Kristine Ong Muslim’s We Bury the Landscape, structured in the form of fragments of prose and poetry–each inspired by an artist’s painting–is refreshing in its unique style and pace; the author leads her readers on a journey through a gallery, pausing to take in the intricacies of each piece along the way.
In “Self-Portrait As Broken Home” named for Julie Hefferman’s 2008 oil on canvas of the same title, Muslim’s every word echoes with a beaten, truly “broken” tone, the whispers of one who has all but given up; there on the operating table, immobile and helpless, with all the failings of the years on harsh display. “What will the surgeon say, if he opens us up only to find rooms of unfurnished lives?” The great fear of humankind is poured out here in her anxious: “Or will he see through our weakness? And shaking his head in disgust…” Muslim concludes with the final and haunting: “After all this, will he stitch us up in time, slap a For Sale sign on our bloody doors?” and with that dark echo of abandonment still ringing for her reader, the author seamlessly moves on to a myriad of self-portraits, each in their own way unsettling and at the same time familiar, glimmers of truth to catch at us as we read and draw us in.
The great struggle of the tumultuous transition from childhood to adulthood is eloquently illustrated in “Self Portrait As A Sky-Scraper”. The reluctance to leave youth behind is only too evident in “we were told to outgrow our beginnings” and “the transparent walls allowed us to view what was outside but never the room below“. The memories of a million childhoods reverberate in the gentle stirring of them: “we blew out birthday candles with ease… we slumped no longer at the dinner table. We cultivated sunlight and good manners with ornamental lamps“, and are then brought crashing back down, cutting through the nostalgia, to the bitter twinge flickering through Muslim’s pages in the changed tone of: “and what little light they offered, we extinguished with the slightest movement of our lips“.
It is impossible to do justice in such a short piece to the great work that is Kristine Ong Muslim’s We Bury the Landscape, from the short and striking “Birdcage” (“the half-maiden, half-parrot perched on the brass pedestal once used for a bridal showcase“) to the telling “Year of the Carnivores” (“we let the second generation creatures get away with it. They stole the wings of our butterflies so they could fly“) to the poetic “We figure the leaves will find their way back inside the house, where the occupy more than their fair share of the furniture“; there are so many moments of truth, so many emotions on these pages. The blatant and the subtle circle each other in a continual dance throughout as Muslim strings each painting together with a practised flair. This book brings not only literature but art to life in a compelling and memorable ensemble which is not to be missed.
Laura McDonald writes in Charlestown, Fife. Her poetry and literary reviews have appeared both in print and in online journals, and she can be contacted at www.twitter.com/lauracmcdonald.