Between Stolen Glances. A book review by Prof Rahman Shaari

between stolen glances cover


An effective poem is a poem that drives readers to see or figure out things from different angles. This condition is a definition of a poem, which is foreign and different from familiar ones. This definition, in addition to stating the secrecy aspect, is rarely mentioned in poetry discussions.

For example, when people give ‘Salam (Peace Be upon You)’, then generally people think of goodness, without question to whom the wishes are made. I consider Siti Ruqaiyah Hashim’s poetry entitled “Peace Be upon You Davos” effective because of the presence of the question: “But, for whom?” at the end of the first stanza. The question is already foreign from familiarity. The foreign effect is then added in the cynical statement of the third stanza:

Peace be upon you Davos                                                                                                                                                              

Yes! I know                                                                                                                                                                           

American fighter jets need to be sold                                                                                                                    

Sophisticated Israeli drones                                                                                                                                                              

Need to be researched and produced                                                                                                                             

So that more could be killed                                                                                                                                                 

‘Assalamualaikum’ is conflicting with a statement on murder. The statement is cynical. It makes readers think about messages that the poet wants to be delivered. The poem’s message is concluded in the last stanza. In this poetry, Siti Ruqaiyah dwells on international issues.

This style is a specialty of Siti Ruqaiyah.   In a poem that deals with the homeland, the poet remains cynical. The poem “What a Pity to Pak Tua” deals with the condition of an old leader, who still wants to strive to hold onto power, or wants to pass over power to his descendants. The statement of compassionate feelings in the early part of the poem is an early point to try to say something that is considered improper. Note the entire inclusion:

Sometimes I pity to look at Pak Tua

Who is still cracking his head                                                                                                                                                       

At the twilight of his age                                                                                                                                                                                                   

To increase gold                                                                                                                                                                                  

Of his descendants                                                                                                                                                                         

And his friends                                                                                                                                                                    

Who never stop begging                                                                                                                                                     

Though he knows very well they never stop asking  

The poetry can be understood by Malaysians with ease, if they follow political developments of the year 2019 and early 2020.  The above mentioned time is the most robust period for the Malaysian political elite to strategize measures for power. In March 2020, the politicizing resulted in a power struggle and an unexpected peak, the transition of power. Through this poem, Siti Ruqaiyah immortalizes the main character in the political process.

Between Stolen Glances is Siti Ruqaiyah Hashim’s multi-theme poetry collection. Two of the poems touched on top, and the poems to be touched later, have not yet represented other poems.  Readers need to read the whole book in order to understand and respond to the depth and vastness of the poet’s experiences.

After going through the entire book, I am of the opinion that Siti Ruqaiyah effectively deals with a number of themes with her own unique distinctive styles and techniques. I have talked about her highly communicative poems in terms of understanding, but not all poems are easily understood and digested.  For instance, the poem “Artful Games of the Gods” will make a reader frown with lines on his/her forehead thinking about its meaning. The first two stanzas point to the character and love of a man, but the third stanza comes with a surprise. Here’s the third stanza:

But playing fields had changed                                                                                                                                                    

The gods are in the arena                                                                                                                                                          

With exotic artful chess games                                                                                                                                               

And we both knew                                                                                                                                                                        

The next rules  

In terms of the level of communicativeness, the method of easily understandable first two stanzas is very effective. But this poem is not a simple poem that carries a single layer meaning, but rather multi layered and ambiguous. Love drawn as a simple straight feeling, eventually enters challenging external interferences. However, all this ends with a relieving conclusion, very much a psychological rationalism):

Ah! We are the chosen pawns                                                                                                                                                 

Not any ordinary ones                                                                                                                                                              

Be happy with that….

In the poem “Love in the Times of Al Nakba” the romantic style beams. Observe the first stanza:

My man                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

thank you                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

for trying  to fathom                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

between the battles of the soul                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

and the waves of my love to you                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

and seeing every grain                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

more than                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

the dances of a gypsy woman   

We find it an inclination of Siti Ruqaiyah to start her poems with a simple and unpretentious statement, but there is a great meaning to be conveyed in it.  In the above poem, the man described is unpretentiously in love at first sight, apparently in a tense situation threatened by war.  This is the tendency of Siti Ruqaiyah’s poems, and her poems are interesting because of the skills of using this technique. In conclusion, this style of hers is particularly successful in producing cynical, symbolic and tragic stories embodied in a work of art.

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Rahman Shaari
Chairman, Malaysian Poets Association

Rahman Shaari was born on 5th September 1949, in Perlis. He received primary education in Perlis, then at Alam Shah School, in Cheras, KL. He entered Sultan Idris Teacher Training College in 1970 and continued his education at the National University of Malaysia (UKM) in 1973 and gained his Bachelor’s degree in Literature 1976. After working at the Ministry of Education for 6 years, he continued his studies at UKM, and obtained his Master’s degree. He was appointed as a lecturer at the Faculty of Education in 1988. In 1991, he attended a course on international writing at the University of Iowa, USA. In 2003, he was appointed as a Professor at Media Studies Department. Rahman Shaari received the S.E.A Write Award in 2007. He is currently the President of Malaysian Poetry Association (Penyair).

Published by darcie friesen hossack

Darcie Friesen Hossack is a graduate of the Humber School for Writers. Her short story collection, Mennonites Don’t Dance, was a runner-up for the Danuta Gleed Award, shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Ontario Library Association's Forest of Reading Evergreen Award for Adult Fiction. Citing irreverence, the book was banned by the LaCrete Public Library in Northern Alberta. Having mentored with Giller finalists Sandra Birdsell (The Russlander) and Gail Anderson Dargatz (Spawning Grounds, The Cure for Death by Lightening), Darcie's first novel, Stillwater, will be released in the spring of 2023. Darcie is also a four time judge of the Whistler Independent Book Awards, and a career food writer. She lives in Northern Alberta, Canada, with her husband, international award-winning chef, Dean Hossack.

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