Ultimatum Orangutan (Khairani Barokka)

Reviewed by Diane R. Wiener

Content Warning: This review contains myriad, explicit references to themes in the original poetry text that may trigger or distress some readers, including but not limited to racism, slavery, imperialism, colonialism, exploitation, violence, death, misogyny, and ableism.

Poetry born from and because of catastrophe is often necessarily insistent. Khairani Barokka’s second poetry collection, Ultimatum Orangutan, is an imbricating fabric, the interweavings of which rightly hold long-term colonialism and imperialism accountable for ecological devastation, at every scale—from the global climate emergency to the individually Disabled agents across the world who are adversely affected by labor violences and life within myriad contexts of trenchant inequity. Demanding transformation, the poems’ assertions with respect to systemic patterns and possibilities are as lyrical as they are traumatic. There is much to be studied and learned from the mechanisms described and stories unfurled by Barokka’s deft exploratory approach.

The wise counsel offered by Barokka’s brilliant, devastating poems is relentlessly loving while bold; the emergency and emergence present in each carefully chosen word, line, section, and field call forth emotions that are difficult to describe—except, perhaps, by quoting the entire book, which is of course not something a reviewer can or ought to do. Engaging animal rights, Disability Justice, environmentalism, and nearly every realm of fought-for, hard-won, and often-lost-again social changes across the decades and centuries, Barokka decenters and recenters humans to advance decarceration and fight for rigorous, lasting change. Imprisonment is not a metaphor.

In “Terjaga IV – apocalypses,” Barokka states, “any ship that carries slaves, without following their ocean-wide / designs of freedom: a slave ship / any mind that carries singular future apocalypse, without mass / current and past apocalypses in mind – colonial, linear time – is a ____” What is referenced in or by the ____? The reader must indeed decide. The slaves and their “ocean-wide / designs of freedom” have primacy; their imaginations and liberation cannot be wholly colonized. The poet’s insistent mindfulness and indexing of its nonbinary companion, in juxtaposition—thoughtlessness (clearly far-worse than attempts at obfuscated inconsideration, so often promoted in the guise of so-called errors or mistakes that had been wholly purposeful)—are simultaneously a commentary on “reason” and “rationality,” while underscoring the ways in which colonial projects sought to sanitize, elide, and render lesser the masses, on “their” eugenically masted, massive ships.

Within “Terjaga IV,” the image of a ship is a social one, a spiraling, semiotic manifestation of violences from the past to the present and continuing, in “linear time.” This ship is surely living, and it swirls as necessarily alive in “our” minds (quite differently for those who are or have been colonized as compared with those colonizing). Charybdis-like, this swirling whirlpool is also not a metaphor. All prior apocalypses remain present; they influence the current world and hold the potential to undermine, risk, and bring ruination and disaster, in the future. How ____ is understood is no small choice.

The assertions that undergird the titular poem include why it is necessary to care about the origins and effects of producing palm oil, not only because of the obvious rights of orangutans not to be harmed and exploited, but because making “ethical” palm oil decisions and attendant consumer choices have “purchase.” As Barokka’s poetry states unequivocally, these decisions and choices are and have always been about—and been influenced by—sustainability, labor, and the relationships between the “first-world” leaders’ ideologies and practices, with respect to labeled-as and rendered “less developed” nation-states, and their deliberate domination, and the othering of human and nonhuman life deemed unworthy by those in power:

When I speak to people about palm oil plantations
as devastation of Papuans, Dayak, Padang, et al,
invariably, the words ‘palm oil’ make them think
of orangutans. We need to save them. I’ve found
myself thinking ‘Orangutans, and so many peoples
as well’, but this phrase does not fit well on campaigns
against palm oil; and whenever I see a billboard
with an orangutan on it campaigning against palm oil,
I say ‘Yes’, I say ‘Is this what it takes’, and always
I say ‘And so many peoples as well.’

Is it any coincidence that King Kong’s shown up
so much with animals extinct, rising again –
Brontosaurus, Triceratops, Tyrannosaurus –
other twisted notions of the other, crafted into scales and claw?

Feminist activist-scholars Marina Warner, Barbara Creed, and a host of other profoundly talented writers, artists, and other creatives have spent their careers describing “twisted notions of the other,” including the concept of the “monstrous feminine”; there has likewise been extensive commentary about cold war idioms and their associated, often racist panics, and how these phobias and aversions are hidden within while made explicit by King Kong, Godzilla, the animals in Jurassic Park, and so many other representations in the so-called popular imagination within and beyond the often narrow strictures of “western” canons. As happens to a certain degree in the poetic passage cited above, Barokka engages intermittently and pointedly in a unique formulation: the poems engage readers in anti-monstrous, anti-racist, pro-ecology, anti-ableist, feminist, and postcolonial imagery and messaging using lyricism and cinematographic cross-cutting.

In these respects, the poems are evocative of while wholly different from parallel “talking back” work asserted by, for example, Aimé Césaire (responding to Shakespeare’s Caliban in The Tempest) and The Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (responding to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre), along with the many responses to Friday’s presence, role, treatment, and purposes in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. There are myriad illustrations, of course, beyond these, each of which aims to rewrite, comment assertively upon, and revision power dynamics—from the perspectives of way-too-many demeaned, forgotten, abjected, and othered figures.

