Two weeks ago I held a Skype discussion with eleventh-grade students of Garden International School, Kuala Lumpur. Under the guidance of their teacher Renie Leng, they had been studying two poems closely, Derek Walcott's "Adam's Song" and my poem "Eve's Fault." I was chuffed to be studied alongside the great Walcott. Over Skype, the students asked me many keen questions from theme and characterization to the use of particular words in my poem. The questions spoke very well of their thoughtful preparation for the discussion. Afterwards, they wrote an essay analyzing and comparing the two poems. The essay is for their CIE IGCSE coursework teacher's choice component. Contrary to current educational thinking in Singapore, the Malaysian and International students proved more than capable of enjoying and learning from poetry. Shame on Singapore schools for abandoning the teaching of literature at the higher levels. The whole exercise also showed me the power of giving effective teachers autonomy in their pedagogy.
I enjoyed reading many of the essays submitted by the class. Of particular note is the following essay by Jonathan Chin, reprinted with his permission. His response is alive to not only the complications of poetic language but also its implications.
How do the poets powerfully present the experiences of Adam and Eve in the poems Eve’s Fault by Jee Leong Koh and Adam’s Song by Derek Walcott respectively?
In the poem Adam’s Song, Derek Walcott closely follows the story of Genesis, exploring Eve’s sin with themes of betrayal and regret, illustrating her as the villainous protagonist of the story. However, Adam is elevated to the reader through Walcott’s portrayal of his love and forgiveness towards Eve. In contrast, Eve’s Fault by Jee Leong Koh has a subversive take on the book of Genesis, presenting Eve simply as a character journeying through love, deciding between three of her suitors. Jee Leong Koh further reinvents Adam, opposing the traditional ideas of him, transforming him into a flawed being.
Koh humorously presents Adam’s experience of himself to be one of imperfection, contrasting the traditional portrayal of a flawless being. The first of Adam’s flaws, described as being “inarticulate”, shatters the reader’s conventional image of a perfect man and instead replaces it with a man that is blemished in his ability to express himself. Adam is further characterized as “a terrible speller”, adding to the semantic field of imperfection in Adam’s personality. Koh uses the humour evoked by this phrase to accentuate Eve’s scholarly characteristic, reversing the biblical notion of Adam being superior to Eve. The effect of the humour is further empowered by “terrible”, exaggerating the degree of his unlettered mind. Koh continues to apply humour while describing Adam’s body to be “precariously balanced on his feet”. This phrase exhibits Adam’s physical appearance to look strange and unsymmetrical, contrary to the illustrations of the original and perfect body of Adam. The depiction of Adam’s imbalance could also represent his adventurous and unpredictable personality. The phrase is also the only physical representation of Adam suggesting that the flaws that humanize us are ones to do with personality instead of physical appearance. Adam’s narrow minded trait is denoted through “mind made up”, convincing the reader that Adam is more closed to ideas in comparison to Eve, adding to the subversive concept of Eve being superior to Adam. The bombardment of Adam’s flaws is then followed up by “he needed her”. Eve knew this as through her perspective, Adam was dependent on her, incapable of living without her either due to his undying love for her or because he was inferior to Eve and needed her guidance, much unlike God and the serpent. Adam might have been ashamed of this fact which is why he “scratched down… the story of the rib”. Koh intends on altering the reader’s view of Adam thus making him seem insecure about his defects and therefore wrote a historic event that never happened to heighten himself above Eve. The poet’s powerful portrayal of Adam’s experience circulates the emphasis on Adam’s faults, drawing the reader into the importance of Adam’s humanity and juxtaposing the biblical illustration.
Koh powerfully presents Eve's experience to be a journey to find love, meeting a variety of partners before discovering her true need and thus discovering herself. The epigraph denoted that Eve’s fault “was only too much love”, highlighting the theme of love to the readers as well as alerting the reader to the irony in the title, being that the poet’s ultimate message is that Eve is not at fault. The first of Eve’s partners-God-is exemplified as the stereotypical high school jock, attributed to be charming and fun, evident at his attempt to win Eve using flamboyant gestures such as “whipped...a bouquet of light” and “told her the joke about the Archaeopteryx”. The bombastic action of something being “whipped” creates an energetic and magical atmosphere. The “bouquet of light” signifies an act of love in attempt to pursue Eve. A “bouquet” depicts the image of flowers-a sign of affection. However, God takes this common expression and erupts it with the glamour brought by “light”, which further reinforces his ostentatious personality, wanting to win Eve over with ornate displays. God then proceeds to tell a “joke”, revealing his childish side, contradicting the traditional idea of an almighty and wise God. In addition, the “joke” relates to the “Archaeopteryx”, a prehistoric dinosaur, integrating humour yet again, as the “Archaeopteryx” holds no biblical connotation since it was not present on Noah’s arc. It also validates God’s childishness as dinosaurs are often a popular topic amongst children. The complexity brought by “Archaeopteryx” symbolises the convolution within the relationship of Eve and God, insinuating that they could not be together as Eve did not want someone as captivating and dominant as God, especially with his childishness. Her next partner, the snake, was an opposite to God, described as a “quieter fellow” in the beginning of the stanza, already juxtaposing the personality of God. The snake being “quieter” impels a sense of mystery onto the reader, causing them to see the snake as an inscrutable individual. This also foreshadows a sense of danger that is often associated with the snake as “quieter” would imply that the snake was sneaky and cunning. Moreover, It connotes the snake to be sophisticated as “quieter” people are stereotyped to be intellectual. Nonetheless, the snake “gave her up” to Adam at the end of the stanza. Despite it being in the name of love, Eve could not be with the snake as he did not need her, allowing him to give her away. Eve had then realised that what she really needed was “Adam’s need”, which is personified as Eve. Eve chose Adam over God and the Snake because unlike them, “he needed her” and that was all that she required. The poet gave each of Eve’s partners a similar structure in their respective stanzas to indicate that each of Eve’s partners were whole, having both strengths and weaknesses, highlighting that Eve chose Adam not because he was the strongest but as the result of his personality. Eve’s adventure through the garden of Eden is presented by Koh as an expedition to find love and is displayed to the readers through her experience with three partners.
