Saturday, August 05, 2006

Going Home from Church

First night in my old bedroom, I found myself reaching for the anthologies in which my early poems were published. Reading the poems made me squirm with embarrassment over their inexperience and infelicities. I am too much in love with them to wish them destroyed, so they will have to remain as testaments of a younger poetic self. "Testaments" is too solemn a description; more like acne, except that these poems are, unfortunately, not adolescent efforts, but a young man's stumblings.

I am intrigued by the thematic continuities in my writing: dislocation, religious revelation, memory. Same-sex desire, a present preoccupation, was a subtext.

"Going Home from Church on Bus 197" was published in "No Other City: the Ethos Anthology of Urban Poetry" (2000). It means something to me partly because a Singaporean blog quoted the poem's last line years ago, and thus I feel that the poem, with all its weaknesses, has met Auden's definition of poetry as "memorable speech."

Going home from church on bus 197
I thought how quickly new thoughts of heaven
Transubstantiate into old residue.
I looked around. There only a few

Fellow travellers, eyes free of vision,
Heavy heads lolled in humbled submission
To heat and dust. The mind recognises
In an instant, immune to surprises,

Its failure to connect dust to sleeping dust.
I thought, people are still people, and rust
Still rust, steel still steel, there is nothing new.
The bus rattled its metal cage and a queue

Of Thai workers stumbled, with careless eyes,
To the back seats. One, of the largest size,
Jabbed the window with insistent finger
And rapid mouth, sharp verbal reminder

Of their difference. The youngest replied,
His smile in his voice. A third supplied
A joke; all laughed, even the quiet one
In the corner. Touched with the light that runs

Across the ridges of their faces, I say:
Why do these men, living between narrow days,
Catch the sun of a passing moment and
Make me feel the alien in my own land?

The poem suffers from multiple faults: forced rhymes, clumsy phrasing, poor control of meter, a lack of visual imagination (what do those Thai workers really look like?). However, for me, it is evidence of my need to write in form even before embarking on myMFA in the States. My feel and urge for form are not derived from American neo-formalists, but go back to my early reading in British literature. "Lolled" is a Larkin word. "Transubstantiate" is an echo of R. S. Thomas. That quaint phrase "fellow travellers" smells of Wordsworth. Reading the poem now, I still like (except for that terrible interruption: "I say") the roll of that last sentence, the turns of phrase, the sonics in the very last line. Well, I did say that I am still in love with my younger poetic self.


Eloise said...

At least your juvenilia has been anthologised--you've got to give your future scholars something to puzzle over.

The last line is lovely.


Jee Leong Koh said...

Hi Eloise,
thanks for being so indulgent!

Jee Leong

ericlow said...

at least u don't have to kena live with a first published poem about a freaking hamster! hahaha. forgot to tell u my online address before u left that day. so anyway, this is me. :)

eric low
(cyril's irritatingly loud friend)

Jee Leong Koh said...

Hi Eric,
I'll be leaving Singapore on Thu Aug 17. Thanks for reading the blog.

Jee Leong