Thursday, January 23, 2014

Yeng Pway Ngon's Poems of Rebellion

I must confess that I don't know any Singapore poetry written in languages other than English. Alvin Pang and Goh Beng Choo perform a signal service for me and others like me by translating Yeng Pway Ngon, an important poet who writes in Chinese. Born in 1947, Yeng has written not only poetry, but also essays, fiction, plays and literary criticism, 24 volumes so far. He was the editor and publisher of two literary magazines, Teahouse in the 1980s and Encounter in the 1990s. He has had a long and distinguished literary career. In 2003 he received Singapore's Cultural Medallion for Literature.

The pamphlet I bought from Books Actually last summer offers a selection of his early poems, published between 1967 and 1970. It is intended to be the first part of a series of translations of Yeng's poetry. Titled Poems 1 [Rebellion], the work is very much that of a young man, as he agonizes over his place in the world and lashes out at careerism and consumerism.

Steeped in the Anglo-American poetic tradition, I hear in these poems echoes of T. S. Eliot. The opening poem "Aria" begins with the image of a rose garden and goes on to describe how "the heart of each afternoon is thick with weeds." The second poem "Cafe," with its depiction of ennui, deploys a refrain similar to the one in "Prufrock," and urban images that resemble those in "Preludes." The third and longest poem is titled, in an allusion to the most famous image in "Prufrock," "On the Operating Table." And yes, it refers to a wasteland. These are poems of a young poet absorbing and finding a use for his poetic influences.

I hear a more original voice emerging in the next poem "Telephone Booth." Comparing the public telephone to a woman, the poem is witty and sexy. It develops the comparison in non-obvious ways, before reaping the rewards of directness.

all she does is fool around with chewing gum
standing between mirrors
calling her own name
falling in love with shifting colours on glass surfaces

still for her sake you lift the receiver
stroke her face
stick your piece of nickel into her

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