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‘Language is given a violent potential’: The Unquiet, read by L. Kiew

ByMax Hunter

Mar 30, 2019

The debut poetry pamphlet  by L. Kiew, The Unquiet, is a unique collection from a writer of great promise, whose connection with this city goes back to her Creative Writing Masters degree at the university.

In a reading at Lighthouse Bookshop, this English-boarding-school-educated Chinese-Malay poet invites us into a world of violent linguistic confusion and identity crisis. Perhaps charting our present condition as a world of overlapping borders and linguistic markers, these poems seem to give flavour and texture to an expression of that which we are drifting towards: a globalised world. The work within its pages gives us an insight into the jarring internal conditions of a human caught awkwardly and painfully in the intersection of these powerful currents.

The themes which stand at the forefront of this work are family and belonging. Food is used as an expression and explanation of these things; smells, tastes and sounds are evoked powerfully to focus our attention. Throughout, masculinity lurks with a brooding, destructive energy: usually overconfident, commanding, and smelling of booze.

Kiew counters these insights with a bold assertion of feminine strength; she tells her daughter, “Kicking was your first conversation. / You are a strong swimmer.”

Poem five, ‘Pitched In’, seems to tell the story of a woman deprived of choice in marriage. We are told that “to marry a tiger / [we must] sacrifice that ox-hearted nature”. There seems to be a discomfort with straight-forward femininity. Although her friends introduced her as Lisa, I cannot help but ponder the significance of the poet’s name being given as ‘L. Kiew’ everywhere in the pamphlet.

In these pages, language is given a violent potential. It sits uncomfortably within each of us, and the identity confusion of a migrant background is matched with an internal linguistic agony that Kiew captures beautifully. She uses short sentences, packed with verbs of great force, to give us an impression of this violence. Even going further to describe how “The words I swallow become / feathers poking through my skin”.

There is a darkness that lurks around the edges of expressions like these; there is an anxiety, always subliminal and all pervasive, that follows us from page to page. Often however, this jarring anxiety is given full expression.

Kiew moves freely between and among languages in her poems: English, Malay and her family’s southern Chinese dialect are exchanged and swapped freely, though never without purpose. English is presented as the language of power, and hence of dominating structures: it is cold, and cutting. Boarding school is an experience in “cutting / my tongue with that ice”.

Kiew writes so much better than she reads aloud. You really must pick up a copy to understand the value and potential of this work. Here’s to hoping that there’s much more to come.


Poetry Reading: The Unquiet

Lighthouse Books

21st March 2019



Image: Counselling via Pixabay.

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