Showing posts from February, 2019

Inheritance: An Anthology

Slim pickings in a slim book featuring the work of younger Singaporean poets, edited by Marie Ee and Joy Chee, published by Math Paper Press. Most of the poems are, unsurprisingly, about family, and most of these family poems are overly sentimental and all-too-pious for my taste. How refreshing then to re-encounter the work of Cyril Wong, whose unsparing poem "Coming Out, Leaving Home" closes the anthology with a jet of cold water in the face. He is oddly placed here, however, since he has already published many books. Outstanding among the newer names are Joy Chee, whose "mother comes back as a wok" imagines anew the hoary scene of mother and daughter cooking in a kitchen, and whose "the blank space where the body used to be" deploys the surprising perspective of the dead to good effect; Ian Chung, whose pantun "Presently Absent, Absently Present" employs the recurring form not just seamlessly, but movingly; and Jerrold Yam, who writes with unc…

Less Is More

Weekly column for Singapore Unbound newsletter. Sign up here.

It's easy to make fun of Marie Kondo, the decluttering guru with elvish good looks. Her KonMari Method, so summarizable in the mantra to throw out everything and keep only the things that "spark joy," sounds the definition of twee. And yet, as the sale of millions of copies of her books around the world attests, she has touched an open sore in our maximalist lives and consumerist societies. What is to be our relationship to our things, which we accumulate so avidly?
The KonMari Method stresses looking at each category of things in turn, dresses, shoes, books, kitchen utensils, politicians, etc. You can see the necessity for this for we are all too apt to avoid decluttering by looking at our best category and pronouncing ourselves fine in general. To say, for instance, since we're doing well in the economic category, we're doing well too in life. The English word "good" is notoriously slippery s…

World Without Walls

Thanks, Lola Koundakjian, for organizing last night's reading FOR A WORLD WITHOUT WALLS, in conjunction with the World Poetry Movement at Saint Illuminator's Armenian Apostolic Cathedral. What a tremendous cloud of poetic witnesses, embodied and voiced by the 18 participating poets. There were rousing calls to action, moving appeals to pity, satirical depictions of wrong, and sharp diagnoses of individuality.

I read Frost's "Mending Wall" and then one of my poems about Singaporeans in America, "The Ceramicist." While reading over the Frost poem in preparation, I wondered if anyone has ever noticed that the speaker, in distinguishing himself from his wall-loving neighbor, is also building a wall between them. Frost's speakers are not his mouthpieces (see the much-misunderstood "The Road Not Taken") but may be airing an attitude that the poet wishes us to be wary of, if not criticize. The speaker of "Mending Wall" speaks of "m…

"Pitiless Trains"

Brief remarks at the launch of John Marcus Powell's book of poems Veil On, Veil Off (Exot Books) at Suite Bar, NY, NY, on Feb 10, 2019:

I relate to John Marcus Powell's poetry in many ways. We are both flaneurs, and we love to walk through the city and allow the city to walk through us. We are also queer, and so share a history that is far longer than the 10 years that we've known each other. And we are both immigrants to the great city of New York, and so we look back at our homes with an eye that is loving but not blind, that is critical but not cynical. I will read you one of his poems about his native Wales, and then I will say a few words about it. 

"River" is unusual in John Marcus's poetry; it is rather more objective than subjective. In his other poems about home, he inserts himself either as the vulnerable but self-aware child that he was or as the knowing, playful voice of adult experience. In "River" John Marcus dials down his mesmerizin…

Time to Open the Archives

Weekly column written for Singapore Unbound's newsletter. Sign up here.

"They came to the coffee shop in Joo Chiat where I was working at 2am. About five or six officers came, and they took me to Outram [police station], where there were already many people. I was detained for four and a half years. I was a Singapore citizen but I lost my citizenship; they took me to the border. I couldn’t return to Singapore for years...."

YEH Kim Pak was 27 years old when he was arrested on February 2nd, 1963, along with over 110 anti-colonial activists on the mere suspicion of being Communists. Yeh was not a Communist, but he did fight for workers' rights through the Singapore Coffee Shop Employees Union. The British police operation, codenamed Cold Store, was supported by the Malaysian and Singaporean leaders who used it against their political opponents. In fact, there is evidence that Singapore's leader LEE Kuan Yew urged the reluctant British authorities to tak…

Posing Modernity

Saw the show "Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today" at the Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University. Curated by Denise Murrell as her PhD thesis, the show argued that Manet broke from the Orientalist and ethnographic depiction of black women current during his time, that Matisse took his cue from Manet in his painting of his black models, and that subsequent painters have been in part influenced or reacted against these two forerunners, in particular, Manet's famous "Olympia." I was particularly happy to see Matisse's "Dame a la robe blanche" (1946) in which negative space defines the woman's chest, and for a second time his cutout "Creole Dancer," now rendered visibly black due to this show. I was also taken with Charles Alston's "Girl in a Red Dress" (1934), showing a modern and sophisticated young Harlemite.