Rendang by Will Harris is a strange kind of book. It’s poetry, but also a combination of casual conversations, memory flashes, narratives and dreams seemingly “stolen” from the people the I of each poem happens to meet along the way. It made me think about that line from a Radiohead song, “We are all accidents, waiting to happen”, but in reverse: in Will Harris’ lines, there are just incidents, or rather people and things incidentally landing on the poet’s sense of awareness, and the collection probably stems from the poet’s need to make sense of the inconsequentiality of existence and of his meeting all these people, objects and dreams by chance.
To me, poetry has always been about “less” rather than “more”, about removing superfluous words instead of adding new ones so as to focus on those that really matter and reveal the inner sound of our energy, the jade filigree lines invisibly turning all beings in their movements and metamorphoses into beauty and structural solidity ̶ something not so different from what Chinese philosophers of ancient times might have called 理 (lĭ). In Rendang, instead, Will Harris seems to opt for a different strategy altogether: he brings in as many words (and voices) as he can master from the outside world to shape their chaos into something coherent and luminous. I tend to think of poetry as a shelter from the world, a silence cultivating the ultimate word away from chaos and confusion, but I think Will Harris’ special way of saying: “embrace the chaos, immerse your memory, pain and broken heart into the world” is a whole new approach to poetry, if compared to what I’m used to read.
In this respect, the title and its semantic implications are extremely important: “Rendang” is an Indonesian spicy meat dish served to honour guests during festivals, so in a way the whole collection of poems symbolizes a gift to the readers, an offering made of voices, but it also probably hints at Will Harris’ mixed heritage, his mother being Chinese Indonesian, his father being English. The word “rendang” symbolizing a dish, though, may at times turn either into “rend”, tearing to pieces, or “render”, cause something to become something else, and this is what the whole collection actually stems from, a “concrete poem” made of two of these words: REND RENDER RENDER. In my view, this coexistence of gifts, lacerations and transformations is the key for understanding the whole book, teemed with a series of objects which “float lovingly on the background” (SAY) turning the poems into a collective stream of consciousness, a flow of different voices merging into a single point ̶ the poet’s voice ̶ ultimately turning chaos and meaninglessness into feeling. Behind all that, there’s the poet’s rending-words-apart strategy: he takes fragments and found objects (but also other poets’ words) from the world to break them apart and render them into something new – his own vision, his poems, shining through with the transparency of those found objects, those whispers taken from other people. Because, as Harris himself says in Glass Case, “art should be like glass”, meaning it should show beings the way they are, “unmaimed” though full of pain, carrying on and carrying across, in-between one dream and the other, one culture and the other, living and writing “into the break”.
Break itself is one of the pivotal moments of the collection: it is poem on hiatus in relationships, music, life, everything coming between one sound/word/ache and the other as “to make space for what follows. Heartbreak. Break-down. Breakthrough. Beneath the surface flow of time are nodes. You slip into the break and look around, see past and future, love and sickness rearranged. Reordered. You feel yourself whole and breached. As me you.”
Another highlight of the collection certainly is SAY, the moment in the collection we realize found objects are the stuff Will Harris’ poetical voice and vision are made of. In the opening, the I’s father finds “a brick-sized block of grey stone” on the shore, with the word SAY carved on its surface. Here more than ever we can see how Harris’ poems are made of “What can’t be disposed of otherwise ̶ what can’t be broken down ̶ is taken by the river, spat out or lodged in mud.” The poet is taking all the litter of the world in, trying to process it into something beautiful; he doesn’t shy away from all the world’s contradictions, but reassembles them with care and, hopefully, insight. He focuses on dislocated objects finding their place back into meaning, no longer discarded or disposed of but kindly picked up and lovingly patched up as remains from other people’s lives, scraps turned into fleeting diamonds. “The SAY brick took pride of place on our chest of drawers ̶ masonry, defaced by time, made part of the furniture.” In other words, made part of sense. Will Harris is showing empathy towards what he finds (objects, dreams, conversations), giving them a face and a space on the page.
Later on in the same poem, he also says: “Things break, not flow; it is impossible, however lovely, to see the whole of humanity as a single helix rotating forever in the midst of universal time.” Because everyone lives in their own microcosmos littered with fragments, the poet seems to imply. It reminded me of a sentence spoken by Yu Cheng, a character from “Dàxiàngxídìérzuò” 大象席地而坐 (An elephant sitting still), a Chinese film (and novel) by Hú Bō 湖波: “My life is a landfill”. Yet, instead of turning to despair like Yu Cheng (and Hu Bo, who committed suicide right after the film was released) did, Will Harris takes whatever he can from this landfill to give it back its shape and glory. “Flow, break, flow. Gather up the fragments.”
What ultimately strikes as a core feature of the collection is this casual toying with words in an experiental and relational way, touching them and being touched by their mutual touching/clashing to reach a sudden shock or epiphany, as if the whole writing process was deliberately mimicking or taking inspiration from Chánzōng 襌宗 (Chinese Buddhism), and I wonder if, Buddhism being one of the six official religions of Indonesia and possibly part of the Chinese immigrants heritage, its distinctly Chinese variety might also be a relevant part of Will Harris’ own heritage as a son of a Chinese Indonesian woman.
To sum up, I loved Will Harris’ writing poetry as a way to immerse himself completely in the din of the world helping us discover the unexpected in the bumping against each other that the world sometimes is. Reading (and writing) his poems feels like bumping against words, but it’s deliberate, this casual walking in and out of objects, people, conversations, citations, songs, because it’s what life is, after all: a collection of found objects/memories/people/encounters made and remade. Until revelation comes and “buddleia” becomes “buddha”, and the other way round.