Category Archives: Issue 3.5 (Singapore Poetry Feature)

Singapore Poetry Feature guest edited by Jee Leong Koh

Alvin Pang

Alvin Pang Alvin Pang (Singapore, b:1972) is a poet, writer, editor, anthologist, and translator. Named Singapore’s Young Artist of the Year for Literature in 2005, he has been translated into over fifteen languages, and has appeared in festivals and publications worldwide. He was a Fellow of the 2002 Iowa International Writing Program. His books include Tumasik: Contemporary Writing from Singapore (Autumn Hill:USA, 2005), What Gives Us Our Names (Math Paper Press, 2011), and When the Barbarians Arrive (Arc Publications: UK, 2012).

 

 

Karung Guni Daughter

She seems to have inherited my hoarding habits,
squirrels away everything bestowed: fast food toys,
birthday cards, pencil cases, pins. Turns feral
when I suggest that scraps of hastily scribbled
cat cartoons might be better off recycled. If a fly
were to expire in her tea, she’d save it in a jar
(next to the hapless grasshopper, the bee)
never mind the crumbling crayon portraits, paper art.
This is a battle I cannot win, not with my roomful
of shelves stacked with books, files, notes from 1986
propping up the crowded writing bureau: the jetsam
of a life at sea with words, salvaging from ink and page
a kind of driftwood shape, flotation. How else to keep track
of where you’ve been? As if I’m even clear what keeps
or what is worth keeping. Already the precinct trees
are being cut down. A wave of prefab hoarding
has scrubbed the next street clean of flagging skylines.
So let her cherish a little of what is less than recent.
Let her favour the crack in her favourite mug, just below
the lip, the stains and stretch-tears in her purple sark,
her bobbing buoy of uncombed hair, her deadpan voice
when she hands me an old, used envelope festooned
with faded stickers, tells me to hold it forever.

 

AlvinPang_ObituaryPoem

 

Liverpool Easter

pride can hurt you
but she won’t desert you

is the church crooning
to the gathered clutch
to the vinyl court of the king
to the red rival at the other end of hope
to the city sprawled down the slippery slope
to mercy to the humdrum wronging and the hoary wronged
to the distant air-waved wear-washed world
to the heart halved to the golden groove
to the time-freed larkening of the bells
paul     george     ringo     john

she loves you
she loves you
she loves you

                                                            Liverpool, 2013

Aaron Maniam

Aaron Maniam PhotoAaron Maniam is the author of Morning at Memory’s Border, which was shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize in 2007. He won the Singapore National Arts Council’s Golden Point Award for English Poetry in 2003. He mentors young(er) writers under the Ministry of Education’s Creative Arts Programme and National Arts Council’s Mentor Access Project. His poems have been featured in online and print journals, and he has read his poetry at the Austin International Poetry Festival as well as for Australia’s ABC Radio. The French government invited him as a featured poet to the 35th Festival Franco-Anglais de Poésie in June 2011, and published his work in the bilingual journal La Traductiere as well as the French Journal des Poètes.

 

Off Kilter

In my memory, the morning we met
had more white light than white noise.
Its trajectory seemed clear, its plane

lit to an infinity I could sense, if not yet see.

We talked about your PhD plans, my work,
the deeper questions that gave us gravity.

You left after a breakfast that ended too soon,
waving goodbye, then turned back
and waved again, just as I turned too:
one of those moments perfectly
sculpted in the white light of time:
upending us to new orbit,
possibly forever. At the time,
all I could do was smile, then walk away
to an inexplicably diminished day.

 

Almost

There is no language for why
I wanted to stroke your cheek yesterday
When you first arrived at the pub
Friend of a friend, unfamiliar
And promise-full as a new metaphor

Why I noticed the soft flesh
At the V of your T-shirt
The tender Canadian “Eh”
Inflection-propped as I imagined your body might be
Supported by an elbow amid ruffled sheets

Why it felt right for our knees to touch
And stay touching, warmth just short
Of a spark sustaining the connection
As the day lost itself to growing chill

There is no reason, no rhyme
For why I spent all of today smiling
At something more than April sunshine
And the prospect of a drink with you after dinner

When, hearing you mention a boyfriend,
In a parallel universe, another me learns again those
Other things for which we have no words:
Nothing as easy as anger; just the slow wilt
Of waste, desire cooled like a Spring day
Retreating where unbeen chances go to die.

In ours, I learn that sometimes, just feeling
Is enough. I hug you, promise to email and surprise
Myself with a skyward grin at whatever God
Decided this might amuse.

In yet another, another you sits on my hotel bed:
As we talk about planting trees, saving the world,
I start to run my hands through your hair.

Christine Chia

Christine ChiaChristine Chia is the author of The Law of Second Marriages (Math Paper Press, 2011 and 2014) and a sequel, The Separation: a history (Ethos Books, forthcoming). She contributed poetry to Prairie Schooner and is currently a poetry MFA student at The New School. 

 

 

bloom

I focus my eyes on the fan
above my head
while the two nurses

wipe me down
like a table,

the cloth barely catching
on my body.

