Redemption Never Comes
A visceral , jolting glimpse into a flawed life
By Kevin Tan Kwan Wei
A slim collection of poems belies Euginia Tan's neurotic and morbid fascination with the grim details of life. Though there is a lack of a clear theme binding this collection, Tan's authorial voice and style helps unify the disparate works.
Phedra is Tan's third poetry collection. Like her prior works, Playing Pretty and Songs About Girls, Phedra exhibits an acidic tone and is consumed by rebellious spite.
The title of the collection intimates that Tan could be trying to associate her poems with the pathos found in the Phaedra of Greek mythology. Phaedra, who ended her life due to being spurned, finds her counterparts in Tan's poetic vignettes. However, this fusion between Tan's allusion to Phaedra and the poems themselves is uneven.
For instance, style and structure is not cohesive across the poems. For instance, in 'Feedback', there are some uneven moments when the poem segues into a seemingly unrelated idea:
The sudden shift from describing the process of filling up a typical feedback form in the first half of the stanza to the metaphor of a "mynah / Perched on a clothes pole" is somewhat inexplicable. The abrupt introduction of the metaphor at the end is interruptive and rough. The way the last three lines are just tacked on after the semicolon comes off as pretentious and forced.
It is difficult to fathom why Tan decided to do so. Perhaps this is Tan's attempt to blend the spontaneity of one's thoughts with her poetry.
This collection finds the most parallels with a diary, with the rawness in its expression and presentation. Tan, through Phedra, exposes all her insecurities and scars. Rather than viewing it clinically, it would be better if the reader views the work as a peek into Tan's mind.
In other words, Phedra, with its boldness and audaciousness, plants the reader in Tan's shoes with little forethought.
This is not to say that Phedra lacks the concrete exploration of certain themes and motifs. Tan's poems are largely obsessed with the frailties and unpleasantness of life. The world painted by her poetry is stripped bare of any brightness or optimism. Pessimism and cynicism pervade the pages of Phedra.
Looking at 'Feedback', we begin to notice Tan's focus on disorientating the reader:
The brevity of "attention" is first compared against "minute flocks of lallang pods" or "sparse…lilypad ripples". Later, Tan shuffles the terms "See-think-speak" till all possible permutations are obtained. The shuffling of terms confuses the reader as the multiplicity of arrangement baffles us.
Even for a critical reader, it is difficult for one to take Tan's work at first blush.
Oftentimes, most poems in Phedra are organic yet clockwork-like in their complexity. The rearrangement of terms across lines challenges the reader to reconsider Tan's intent. One's interpretation is thus mercurial, as more questions are asked than answered whilst reading Phedra.
Besides trying to provoke curiosity and introspection, Tan's poems display a morbid fascination with the grotesque and unsightly. Some poems even end with bodily excretions. For instance, in 'Prom Night':
The comparison of a French kiss to being "meek" and akin to having a "slug of a tongue inside my mouth" strips the act of any passion or affection. The act is contrived and repulsive. The reference to the attendees "drooling" and then her later having to "puke" are odious actions that form strong juxtapositions against the whimsical nature of a school prom.
Human excretions are a common motif as they are seen in 'Canals' as well:
The uncouth, unhygienic act of public urination described at the end is similar to the end of 'Prom Night'. Both poems wrap up with a literal (and perhaps metaphorical) urge to purge one's self of sin and indulgence. A passionless kiss or a night at a bar leaves the poems' narrator with stinging guilt. The purging is a feeble attempt to renounce regret and decadence for redemption and purification.
Yet, the downtrodden tone, which pervades the collection, suggests that the purge is temporal and fleeting. In 'Canals', the optimistic pining for a place where "waters are sweeter" is cut off abruptly with the listing of "leftover ale, cigarette rinds" and a "friend's late night piss".
In Tan's literary world, life remains flawed and broken. It is a cycle of giving in to our primal desires and trying in vain to escape the sins that haunt us.
Additionally, some poems in Phedra exhibit mild strains of an Electra complex. In 'Monstrosity', the narrator first states that she "dreamt of being like my mother" when she "was younger". Yet, the last two stanzas of the poem take a darker turn:
The psychological regression of the narrator to psychosexual development is disturbing and reeks of spite. The conventional view of caring, maternal figures is sullied and even compared to the Medusa of Greek lore. The dehumanisation of maternal figures into cruel beings is also seen in 'Scavenger':
From being compared to a "seasoned sow" and later having to walk with "a pirate peg leg", the fate of this maternal figure is immensely depressing and dreary.
Like a child raging against an overwhelming Electra complex, Tan's poems attempt to reject motherhood. In her poems, Tan's maternal figures are akin to characters such as Charles Dickens's Miss Havisham, decrepit crones soaked in malice.
If there were anything that typifies the collection, it would be the outpouring of negativity and anger. The self-loathing that culminates in purging or the distaste of maternal figures are but manifestations of Tan's gripes and innate fury.
The overwhelming sense of inadequacy and frustration coats the collection with a vulnerable, tenuous voice. Phedra may be uneven in expression at times, but it provides a compelling portrait of an individual struggling to find any joy amidst the cynicism that drowns her.QLRS Vol. 15 No. 4 Oct 2016