A ride through a wild linguistic landscape of Singlish and English
By Jerome Lim
Because I am terribly long-winded, I am going to begin by skipping to the expected punchline of most book reviews, and say Hamid Roslan's parsetreeforestfire is a book certainly worth your time, no matter which poetic cult you subscribe to. Get it, read it.
Now on to the review proper. parsetreeforestfire is a book that requires effort to read. What follows is from its last page:
You understand without Googling meh1.
But this sounds like the kind of vague truism poetry critics tend to say. Begin by claiming these are 'difficult' poems2, proceed to discover some interesting pattern or architectonic principle held up by judiciously selected quotes, perhaps seasoned with nuggets from an author's recent interview or book launch ─ and voilà! This reviewer has solved The Puzzle, through their hard work.
Isabelle Lim, in her review of parsetreeforestfire, similarly contends that "parse requires readers to work for the meaning it contains". She begins with a quote from Lyn Hejinian: "Language is nothing but meanings, and meanings are nothing but a flow of contexts … They are transitions, transmutations, the endless radiating of denotation in relation". Arguing that Hamid's work is a manifestation of Hejinian's quote, she works through how language-as-system is seemingly problematised by Hamid, at points exposing a space where "meaning is revoked in favour of open, unreadable possibility". She concludes, dramatically, that we are caught in the ouroboric bind of being unable to escape language itself, as "the semantic snake eats its own tail endlessly".
Isabelle is a very close friend, and I highly recommend reading her review for the deep work she puts in. (Who begins a book review by recommending another book review? Me, because I think reviews should be in dialogue with each other ─ if we even have enough reviews to go around nowadays). But I have some questions. First. If, as Isabelle says, readers have to "work for the meaning [the book] contains", yet "meaning is revoked", does this mean there is no point putting in work to read parsetreeforestfire? Also, if parsetreeforestfire tends towards "open, unreadable possibility", then how is it different from a randomly selected sequence of words? If I am telling you to get this book, I need to explain my way out of this snake's vice.
Yet Hamid's words are not entirely alien, and perhaps parsetreeforestfire is also a book that is about the avoidance of the effort needed to read. Let us look at the last lines of the sequence's first poem-pair [here split in two sections because we can't fit both sides in one line – Ed.]:
Because I am lazy, I gravitate left towards the Singlish first. What catches my eye is the potential double meaning in "look up": to look up English definitions, or to look up to English as the privileged, Singaporean acrolect3.
To look up is to clarify, and this brings me across the page to "which is to say", which frequently signposts clarification. Yet what follows the colon is a smattering of scholarly terms that I have to look up ─ criterion, dogma, dictum ─ synonyms for principles of authoritative judgement. The anaphoric repetition of "or" signals a freedom of choice. But here choice is revealed to be illusory as the lengthy clause, emphasised by the ellipsis, is condensed by the second colon into "doublespeak", invoking the authoritarian dystopia of Orwell's 1984. The attempted movement "up" ─ repeated four times ─ that happens in the basilectal left-hand text, is suppressed by the injurious, downward movements of "plunging" and "stak[ing]" occurring in the acrolectal right-hand text.
Even as language is a tool for clarification, language also keeps us ignorant if we are stranded outside its usage context. And this leads us back to the idea of avoidance of effort. These two poems, and in fact the sequence as a whole, are framed in the front matter as "a bilingual book" where "it remains to be seen if translation has successfully occurred". The act of translation reduces the effort of reading, by mapping the text onto a language one understands. But the criterion of reducing effort to read presumably fails here: "which is to say" clarifies nothing, and the reader is left to their own devices to make connections between the paired poems. This means the reader often gravitates towards what seemingly takes the least effort to figure out first: most people I surveyed told me they "especially liked the Singlish parts" over the "complicated parts". Certainly, you do not need to understand everything to enjoy the book.
