Christine Chia's second collection explores many layers
By Philip Holden
Separation: A History
I'm not a casual poetry reader. I can pick up a short story on a bus or the MRT, or even in a moment waiting to meet someone in a café or a coffee shop, or canteen. In contrast, reading poetry takes work for me. I have to find a place of mental if not physical silence, slow myself down, and begin. When I manage this, there are moments when poetry gets under the skin in a way that prose doesn't. One of those moments for me came when reading Christine Chia's first collection, The Law of Second Marriages, published in 2011, and now available in a new edition from Math Paper Press. The volume is a linked series of poems that assemble fragments of an autobiography: a father's death, a mother's abuse and abandonment of her child, and a new relationship with a second mother figure who replaced the first. Chia's language in that first collection is wonderfully bare, the poems flinty, intensely felt and observed fragments of memory hacked from a life.
Chua's second collection, Separation: A History, returns to the previous collection's life narrative, focusing more closely on the father, and his struggles in his relationship with his younger wife before his early death: the book, indeed, is dedicated to him. In addition to her documenting this relationship in a series of chronologically assembled fragments, Chia adds another layer: the story of Singapore's entry into and then precipitate separation from Malaysia. The parallel isn't that separation provides a historical background to the tensions in and dissolution of a marriage: as one of the early poems makes clear, the relationship largely occurs in Singapore's post-independence years, with the birth of the couple's first child taking place during the 'Stop at Two' population-control campaign of the early 1970s. Rather, two stories of the disintegration of a relationship, eventual separation, and indeed death one personal, the other political are laid alongside each other, individual poems picking up one, then another, and weaving metaphorical relationships between them.
The dual narrative of Separation: A History is difficult to pull off because it negotiates two distinct dangers. The first is that each of the poems risks being split, forced to refer to two different stories with very different personal and political resonances, and thus engaging in depth with neither. The second danger is the opposite: the collapsing of both narratives into one. This metaphorical mapping has, after all, been done to death before, from Lee Kuan Yew's own concluding chapter of The Singapore Story entitled 'Talak, Talak, Talak' (I Divorce Thee to Ivan Heng's cheeky insertion of Koh Chieng Mun singing a cover of Gloria Gaynor's LGBT anthem 'I Will Survive' at the 2009 National Day Parade. There's surely a possibility, whether through high seriousness or high camp, of reducing politics to melodrama, and endorsing stereotypes of Malaysian irrationality or Singaporean survivalism.
Chia's collection skirts, but mostly avoids, these dangers. A few poems seem to exist outside of either narrative, while others, very much like the poems in The Law of Second Marriages, concentrate exclusively on the personal life narrative. One of the most successful of these is "villains," in which the father waits for the delivery of his child "outside the hospital/with all the other/ condemned, useless dads," sharing cigarettes in a small knot of "concupiscent conspirators." The ambivalence continues in 'crawl', in which his infant son comes to greet him "like a caterpillar/to the door when I come home." There's love here, but also a persistent sense of estrangement. The father wonders how his son will see him from his position on the floor, "a Giant, / a moustached Monster / with freakishly long legs and arms" (28). The poem ends with him lifting his son up:
Here there's both vulnerability and a continued contradiction in the figure of the "worm-superman," but also, at the very end of the poem, the temporary possibility of transcendence.
The poems that more explicitly yoke the personal and political narratives sometimes sag a little under the weight of a textual apparatus designed to embed them in history. One of the last pieces in the collection, 'the poetry of progress', draws on Lee Kuan Yew's famous post-independence comment that "poetry is a luxury we cannot afford" to picture him as Plato's idealized philosopher king, expelling the "unmanly ambiguity" of poetry from his republic. It's a good, reflective piece of writing, but in order to get to it we have to first move through five prefatory quotes from William Wordsworth and Lee himself: these exceed the poem in length and prove, for this reader at least, distracting. The elegant pantun 'the tunku's dilemma' suffers from a plethora of footnotes that, again, are longer than the poem itself. In reading both these pieces, I found myself wishing that the poetry itself would do more work, and rely less on a proliferation of unintegrated paratexts. Adding to this sense of overelaboration are occasional intrusions of overly poeticized allusions or echoes: "man is but/a paltry thing" in "dancing in the dark" quotes W.B. Yeats's 'Sailing to Byzantium', for instance, while "time needs truth/like a fish needs a bicycle" in "time is a liar, not a healer" echoes a feminist slogan from the 1970s. Allusion is a long-established poetic technique, but such intrusions, with referents leading elsewhere, tend to contrast unfavourably with the bare immediacy of much of Chia's poetic language.
When stories do align, though, and when language retains its stripped-down simplicity, the effect is often magical. 'dancing in the dark' draws from an intimate memory in order to explore the imprisonment of Chia Thye Poh, and in particular his solitary confinement. After we have negotiated the prefatory quotations, the poem opens up:
At moments like this, the two narratives intersect, and each refracting and then amplifying the other. In 'Sailing to Byzantium', just after the words that Chia quotes, Yeats writes of the possibilities of contemplation that poetry can bring, with the hope that "soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing." It's a tribute to her talent as a poet that in passages such as the one above, burrowing into the recesses of two stories, Chia produces the kind of moment that Yeats wrote of, a moment that results from the convergence of two stories, but is ultimately bound by neither.QLRS Vol. 13 No. 4 Oct 2014