More than once while preparing this review, I found myself sitting on the floor with printouts of Will Harris’s manuscript spread out around me. Were a double-sided, loose-leaf edition available I’d recommend it. At once intimate and vast, the poems in RENDANG are made for turning over and sifting through, for remembering and rearranging one’s memories in regard to.
The collection opens quietly, with a titleless poem that hums of dedication and blessing: “Here are words I’ve said // in memory of her who I could / never speak to.” We are introduced, moreover, to the etymological and phonetic contemplations Harris has a knack for distilling into song:
In West Sumatra they call rendang
randang. Neither shares a root
with rending. Rose and rose
have French and Frisian roots
you can’t hear. Context makes
the difference clear.
Obvious is Harris’s fondness of sound. As a poet he would follow it anywhere, it seems, such is his reverence for it. There’s at once the sense of mechanical integration occurring, of tiny bones clicking into place, as well as a sense of wonder in the unfolding, wherein what is rootless at one level is becoming rooted at another, and the arbitrary of one moment is found in the next to be curiously charged with meaning. From “rendang” comes “rending,” not by lingual lineage but through a spark across a synapse; from “rending” comes the plea: “Tjandra Sari, / I call you wrongly. / Rend me rightly. Rootless and unclear.”
The constellation achieved by associative riffing is no less organic for Harris than that which is seemingly seamlessly connected. Which is to say etymological linkages are no more legitimate to Harris than sonic affinities, or mnemonic ones. Every direction is fair game, though some are more familiar than others.
“Mother Country” and “Lines of Flight,” for instance, read like old haunts. It’s as if Harris is revisiting known grooves in his mind, tracing them with a finger. In “Mother Country” he does so out of necessity, if not obligation: “After years of her urging / me to go, me holding back, / I have no more excuses.” The notion of return that is for many diasporic people highly fraught is embedded in that second line: “me to go, me holding back,” contains the directive “to go back” though the phrase is remembering the precise opposition to that—a resistance to the obligation to go “back” somewhere one is not necessarily “from.” Harris’s verses fold these conflicting forces into one another such that one can feel as complicatedly bound to a country as one might be to a mother one never knew.
In “Lines of Flight” the trope of migration takes on a kind of microscopic intimacy. Places are remembered as contained moments. At the Mariinsky Canal, in a photograph, “A girl twists a stalk of rye / around her wrist like / a bracelet”. One day, in Diyarbakir, a white rabbit reads the speaker’s fortune. On a freeway in Illinois, “bent / along its axis,” he writes, “I do as ghosts do: wait.” In London, migratory birds “are / weaving new patterns / in the air, shuttles flying // back and forth.” One can’t help but think of these scenes as capsules of time, snippets of film reel on loop. To that effect, the language of the poem is fittingly compressed, but in later, longer poems Harris loosens the formal reigns to even greater ends.
We see this in “The White Jumper” and most impressively in “Say”, two middle-distance essay poems in which Harris finds his stride. In the former, we travel through the poet’s mindscape as if through a palimpsestuous terrain of childhood video games, toggling between voices, images, and textual shapes. In a mix of meditation, instinct, and play, Harris leverages the modality of “The White Jumper” to enact leaps across chasms otherwise uncrossable. The poem begins to feel like the activity of remembering, in which relationships are observed, experienced, and felt, but never quite solidified. There is, nevertheless, a powerful sense of coalescence, which recalls his opening poem’s final imperative: “Rend me rightly. Rootless and unclear.” For every rightful restoration rendered through memory there is, for Harris, a proportionate haze around it.
Across RENDANG, the poetry of a thing or a moment is a lens that, like memory, transforms an instance into an event, happening into phenomenon. “A brick-sized block of grey stone washed ashore,” for example, “on which was carved the word SAY” is found in the poem “Say” to be a fragment of the name of an old sugar refinery with colonial limbs in the Caribbean. “Flow break flow” becomes the poem’s mantra as it expands and contracts its message by degrees; “What are you trying to say?” becomes its other. Like the tide that brought that message to shore, Harris is constantly turning things over, looking for and grasping at something perhaps irrevocably gone. Even so, he manages repeatedly to draw a circle around it, draw us closer into that circle, drawing us closer into ourselves.
Not unlike his book of essays, Mixed Race Superman: Keanu, Obama, Multiracial Experience, Harris’s reflections in these poems are often poised between personal and cultural concerns. As an observer of the world, he is neither hopeless nor naive. At best, the poems procure a balance between the project of bearing witness, of listening and remembering, and the desire to express and redeem. In sifting through their pages while writing this, I was often trying to recall where that one line was, what it really said—or says. I see now the easy irony of having arrived, again and again, without realizing it, at the collection’s final image:
RENDANG, I whisper.
RENDANG. I lay
the pages of this book
around me. I talk to them.
No, they respond. No, no.
It’s that resounding “no” that’s so puzzling, and that the collection in large part attempts to parse out. There is as much uncertainty in how Harris goes about this as there is assurance. In the end, when the gong that is “RENDANG” goes off, it doesn’t feel like a “no.” It feels like a “No[t yet]. No[t just yet], no[t quite].” A quiet urging onwards. It leaves us poised in the echo, yet uncertain but undoubtedly shimmering.
JED MUNSON was born in Madison, Wisconsin. His writing has appeared in Full Stop and the Chicago Review of Books.