality in English, I still hide from my other half, trapped, and free simultaneously.

Mary Jean Chan’s essay has however restored my hope that one day I will be able to freely express my sexuality in both languages. It was such a privilege to read this edition of MPT, as Chan’s essay and all the poems in the issue gave me, and no doubt will give many other estranged and confused readers, companionship and friendship. It was a wonderful reminder that language and translation gives us all not only a chance to be heard but to also listen to each other.

This is what MPT is about: relating to one another on a larger space. ‘The House of Thirst’ reminds us that even across the vastness of time, and physical and cultural distance, people ask themselves the same questions, and struggle against expectations of their society. Even across language borders we know are not alone in this struggle because poetry and language can offer some comfort by letting us listen to each other’s stories, so we can celebrate our self-discoveries, share our confusion, confront our anger, and heal our loneliness together.

Find out more about Modern Poetry in Translation and read some of the poems from this issue here, attend a discussion of this issue at Poetry in Aldebrugh (UK) on 3 November, and let us know in the comments what you think of the issue.

Mukahang Limbu is a Nepalese writer based in Oxford. He is a three-time Foyle Young Poet, a SLAMbassador, and has won the First Story national competition. His poems have also recently been published in England: Poems from a School, an anthology written by migrants. He is a die-hard fan of Ocean Vuong, Mary Jean Chan and Rebecca Perry, among many others. This is his first review!

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