Collection spotlights pre-eminent poet's tactile, highly visual style
By Jeremy Noel-Tod
The Collected Poems of Arthur Yap
Recalling his meeting "near to the banks of the Imperial canal in the eastern city of Suzhou" with members of the Chinese ORIGINAL poetry collective, English poet J.H. Prynne observed:
The exotic remoteness of that location at once bids to compose an allegory of displacement, which in turn demands a fully prepared resistance. Plants grow in the same way, upwards. People eat lunch, eye each other, words fly out of mouths. Does the subject-position bind to the life-world by a different syntax?
Comparable questions come to mind for this English reader during the encounter — near to the banks of the Wensum, in the eastern city of Norwich — with the Singaporean poetry of Arthur Yap (1943 –2006). I say 'come to mind': really, they are being asked constantly by a poet fully able to resist both easy assimilation and easy othering by other speakers of a global language that he quietly makes his own. The first and title poem of Yap's debut collection, 'only lines' (1971), ends:
The omission of the second and expected preposition, 'to', is crucial. In Yap's vision, the number of things in a scene never add up to a single, final sum. To enter the poetic process — the process of storytelling and all art — is to engage in the business of counting infinity.
'This same old story', therefore, is also different every time and in every place. In Yap's work we encounter — to adapt Prynne's terms — reflexive allegories of universal displacement, which turn plant-life and subject-position upside-down all over the world. For the English reader, it is especially piquant to witness this examination of alienated perception in the poems that Yap wrote about his time as a postgraduate student of linguistics in the UK. There are to be found in his second collection, commonplace (1977), and also the group anthology, Five Takes (1974):
'Classical collapse' is an apt phrase for what happens in a Yap poem. Like a house of cards, it gives the impression of being very carefully composed while at the same time playfully tempting ruin. Consider the opening sentence here: the first line is a clean, balanced statement of a traditional scene, the central phrase of which ('branches reflected') is echoed in the sounds of 'clearly etched', and then, more oddly, in the cut-off adjective-noun 'the actual'. The dissonant and abstract note introduced by this term becomes intermingled with the 'c' and 'l' sounds of the earlier phrases in the rhythmically awkward, drily romantic notion of a 'classical collapse'. The defeated observation that follows — 'everything is growing downwards' — comments not only on the trees inverted in water but also the toppling language of the preceding proposition.
The experience of London as a site of collapsing classicism is, of course, at the heart of the central work of modern English-language poetry, T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land. In the title poem of his last collection, man snake apple & other poems (1986), Yap — via, perhaps, Ted Hughes' Crow — approximates something of the polyphonic grandeur of Eliot's mandala of world-history in the longest single expression here of his vision of a ramifying universe:
On the whole, however, Yap's free-verse city sketches are closer in sympathy and technique to the curious Auden of the 1930s (whose 'Musée de Beaux Arts' is quoted as an epigraph to 'another look') or the documentary epiphanies of William Carlos Williams and the Objectivist tradition:
Yap's awareness of how the fragmentary feeling of an urban scene clusters into the consciousness of the flaneurial observer is vital to many of his most distinctively Singaporean poems, such as the 'dramatis personae' sequence ('public park', 'public beach', and 'public pond'), or the celebrated dialogue '2 mothers in a h d b playground', from his third collection, down the line (1980).
The disparate elements that make up these poems are what Irving Goh, in his introductory essay, calls Yap's 'realia', a philosophical term offered as a way of thinking about the distinction in these poems between individual objects and the false total of any tidied-up representation of reality (the term occurs in an ironically contested linguistic context between a mother and a child at the end of 'the correctness of flavour', the first of the uncollected 'Vignettes' (2001) here). Goh's realia is an attempt to move the critical discussion of Yap's work on — or up — from the 'everyday reality' proposed by Anne Brewster's introduction to the earlier selected volume, the space of city trees (2000). There remains a pragmatic close-reading quality to prefer in Brewster's discussion of the Yap-ian quotidian. But Goh's detailed discussion of the political situation of English in the city-space of Singapore is especially interesting and useful to the overseas reader, who might not, for example, otherwise appreciate how '2 mothers…' and 'correctness…' accurately capture two different eras of overheard Singaporean English.
Both Brewster and Goh pass entirely over an aspect of Yap's life about which the poems openly, if obliquely, provoke curiosity. For a thoughtful and important account of Yap as a gay poet, we must turn to Cyril Wong's recent essay, 'Homosexuality in Arthur Yap's Poetry: An Uncovering and Recovery'. Among other insights, Wong brings brilliantly alive the 'queer sensibility' of the luscious 1986 piece 'a list of things', which paratactically describes the fruiting fullness of a food market, and which — again — Yap frames as only one part of the world (the list ends: 'are all there').
That framing is everywhere in Yap's art, including his parallel career as an abstract painter, represented here by thoughtful inclusion of colour plates of his book covers. In fact, the appearance of this well-presented — albeit occasionally misprinted (p. 146, for instance, has '!ined up') — gathering of Yap's oeuvre makes this reader at least wish for a companion volume reproducing his paintings. In the meantime, among the famous poems of social observation, there are also exquisitely visual compositions as 'topnote', a word-painting subtly exemplifying what Thow Xin Wei has called the 'sense of obligation to larger social structures' in Yap's poems. Here it emerges in tension with his abiding theme of the incompleteness of all living moments:
QLRS Vol. 13 No. 3 Jul 2014