Book Reviews

Hounds of the New Millennium

Poems of Mya Kabya, Tin Nwan Lwin & Khaing Mar Kyaw Zaw, translated from the Burmese by Violet Cho and David Gilbert (Vagabond Press 2014).


‘There are more poets than stray dogs in this country,’ Thitsar Ni, a leader of a Burmese poetic pack was heard to lament at a Yangon teashop. Burma/Myanmar, with its diverse literary and oral traditions, should not surprise you if it brags the highest density on earth of poets per square mile. After all, the Burmese are going through a collective adjustment disorder, known as transition. Besides, you don’t even need pen or paper to be a poet. You just need to utter your poem in the manner of poets of oral traditions and spoken word.  

Myanmar traffic may be jammed with poets. Yet there had not been any translation of contemporary Burmese poetry in English until Bones will Crow: 15 Contemporary Burmese Poets (myself with James Byrne, ARC 2012 & NIUP 2013). In this context, the publication of Poems of Mya Kabya, Tin Nwan Lwin & Khaing Mar Kyaw Zaw translated from the Burmese by Violet Cho and David Gilbert (Vagabond Press 2014), is most welcome news. Cho and Gilbert offer “literal verse translations” of three exile poets writing in Burmese from “cultural margins”. To Khaing Mar Kyaw Zaw, exile is “a disease without medicine” and it is in this condition that these poets have expressed their marginality.   

Mya Kabya is a lyrical poet, a Chin self-exiled in Rangoon and a founding member of Chin Progressive Party. His poema “Chin” (available here) is a straightforward and sustained rant in Burmese against Burmese stereotypical images of diverse Chin peoples. In “unbelievable story”, the poet bemoans the marketization of his land:


gods will be sold

trees will be sold

humans will be sold

now culture’s left to be sold.


But which land?          

“Chin phone” plays both with the Chin identity and the unreliability of telecommunications in Myanmar. Nobody phones a Chin. Therefore, a Chin dials his own number. He cannot reach himself, of course. Isn’t the piece also about “the savages” who have never laid their eyes on a mobile phone? Frost, hornbill, kopsia, coucal, and immigrants, the insignias and stigmas of Chin state, frequent Mya Kbaya’s soundscape.     

Tin Nwan Lwin is a poet of Shan State origin who has been banished to the Kachin capital of Myitkyina since the 1970s. Having published widely inside the country and having worked for the Ministry of Mines in the 1970s and 1980s, Tin Nwan Lwin is perhaps the most mainstream of these three “frontier poets”. Tin Nwan Lwin’s poetic strength is in the life, labour and political and cultural economies of Kachin State.



shock or awe

it grows

between forest and mountain

model town


a Kachin blue mountain range

I’ve left the chicken cage

a poet’s fortress

malaria my gift


writes Tin Nwan Lwin in "prominent labyrinth", about a jade mining town near Myitkyina. “answer the following questions” is a conceptual piece that raises a lot of questions on a graduated scale:


you want a pair of tigers

they can’t be caught with a mousetrap

tiger traps for tiger

wait a sec

pass = 40

distinction = 80

full marks = 100.


Khiang Mar Kyaw Zaw, whose work I often saw in Burmese exile publications in Thailand in the late 1990s, is a Karen rebel. She now lives in the US, but her eagle-eyed view of her old country remains astute:


Myanmar, broken inside

painted with lime

a fence built

the house solemnly

awaits the guests’ arrival

for dollars

the public house asks for its destruction.


Her “rebel venom” is about


a woman lacking tears

doesn’t cry on set

doesn’t cry behind the scenes

too used to casualties

a rebel wife

my mother.


“unforgettable night” is a no-frills tale of a family who struggled for fire on a cold winter night on their flight path to a Thai-Burma border refugee camp.

For readers who are not familiar with Burmese poetry, Cho and Gilbert’s introduction places ‘the poets in a historical and cultural context and explores their significance in Burmese poetry.’ However, the claim that ‘Ethnic minority literary culture is further marginalized by what has been a dominant influence on Burmese poetry in recent years, namely LANGUAGE poetry’ reduces a school of poetry to a nation state.

Unlike the Khitsan (1930s-1960s) and Khitpor (1970s-1990s) movements, Burmese LANGUAGE poetry, inspired by the daring and innovation of American L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets but not as much by critical theory, has never been the only game in town. Khitsan became “national” and inevitably ended up in school textbooks simply because it was part of Burma’s anti-colonial nationalist movement. In post-independence Burma, Khitsan poems were co-opted by the consecutive governments for state-making and propaganda. This failed, of course.

The Khitpor movement emerged against the backdrop of the US War in Vietnam in the early 1970s. Khitpor was a direct assault on Khitsan hegemony and its rigid rhyming pattern. By the 1980s however, Khitpor in its own right became “national” – by now there were more Khitpor poems than Khitsan poems on the front pages of Burmese magazines. 

In the late 1990s and 2000s, following Burma’s 1988 uprising that anticipated the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the poetic forms became more diverse with the advent of the postmodernist movement (lest we forget, the purpose of postmodernism is to tear down “the centre”). Burmese LANGUAGE poetry, as one of the postmodern trends, was met with resistance in all quarters from its inception, not least by poets from the cultural margins, including Mya Kabya, Tin Nwan Lwin and Khaing Mar Kyaw Zaw, who have drawn inspiration from major Khitpor poets.

The real bone of contention, however, between Khitpor and Burmese LANGUAGE poets has been the word “contemporary”. Khitpor poets, who consider themselves in the frontline of the Burmese struggle for poetic and political freedoms, take issue with Zeyar Lynn – the poet responsible for introducing L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets to Burma – for insisting Khitpor poetics are outmoded and not contemporary. Given this, Cho and Gilbert’s presentation of the three poets who have hailed from the Khitpor tradition as “contemporary” can be understood as a rebuff to an ownage.

Today, as I have written elsewhere, Burmese poetics are as diverse and startling as Burmese ethnic groups. The revival of the oral tradition and ethic language teaching in ethnic states will no doubt add to this diversity and, I hope, also to the publication in translation of poems written in ethnic languages – or poems in ethnic oral traditions – into majority languages.   

The voices of the poets chosen by Cho and Gilbert show that identity may be fluid and mutable but ethnic identity is one of those things that tail you throughout your life. If, as Khitpor poet Aung Cheimt asserts, only a fool head-carries her culture, most of us are fools who walk about on our non-retractile ethnic identity claws.  Given his Shan-Spanish-Burmese stock, Zeyar Lynn might as well qualify as the fourth mongrel in Cho and Gilbert’s book!


If you enjoyed reading this, please go to our eShop to buy our latest issue or to sign up for a subscription to the Asia Literary Review. 

To comment on this review, please register first. Then click here.


More Book Reviews

Please Register or Login

Register now for full access to News and Events, Web Exclusives, Blogs and Comments.

If you've already registered, please login.