115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Transpacific Pantoum: Poems from the Diaspora by Shirley Geok-lin Lim and Barbara Jane Reyes

Michelle Brittan Rosado, University of Southern California

The pantoum is a common form within American formalist poetry today, though its history is underexplored in scholarship: from its origins in the Malay archipelago, to its adaptation by European poets in the nineteenth century, and its subsequent employment by American poets. This paper examines “Pantoun for Chinese Women” by Shirley Geok-lin Lim and “Sea Incantation” by Barbara Jane Reyes, and argues that their hybrid poetics demonstrate a postcolonial history that comes full circle, looking back across the Pacific to the form’s cultural origins.


This paper is a chapter excerpt from my dissertation, “The Pantoum across the Pacific: The Circumnavigation of a Poetic Form.” In the larger project, I argue for a new model for the pantoum’s global history spanning five centuries, which I break down into four stages: the maritime, colonial, postcolonial, and transpacific. While European and American critics have almost universally presented the history of the form as a binary between colonizer and colonized, my four-stage model is a significant intervention because it extends and complicates the pantoum’s circulation before and after colonialism in the Malaysian archipelago. Originating in the Malay archipelago in the fifteenth century, the pantun was renamed pantoum in the nineteenth century and adapted by European poets like Victor Hugo and Charles Baudelaire. Their experimentations with the form influenced American poet John Ashbery, who effectively introduced the pantoum to the United States in the 1950s. Based on a particular variation of pantun called the pantun berkait, the Euroamerican pantoum is recognizable by its interlocking quatrains with lines that repeat twice, and the final line often mirroring the opening one. I situate my reading of pantoums by Shirley Geok-lin Lim and Barbara Jane Reyes within this genealogy: “Pantoun for Chinese Women” from Lim’s Monsoon History (1994), as well as “Sea Incantation” from Diwata by Reyes (2010). Before a discussion of their poems, I quickly establish a few of the voices in scholarly discourses on the pantun/pantoum taking place across the Pacific. I begin with Ding Choo Ming’s essay, “The Role of Pantun as Cultural Identity for Nusantara in 21st Century and Beyond,” followed by a brief overview of several texts on poetic craft in the United States. Ding’s invocation of Nusantara complicates European and American notions of the pantoum as a Malaysian form, resisting definitions based on postcolonial nationhood in favor of shared cultural traits across the archipelago. In contrast, scholars in the United States generally offer only preliminary information about the pantoum’s origins as either “Malay,” “Malayan,” or “Malaysian,” and focus instead on its aesthetic qualities. The second half of the presentation addresses the poems by Lim and Reyes, the full text of which will be provided on handouts. The pantoums by Lim and Reyes in particular might be read as hybrid not only due to their command of this form, but also the subject matter of their poems, which embrace liminality, ambiguity, complexity, and multiplicity. Their poetics are hybrid, I argue, in part because their poems are “intimately linked to the question of resistance to homogenization or assimilation,” in the words of Anjali Prabhu. Both poets resist cleanly falling into either the tradition of pantun contained in Southeast Asia or the American usage of the pantoum that came by way of Europe over the Atlantic. Instead, I read their poems as “a way out of binary thinking, allow[ing] the inscription of the agency of the subaltern, and even permit[ting] a restructuring and destabilizing of power” (also Prabhu’s words). These two pantoums highlight the need to integrate scholarship on the pantoum from both sides of the Pacific, as it is a literary tradition not only rooted in Southeast Asia and reoccurring in the West, but a form with a historical trajectory that is multi-sited. The poetic form is not static, and neither are the people writing within its tradition. At the intersection of Nusantara and the West are diasporic subjects, passing back and forth, renewing ties and defamiliarizing others. As Stuart Hall has noted, “[d]iasporic identities are those which are constantly producing and reproducing themselves anew, through transformation and difference.” Further theorization of the pantoum as not only a postcolonial tradition but also a hybrid one will open new possibilities for readings of pantoums written today, including those by poets in the diaspora.