Presence and Absence
Mastery and omission mark Yong Shu Hoong's meditations on the Singaporean national identity
By Shirley Geok-lin Lim
Right of the Soil
Right of the Soil is a collection of poems expanding on an earlier chapbook with the same title. Its table of contents suggests that the poems are structured as five segments — albeit without the sub-titles that more usually make such sequencing overt — and the book's layout also subtly makes visible the five-part segmentation. My review therefore attempts to honour the poet's intentions to instruct the reader on how to re-read each single poem in the evolving contextual density of the poems' relationships to each other, placement in the sequence being itself an important marker and source of meaning for each poem. To approach the book as a collection to be read randomly as one-off occasional poems is to lose sight of a suite of voices that gradually formulates a sensibility that, to a poet like me formed in a rather radically different host of earlier Anglophone poetic traditions, must be sensed, then absorbed, as both familiar and alien.
Immersed in the traditions of lyrical verse, I note the absence of lyrical poetics in a collection that the poet describes as an exploration of "the intermingling" of air, water, fire, and earth in order to "address topics like belongingness and birthright". In this poet's sensibility, however, these "four fundamental elements" do not draw their catalytic thoughts, ideas and images from "nature" as it is commonly understood, that is, from a primarily non-human biosphere; nor do the poems fasten their subject of "belongingness" on the emotive resources of biophilia, such as a love for the landscape in which the speaker/persona/poet has been formed, as canonically articulated in William Wordsworth's 'The Prelude'. The traditions that now inevitably identify much of Singaporean poetry are urban, national and international, wide-ranging across cultures — local, global popular, and transnational institutionally elite — and in a distinctive stylistic register of educated intelligence different from simple or colloquial diction, plain style, or metrical intensities of sound and rhythm. This, however, does not preclude the deployment of these other registers as tactics to characterise, dramatise or satirise in some poems that gesture to the bracing influence of Arthur Yap's enduring oeuvre among younger generations of Singapore poets.
One marker of the collection's Singaporean literary identity is, to state the obvious, that the poems are generally intensely local. Singapore place names, institutions like National Service and Housing Development Board homes, socio-cultural activities such as educational enrichment offerings peculiar to Singapore's schools, and political figures like Lee Kuan Yew and national events, e.g. National Day Parade celebrations, allude to specificities that are not readily accessible to readers beyond the island's population of five million plus. While all writing is embedded in social imaginaries, many of these local poems tend towards satirical observations and/or achieve their plangent statement, brief poignant moments, wry comic affect and so forth, arising from a certain Singapore sensibility—almost acedia-like—formed by the thwarting of aspirational desires by regulatory bureaucracy, the diminishment of the individual in the compression of urban density, and the disorientation brought on by the speed of change in the cityscape.
Arthur Yap mined these themes in the 1970s and 1980s. Yong's poems, however, are stylistically different from Yap's. They chiefly deploy what Edwin Thumboo termed International English, a concept Thumboo had advocated in his decades as Singapore's unofficial poet laureate, as the means with which to create Singapore's national poetry. Also, the legacy of 'free verse' does well in this collection, expanded to embrace features of the prose poem and found poems. But impressively, as a whole, the poems exhibit a fascination with craft: stanzaic arrangements such as the quatrain, tercet, couplet, haiku, projective verse, and so forth; metrical attention that paces narratives, underlines wit, enjambs suspense, evokes humour, and particularly displays the poet's obsession with language play. That rhyme, whether full or slant, end or internal, is seldom present; that alliteration seldom insists; that assonance, consonance, onomatopoeia and other English sound effects, as available in Singlish as in International Standard English, do not sweep the poems into some kind of musicality: these absences characterise the collection the way that a blue that never appears in a colour palette becomes a notable feature in a painter's gallery exhibition.
But what characterises the poems is as notable as what is absent. The collection's title underlines its ambition: to critique the very logic of national identity that seems to be both ubiquitous and obsequious in the government's narrative of citizenship, seemingly grounded on Western civilisation's legal precedents. As noted on the collection's back cover, the title (a translation of the Latin jus soli law, of the native-born subject's right to territorial belonging) references specifically an aspect of Singapore citizenship law. The occasions giving rise to single poems take on this larger significance of critiques of national identity: the comic wry dialogue between a defensive HDB management and a disgruntled condominium dweller over dying trees in the housing estate ('AGM'); the discomfort of an extracurricular creative-writing teacher facing an empty classroom ("Facing An Empty Classroom"), or a student whose reluctant presence, compelled by necessity, reminds one of the poet's inferior social ranking in Singapore's competitive and highly successful educational hierarchy ('Breaking the Ice'); the ambivalence over the extravagant display of public mourning at the funeral for Lee Kuan Yew, the nation's iconic political patriarch ('Practical Concerns') ; the aftertaste of futility at the conclusion of mandatory National Service ('Beyond Economical Repair'); the satirical eye on the annual expensive, tacky production promoting patriotism at every National Day celebration; and more. Each poem adds to the critique, which is also a contribution to the ever-increasing discourse on what is Singapore identity.
The two final segments parallel each other in their almost complete dis-composition. 'In the Subterranean Courts' is a suite of sci-fi poems that imagine a dystopic territory where the "soil" of identity has moved underground in the year 2065. Taking its cue from the representations of demons and the multiplicitous ways of torture exacted on sinners thrown into a most inventive version of Hell that fascinated tourists for decades in Haw Par Villa, this segment is grossly comic, ferociously satirical of modernity's ills in the city-state (state-sponsored "integrated resorts" that offer simulacra experiences in 'Mirror Mind'; its foodie/gluttony obsession—imagining the taste of human breasts grown out of DNA cells in 'Canibento—Lunch with Chef Yama Songdi'), and more, deserving much more close reading. The final three-part segment returns to a more traditional narrative poetics, threaded by the figure of kite-flying that was and continues to remain a popular activity for children and even adults, who pretend to be flying kites for their children rather than their own pleasure. The segment's Malay title, 'Layang' ('Kite'), is followed by an epilogue from Paul Valéry: "The wind is rising; we must try to live"—a typical stylistic move in a collection that juxtaposes local and global, concrete and abstract, poignant and satirical, with unexpected associations, surprising leaps, and challenging a-logical thoughts. Kite-flying, an organic extended metaphor for childhood nostalgia, for complicated maturity and for philosophical musings, however, also in typical Yong style is more idea then feeling ("maybe I am again overthinking" the poem notes in a self-reflexive moment), more covert than overt in its emotional pitch.
What many readers open themselves to in poetry is its power to rouse feeling, the "thoughts that lie too deep for tears". Where a rare poem touches on intimate relationships, private emotion, and the intensity of interior states, that touch is covert, fleeting, voiced in a glimpse stifled even as it is glimpsed. Intelligence, wit, public dramas, social critiques, wide-ranging allusions to foreign travel, reports and evidence of life in a variety of geographical locations: these fill a collection worthy of re-reading and study, in the way that Dryden and Pope's poetry prevailed in a British moment when reason ruled in a state that feared the tyranny of the dunces.QLRS Vol. 18 No. 2 Apr 2019