Spoilt for Choice
Inconsistency makes sophomore collection a bumpy read
By Daryl Lim Wei Jie
The Nomad Principle
As I read Crispin Rodrigues' second collection of poetry, The Nomad Principle, I was struck by a distinct sensation of whiplash. What perturbed me at first was how tonally and thematically inconsistent the poems could be. For example, the poem 'Icarus Mark II', which imagines Icarus attempting his feat in the age of social media ("contacted all major media outlets, and hashtagged / each selfie with #birdboy") is preceded by a poem on a souvenir store in Ho Chi Minh City. A poem about the poet's socializing strategies, ("another reloading of the extroversion rifle") is then followed by 'Wheatfield with Mynahs', apparently "After Van Gogh", which ends with the puzzling line of "persevering leftover conversations / for cats prowling in pitches after dark". In another case, there is a poem about merfolk ("We, the Merfolk") next to a poem titled "Deep Freshwater Harbour". Superficially, these poems may seem thematically congruent. Yet the latter piece is ostensibly a romantic piece ("In truth I still loved you, / but I had to stop kissing rust."), while the former is really about the supposed merfolk of the sea:
While this arrangement may have made sense in a nautically- or maritime-themed collection, these two poems are then bookended by poems about a detention class, and another poem about birds. This inconsistency can sometimes occur within the poem:
The second sentence of this stanza seems to completely upend the tone of the first, besides being simply incomprehensible. As a collection of poems is intended to give shape to the poet's oeuvre, I wonder if Rodrigues has sufficiently considered the need to provide this shape and direction to his book. I am none the wiser, after reading the book cover-to-cover twice, what "The Nomad Principle" is meant to allude to.
It is possible for inconsistency in a collection to be forgiven if the lyric is pleasing enough, or if the use of language is inventive, striking and distinct. Unfortunately, I found myself puzzled by the poet's metaphors and diction. Take the first poem of the collection, 'Saudade', which starts:
There is some amount of material confusion here. Is the mosaic (usually made out of tiles), being stitched together (usually done with thread) by splints (usually made of wood)? And I found myself wanting to shut the book after reading the first two lines of 'Pelican Humour':
As in other places, Rodrigues seems to enjoy sneaking in scientific and mathematical references, but it is often difficult to make out what the relevance or added poetic effect of these allusions are. For example, in 'Crisis on Infinite Earths', which muses on the possibilities and probabilities of life, and of there being different lives and Earths, the poet says:
So far, so comprehensible. But the stanza ends off with the line "On this anti-Likert scale, you are 3.14152 (approx) and I am a boring 2." I went to look up what the Likert scale is: it is a psychometric scale used to measure opinions and responses to statements. Most of us would have encountered it actually, in surveys: it is usually the five-point scale that goes from '1. Strongly Disagree' to '5. Strongly Disagree'. If that's the case what is an anti-Likert scale? And what does ranking anything on that scale even mean? Surely, in an anti-Likert scale, 2 would be more interesting than 3.14152, since the Likert scale normally uses whole numbers? Though in any Likert or anti-Likert scale, surely what determines the value is what the scale measures? So interestingness or boringness wouldn't be an inherent quality of the scale, but simply dependent on what question is posed? (For that matter, unlike, say, the Kinsey scale, how can people like 'you' and 'I' even be measured on the scale?) I imagine now, an irate Sheldon from Big Bang Theory reading this, and in response writing his own epic poem on the Likert scale, nailing each reference down with scientific precision, and ultimately dismissing psychometry as a pseudoscience.
One prominent theme of the book appears to be the poet's Eurasian identity. The peculiar position of the Eurasians in Singapore's official racial categories has been a topic of reflection and exploration, most notably in Melissa Da Silva's recent book 'Others' is not a Race. This sense of being between things, and being neither here nor there does come through in this volume. Read together, the poems that explore this theme come closest to a coherent strand in this collection. We can sense that there is poetry here backed up with painful and revelatory personal experience: "In army I succumbed to embarrassing/ renamings, answering to ang moh…" ('Native Devil'). Yet this strand is tangled among the many other things going on in the volume, and is at times marred by the infelicities of expression that trouble this collection. For example, in the same poem we are told:
These are quite a bewildering few lines. The promise of "Since when I have grown accustomed / to acknowledging ang moh", which is quite powerful, is slowly unravelled as the sentence proceeds. Yes, the poet may be mistaken for an ang moh by Singaporeans (the previous stanza has some aunties remarking in Chinese as to why there are so many ang mohs in HDB estates), but why would they then talk about their (presumably American or European) hometowns to the poet? Surely foreigners wouldn't just assume that the poet is from their hometown, and if they did, surely the poet could easily correct them? The sentence then proceeds to end in a rather bathetic "departure" from bee hoon soup to steak, which unfortunately does nothing to clarify the questions raised by the previous lines. In 'A Ghazal of Milk', which does exactly what it says on the box (or the carton, in this case), the poems ends with the couplet:
Yet nothing in the rest of the poem talks about "whiteness", presumably alluding to the poet's Eurasian roots, and why he has inherited this "guilt". And nothing in the preceding few poems have prepared me for this "guilt of whiteness" either.
There is some promise in this sophomore collection, and there a few good lines which I did enjoy and were struck by ("How do I know the colour of goodbye…"). I was particularly intrigued by the poem 'Malton Mornings, Autumun 2015', which has an interesting structure and situation, with the poet, a visitor to the UK, "the lone Asian walking", being asked repeatedly by a man riding a scooter about the way to the train station—it later becomes clear that the man means to ask: "I know you know where the station is, / but why aren't you going?". (Unfortunately, what I thought was a hint of racist or xenophobic abuse is later slightly undermined by the poet's own reading of it as "Britain as a land of murder mysteries, / spectres under floorboards and gentle old lady / serial killers".) The Nomad Principle is also a marked improvement over Rodrigues' first collection, Pantomime. However, I do wish that the poet had bided his time and crafted a more compelling and focused collection, rather than putting it out so quickly.QLRS Vol. 19 No. 2 Apr 2020