They turn me halfway, unsteadily,
to wipe the other side; I’m still a heavy man;

my thick bones
now blooming
through my flesh.

 

irony

The woman trying to spoon
the goodness of Essence of Chicken
into my desiccated hulk

is not my wife
but my mistress.

The nurses think she’s my wife,
she comes so often;
they’ve never seen my wife;

they may turn her away
if she comes.

 

finally

So this is it. I’m finally
dying.

My chest heaves in breaths
as shallow as my hopes.

Sometimes I hallucinate
she’s here,

crying,
her beautiful black hair

fanning across the white blanket
as her shoulders shudder

and I pat her penitent head.

Tania De Rozario

Tania De Rozario PhotoTania De Rozario is an artist, writer and curator interested in issues of gender and sexuality. She is the author of Tender Delirium (Math Paper Press: 2013) and co-founder of EtiquetteSG, a multidisciplinary platform focused on developing and showcasing art, writing and film by women. She co-edited Body Boundaries (The Literary Centre: 2014), an anthology of poetry and prose by 28 woman writers, and was winner of the 2011 SPH-NAC Golden Point Award for English Poetry. Tania’s visual work has been exhibited in Singapore, the UK, USA, Spain and the Netherlands. She is currently working on her second book.

 

 

Red

In 2001, lovers Michelle Yong, 21, and Wee May May, 30, jumped to their deaths from a flat in Toa Payoh, Singapore. They were both dressed in red and had red thread tied around their fingers.

You were found wearing red, two bodies broken
by gravity, reporters scavenging for scandal
in hidden codes of culture: Only a matter of time
before you’d return, wearing anger for skin, to haunt

those left behind. The story gets muddled in moral
and myth: “Stormy friendship”, “Therapy”, “Torn between
boy and girl”
. What final indignity did you suffer

before deciding: Anything but this, anywhere but here?

Reduced to names and noise, you sit
heavy on my chest, as though I was the one
who pushed you, as though I am the one who awaits
your revenge: Who did you dress for when you jumped?

Yeow Kai Chai

Yeow Kai ChaiYeow Kai Chai has two poetry collections, Secret Manta (2001), which was adapted from an entry shortlisted for the 1995 Singapore Literature Prize; and Pretend I’m Not Here (2006). His poems have appeared in international publications such as the US-based WW Norton anthology, Language for a New Century (2008), and France’s La Traductiere (2012), while his short stories are featured in Balik Kampung (2012) and Twenty-Four Flavours (2013). An editor and music critic for The Straits Times, he also edits creative prose for Quarterly Literary Review Singapore. His third poetry collection, One to the Dark Tower Comes, is forthcoming. 

 

The Ghost Writer

Suck in as the baby worms out of you,
clawing, hissing. Your limbs can’t move, paralysed
by fear, dread, or a sick thrill. They turn blue,
part from body. Better soon than not; cauterise
so both of you could breathe. Gill, skin and sinew
duly replicated. Photosynthesised,
till both stare askance at each other:
Who else would love you, my monster, my lover?

Does one, ripening, supplant its own forebear?
In your eyes I see the answer I’ve uttered,
even if the signs – twin horns, nose flared –
are clear who will survive. Kicking, marimba
struck, a chord despite general disrepair…
Yes, we could double up, clap our flippers,
blow a fuse or two, trot for the gallery,
though one must choose, this or true savagery.

In the end, one lives as one image permits.
Wary of each other, crossing tapestry
stitched from spin, self-testimony or vomit.
Shacked up, each tenement remains jittery
as Silent Snuffer strikes in a whodunit.
What’s that? Who’s next? This intricate parquetry
does not squeak. Everyone is alive or not,
starting over, staying put, writing a plot.


From Z to A, a Zoetrope with Spiracles

Ablaze… bazaar razed. Woozy Jacuzzi, razor grazes
sleepy body. Pillory, my raggedy ghostly lullaby…

Exhumed: Oxfords, axe, pixels, toxic boombox, wax
works. Jowl whipped with buzzsaw. Who caws?

Nervous invertebrates. Severed, pelvis swivels, skivvies waver,
bubbling under. Busker strums bouzouki. Carousel churns

to circuitous currents. The Executor taps cutlass;
slouching, swinging towards some sentient conclusion. Softly,

amorous aureole radiates through skyscrapers. For years,
squads, equipped, quell quaking burqas. Aqueducts aquiver,

palazzos toppling. People, perplexed, trample. Arthropods push
forward. Flopped out of you, other nincompoops

aren’t cognizant. Born into richness, mandibles yawn.
Moon’s mirage shimmers. Thrum. My munificent muezzin

call, faithful slumberers… Lunging, gills flick, light
evoked. Klaverns skulk, slack-jawed. Stakes. Spokes. Thwack!

