Wednesday, June 24, 2015

STEEP TEA: Lee Tzu Pheng



Five poems in STEEP TEA take for their epigraph a quotation of Anne Lee Tzu Pheng, who is widely considered to be the foremost woman poet of Singapore. Her "Neanderthal Bone Flute: A Discovery" meditates on the invention of art, in the form of the bone flute. "To see for the first time a thing other / than the mire of food," she wonders, and simultaneously criticizes Singapore's immigrant obsession with material wealth. My poem "Useless" imagines the first bone flautist to be a woman who discovers belatedly how long her ex-lover was sleeping with her replacement before breaking up with her.

Lee is best known for her 1976 poem "My Country and My People," which was banned from the national airwaves for reasons that are unclear, but may have something to do with the poem's ambivalence towards Singapore's nation-building project. For me, such ambivalence is a vital attitude that is sorely missing from other more straightforwardly patriotic poets. My poem "Recognition" spins changes and questions on two less well-known lines from Lee's poem: "a duck that would not lay / and a runt of a papaya tree." The figures of duck and papaya tree speak powerfully of the spiritual sterility and handicap behind Singapore's economic growth. To pay tribute to her patriotic ambivalence, my poem is written as a series of questions. Another well-known poem by Lee is "Singapore River" in which she laments the neglect of human ties and feelings in the cleaning up of the river. As she wryly observes, " the heart / can sometimes be troublesome" in the dispassionate rush to modernize. My poem "Bougainvillea" responds to hers by depicting, and questioning, the modern society that we have "achieved."

The last two poems have to do with the heart. In a more recent poem "Tough, Love," Lee speaks of the difficulty of loving "no matter how many turns / you make." The trope of turns reminded me of a childhood game "Reversi, Also Called Othello," played with pieces that are white on one side and black on the other. The short lyric plays with the idea of flipping things around, all kinds of things, including coffee mugs and photo negatives. My last quotation comes from a very early poem by Lee, from the title poem of her first book "Prospect of a Drowning." Written while she was still an undergraduate, although published only 8 years later, this first book is full of untamed passion. Her speaker wanders, lost and afraid, along the seashore, looking for "some curio of the change." It is a beautiful phrase, which I used for my poem "Hong Kong," when I turned to writing about a change, a good one, in my relationship with my lover. Hong Kong was full of curiosities for us, and we brought home a token of its effect on us. Lee Tzu Pheng has been much lauded for her poetry. Her first three volumes all won National Book Development Council of Singapore Awards. She was awarded the Cultural Medallion, the country's highest honor for an artist. In 1995 she was one of six writers from the Asia-Pacific region and one of fifty writers worldwide to be conferred the Gabriela Mistral Award by the government of Chile.

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