Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Delicate Composition

PN Review has just published my Pillow Book in Issue 198. Reading it on the train, while lugging home my birthday present from my sister, a George Foreman Stainless Steel Open Grill, I was hit by a sharp nostalgia for Singapore, which is my past. Here parade its people: my parents, of course; Lawrence, my scout patrol leader, and a girl guide called Samantha; Elsa who sang beautifully; Yisheng who wrote The Last Boy; the army warrant office who still cannot be named; Thomas, the willing enlistee; my first students; the critic Gwee Li Sui; Margaret. Its places also return to the mind's eye: Radin Mas Primary School; Raffles Institution, Mount Faber; my old bedroom; the Botanic Gardens; the columbarium; the weddings in Chinese restaurants; the interview room of the Public Service Commission; the passport office.

The piece was suggested by Michael Schmidt, who asked me a few years ago to write a prose work about my poetry for the journal. I tried but could not write the required prose. Then I learned about the zuihitsu from Kimiko Hahn in a workshop, and about The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. The form of the miscellany and the voice of the lady-in-waiting were irresistible. Prose poetry, not the dense, elliptical compression of Rimbaud, but rather, clear-toned playfulness. I feel very thankful now to Michael for asking me to write it, for it has brought important people and places from my past into a delicate composition.

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