Saturday, February 17, 2007

Reading Thumboo's "Ulysses by the Merlion"

I've just revised a poem written years ago, a poem that delineates the different responses of four readers, of different generations, to the seminal nationalistic poem by Edwin Thumboo. Thumboo is reckoned to be the first major Singaporean poet writing in English. First, Thumboo's poem, then followed by mine.

(for Maurice Baker)

I have sailed many waters,
Skirted islands of fire,
Contended with Circe
Who loved the squeal of pigs;
Passed Scylla and Charybdis
To seven years with Calypso,
Heaved in battle against the gods.
Beneath it all
I kept faith with Ithaca, travelled,
Travelled and travelled,
Suffering much, enjoying a little;
Met strange people singing
New myths; made myths myself.

But this lion of the sea
Salt-maned, scaly, wondrous of tail,
Touched with power, insistent
On this brief promontory...

Nothing, nothing in my days
Foreshadowed this
Half-beast, half-fish,
This powerful creature of land and sea.

Peoples settled here,
Brought to this island
The bounty of these seas,
Built towers topless as Ilium's.

They make, they serve,
They buy, they sell.

Despite unequal ways,
Together they mutate,
Explore the edges of harmony,
Search for a centre;
Have changed their gods,
Kept some memory of their race
In prayer, laughter, the way
Their women dress and greet.
They hold the bright, the beautiful,
Good ancestral dreams
Within new visions,
So shining, urgent,
Full of what is now.

Perhaps having dealt in things,
Surfeited on them,
Their spirits yearn again for images,
Adding to the dragon, phoenix,
Garuda, naga those horses of the sun,
This lion of the sea,
This image of themselves.


Reading Thumboo's “Ulysses by the Merlion”

First Reader

We sailed with Ulysses, just as you said,
discovered independence, found a faith
in a new state, out of the old country. We,
the citizens of Singapore, threw out
unequal ways but are too thoroughly schooled,
keeping the courts, the poems, the how-are-you.

On this outcrop, like water buffaloes,
we rake the sand and stone, and ask them back
to sow their seeds, so we may share the crop.
Their names naming our roads, their signatures
raising skyscrapers, how could we reject
the hand that fed us, and is feeding us?

But in our subtle monsoon seasons come
the yearning to be ourselves, to unfold
frangipani leaves from entangled roots,
reach for a centre from the edge, and so,
choosing a place between land and sea,
you strike a merlion out of a rock.

Second Reader

You bloodless goat. Instead of screaming
at the bastards, you cogitated and bleated.

Instead of cutting off your hand, you
handcuffed yourself to their language.

Instead of pleasuring the new body,
you sucked Circe's shrivelled teats.

Did you not hear the free voices singing?
Did you not hear the curses, the shouts of disbelief and dancing, dancing, dancing?

Founding fathers should breathe fire, throw themselves
against the batons and the shields, screech for joy

as they are taken in vans and installed in unmentionable places.
Weren't you sufficiently outraged?

We hide behind the butt of your farting Colossus.
We are still not free of that but.

Third Reader

So have I travelled in the realms of old,
around Larkin's locales, and Wordsworth's lakes,
slept with the hollow men, in paradise
lost, and regained in Prospero's isle,

but only heard rumours of Ulysses.
Our Master's schooling also changes as
a slight matter of history. Old things
have been exchanged for things slightly less old.

Your poem puzzles me. It holds out hope
for a slow mutation, genes and geneses
spliced with buying and selling, as if trade
can metamorphose into tradition.

We still deal heavily in things, still sell
new fibre optics and old phoenixes.
Nagas and garudas are as exotic
as Circe and Calypso, valuable

as antiques, tokens of a foreign past
I visit on a budget package tour,
as other tourists fly home, with souvenir
merlions for nannies, bosses, and grandaunts.

Fourth Reader

You predicted us, the conscripted corps of mutants.
Disdaining pure breeding, yourself a mongrel,
you saw the improbable combination,
the casual collocation of merlion and garuda.

You shaped us, on the misshapen scaffold of time.
Between the anvil of rock and the bellows of change,
you hammered out a nation's twisted pride,
the sandpaper gold of survival and success.

You taught us, the hungry choir of mouths.
Articulating our possibilities for tragedy and bravery,
you spoke of brotherly betrayal and multiethnic love,
the compassionate words of blessing and curse.

You imagined us, the travelling sideshows of other cultures.
Melting our women and ancestors into bright metaphors,
you dissolved all in the alchemy of what is now,
the brewing mixture of memory and desire.

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