Thursday, September 28, 2006

This voice you hear is not my voice

This voice you hear is not my voice
stuttering on the phone,
snapping at the ghostliest slight,
or singing all alone.

This voice you hear snags on the branch
of my pelvic bone.
This voice is small enough to fit
the span of the headstone.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Reading at The Stone

Here's a repeat annoucement: R. Nemo Hill's Active Ingredients is presenting a series of poetry readings every Monday in October. I'm reading with Jane Ormerod, Paco and Thomas Fucaloro on the first Monday. It'd be lovely to see friends there, if you are in New York.

Date: 2 Oct 2006 (Mon)
Time: 8 p.m.
Tix: $10.00
Place: The Stone, 2nd St. & Ave C

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Honesty and Pride

How hard it is to be honest
and think well of myself,
hard to decide which ornament
to show off on the shelf.

One owns the virtue of diamond
cut to make it shine.
The other, fired earthenware,
is a vase I may call mine.

Men chase the value of the stone
in action and in word.
They embrace the other in love’s bed
or in the silent ward.

And I, much too poor to be proud,
much too weak to be good,
must leave the old shelf empty,
standing where it has stood.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Up the Stairs

You are afraid he will see you
escaping up the stairs.
You see the other seekers eye
their feet or someone's ass.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

The river is wild, and I don't know why

The river is wild, and I don’t know why.
There was no rain yesterday. Too early
for snow. No tanker to upset the waves,
but motorboats, tossed from hand to hand
as if they're motorized and finned grenades.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Poetry and the Renaissance Machine in Singapore

Note: Please read Gwee's response to this post in the comments.

I read Gwee Li Sui's essay on Singaporean poetry (Harvard Asia Quarterly, Volume IX, Nos. 1 & 2. Winter/Spring 2005) in Cyril Wong's blog. The essay attempts to explain the lack of major Singaporean poets between Edwin Thumboo and Alvin Pang by analyzing poetry's withdrawal from the national sphere during the desert years. In his analysis, the interim poets disengaged from a national culture increasingly bureaucratic and economically-minded, and thus limited their artistic ambitions and impaired their poetic strength. Besides Lee Tzu Pheng, Gwee cites Boey Kim Cheng as another example of this impaired poetry:


We speak therefore of how poetry had only reassumed its pure space of freedom in the general failure of a stable sense of self and home to arrive distinct from infrastructural and economic concerns. We also assert that the catalytic conflict was indeed the key to its own mediation: what the politicising of art in a ban provoked was precisely an artistic response that would be as good as an agreement to the larger redrawing of boundaries. With this new relationship, poetry would be as free to pursue its own concerns as the state would be to fashion a whole national culture that could ignore its relevance through a top-down commandeering of language. The absolute social defeat poetry had suffered was converted internally into absolute self-sufficiency, a truth we must now re-expose through a different confessing voice, that of Boey Kim Cheng. This one-time protege of Lee established with "Somewhere-Bound" (1989) a fiercely intense pursuit of writing and reading that would lead him at length to choose an Australian citizenship in 2003. His early "“Cloud of Unknowing," in fact, shows an impotent wish to be revenged on the realigned world of social usefulness:

We never had
the architect's foresight, never knew
how to be useful, never had
the inclination to consult
the guides to happiness.
We strayed off the road
with books like On The Road.

Around us the smiling successes,
the stories of the rich and famous,
geniuses who are doctors and the like
from the moment of conception.
We remain incurable procrastinators,
waiting for our cloud's dispersal,
or the disappearance
of these useful people,
leaving us
the only successful survivors
on this planet.

The clue to a lot of Boey's contemplations is his neurosis, depicted here as being "“on the verge / Of something state." In his characterisation of "“useful people," we imagine Thumboo's nation-makers--folks like his academic, civil servant, and city planner--but are struck by the further complicity of the poets Thumboo and Lee as citizens. The former's role is straightforward while the latter can now be construed as a beacon for others cast out by an imagination at odds with or untouched by the official social vision. The decisive question emerges: where then can a late-arriving poet go if he or she simply has no wish to stand outside inside and still yearns for a communal space to posit or propose a personal identity? Boey's poems are launched almost fixatedly to tear rootlessness out of uselessness; they throw themselves nervously into an assortment of locales around the world where, in some makeshift humanity, he sees himself more at home than in either Singapore or poetry. His devotion to place even recalls Thumboo's but is without their common origin, its strange exclusion foiling his own attempt to pass through a love of many peoples, cultures, and spiritual traditions into the universal. This is the price of exilic internalised poetry: its kind of poet's ungrounded and deformed sense of "country" must become the impediment to the full execution of his or her intense exploratory vision. A leap from Lee to Boey--a child of the annus mirabilis 1965--appears impulsive, but there has been no major poet born in the 1950s and few youthful voices that could convey the inner life of the 1980s. The silence itself spoke damningly through the first to break it, Boey.