Ajar… jerky johns. Joe’s jalopy junked. Jetlagged,
recline into air; Turin behind, white spires

hazy through hidden wormhole. Latched, shaft hums.
Glacier drifting… Foghorn legato languidly running rings…

Fez flits… Full fathom five, Khalifa floats…
Feverish, Joe, you’ve seen veldts, elephants, wildebeest

disappear. Dust. Head cocked, Devil draws endgame:
Scythe uncapped, clickety clack. Crack. Scalped volcano

blows. Womby, bipedals belch. Blubbering, gibbous forebears
sprawl across land at dawn, spiracles agape

 

From A to Z, a Glamorous Zoetrope Names Parts of Singapore’s Latest New Town via Gemstones, Female Singers and Outer Space Phenomena

Opal Polaris Aretha Supermarket

Big Bang Amber Beyonce Bakery

Mercury Callas Malachite Secondary School

Andromeda Dolly Diamond Void Deck

Sade Interstellar Reddening Moonstone Electronic

Fiona Flourite UFO Florist

Sagittarius Gaga Sugilite Gas

Hubble Chaka Amethyst Hawker

Waning Gibbous Whitney Citrine Clinic

Jupiter Jade JoJo Jam

Strelka Kunzite Katy Kindergarten

Molecular Cloud Lorde Lapis Lazuli Library

Mariah Comet Aquamarine ATM

Nebula Nico Zircon Nursery

Oort Cloud Bjork Snowflake Obsidian Petrol Station

Neptune PJ Sapphire Police Post

Quartz Quasar Quatro Aquarium

Coral Rihanna Orion Pharmacy

Sinead Supernova Turquoise Provision Shop

Prometheus Bloodstone Taylor Swift Interchange

Umbriel Ruby Emmylou U-turn

Vesta Vega Aventurine Avenue

White Dwarf Winehouse Maw-Sit-Sit Hardware

Siouxsie Galaxy Axinite Taxi

Britney Milky Way Onyx Polyclinic

Zadora Sungrazer Azotic Topaz Plaza

A Postscript by Jee Leong Koh

Jee Leong Koh is the author of four books of poems, including Seven Studies for a Self Portrait (Bench Press). The Japanese translation of his most recent volume The Pillow Book (Math Paper Press) will be published by Awai Books in August 2014. He has a new collection forthcoming from Carcanet Press in 2015. The curator of the website Singapore Poetry, he is organizing the first Singapore Literature Festival in New York City, to be held in October 2014. 

New Poems by Ten Singapore Poets: A Postscript

A new poem is a cause for celebration. These 27 poems, by ten poets from Singapore writing in English, give 27 causes. Responding to a direct invitation, Leong Liew Geok [i], Yeow Kai Chai, Grace Chia, Alvin Pang, Christine Chia, Cyril Wong, Pooja Nansi, Aaron Maniam, Tania De Rozario and Joshua Ip kindly offered their most recent work, written in the last year or two. I deliberately asked an equal number of male and female poets, in order to avoid an imbalance sometimes seen in selections of Singapore poetry. I also asked writers of different races, whose work interests me.

In gathering the poems here, it is not my aim, however, to represent the growing body of Singapore poetry. Such an aim is simply beyond my means, and perhaps not entirely desirable. The country gained its independence from Great Britain as part of the Federation of Malaysia in 1963. It left the federation two years later. Poetry had been written, however, even before independence. Furthermore, Singapore poetry speaks in many tongues: English, Malay, Chinese, Tamil, and other languages of a society infused and changed, even now, by immigration. The efflorescence of literary writing in Singapore since the 1990s also makes the task of selection extremely daunting.

Finally, I must own up to a theoretical concern. Presenting a selection as representative promotes the false idea that one can consume such a selection at one sitting and be conversant with a foreign culture. One can know what the deal is with Singapore. Ideally, a good selection should kindle the desire to read these poets, and their compatriots, more deeply. This ideal result is not what usually happens. We are under tremendous pressure to make up for our ignorance of the world, pressure that is technological, cultural, even ethical. Such pressure tempts us to search for and consume knowledge alluringly packaged as Essential, Comprehensive, Latest, Representative. To resist the temptation, we could learn to value individual qualities, not illustrative ones. In this essay, composed not as an introduction, for poems need no introduction, but as a postscript, I provide no overarching narrative about Singapore poetry but only a series of micro-contexts and mini-juxtapositions that I hope are suggestive, but not complacent.

Back in 1802, the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth, feeling even then the pressures of commercialization, wrote his great sonnet “The world is too much with us.” In 2014, Leong Liew Geok revises the sonnet to show the pressures on a woman whose world has shrunk to a house. In Leong’s “After Wordsworth,” a woman’s work is never done, a theme shared with her poem “CNY,” or Chinese New Year, which Leong (b. 1947) renames, in bitter self-mockery, “Annual Ritual for the Enslavement of Women.” In adapting Wordsworth, Leong goes one better by shortening the English poet’s verse line from pentameter to tetrameter, and so achieves an even greater force. By delaying Wordsworth’s delayed turn and interjection (“Great God!”) to her last line (“Great Grief!”), she conveys memorably, because finally, the tragedy of time “already lost.” The pointed pastiche of a male poet is again deployed in Leong’s “Soliloquy,” in which Hamlet’s existential question “to be or not to be” is transformed into a woman’s indecision about dyeing her hair.