One does not have to be familiar with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Homi K. Bhabha (or any of these other writers and artists’ works, as mentioned above) to be affected at a visceral level by Barokka’s poetry. This is not to say that the poetry will be met by each reader with ease—nor should it be. The “pedagogy of discomfort” is central to Barokka’s approach, unapologetically. In these poems, as with the works just identified, capital-e Empire is never permitted to extricate itself from accountability by slipping away in the night after its latest spates of deceiving, lying, pillaging, and violating.

The body’s disablement, empowerment, and variances are central to the poetry, across the text. Hope is neither romanticized nor absented; it remains vital, while complicated and nuanced. In “mediterranean lyric,” the poet tells us:

hope is a sea-
storm’s kindling.
fire in the mouth
of waves
and mistral.

In “good morning / today my body will not be your lesson,” we learn:

personal pleasures may appear to you in disguise, perfected
by a mindscape of eugenicist fireworks, marketed with racism-style grit

Later in the poem, readers (and whomever else is/are “you”) must heed the following:

you think it’s my flesh and nerves when more than this, so you know,
it is establishments you support who inflicted and inflicted and inflicted

Note that the “establishments you support” are referred to as a personified “who” rather than as a distanced or disembodied “which.” Barokka—or okka/Okka, as poetic protagonist—in this poem goes on to call themself a “full-throated mess of highland birds, peace-fed, cacophony exiting the resting neck as silks -” while “you” (that is, we readers, and others addressed) “stand, alone in pity-giving.”

“mediterranean lyric” is followed immediately by “the world is stairs,” a short treatise on rules, rule-breaking, and ableism’s long alliance with racial violence and globalization. Throughout the collection, there is immense intertextuality within, between, and across the poems and their placements/locations. It is a vast ocean, this book, and London-based Barokka, from Jakarta, takes the reader on one hell of a swim.

In “medusozoa, neuropathic pain,” we are met by and taught with jellyfish neurology, a Queering and Cripping of the nonhuman animal in ways that join and separate our species. We need to consider how and why “evolving out of our sense / of poisoning tentacles is possibility.” And, we must learn, soon:

this is blessed plurality of sense.
this a many-tentacled neuron
diversity, this. a synapse in
coelenterate could tell it is not
to kill us. a synapse in ourselves
could try to, fail to, fall wet.

As happened to me, repeatedly, while reading the book, I was swept away by this poem. Here, I was reminded, as well, of Queering the Non/Human, edited by Noreen Giffney and Myra J. Hird (Ashgate, 2008)—especially Eva Howard’s “Lessons From a Starfish,” wherein the author discusses what they call “a critical poetics,” and, among other Queer-Trans-Crip assertions, the 2000 song “Cripple and the Starfish” by Antony and the Johnsons.

Readers are strongly encouraged to engage deeply with “A Lexical Index” at the book’s conclusion. The book also includes an image description of its cover, with original artwork by the author.

Fasten your watery seatbelts for the trip, but know they will slip off, whether (or not) you wish it to be so.

Title: Ultimatum Orangutan
Author: Kharani Barokka
Publisher: Nine Arches Press
Date: 2021

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About the Reviewer

Diane R. Wiener became Editor-in-Chief of Wordgathering in January 2020. Diane is the author of the full-length poetry collection, The Golem Verses (Nine Mile Press, 2018), the poetry chapbook, Flashes & Specks (Finishing Line Press, 2021), and the forthcoming poetry chapbook, The Golem Returns (swallow::tale press, 2022). Her poems also appear in Nine Mile Magazine, Wordgathering, Tammy, Queerly, The South Carolina ReviewWelcome to the Resistance: Poetry as ProtestDiagrams Sketched on the Wind, Jason’s Connection, the Kalonopia Collective’s 2021 Disability Pride Anthology, and elsewhere. Diane’s creative nonfiction appears in Stone CanoeMollyhouse, The Abstract Elephant Magazine, and Pop the Culture Pill. Her flash fiction appears in Ordinary Madness; short fiction is published in A Coup of Owls. After serving as Guest Editor for Nine Mile Literary Magazine’s Fall 2019 Special Double Issue on Neurodivergent, Disability, Deaf, Mad, and Crip poetics, Diane was appointed as the magazine’s Assistant Editor. The Founding Director of the Syracuse University Disability Cultural Center (2011-2018), Diane now serves as a Research Professor and as the Associate Director of Interdisciplinary Programs and Outreach at the Burton Blatt Institute (Syracuse University College of Law); she also teaches in the Renée Crown University Honors program. Diane has published widely on disability, pedagogy, and empowerment, among other subjects. She is a proud Neuroqueer, Mad, Crip, Gender Nonconforming, Ashkenazic Jewish Hylozoist Nerd (etc.). Diane blogged for the Huffington Post between May 2016 and January 2018. You can visit Diane online at: https://dianerwiener.com.