Jee Leong:

I am disturbed by Gwee's idea that major poetry must be socially engaged, even, more narrowly, nationally engaged. Sure, Whitman's poetry celebrates America and much of Yeats cannot be read without understanding his politics. But what about Dickinson, Eliot, Stevens, and late Auden? Boey rejects national entanglements, and Gwee casts his poetic enterprise in the language of physical and mental ailments: impotent, neurosis, fixatedly, nervously, deformed, impediment. Gwee's rhetoric in the extract shifts to a higher gear, a possible sign of a writer's consciousness (semi-consciousness?) of a weakness in his argument. Why should changing one's citizenship lead to a "deformed sense of "country'", and why does that deformity (if it should be that) disqualify one from writing major poetry? Gwee does not answer these questions, but assumes their answers.

One may also question Gwee's evaluation of which Singaporean poets are "major" and which, presumably, though he diplomatically avoids the term, "minor." Though the Thumboo extract Gwee quotes supports his argument, it is poetically uninteresting. Arthur Yap is dismissed, with a single sentence, as a follower of Modernism. Surely it is too hasty to come out for Alvin Pang as a major poet when he has published only two collections. Alfian Sa'at, another example of Gwee's major poets, has turned to play-writing after publishing two slim poetry books. On the other hand, Cyril Wong, who has published five collections, is only mentioned in the essay as the dedicatee of a Sa'at poem; presumably he is not major because his subjects, eros, love and loss, are irredeemably private.

An evaluation of a national poetry will have its ideal National Poet (implicit or explicit, imaginary or real) who set the standards by which other poets are judged. Some of these standards have more to do with nationalism than with poetry, an unfortunate imposition, I think. What Singaporean poets need from critics is not more nationalism, but a thorough and critical explication of their poetry. Before the history of a country's poetry can be written, full-length works on individual poets should come first, works that aim to understand the poet's context, enterprise, methods and success. If the poetry is worthwhile, the critical effort will be passionate. From a postcolonial perspective, one must avoid the trap of defending a poet based on his national or regional origin, i.e. "Walcott is a great Caribbean poet," instead of "Walcott is a great poet," period. If it has not been done already, I would like to see an essay on one Singaporean poet written by a Singaporean critic published in the Harvard Asian Quarterly, with no mention of the nationality of either poet or critic.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Exile and the Kingdom

I'm reading my first Camus, his short story collection, given to me by Winston after he read my blog-post, Exilic Time. I like the stories with their variations on the dialectic between exile and kingdom. The most impressive one, so far, is "The Guest," set in colonial Algeria. The white schoolmaster has to decide whether to hand over an Arab, accused of murdering his own cousin, to the white police. His final action is both humane and plausible to the character. The writing is economically suggestive; every detail counts. The hilly and rocky landscape assumes symbolic significance for moral decisions in the midst of the dangerous political situation.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

These Are My Hands and Feet

I could not count to ten till I turned eleven.
The chicks were softer than the straw in the set.
One, two, buckle my shoe, nine and a big fat hen.

They scratched the grass beside the shops for men.
They were the best present a boy could get.
I could not count to ten till I turned eleven.

Mother called out from above. That was when
I stepped back to answer her, stepped on my pet.
One, two, buckle my shoe, nine and a big fat hen.

The grass turned black. Its head was not broken.
Father could fix things but he was not home yet.
I could not count to ten till I turned eleven.

The Shopgirl cried out, Poke it back in! The mitten
with one loose strand was moving. It felt wet.
One, two, buckle my shoe, nine and a big fat hen.

My hands did what the woman said. Even then,
I could not save it. But I could not forget.
I could not count to ten till I turned eleven.
One, two, buckle my shoe, nine and a big fat hen.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Pine Cones

I have sat in this corner often
because of its good lighting.
Today I unbend

from my book of poetry,
dazzled, the library full of light
extended by windows that reach to the ceiling.

In the corner, a Chinese fan palm
vents through a flaking stem
a spray of green intensity.

Outside the window, pine cones,
not the ones seen on the road,
small crushed porcupines on dead leaves,

but hanging delicately from the tip
of a fir branch, bells
almost, a knot.

Mouths perfectly suited to sucking the fibrous teats,
they hang on with their teeth
for the one life they know.

One afternoon, strings unloosed,
they will descend
to join their fellows,

the journey long and different
from whatever
they experience and owe.

Friday, September 01, 2006

An Explanation to a Friend for Not Writing

You know letter writing requires a kind
of hibernation (the months I was silent).
The heart winters through it on minimum
nourishment. It lives by barely beating.

Then, mysterious as spring, the heart
takes a pen, breaks through the cocoon,
spins matter out of itself, develops feet
to crawl onto dry land, grows feathers.

I imagine you reading this in bed, your
cat curled against you, eyes opened,
wild to shred this fluttering thing
and eat, as one does after a long winter.