Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Kim Cheng Boey's "Between Stations"

I knew from his poetry that Boey was a restless traveler, but I did not know how restless until I read his recently published collection of essays Between Stations (Giramondo, 2009). The essays range, with its backpacking author, from Xian in China to London, via Calcutta, Kashgar, Cairo and Alexandria. The essays and their migrant author finally settle in Australia. Despite the ground covered, the book is not so much about travel as the reasons we travel.

Boey has many reasons for leaving his native Singapore but his deepest reason is to find a Singapore he has lost. Calcutta, with its street life, reminds him of Singapore in the late 60s. The crumbling colonial buildings and the waterfront of Alexandria bring back Singapore's old Esplanade. And inextricably entangled with these childhood memories is the memory of a father who abandoned the family time and again, and reappeared each time to take the son on walks around the old haunts.

There are wonderful evocations of travel destinations in the book. The essays on Du Fu's Xian and Cavafy's Alexandria are particularly fine, both places presided over by Boey's tutelary spirits. Du Fu moved his family all over the country in order to feed them. Cavafy's poem "Ithaca" has a special place in the book. I will certainly be reading these two essays again.

The most valuable part of the book, however, is the restoration, in writing, of an older Singapore now rapidly forgotten in the drive towards modernization. This restoration is accomplished through direct and memorable appeal to sight, smell and hearing. We see Dinky's House of Russian Goods, one of many shops selling knickknacks of all sorts in the Change Alley Aerial Bridge. We smell the five spices Boey's grandmother loved to use in her cooking. We hear the sad yet hopeful tune of Guantanamera, that ruled the Singaporean airwaves in the late 60s.

Two essays take up the sensory experience of memory for their theme, "Passing Snapshots" and "The Smell of Memory." They provide a good change from the predominant approach of these essays, which interweaves descriptions of foreign cities with memories of Singapore. Some of these essays were written earlier for different newspapers and journals, and so show some overlap of material. For instance, the memory of sleeping besides a grandmother appears in two different essays. The repeated descriptions of the walks with his father could also bear some trimming. The language is usually supple, concrete and direct, except where the author is "fascinated" in too many places.

Seen another way, these essays reflect on the formation of a major Singaporean poet. Striking to me in this regard is the lack of reference to other Singaporean poets or writers. The poetic touchstones in this book are T. S. Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Lowell, John Montague, Pablo Neruda, Wallace Stevens, Dylan Thomas and Edward Thomas, besides the already-mentioned Du Fu and Cavafy. If I write about my own poetic development, I will show a similar lack of reference to Singaporean poetry. Poetry by Singaporeans just had not been a part of our growing up. Things may be changing but the change is slow, haphazard and uncertain. These essays by Boey Kim Cheng may help to make the change a little more permanent.

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