Through a glass brightly
Forgotten bounty and new pickings from seventeen years of Yong Shu Hoong's career
By Gwee Li Sui
The Viewing Party
A new book by Yong Shu Hoong surfaces with noiseless consistency. You know that one is ready, that it should be done incubating, when a handful of quiet years are almost up. What this does not mean is that his sounds are bottled or tuned out in the meantime. By a strange coincidence, Yong's new volume always appears when his last volume is down to its sweet dying notes. This was how The Viewing Party landed on my desk, just as I could set aside the exquisite 'Purification in Little India' of From Within the Marrow (2010), which itself came with my emotional relinquishing of 'The Key of Songs', from Frottage (2005).
Such seamlessness makes it easy for us to overlook how Yong's verse has, in fact, been around for a good while — specifically seventeen years. The span of time is no small feat in view of how his contributions in toto make up not just a single experience, but also a richly textured one. This layeredness in a small thing is curious, as is the fact that there was a time when this kind of work would not have survived in Singapore. There was a time when a gentle, spacious, and insouciant lyrical commentary on life's little passings was not appreciated, let alone indulged.
Yong's voice is, therefore, particular in this sense. It is lonesome but unusually cheerful — and yet it is not young. Something in it is perennially middle-aged and middle-class, pleasant, coy, cultured, morally restrained, self-sufficient, and deferential, if sometimes indecisive, riding a wakeful dream. While his constant being is never under threat or in want enough to turn ideological, at the same time, it neither cares to perform for a grim-faced readership. Poetry is not a posture for depth or range but a familiar presence, a midday voice to relax with in the swirls of tropical heat, a broad seat in a park.
If there is then bourgeois idleness, there is also technical inquisitiveness, the kind we find in a scientist's fascination with the ticking of the world. Indeed, Yong goes on regularly to show his own awareness of this manner in which he is aware, giving us poems with titles such as 'The Meaning of Beauty in Exact Natural Science', 'The Illegal Practice of Astronomy', and 'A Study of Bare Bones'. His persona, though warm, has a cold gaze; it is intrigued with all matters, even itself, in a confidently uninvolved way. It examines as though through thin glass, as though poetry touches life more as eyes do than as hands. Experience presents fascinating excursions, more possibilities, damaging nothing.
Yong is writing a genuine poetry of the technical gaze. This is finally clear in The Viewing Party, which is not hard to discern, within pages, as his best work yet. If the slimness of his last volume hinted unwittingly at lethargy, this book should set our hearts at ease. The Viewing Party is not just Yong's most generous collection to date, but it is, in many ways, a comeback: a reinvention of himself by doing a Yong-esque thing, by touring his safe kingdom of well-possessed experiences. But what is showcased here — free verse, prose poems, flash fiction, fragments, and a poetic story — arrives from a parallel universe. These works span the same decades as his earlier published collections, and yet they have attained varying degrees of invisibility and absence.
There are six sections in the book. The first, 'Dragonflies', is a nine-part sequence that uses his grandfather's death to reflect on memory, dying, and the hereafter. What 'The Viewing Party' then collects is cut into two sections like a surgically dissected corpse; in between, Yong inserts two distinct prose sections. 'The Cutting Room' contains fragments from an abandoned attempt to novelise 4:30 (2005), a film by Singaporean auteur Royston Tan. This undertaking was subsequently re-pursued and completed by Yeo Wei Wei, leaving Yong's own text to sink deep into his drawer — until now. The other prose section carries 'The Great Dying', a short story about a murdered girl's soul adapting to an immediate afterlife. The volume closes with a section called 'Searching to Get Lost', gathering miscellaneous poems.
One cannot miss the fact that Yong is revealing to us what we have missed all along, that death has always preoccupied him. We may find it a coincidence that his drifting soul in 'The Great Dying' sounds exactly like him, but this does not make us feel any less perplexed or unnerved. It seems that we are meant to believe the voice of poetry to be the voice of death or, at least, something from death that resides with us in life. Through this, the half-prosaic, conversational style typical of Yong's verse has become an extended metaphor for life as a mode that mesmerises as rhythm and narrative. The attempt certainly frustrates any wish for generic clarity, with poetry and prose, real account and fiction, turned towards each other in consciously transformative ways.
The equivalent of death in the overlap of Yong's work as film critic and his love of film is cinema itself. This is not a random secondary focus in a volume that opens with death and increasingly shifts to a life of speculating and spectating. Cinema is a motif that recurs in references, modes, and contexts throughout. A piece, 'The Critics' Circle' succinctly talks of how, after a screening, "half-blind" movie reviewers are guided "out into the light, which will envelop us with a clearer picture for the judgement soon to pass". We are surely to find a contemplation on the metaphysics of life and death here. After all, what is a viewing party but a social event organised for the sole purpose of watching something? Poetry is such a watching, like science, as are, clearer in Yong's use now, cinema and the perspective of mortality we all share in. Death and cinema are his two freshly evolved eyes, through which he looks out with equal composure and curiosity.
By these terms, The Viewing Party is more than just Yong's timely volume of "new and selected" writings. It is also a treasury of lost and unattended pieces salvaged from across seventeen years of his creative career. It is, moreover, his least scientific book insofar as he has managed rather successfully to deploy his signature passive but prying gaze as the standpoint of all our secret dying and a moviegoer's pleasure. This has, of all Yong's books, the most rewarding frame over a selection not just because of its ambitious, philosophical bent and self-consciousness — rather, we get a sense that the writer has finally understood his place in literature and found the right moment where our private considerations open into something deeper and larger than ourselves to meet us.QLRS Vol. 13 No. 2 Apr 2014