While Leong, a retired university lecturer, tussles with the tradition of British literature that Singapore has inherited, Yeow Kai Chai (b. 1968) works with the tropes of film and music, predominantly American. He is an editor and music critic of Singapore’a main daily broadsheet. Influenced by American avant-gardists such as John Ashbery and John Yau, Yeow’s poems are fascinated by the world as refracted through allusive cultural fragments. “The Ghost Writer,” also the title of Roman Polanski’s Hitchcockian film, mashes up the images of noir, sci-fi, horror and dance movies. Looking away from the self and to the world-at-large, “From Z to A, a Zoetrope with Spiracles” observes a world devolving through self-destruction. Joe is both Everyman and the American G.I.; he is also, as the writer confirmed in an email, a personal friend. Yeow’s final contribution to this issue is more light-hearted. He makes fun of Singapore’s love of hype in “From A to Z, a Glamorous Zoetrope Names Parts of Singapore’s Latest New Town via Gemstones, Female Singers and Outer Space Phenomena.” As these three poems attest, Yeow is as concerned with poetic form as Leong is; he is interested in form as generative formulas.

Known for her unapologetic depictions of female sexuality and rage, Grace Chia (b. 1973) contributes three quieter, though no less devastating, poems. What is observed with urbane wit by Yeow becomes in G. Chia’s vision a cause for existential crisis. The returning ghost in “Swallow” cannot recognize her former home. It has been changed not only by the old culprits of urban redevelopment and technological advancement, but also by the recent flood of immigration, both from Europe (“Parsley, rosemary, thyme”) and Asia (“green” curry, “stinky tofu” and “kimchi”). The ghost expresses the disquiet of many Singaporeans over being displaced in their own country, but the poem is more complicated than a complaint. G. Chia herself returned to Singapore after living abroad for many years. She is figured in her own poem as the returning ghost looking for her old haunts. The recent migrants are figured, however, as the “swallow,” a living creature obeying its blood-instinct to “find its own nook.” A similar ambivalence characterizes the poem “Tingle,” in which the confined space of a lift, or elevator, engenders an erotic attraction and climaxes in an extraordinarily extravagant image typical of G. Chia’s work.

It is interesting to compare the two poems about daughters by G. Chia and her almost-exact contemporary Alvin Pang (b. 1972). In the poems, both daughters are at the age when drawing with crayon still possesses magic and gives delight. In G. Chia’s poem “Decal Duplex,” the daughter draws houses and discovers they are “paper-thin.” She has been duped by her own drawings into thinking that homes are solid and permanent affairs. Pang’s daughter has probably drawn houses too, but in Pang’s poem “Karung Guni Daughter” she saves up, like the rag-and-bone man of the poem’s title, “crayon portraits.” Confronting the destruction wrought by time and thoughtlessness, Pang not only proposes a conservationist ethic, but also a poetics of heritage. “She seems to have inherited my hoarding habits,” the poet observes wryly in his double portrait, that of himself and his daughter. His poem “Obituary” is also concerned with legacies, here the ambiguous legacy of an unnamed public figure, who resembles Singapore’s aged strongman, Lee Kuan Yew. Pang himself is, I think, the clearest heir of Edwin Thumboo, who is popularly considered the father of Singapore poetry. Like Thumboo, Pang has made himself an ambassador for the country’s literature through his participation and advocacy in literary festivals around the world. He has also edited several anthologies of Singapore literature. Like Thumboo, he diagnoses his society’s ills and foibles by examining character types. And like Thumboo, he displays considerable lyrical gifts, as his Beatles-inspired poem “Liverpool Easter” shows.

In Christine Chia’s three poems, the daughter writes back, not in her own voice, but in the voice of the father. C. Chia’s father died when she was ten years old. The poems resurrect the voice at the point when it is about to leave C. Chia (b. 1979). Dying gives the voice not only its urgency, but also its irony. In the efficient hands of nurses, everything, including one’s body, is changed from before. Forgiveness is a hallucination that one entertains knowingly. There will be no reconciliation in these poems, as there is no reconciliation between life and death. What redeems the horror is the small contemplative space offered by these short poems. In poetry, one can still observe, anticipate and fantasize. This is the saving grace of the writing of C. Chia, as fellow confessional poet Cyril Wong points out in his preface to the second edition of C. Chia’s best-selling book The Law of Second Marriages [ii].

Given the bad rep of confessional poetry, it took Cyril Wong (b. 1977) some time to embrace fully the label for his writing. In the abovementioned preface, however, he defends the stance stoutly against the willful attempt to insert oneself into some big national narrative. Too many Singapore poets try to make their writing important by exploiting national icons such as the Merlion, an invention of the Singapore Tourism Board. Wong argues otherwise, “A far more resonant and believable sense of the universal, when achieved through a paradoxical process of self-excavation, becomes possible” [iii]. That is the stern test that Wong sets for his poetry. His three poems for this issue excavate the self and the past for new insights into the universal subjects of sex, love and family. If these poems are set at a melancholic pitch, they are also full of an assured lyricism. The verse, mostly uniform in line length, unlike C. Chia’s surgical line breaks, is composed to a musical measure. It is not unrelated to Wong’s passion for singing.