How then do you judge such creative translations? More importantly, who is the authority on what is accurate? Drew Milne, my ex-supervisor and himself a writer of 'difficult' poetry, wrote of a perceived "tyranny of expertise" amongst communities that write such poems, laden with philosophical allusions. parsetreeforestfire is a failed attempt at escaping this academic tyranny of expertise. With the seeming lack of easily accessible conceits, the reader feels pressured to put in effort. But in the search to clarify things, one is met with further obfuscation. This is a running theme; "Don't ask me for footnote", declares the persona earlier. Yet the third section, forest, presented as philosophical treatise with numbered propositions, is chock full of footnotes. This is proposition 10:
Again the urge to speak, coupled with the refusal to provide easy, authoritative answers, comes through. And yet again, the act of speaking up is framed as an act of conformity rather than choice: a secret muzzling, a doublespeak. Like the welt inflicted in the first poem-pair, this is enacted in the form of violent wounding. In "Whenever possible, genocide occurred …" , the tongue is "split… tip to throat" ─ mirroring "it has / sliced off its tongue / to show you how" in a later poem─and the poem ends with academic writing prevailing over speech, as "the footnote will calmly bury them all".
As the frustrated persona laments, "Speak no use. Ask & ask for footnote … Thought got Google". Why speak up? Why put in the effort to Google, when they simply serve as reminders that you are othered from this "ang moh lang" tyranny of expertise? Certainly, I am not saying that reading parsetreeforestfire should be anti-intellectual endeavour; to do so is almost to disrespect the book, and the thoughts and theorists it invokes. But perhaps there is space for reflective readings beyond the academic. I am reminded of 'The Cool Web' by Robert Graves, where language, for all its failures, is ultimately affirmed by the persona as essential for the lived experience: "But if we let our tongues lose self-possession … We shall go mad no doubt and die that way".
On Goodreads, Koh Jee Leong remarks that parsetreeforestfire "has not enough lived experience in it" for him. But perhaps it is the space left by its absence that allows us to enter; we refer back to our own lived experiences in order to reduce effort negotiating the text. Hamid offers this nugget at the book's launch: "To me, we do too much explaining what happens in this country. We need to stop doing that. Stop explaining ourselves". Here I think of this segment from the book:
Throughout the sequence, the persona's voice is constantly interrupted by pale, Wikipedia-drawn explanations. But the best way of explaining sup tulang is perhaps to try it yourself.in Interestingly, I am eating spaghetti when I pick up Hamid's book. I think of the term 'al dente'; the Oxford English Dictionary defines 'al dente' as "tender but firm". What practical use is this definition, if 'tender' and 'firm' are opposites? Like sup tulang, the texture of al dente is something that has to be experienced, not explained. The complexity of lived experience cannot be reduced to neat definition, and this is seen in Hamid's astute interrogation of self and national identity, beginning with "I traffic rule hantam color color wheel, I white marker garland feeder bus back seat ...". No matter how many self-definitional propositions the persona offers, their explanation remains insufficient, and the whole endeavour devolves into hyperbole ("I quantum see all possible word"), before circling back to the self-as-speech-entity: "I speak anyhow so can also am, is speech lah, speech lah, speech lah, is I I I I I lor".
parsetreeforestfire is certainly no random sequence of words. It is a series of contradictory elements that provoke thought. The last section, 'fire', is a fun, crazy experience of being immersed in the unknowability of non-foreclosed language. Meaning is not absent, but is inflected and reflected into a myriad of possibilities. Why do this? Why can't this book be simpler? I am reminded of this quote by J. H. Prynne, a major figure amongst British writers of 'difficult' poetry:
parsetreeforestfire is an extravagant journey out to the sea of language, where, isolated and uncomfortable, one begins to look for landforms that are familiar: Singlish, sup tulang, Ah Kong, and so on. Without the violent foreclosure of readily offered explanations, one has to, as the persona urges us, to "keep looking". In this way, this perceived avoidance of the effort needed to read 'difficult' poetry subtly becomes an exploration of our own lived experience, and also the identities we make through the language circles we inhabit and are excluded from.
Hamid's debut collection is certainly worth your time. The question is now: where can he go from here? I wait to be surprised once again.
1 Even if you Google, you can understand meh.
2 difficult: "that quality which makes something laborious or perplexing", Etymonline.
3 Singaporean English is often described in terms of the acrolectal/basilectal continuum, where acrolectal means the formal variety (Standard English) and basilectal the colloquial variety (Singlish).
4 Don't ask me to cite.
5 Says Hamid's footnote, but I can't find it on Wikipedia.QLRS Vol. 19 No. 2 Apr 2020