Will Harris: “Rendang”

Will Harris gives no explanation of the title at the outset of his book, but in the first poem, which is part introduction, part dedication, he embarks on etymology:

"In West Sumatra they call rendang
      randang. Neither shares a root

with rending..."

This is disconcerting on two levels. First, because if the reader is understandably ignorant of Indonesian cuisine they have no idea at this stage what rendang is. Secondly, why should any one think that there would be any linguistic root linking a West Sumatran word to an English one?

It is of course easy to discover what rendang is. (Google tells me that it is a spicy meat dish from West Sumatra. Recipes indicate that it needs to be cooked slowly.) But the second disconcerting aspect is more interesting. Obviously there is no reason why there should be any link. But that’s the point. The explanation is addressed to an English speaker by one familiar with Indonesian. The fact that some may see a non-existent link means that there is a link of some sort – it’s all in the perception.

The book’s title may derive from that of the final poem in it. But just as rendang recipes involve a variety of ingredients that are slowly simmered together over time, Will Harris’s book brings together a wide variety of elements – often only arbitrarily linked – that are cooked together into a surprising collection. There are consistent leitmotifs, three of which occur in the second poem, Holy Man. This consists of five stanza-paragraphs of twelve lines each, and describes an encounter that the poet has with a self-proclaimed “holy man” in London’s Jermyn Street. The holy man asks the poet to name a colour, which leads to a sequence of images in the poet’s mind, all linked to green: these include geographical places, a Howard Hodgkin painting, Power Rangers, and Gawain and the Green Knight.

The leitmotifs are: first, the encounter of the poet with another person, and the use of direct speech in narrating the interaction between the two; secondly, the introduction of a wide range of cultural references, including both high and low culture and art; and finally a particular form that breaks with all normal expectations of linebreaks and stanza structures.

In his article The Ethics of Perspective, printed in Poetry London, Will Harris wrote: “…The imagination, so far from being opposed to identity, is the sum of our experiences, recollected and rendered in legible form – it is identity…/I had this realisation three or four years ago. I’d spent most of my conscious life trying to avoid my reflection in the mirror. From a young age I wanted to write. Writing, like reading, was a form of escape. It let me occupy a place outside of myself which, though brittle, was less exposed. It kept me from myself.” Later, after discovering how his mother and her family had been caught up in the chaotic politics of Indonesia in 1965, he realises why his mother, now established in England, had been so worried about his education. “Education was a way out of the swirl of terror that had engulfed her early life. It was no coincidence, I realised, that in my early twenties I wanted to disappear, to have no reflection: it was how I’d been taught to survive”.

In this collection, Will Harris the individual tends to disappear behind other people: the holy man in Jermyn Street, a drunk Welshman in a bar, a friend met in a pizza restaurant or calling round to the poet’s flat. This is in marked – and agreeable – contrast to the solipsistic trend of many other poets. The reader has the impression of someone caught up in a relentless flow of events, in which there is a merging of the internal and the external, past and present. In Another Life, for example, the poet is waiting in a theatre green room to go on stage for a reading. On the television monitor he sees the poets preceding him: “A short white man described his burning hayrick/in a dream”. The prompt of the hayrick leads the waiting poet into a daydream where the background noises of people in bars and restaurants beside the Thames blend with the image of his Indonesian mother meeting his English father in 1980, on a dance floor in Leicester Square.

The second leitmotif is the cultural reference. From the other side of Shooter’s Hill focuses on silent movies; Break refers to the Book of Job, Sharon Olds and John Coltrane; The White Jumper to the videogame Sonic the Hedgehog, Darth Vader, Caspar David Friedrich, Coleridge, Théophile Gautier and Friedrich Nietzsche. In his interview with Alexandra Harris for the Forward Arts Foundation, Will Harris talks of ekphrasis in the context of John Ashbery’s poem Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror, and explains how for him ekphrasis is absorbency, cultural experiences bleeding into each other. “Poetry is open to everything.”

In the poem Half Got Out, the poet encounters a friend who has been reading a book by W. S. Merwin, which prompted me to look up the poem referred to. I learnt, incidentally, that when Merwin’s Selected Translations gained an award in 2014, the judge said “To translate is to inhabit another voice, which in turn enlarges one’s horizons as a writer; and Merwin’s huge Selected Translations represents a lifetime doing just that: feeding his own art with other voices”. It struck me that this is what Will Harris is doing, and that, curiously, it is an extension of his own self-effacement.

