QLRS has just published my essay on Goh Poh Seng's book-length poem Lines from Batu Ferringhi. Thanks, Hsien Min and Shu Hoong. (In the same issue also, my answers to Shu Hoong's Proust Questionnaire.) The essay will have done its work if it interests someone to re-issue this vital work of Singapore literature.
Batu Ferringhi is a beach area in the north of Penang Island in Malaysia. In the 16th century, Portuguese traders from India stopped at Batu Ferringhi to replenish their water supplies, and their visits gave the place its name. "Batu Ferringhi" means "Foreigner's Rock". At this liminal space between land and sea, one seeks the foreign in one's familiar self. In the 1970s it was famous as a hippie's hangout, as a place where foreigners came to swim "in the nude at the freshwater pools" (according to Wong Chun Wai's 'Life's a beach in Penang'). Goh was not a hippie. He was a married man with children, a doctor, a man-of-letters and, as the Chairman of the National Theatre Trust Board from 1967 to 1972, an arts administrator. Lines from Batu Ferringhi does not refer to this portfolio of public selves, except for one mention of his family. It was as a private man that Goh escaped to Batu Ferringhi in search of renewal and refreshment.
In July 1974, Goh stayed at Batu Ferringhi for seven days and celebrated his 38th birthday on the fourth day of his stay. This life-event thus took place in the exact middle of his stay. The symmetry of this division is reinforced by the organisation of his book. Lines from Batu Ferringhi is divided into 10 sections, each section recording a day. The birthday makes up the four middle sections – the heart of the book – flanked on each side by three day-sections. The graceful organisation is, however, only apparent on hindsight. Reading from the beginning of the book, one encounters each section in the same way as the speaker experiences the succession of days: linear, yet unpredictable, or, as Goh puts it, "unguessable". Read more.