Performance has always been a part of the tradition of Singapore poetry, as Ng Yi-Sheng shows in his essay “Unwritten: An Anecdotal History of Performance Poetry in Singapore” [iv]. The early writers, concentrated at the University of Singapore in the 1960s, organized evenings of poetry and music on their college campus. Slam poetry hit the shores of the island-state in the aughts of the new century. Pooja Nansi (b. 1981) won her poetic spurs in the spoken word scene, as is evident in her poems “Watching my man polish his shoes” and “Exile” with their deft use of anaphora. Now the curator of the reading series Speakeasy at Artistry Café, Pooja Nansi blends poetry and music in her performances and events. Unabashed in its full-throttle lyricism, her letter-poem “Dear Alvin” to her literary mentor Alvin Pang highlights what lies in the background of the other two poems: a willingness, perhaps a will, to be saved by “good men,” the lover, brother or teacher. In this respect, Pooja Nansi’s female voice contrasts sharply with those of the other women in this selection.

Love is also a major theme of the poetry of Aaron Maniam (b. 1979), but it is love recalled in memory. The near misses of love are given potent poignancy by the gap between past happening and present recollection. The voice of the poems is thus appropriately hesitant. Nothing happened, and yet something did. Reality cannot be distinguished from remembrance, The evocation of atmosphere—“the white light of time,” “a Spring day”—contributes to the effect of these poems, an effect at once palpable and ungraspable. When the speaker imagines a kind of consummation—“I start to run my hands through your hair”—it takes place in an alternate universe. “Unbeen chances” is Aaron Maniam’s suggestive neologism for such encounters.

But the power of poets to name things is not unlimited. Singapore poets, like poets elsewhere, have to work from within cultural and linguistic codes in order to communicate to their readers. The new poems of Tania De Rozario (b. 1981) and Joshua Ip (b. 1982) work with and against these codes. A feminist and lesbian activist, Tania De Rozario is acutely aware that if she does not name herself, others will name her. Her poem “Red” questions how the mainstream media portrays the joint suicides of a lesbian couple. Even in death, the couple’s love suffers the “indignity” of not being recognized as such. In rejecting the lies of the media as “myth,” however, De Rozario resorts to mythologizing the couple as revenging ghosts in order to give the dead women a powerful agency denied them in life. How haunting the poem’s ending proves depends very much on the reader’s complicity in that myth.

Joshua Ip’s poem “put down the phone” reveals, in a serio-comic mode, that the most ordinary talk turns on the questions of authority and control. The shooting of a photograph with a phone-camera becomes a hostage situation. The tropes of film, which give Yeow Kai Chai’s poetry its suave charm, wail through Ip’s poem like a police siren. The feeling of a ceaseless emergency is even more pronounced in his poem “buzzed,” unscrolling on the screen in one long but jittery sentence. All of us are bombarded by social media with thrilling bursts of information. The media is less interested now in the manufacture of consent than in the manufacture of crisis. The casualties are personal relationships and literature, or as Ip has it, “a trio of ex-lovers pricking my thumb.” William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, a school text studied commonly in sec 4, or Secondary Four, in Singapore, is an aptly ironic counterpoint. The play is the shortest of Shakespeare’s mature tragedies, but its brevity, unlike that of text messages, is a product of masterful construction. It can teach us how to read for tone, but, alas, in the academic race to the top, “they don’t teach / literature in schools anymore these days,” Ip laments.

Though literature is leaving schools in Singapore, it has taken to small bookshops, funky cafés, and the Internet. As a small instance of the literary activity, the first Singapore Poetry Writing Month, or SingPoWriMo, organized this last April by Joshua Ip, gathered an on-line community of 400 people. 30 writers, experienced and new, posted poems daily to the Facebook group and received comments from others. Grassroots efforts such as SingPoWriMo are vital in cultivating general interest in poetry. Another initiative by volunteers is the organization of the first Singapore Literature Festival in New York City in October this year. Singapore writers, including a number based in the United States, will engage their audience in a series of readings and discussions. The energy of these and many other ventures reminds me of the genius with which Singaporeans have built a country for themselves.

In Salman Rushdie’s postcolonial novel Midnight’s Children, the minor character Dr. Narlikar pursues a fantasy of reclaiming land from the sea through the use of tetrapods. He is ultimately unsuccessful and dies of his obsession. Singapore, with characteristic vision and patience, completed recently a massive land reclamation project south of the island and built on the new land a casino. The country’s poets are engaged in a similar venture. True, instead of a casino, they are building a parliament of the imagination. They are, however, also raising land from the sea.

 

Jee Leong Koh
August 09, 2014

 

––––––––
[i] Transliterated Chinese names will be given in their Singaporean order, surname first, personal name next. In the case of Leong Liew Geok, for instance, Leong is the surname, and Liew Geok is the personal name.

[ii] Cyril Wong, “Preface to Christine Chia’s The Law of Second Marriages (Math Paper Press 2014, Forthcoming),” May 2014, http://www.cyrilwong.org/tlosm.html.

[iii] ibid.

[iv] Ng Yi-Sheng, “Unwritten: An Anecdotal History of Performance Poetry in Singapore,” May 2014, http://singaporepoetry.com/2014/02/20/unwritten-history.

