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WRITINGS ON THE WALL

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Antares catches a whiff of ‘concretoceptual word-artist’ Latif Kamaluddin’s BAD BREATH

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Latif Kamaluddin, philosopher-monk
disguised as a human being

A couple of years ago, Latif Kamaluddin asked me to review a self-published collection of his “concretoceptual poems” entitled Words Have Meaning. It was printed in black ink on red card, which brought on eyestrain on top of brainstrain.

Much as I’m fond of Latif Kamaluddin the human being, I couldn’t oblige. In the first place, his idea of poetry, which he terms “word-art,” left me cold and unmoved. I viewed it as a purely cerebral exercise – a verbal wank to relieve the pressures of a stultifying ivory-tower tenure – Latif’s way of rebelling against everything academia stood for by parodying with a poker face the academic mindset itself.

Recently I received in the post his second self-published compilation, this time printed on recycled brown stock and infinitely more legible and stimulating, which bore the irresistible title (itself a work of word-art): BAD BREATH & FIREPROOF DRAG QUEENS (Otherwise known as Khepa’s Dilemma – Being a Concretoceptual Celebration of Irrelevant Research).

Never mind who Khepa is and why he’s in a dilemma, one soon gets used to Latif’s esoteric references to obscure authorities and his invocation of little-known sadhu lineages. With his navel-length Mr Natural beard, perpetually furrowed brow, and shiny pate, Latif could easily pass for a sadhu or mad monk himself.

Indeed, this hirsute professor-cum-philosopher-turned word-artist, who heads a small research unit in Universiti Sains Malaysia’s School of Social Sciences, looks like some venerable Greek Cypriot archbishop or a mantra-chanting beatnik poet from an era long gone. All he needs is a pair of shades to completely mask his identity as that rarest of endangered subspecies – an “Indo-Malay-Hungarian” academic holding a unique niche in a field unvisited by mainstream Malaysian concerns.

All the more reason, then, that the advent of Latif’s second concretoceptual word-art anthology should not pass unremarked. In the arid, conformist intellectual climate of Malaysia in her slogan-slinging, consumer-industrial phase of development, Dr Abdul Latif Kamaluddin shimmers like an oasis of open-minded eclecticism and eccentricity – an indicator that there is intelligent life yet in the utilitarian factories of state-controlled academia. Or at least a mutant high-brow graffiti artist at large in the instant ghettoes of our national psyche.

What does Latif mean by “concretoceptual”? What on earth is Word-Art? Is it all a put-on? And who is Nabanidas Baul, whose mad Bengali sadhu visage opens and closes the slim volume? I can’t answer these questions. Unless some brave soul takes on the challenge, we’ll just have to accept Latif’s word for the existence of literary and philosophical notables like Dolf Hartsuiker, Oeyvind Fahlstroem, Konstantin Amadeus Wecker, and Hermes Phettberg. This is one highly educated hierophant mystic indeed.

Among my personal favorites in the anthology, Latif’s Ode to Mr Bush deserves special mention for its clarity, cogency and conciseness: 45 “SIEGHEILS”  (all in caps) arranged like a column of orcs in 15 rows.

Politics is another prime example of concretoceptual word-art: what looks like a trash can constructed  from the word POLITICS contains only the looped phrase, “Garbage in, garbage out.” No bin liner, bed linen or bin Laden jokes, please.

In Words-Worth, Latif approaches the zen heart of a logical-mystical conundrum with pristine geometric economy: “WORD ON PAGE/PAGE ON PAPER/PAPER ON BOOK/BOOK ON TREE/TREE ON SOIL/SOIL ON EARTH … EARTH IN SOIL/SOIL IN TREE/TREE IN BOOK/BOOK IN PAPER/PAPER IN PAGE/PAGE IN  WORD.” Twelve 3-word lines set in two vertical columns with a “prayalic” break – suggesting the sacred pause between inhalation and exhalation, destruction and creation, one swing of the pendulum and the next.

Latif’s polysyllabic concretoceptualizations walk a tightrope between the serious and the absurd, between the sagacious and the puerile, between solemnity and spontaneity. In a preface entitled Why Write?, he solipsistically concludes:

“WE WRITE (AGAIN) BECAUSE it is an act of semi-totalized self-colonization.” Practitioners of tantric sex value the sublime process of orgasmic non-ejaculation, wherein the seedforce is redirected internally along the spine, so that it can inseminate and fructify the crown chakra, meeting-point of Mind and Spirit.

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Front cover of Bad Breath & Fireproof
Drag Queens

Well, imagine attempting to do that in print.

There is a noticeable change in the tenor of the works dedicated to the poet’s muse, who is acknowledged only as “K.” His words become grounded in organicity, they even acquire rhyme: “We are but blood and a tear/Posted on some painted door/Yet we know not what to bear/All we ask for is some more” (Liturgy for K).

Occasionally, Latif erupts in pure peevishness, notably when he addresses local politics in pieces like Alamak Ulamak, Lagu Kebangsaan, Wa Wa Wa San, Bladi Gomen, Guess Who, Malaysia Boleh, and Sudden Death. Yes, he also writes in Malay and Manglish whenever he’s feeling particularly pissed off. Though these off-the-wall moments do not attain the heights of poetic finesse, they do serve a potent purgative purpose, and reveal a man whose heart is essentially with the rakyat, even when his mind soars way above the clouds.

Latif the Human Relations Worker has been known to support fringe causes with a burning passion, attending to marginalized groups like abused children, the visually handicapped, and the transgendered (which explains the reference to “fireproof drag queens” in the book’s title). Indeed, Latif provocatively dedicates his second anthology “to the Malay-Muslim Apostate.” There are times when one is sharply reminded of the paradigm-shifting power of the printed word.

BAD BREATH is destined to be a collectors’ item: a bold and fragrant breeze of inspired unworldliness, lovingly published in a limited edition and on sale at Silverfish Books, Jalan Telawi 3, Bangsar Baru (next to Devi’s Corner).

For a free digital sample of Latif Kamaluddin’s concretoceptual word-art, visit http://www.magickriver.net/latif.htm

October 2003

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About Antares

Author, illustrator, actor, musician, composer, arts reviewer, blogger, Abominable Jungleman. Also a stargate activator, ceremonial guardian, interdimensional gatekeeper, pendragon-in-exile, and retired deity.

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