Walcott powerfully presents Eve’s experience as torturous and agonizing as a result of her betrayal through his usage of vivid imagery. Eve is depicted as an “adulteress stoned to death” arousing a gruesome illustration that invokes disgust and horror into the reader. The phrase is a reference made towards Eve’s sin that stained the innocence of humanity, and therefore despite Eve not committing adultery, she is still to be blamed for the crime. Eve is symbolised as the “adulteress” as it signifies the betrayal she committed against God. It also insinuates that she is despised by others because of her deed and the title will remain on her forever as it did with women who committed adultery during those historic times. The strong imagery brought by “stoned” accentuates the brutality of the punishment Eve had to endure. A morbid atmosphere is created by “death”, emphasising the savage nature of “stoned”. Walcott further outlines the permanence of Eve’s judgment in the phrase “films her flesh with slime”, alluding to the evidence of her sin written in the Bible. The soft consonants brought by “films” “flesh” and “slime” creates a smooth flowing tone, suggesting that Eve’s torment will never end and will be ongoing. The action “films” induces a sense of insecurity and vulnerability, that Eve will never be spared a hint of privacy. The perpetuation of this agony is elicited through the idea of hopelessness as it is impossible to remove “flesh”, therefore her sin is now part of her. A sense of repulsion is further invoked into the reader through the imagery brought by “slime”, also contributing to the permanence of her sin insinuated from the sticky properties of “slime”. The blame is showed to be entirely put on Eve when Walcott described her to have “horned God”. Eve’s betrayal to God is represented by “horned”, depicting her as having horns similar to the devil, therefore associating her with the devil and her actions deemed evil. Eve’s experience is portrayed as coated with suffering and regret, as well as inheriting the blame for all the sin in the world.
Adam is presented to be cowering his end, caused by his strong devotion to Eve, until he experiences the forgiveness granted to him by God. Walcott uses sibilance in “men still sing the song that Adam sang” to create a ghastly tone, notifying the readers to the presence of the serpent. The feeling of the serpent's proximity in the evoked in the phrase foreshadows danger and further summons a deathly atmosphere. Adam’s personal forgiveness of Eve is evident in the phrase “the world he lost to vipers”, connoting that Adam takes blame upon himself and is aware that Eve should not be blamed for men’s sin. Furthermore, the zoomorphic representation of the devil as a “viper” conjures a sense of ominousity amongst the readers, reinforcing the previously foreshadowed danger and death. Walcott further speculates on Adam’s fear in the phrase “panther in the peaceable kingdom”. A plosive alliteration is used to shift the tone from a softer one to a harsher one, signifying that Adam is overcome with fear. Walcott manipulates the reader into resonating with Adam’s fear through creating a contrast between “panther” , symbolised as danger and death, and “peaceable” denoting a safe and secure environment. The imagery of darkness and hopelessness is also conveyed through the “panther”, with it’s dark fur. The use of enjambement in the following stanza is intended to insinuate Adam’s panic at it’s limit, forcing the reader into a quickened pace, intensifying the moment. Walcott powerfully induces the experience of Adam’s crippling fear of his death and God into the readers, creating a tense and desolate atmosphere.
Both Walcott and Koh revolve their poems around the book of Genesis, specifically the story of Adam and Eve. Despite Walcott having a conventional approach in Adam’s Song, Koh still chooses to implement a subversion of the story in Eve’s Fault, showing a shift of themes from betrayal and suffering to themes of love and humanity. Walcott forces the readers to empathise with Adam and Eve, alerting them towards the pain of their experience through powerful imagery. Whereas Koh reverses the reader’s perception of a perfect Adam as portrayed by the media, into an imperfect being.