Leong Liew Geok

Leong Liew Geok PhotoLeong Liew Geok is the author of two volumes of poetry, Love is Not Enough (1991) and Women without Men (2000). She edited More than Half the Sky: Creative Writings by Thirty Singaporean Women (1998; reprinted 2009) and Literary Singapore: A directory of contemporary writing in Singapore (2011) for the National Arts Council. She taught at the Department of English Language and Literature, National University of Singapore from 1981-2002. She is (still!) working on a third collection of poems.

 

After Wordsworth

The world is too much with me:
Now, as then, house or home
Lays waste nights and days;
Little of time to call my own.

A sordid fray, with mind so tuned
To keeping house, or heart
So turned to filling gut,
Not please the gods or muses still.

So fraught, no Proteus or pagan,
I’m drowned by currents not my own.
Might I just push up, swim away
To reach the dry, find at all cost

What’s left or hides or lies
Buried, or—Great Grief!—already lost.

 

Air Conditioning

Brushing my face, breathing into my hair.
It whispers an air in my ears.
Cocooned in a blanket on the mattress
I’ve dragged to the foot of the stairs,
I look up through a large window
At clouds, and imagine the earth
Turning its back on the moon.
Still and drifting, I take it all lying down
In the dark, touched by airy silence,
Sleeping with the wind indoors.

 

CNY_GeokPoem

 

Soliloquy

To dye, or not to dye, that is the question;
Whether it’s nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of invading age
Or to take arms against its encroachments
And by dyeing, check it. To boldly act—
A consummation devoutly to be wished—
Though here’s the rub: black will not stay,
The roots will grow, and send me back
Again to where I went, paste to be tarred
On my head. This gives me pause
In going the whole hog. No peace till I
Stop warring with a salt-and-pepper head.
Vanity makes me a coward, driven
By the restless desires of slaying age.
To turn, or not to turn? The ego will not yield,
And thus the mind’s resolve is gnawed upon
And nature’s foes hold me in their thrall.
To cut, or not to cut; to tuck, or not to tuck:
Chin, cheeks, breasts and bum—all will descend,
For gravity is constant: skin will sag and wrinkles
Deepen into folds. To suck, or not to suck,
That belly fat decades have so embedded;
Reason and resistance are so shaken
By betrayals of the years.
To end, or not to end, that is the problem,
When to look younger is the norm,
An enterprise of great pitch and moment,
When age is spurned, the younger-looking favoured,
When face and body lie that I might prevail
And the unnatural becomes natural.

Pooja Nansi

Pooja Nansi Photo 2Pooja Nansi is the author of two collections of poetry Stilleto Scars (2007, Red Wheelbarrow Books) and Love is an Empty Barstool (2013, Math Paper Press). She runs a monthly spoken word and poetry showcase called Speakeasy at Artistry Cafe in Singapore which has featured readers from places as diverse as Burma and Botswana. She is also one half of the spoken word and music duoThe Mango Dollies.

 

 

Watching my man polishing his shoes

is like a deep tug into love.
It is the way he sits assured,
holding the mouth of each shoe
in his tolerant and steady palms
surveying each inch of leathered surface
through critical eye before calmly
and purposefully sleeking with
soft but confident strokes till what was once
imperfection becomes lustre.
It is the satisfaction on his face when he
tells me how this is something

he saw his uncles do duty and army bound.
How he learnt that good men
could wear old shoes, but not dirty ones.
How he sat a wide-eyed child watching them
as I watch him now, realising again
that it is this understanding—,
this kind knowledge that things
which have been around long enough
get scraped.
This patience he shows
in his gentle movements
which coax each scuff
into sparkle that continues
to save my life.


Exile

Is it in these bottomless nights that you sleep in exile? – Arthur Rimbaud

Is it in this horizonless
solitude that you float, your grief
grasping for a name you do not share?

Where your lips finally soften
to admit the hard word love to
all that you have lost?

Where the cracked bucket of
your heart collapses into itself to
pour and pour unto

harsh, unfertile ground? Where
only the wind can give sound
to lamentations for which you

have not yet found the words?
Is this where your broken body
crumples into the child

you once were? Confused over
a small problem looking
for your brother

to walk through the door?

 

Dear Alvin

“Without your pain sound has no taxonomy, cannot calculate its tax returns. What colour are the birds you smuggle in your chest?” – ‘Song’ by Alvin Pang

Dear Alvin,

The hummingbirds hover in mid air desperate with agitation and blue hysteria which only subside when I soothe them with whiskey and sing them the saddest songs. Even when they nestle down I still feel them trying to make my heart their home. Burrowing in deep, their beaks pierce at my membrane creating perforations to let in a little air which might tranquilise the aching twilight of their loneliness.

Some mornings are better than others. Occasionally they awake, neon, and drum their tails wildly on the chamber’s floor, jolting the blood stream into a gushing treble of joy. At these moments, I believe they must be my heart itself because I hear an acute boasting pulse of life in their blizzard of noise. When they met that dark boy in 2009, it got embarrassing. I could barely hide the iridescent purple and green plumes that sprouted from every pore and the proud preening sway of my walk to the sound of the hypnotising birdsong far below.

