Movement In Search Of Form
This poetry debut has an ease that befits its author's dance background, but is hobbled by a lack of choreography
By Teo Xiao Ting
Without Sound Now
The Cardigans are crooning "Lovefool" in my mind as I thumb through Without Sound Now. This debut poetry collection by Ashley Ho, currently a dance undergraduate at ArtEZ University of the Arts in the Netherlands, has a twang that resounds irreverently, even through the murk of grief, familial pains and joys.
writes Ho in "mama". Despite the reverence for language expressed in these two lines, this book is marked by a certain lightness. I think of Ho's practice in movement and dance. In one of her improvised movement pieces, 'light repellent spray', she allows the light to shift and move as her body weaves the space in tandem with the tinkle of a xylophone. The same way she occasionally gazes at the camera, indignant, Without Sound Now occasionally turns the spotlight back on the reader, demanding that I gaze back at myself. She moves the way she writes, and this particularity of the body seeps through the entire book. So it is no surprise that when I read this collection, I imbibed it as I would witness a performance.
'Duet for a 23-minute work' brings this to the fore with a suffocating V-shape, comprised almost entirely of "finger" stacking upon "finger", ending only with "toetoe", barely touching. The asymptotic tension between two persons or objects. I feel this line of tension keenly through the entire arc of the book. In "brown cup to hold; suitcase to drink from", the inevitable departure of her 爷爷 (grandfather) is stretched across three parts, scattered across the book. A direct reflection of how loss and absence is not a singular event, but one that resounds continuously.
Amidst the grief that undergirds the book, there is an unmistakable lightness that comes from Ho's whimsical wringing of words to her fancy. In 'crocodile to chest', they stutter:
and I lean forward, imagining the red underlines that must have plagued this book when it was still in the process of being laid out in InDesign, transgressions of words misspelt. Clarice Lispector wrote in Agua Viva that "writing is the method of using the word as bait: the word fishing for whatever is not word. When this non-word—between the lines—takes the bait, something has been written." And it is precisely because words aren't the only mode that buoys Ho's expression, that her movement practice emerges as wilful words. Words that make a beeline for sentiments despite (and because) of their own limitations, as she herself wrote in "turfs": "where are words? how is this primary medium/ failure to articulate/ what is this– revolution! a dictionary displacement/ a repository replacement/ how behind verbal vocabulary can be!"
Yes, how behind words can be.
Somersaulting through the pitfalls of language, the desperate desire to express the inexpressible, Without Sound Now brings both delight and wistfulness. Yet, it is also the myriad registers that this book surfaces that leave me wanting.
To use the framework of a performance, the individual poems are composed delightfully, but the dramaturgy of this book feels nascent. Does a book, in its physical form of paper bound together, need a sense of coherence (or intentional incoherence)? I believe so. The through line of this book as a singular project eludes me, and the teasing silhouette of a book makes this all the more stark.
The blurb printed on the back of the book writes that "this first collection wrings towels, releasing their jaws to old truths, new truths, faceless truths, the ones that disgust themselves, the ones forgotten, and the truths that are still true". This question might seem contrived, but what are the truths that were wrung, and how have they contorted as a result of this process? The poems seem to create a narrative that pierces through the emotional experience of living with one's own family in Singapore and living within a physical body; but pieces like "1:15pm" and "flight fight" wrench me to the academic setting of Singapore and its critique (that is both loving and sharp, I must say), creating a dissonant gulf that confuses rather than enriches my understanding of Without Sound Now's project. I yearn for a deeper engagement of the threads that the collection touches on. Threads such as the intimate ache of leaving a place that has held much, the way grief meanders, the precarity of a younger self and the gravity of emotional truth while refusing to take oneself too seriously. But the book's treatment of these threads does not facilitate its synthesis, diluting its potential impact. It makes me wonder about the editorial process, the journey through which the manuscript was forged into this book.
I care about this because it is Ho's first book, and I am excited to see her future creations, regardless of form. In her poems I see possibilities of how poetry can escape the page and elicit a visceral response, how it is able to emulate the liveness of a performance. In her poems, the way in which she wields syntax as a toy is something I believe to be incredibly important and precious. But the act of playing in the process of creation requires a complete, calculated arc. Even if the point of calculation is to obliterate calculation. Right now, these threads feel prematurely truncated.
I care even more so about this because in recent years, there has been a surge in poetry books being published, yet I do not see the same growth in terms of editorial support and critical incubative processes. The confrontation of publishing beyond simply writing. By which I mean, the dramaturgy of a book as a cohesive project, rather than simply a repository for poems written. And it is this that I feel to be lacking in Without Sound Now: a rigorous editorial process through which the book's premise and form is sharpened and consolidated.
At the end of the collection, the section '5 6 7 8' brings forth the rhythm of a dance commencing. I anticipate a finale, and there, the declaration of a frenzied heart before its end. With all the playful softness that the book sets up, this last section shatters the quiet with a sustained scream over three poems ('pulse', 'pulsepulse' and 'pulsepulsepulse'), before dialing down to a whisper: "before curtains/ there is a dim/ evening light/ breathing through/ the rifts of newborn ribs".
A mounting tension that breaks into hopeful desperation. And here again, the interjection of "Lovefool" in my mind's ear: "So, I cry, and I beg for you to—"
To? What is next, and how do we proceed? I don't know. But for now, I am content with the fact that there are people who write as Ho does, with the boldness to contort words as they deem necessary, to the shape of their heart. The book finally closes with "till we are new, and forgetting", leaving a recursive sweet:
QLRS Vol. 19 No. 2 Apr 2020