Two Murrayas

Black on black stack mangosteens
Pity the kemuning as its flowers fall
My dark-skinned beauty is sweet to behold
A light-skinned woman is no use at all

Hitam-hitam si tampuk manggis
Sayang kemuning luruh bunganya
Hitam-hitam kupandang manis
Putih kuning apa gunanya

A turn to the risque!  Although this pantun is hardly, uh, progressive, it is interesting.  In modern Malaysia, white skin is overwhelmingly seen as a mark of beauty. There is a huge market for skin whiteners, Malaysians with European heritage are all over the TV, family photos are retouched to bleach everybody out. But in this poem at least, taken from the Malay Civilization pantun database, it is the darker woman who is praised, by comparison to the mangosteen.

Si tampuk manggis
Si tampuk manggis

Mangosteens, or manggis, are fruits with a hard purplish-black rind and a sweet, juicy flesh that I have written about previously.  Kemuning, Murraya paniculata, is a common flowering shrub with small, fragrant, creamy white petals with a yellowish center. Alas, the little flowers bloom for only two or three days before wilting and falling.  Thus the light-skinned woman is described as trifling like the fleeting kemuning bloom.

Kemuning shows up in several other pantuns in a similar way, as a symbol for fickle or weak light-skinned women.  It’s not fair to the kemuning!  It flowers often throughout the year, it is pretty hardy, takes pruning well, and even makes a fine bonsai specimen.  Even when the kemuning is not standing in for Si putih-kuning, it rarely comes out of a pantun looking good:

Kemuning wrapped ’round fence’s edge
A garden of tea with a thorny hedge
Boastful talk from scanty knowledge
Is a great big spoon for little porridge

Kemuning melilit di tepi pagar
Pagar berduri di kebun teh
Ilmu sedikit cakap berdegar-degar
Kurang bubur sudu yang lebih!

The pembayang  here is less clear in its relation to the pemaksud, but the pairing still doesn’t reflect that well on the Kemuning. Don’t ask me why – I think it’s a lovely shrub. Its close relative is even more famous:  the curry tree,  Murraya koenigii.


Everybody knows curry the dish.  It is practically a staple food for the British, I’ve heard.  But Waugh’s Curry Powder contains no M. koenigii.  Which is not to put anybody down: Malaysian curry powders are mixes of turmeric, coriander, cardamon, and more… but are also Murraya-free.  Curry, like ketchup, has drifted far from its origins.  The leaf of the curry (kari) tree is what gives South Indian cooking its special aroma.  The leaves are thrown whole into curries and sambars, fresh, fried or pan-roasted.  I don’t know that it imparts so much flavor, but the smell is very strong.  The plant, shown here in my yard, can grow into a small tree, but I plan to keep mine shrubby.  The pungent cloud of scent wafting downwind of a  full-size curry tree can knock you over.  Curry the tree has inspired no pantuns of record, but curry the dish shows up in a pantun in Sarawakian dialect:

Let’s cook lempah, pass me that pot
Pufferfish curry cooks up fast
I’ve told you before, have I not
Don’t waste time regretting the past

Ambik periuk memasak lempah
Ikan buntal dimasak kari
Agik dolok kamek dah madah
Jangan menyesal belakang belakang hari


International Poetry Translated

If you’ve enjoyed my feeble attempts to translate Malay poems and songs over the years, perhaps you’d like the Poetry Translation Centre.  Contemporary poets of Asia, Africa and South America are translated into English by a two-step process: a native speaker translates the words literally, then the poets of PTC render it in poetic English.  It looks very faithfully done, unlike how Coleman Barks does Rumi, where he “interprets” Rumi based on his own inspiration after reading Arberry’s translation.  There are no Malaysian poets translated by the PTC as yet.  If you are a native BM speaker, you should submit!

On Flunking a Nice Boy Out of School

A mimeograph of John Ciardi’s poem was waiting on each boy’s desk as we took our seats for the first class on the first day of 7th grade at the University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy.  I nearly fainted.  Amazingly, my mother kept the sheet of paper all these years.  RIP, Wendell Hall: may God increase your reward with every word I write.

I wish I could teach you how ugly

decency and humility can be when they are not

the election of a contained mind but only

the defenses of an incompetent.  Were you taught

meekness as a weapon?  Or did you discover,

by chance maybe, that it worked on mother

and was generally a good thing …

at least when all else failed … to get you over

the worst of what was coming.  Is that why you bring

those sheepfaces to Tuesday?

They won’t do.

It’s ten month’s work I want, and I’d sooner have it

from the brassiest lumpkin in pimpledom, but have it,

than all these martyred repentences from you.