Then there’s disappointment. They’re confused about that. Sometimes it is unexceptional. A smattering of house sparrows, perched in a single spot, their heads turned dolefully to the expanse of a sky that is beyond their reach or interest. Other times, a singular albatross appears, hiding the sun with the span of its grey sorrowful wings, threatening to make extinct the existence of light. My heart can barely hold it. Always in the night, before I sleep the geese waddle into formation, practicing for the eventual migration they dream of.

Though sometimes I barely feel them, I know they are there from the soft open-mouthed squeal that emerges from a fledgling’s transparent, strained neck, begging for a poem to be fed to it until it learns to clumsily topple out of my chest, attempts in trepidation to stand on its own two feet and fly out into the world as a poem itself.

Issue 3.5 August 2014

Special Focus on 10 Singapore Poets

Guest Edited by Jee Leong Koh

Click on a title to read an author’s work(s) and bio. Let us know what you think on our Facebook page and on Twitter using #BlueLyra. Also, consider leaving a comment for everyone to read.

 

Leong Liew Geok | After Wordsworth | Air Conditioning | CNY | Soliloquy

Yeow Kai Chai | The Ghost Writer | From Z to A, a Zoetrope with Spiracles | From A to Z, a Glamorous Zoetrope Names Parts of Singapore’s Latest New Town via Gemstones, Female Singers and Outer Space Phenomena

Grace Chia | Swallow | Tingle | Decal Duplex

Alvin Pang | Karung Guni Daughter | Obituary | Liverpool Easter

Christine Chia | bloom | irony | finally

Cyril Wong | Taxi | Hotel | Mindfulness

Pooja Nansi | Watching my man polishing his shoes | Exile | Dear Alvin

Aaron Maniam | Off Kilter | Almost

Tania De Rozario | Red

Joshua Ip | put down the phone | buzzed

ESSAY Jee Leong Koh | New Poems by Ten Singapore Poets: A Postscript

 

Joshua Ip

Joshua Ip Photo copyJoshua Ip has published two volumes of poetry: sonnets from the singlish (2012)—44 sonnets on growing up in Singapore; and making love with scrabble tiles (2013)—44 poems on love and language. His poetry and short stories have been published in various print and online journals, and he is the first prize-winner of the Golden Point Award 2013 for the short story “The Man Who Turned Into a Photocopier.” He is currently working on his first graphic novel, after the flood. He still wants to be a writer when he grows up.

 

 

buzzed

new message: “i don’t like your tone” and i
scrolled up to screen the log and find myself
transported momentarily to sec 4
scanning left margin, ho! macbeth macduff
lady mac this and that as thick type ticks 
a-dawdle down the page, except no stage 
directions, and i catch myself in the habit
of inefficient mouth- rather than eye-reading
which my speedreading coach informs me is
the reason why i will never hit 200
words per minute—stop vocalising, flash,
he says, blink, flicker, scan the line rather than trip
all tongue-tied through. meaning will follow, after

the short-term cache and flash—next page, next page
and break—new message “wtf” which could
be for several reasons but likely the lag between

my last reply and this one I’m typoing
though any number of events could have occurred
in the last 3 seconds, car crash, missing plane,
man beats robot at ping pong, ice cream truck,
a trio of ex-lovers pricking my thumbs,
the toil-and-trouble tremolo of each
unanswered buzz one more postit sticking out
of a phone that would be dog-eared, man’s best friend
if i could get my fingers on the tone
of this damn text and god knows they don’t teach

literature in schools anymore these days.

Grace Chia

Grace Chia PhotoGrace Chia is the author of two full-length poetry collections, womango and Cordelia, two non-fiction books as well as literary chapbooks. Her short stories and poetry have been widely anthologised in textbooks and literary journals, including Understanding Literature (Pearson/Longman Singapore), Singapore Literature in English: An Anthology (National University Press), Mining for Meaning (Learners), Merlion: An Anthology of Poems, Fish Eats Lion, Di-Verse-City (USA), HOW2 (USA), Stylus Poetry Journal (Australia), die horen (Germany), La Traductiere (France) and Knijzevne Novine (Serbia). Her works have been translated into French, German and Serbian. She was a guest writer to the Austin International Poetry Festival (USA) and the Queensland Poetry Festival (Australia) in 2002, the National Young Writers Festival in Newcastle (Australia) in 2003 and the Singapore Writers’ Festival in 2011 and 2012.In 2011-2012, she was the inaugural NAC-NTU National Writer-In-Residence. Currently, she is working on her novels and teaching at the English Division of NTU.

 

Swallow

The ghost goes round
Closing doors
Flushing toilets

Is this my home?

Same sky, same soil,
Overturned, flattened,
Dug and redug
The old apartments have fallen
To dust
These are new steel
Year-old concrete

This must be the wrong floor

The ghost relearns how to haunt
The LED fifty-inch TV
Touch-sensor taps
Table lamp that springs to life
At the sound of a clap

Did I die and go to limbo?

The corridors are longer
Than before, potted with
Parsley, rosemary, thyme;
Whatever happened to
Pomegranates, pandan, limes?

How do I find my way home?

