BEEF by Nurul Amillin Hussain

The first fascinating thing about this book is its cover. It’s a title called BEEF, so what did Math Paper Press decorate the cover with? Sliced up fish, of course, because that’s what Math Paper Press does.

The poems hidden beneath this mind-flipping cover are no less provocative. For me, reading BEEF felt like an almost intrusively intimate exploration of relationships and family, and all the layers that make up love and attachment.

There are many ways to tell the story of where you came from, begins the poem Partition, and in BEEF, it starts with the encapsulating walls of your home, of the people who live in a close press around you, in an urban world where physical closeness does not always translate to understanding or affection. Nurul brings us through a methodical, sometimes acerbic, exploration of our shared living spaces, from religion practised in dusty corners, to the tranquilising (anaesthetizing?) effect of household chores.

Curiously, this book of poems made me think of HDB flats. It’s as if Nurul is standing there beside me, in my kitchen, as I stare out across the courtyard directly into the multiple glowing squares of my neighbours’ kitchen windows. She picks out one window after the other, and describes what each resident is feeling in that moment, as I secretly watch them while pretending to brush my teeth.

The old lady with arthritis, struggling to bring her laundry in. The mother whispering prayers at a makeshift altar in her laundry room. The bickering siblings, their shrill voices falling into a murmuring babble when dinner is served. The family gathered around the television set, in strict order of who will make the most fuss if their view is blocked. The elderly widower, watering his plants in the common corridor, adrift in memory.

Each poem in BEEF quietly strips down the armour of our daily domestic lives, penetrating walls, placing the reader into the souls of the sullen teenager, the bewildered child, the watchful grandmother, revealing the beauty, sorrow and sweetness of domestic everyday relationships.

 

by Meihan Boey