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"Have I become stateless?"

Illustration by Oliver Raw

Illustration by Oliver Raw

Compiled by Nathan A. Thompson  Illustration by Oliver Raw

Poets from Myanmar are usually outlaws by default and they often end up in jail, which is why so many live in exile. It’s either that or prison.

Take the late Tin Moe. By the time he joined Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy he was already a respected poet and intellectual. His politics earned him four years in the infamous Insein prison where, as an extra cruelty, he was denied reading or writing materials. After his release he fled the country and died in 2007 while exiled in Los Angeles.

In this extract from his poem “Awake from a Homesick Dream” there is a strong sense of disorientation in lines such as “the fluctuating graph of my dream / deformed”. Then the poet is “wandering in Germany, England, Belgium and Holland” as if unsure if he is still dreaming or awake. This sets the tone for the rest of the poem, one of woozy unreality where the poet struggles to find a sense of terra firma, “that path I believe / still vague”. The only safe, sequential descriptions occur when the poet describes his home life, where he would “spread a mat / compose poems and read / hum songs / sip tea”. In these brief lines the poem loses its shaky, bewildered tone and finds stability in memories of home. 

Many of Tin Moe’s poems were translated into English by fellow Myanmar poet Kyi May Kaung. Kaung received political asylum in the US in 1989 after the failure of the pro-democracy demonstrations in Myanmar, and she has been railing against the prevailing military junta with paintbrush and pen ever since. Her poem “Geese” opens with a question: “Are those clouds or are those mountains[?]” By not providing an answer the poet shuns exactitude and opens the door to possibility. The setting is dawn – a time of new beginnings, uncertainty and possibility. Only the geese seem sure of themselves, “flying in one straight / line”. The poet muses: “I must ask the geese”, but this intention is not enacted, so it remains a possibility, a dream.

A committed activist and campaigner for a free and democratic Myanmar, Kaung’s idealism is writ large in this poem. For her, the way forward is clear and hopeful even if the details are “with the mist”. 

“Geese”

by Kyi May Kaung

Are those clouds

or are those mountains

rising – from the

horizon – with the mist.

I must ask the geese

honking at dawn

flying in one straight

line – across the

lake – their shadows below

them.

“Awake from a homesick dream” (extract)

By Tin Moe

The fluctuating graph

of my dream

deformed and curved

inverted, 

sprawled. 

 

Wandering in Germany, England,

Belgium and Holland,

Have I become stateless?

I miss this, I miss that,

at each of life’s junctures 

one thing today, one thing tomorrow

my mind dyed 

a dull colour,

forests on fire,

my winter dreams

deranged.

 

My own country without peace 

I take refuge in other nations 

How can I feel secure?

The path I believe 

still vague, 

the door not yet ajar. 

 

In my village, country

I would spread a mat

compose poems and read, 

hum songs, 

sip tea, 

pick at tea leaf salad, 

my hope  

a life where I can do as I want. 

When will my wish be fulfilled? 

I search but I cannot see.

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