A different daughter lives there now.
The wife who stews curry cooks it green.
The neighbour likes his stinky tofu
And another pickles her own kimchi.

Who can I haunt? If not my own people?

The door closes on its own. It is the wind of change.
The toilet flushes on its own. It is the rapids of change.

The swallow comes to roost
Finds its own nook
Between the edges of walls
From north to south
Biting at right angles

When the eggs break
The colony takes over
Pacific blood in the tropics
Spreading its wings
Swooping over the heart of

The home where an old ghost roams.

 

Tingle

It’s always in the lift
when our skins nearly touch
but never once;
that static void
is greater an attraction
when we don’t
than if we did.

We eye each other
behind our white jellied worlds
trying to unearth the secrets of
our unmarked spaces
yet to be explored
or sullied by the droves of
flesh we have consumed
through years of not knowing
each other.

I don’t care about the starched
unparked lots of lovers before me;
it is the egg in your eye
that I long to incubate.

So I survive on the tingle,
that almost buzz,
a captured capsule of
a gasp that always escapes me
when my heart thinks
it’s going to collapse;
running on steam
like a geyser sprouting
as a cauliflower of vapors
of volcanic confetti.

 

Decal Duplex

Her daughter draws flat houses on cardboard –
in her bubble she imagines them
cubed, popped-up by the highlights
of her crayoned will;

they are copies of cartooned homes
from the decals on her walls:
oblongs of vanilla, boxed crosses for windows,
waves of seagreen roofed while
bruised mauve flowers with gold stars
tower above the Christmas chimney.

Years later, ungummed,
the sticker house is peeling off the corner,
its edge is off,
a child’s finger has nudged her way
beneath its surface, unsticking the plastic
that made this picture;

nothing is behind it –
no scaffolding but old paint,
a piece of the wall that
once was used to plaster
a paper-thin home.

Cyril Wong

Cyril Wong PhotoCyril Wong has been called a confessional poet, according to The Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry (2013), based on “the brutally candid sexuality in his poetry, along with a barely submerged anxiety over the fragility of human connection and a relentless self-querying”. He is the Singapore Literature Prize-winning author of poetry collections such as Unmarked Treasure, Tilting Our Plates to Catch the Light and After You. He has also published Let Me Tell You Something About That Night, a collection of strange tales, and a novel, The Last Lesson of Mrs de Souza. A past recipient of the National Arts Council’s Young Artist Award for Literature, he completed his doctoral degree in English Literature at the National University of Singapore in 2012. His poems have been anthologised in Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia and Beyond (W. W. Norton 2008) and Chinese Erotic Poems (Everyman’s Library 2007), amongst various journals and publications across the world.

 

Taxi

Not surprising that we’d meet again,
even after we fought over SMS
and promised we would never call.
Not recognising each other’s online
profile, we dialled the numbers
as strangers, since we’d deleted
everything from our phones.
That quick flash of surprise upon
seeing each other at the door: what
did we argue about again? Perhaps
it was more desperation than wisdom
that made us forgive and forget,
so we could charge on with
new smiles and conversation, then
making love without making love,
a curious operation we know too well.
Who can say exactly why we do
the things we do? I like to think
that afterwards, on my taxi ride back,
I was thinking about the future, love
like a sun wavering as it scaled
that high wall of the horizon,
blackness making room between
buildings and streetlamps whipping
past outside the window. More likely
that I was trying to catch
a nap before daybreak, nothing
on my mind besides the odd feeling
that although this journey was supposed
to be brief, the driver was taking
too long to bring me home.

 

Hotel

In the cupboard, bare hangers are skeletons
for future selves; a complimentary bathrobe
waits like a new and better, even purer, skin;
fresh pillows are the unformed bodies
of lovers yet to be born; bedroom slippers
become footwear for shuffling up
an airy flight of stairs free of this life.
Open the fridge, lean past the overpriced
chocolate and the smugly settled soft drinks
and tune in to voices from the god-realm,
where beings reminisce, not unfondly, about
past desires and mistaken attachments.
On the bed, our bodies stay unentwined
in rest because love is in a different room
in a faraway country; but beneath us,
cowering children press ears to the floor,
absorbing the footfalls of fathers retreating,
heads lowered in shame or shaking with disgust;
these trembling versions of us reach
for each other now, smaller hands taking hold.
In reality, the air-con sighs as discreetly
as possible; behind translucent curtains, night
slowly lifts; nobody expects the morning
to be spectacular; although my eyes are
reluctant to close, still hungry for the ever-new;
while another stranger beside me sleeps and sleeps.

 

Mindfulness

There’s the smaller mind
caught up in the operations
of tongues, hands and lower parts.
But what turns it off?
Just as somebody’s finger is required
to flip the switch, surely the mind is incapable
of shutting itself down.
So I suspect there’s a second mind
behind the first, a bigger mind
of sleep and deeper desires,
supervising the traffic of breath and blood
and the heart’s continuous labour.
Eventually the first mind
must return home like a child from school,
the other mind like its knowing parent
waiting in silence at the door;
or the partner already in bed
but not asleep, as the lover who has strayed
slips back under the covers to enter his arms again.