The third leitmotif is a choice of particular form that breaks with all normal expectations of linebreaks and stanza structures. In Holy Man this is what I call a “stanza-paragraph” – namely a series of blocks of text with an unjustified right margin, forming a ragged rectangle. This form reappears in My Name is Dai, Break and Say. In Pathetic Earthlings and From the other side of Shooter’s Hill there is a solid block of text without breaks. Elsewhere the poem will take the form of a narrow column, set against the lefthand margin. In The White Jumper, which is a sequence of vignettes, there is a variety of forms, some indented, some traditional. In this case the form-changes operate as dividing devices.

Will Harris himself refers to the first poem in the book as “concrete” and I have seen other references to his poems as being “concrete poems”. I am used to this term being used to describe a poem that forms a shape on the page that mirrors the content, and don’t find it particularly helpful in this context. I was however interested to hear Will Harris read the poem Rendang, which is in nine numbered sections, again varying in form. The fourth section begins:

"Yathu talks about his mum
and I talk about mine, neither
of whom were born in this
country. I mention the bedsit
in Cricklewood where my parents 
lived, how my mum squeezed 
all her belongings into its one
wardrobe, stuffing the rest
under the bed..."

When I read this I was puzzled by the line-breaks, at least half of which seemed to serve no purpose. When Will Harris read it, I noticed that he made no pauses at all at the end of any line, as if it were a continuous piece of prose. I decided I had to abandon all ideas I had about line-breaks in the case of this poet, and consider the layout of the text on the page – did it help or hinder? in the case of this particular section it could be argued that the shape helps the idea of squeezed space in the first stanza and the description of life as a thread in the third. It’s fair to say that there was no poem where I felt the form hindered the poem, and concluded that the impression given – however much art was given to its shaping – was part of the arbitrary, disconcerting effect that is the essence of Will Harris.

In addition to the three leitmotifs I have identified in Holy Man, there are three others that the reader will encounter. First, references to the poet’s parents and grandparents – the English father and Indonesian mother. Typically, and in marked contrast to a poet such as Seamus Heaney, for example, the references are usually in passing, rather than forming the main content of a poem. Indeed, sometimes it is not clear whether the reference is to a relative or someone else – in The White Rabbit there is a section in which the poet asks his grandmother about Sumatra and the coup. This is followed by a slightly different layout:

"In the last weeks,
bedbound, her hair
grew out, black
strands white at 
the roots..."

Is this the grandmother, or not? Does it matter? Probably not.

Then there is London. In terms of location, we are usually in London, Chicago or – occasionally – Indonesia. London geographical references are frequent – Jermyn Street, Charing Cross Road, Baker Street, the Hayward Gallery; branching out to Goldhawk Road in the west, Stamford Hill in the northeast, Shooter’s Hill in the southeast. Will Harris is an urban, metropolitan poet.

And finally there is the dream. As we know, dreams have become fashionable. (Arguably, John Berryman has much to answer for.) Creative writing courses encourage dreams as part of a programme of tapping the subconscious and making random connections for poetic effect. But a dream is not guaranteed to have any emotional or other significance. It all depends on the context.

Dreams occur regularly in Rendang. Indeed, one poem, The Seven Dreams of Richard Spencer, is nothing other than what it says. (Richard Spencer’s identity was unclear to me – Googling indicated that he was either a journalist or a white supremacist, neither of which was helpful.) It is fair to say that they occur most in the first part of the book, but I regret they left me for the most part unmoved. On the other hand, in the context of Will Harris’ stream of consciousness writing I can see they have their part to play.

If I have focussed on leitmotifs it is because the texture of this book is too dense to do much else in the space. It has greatly rewarded rereading. I remain disconcerted, but happily so. I am happy to have met Will Harris on both page and screen. I agree entirely with what he says in the beautiful poem Say: “Whether you speak up or scarcely whisper,//you speak with all you are.” That is what he has done.

“Rendang” is published by Granta, and is one of the ten collections shortlisted for the 2020 T.S. Eliot Prize.

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