Representation In Two Dimensions
An attempt to draw links between Singaporean poetic communities ultimately fails to fill the spaces between the lines.
By Kendrick Loo
Contour: A Lyric Cartography of Singapore
What are the guiding principles behind assembling an anthology? Exercises in canon-formation, anthologies reposition and assemble a host of voices and confer credibility upon them. I approach anthologies expecting a variety of new and established voices arranged such that the assortment of voices turns into a choir. In other words, the editor's job is to create a poetic community, to name and delineate it, and to arrange it so that it remains engaging throughout.
Contour, an anthology of poems both new and previously published, makes the bold claim that it "bears witness to the sheer richness and diversity of thought that can now be found on this island". Gathering over 90 poems—of which 30 are translations of poems originally written in Chinese, Malay and Tamil—editors Azhar Ibrahim, Teck Seng Chow, Kanagalatha Krishnasamy, Leonard Ng and Zhirui Chen have served readers a linguistically diverse collection of poets. Choosing not to distinguish and separate poets according to the language they write in, the editors of Contour have arranged poems according to a focus on the lyrical subject and voice, "exploring similarities and contrasts of subject matter, thought, and theme".
While the vision of Contour is a welcome one, positioning vernacular poets such as Ahmad Md Tahir and Xi Ni Er as contemporaries to poets such as Edwin Thumboo and Darienne Sim, there is a persistent hollowness at the heart of Contour's anthology. The lyric form, broadly defined, is the expression of personal emotions and feelings through the first-person perspective; the multiplicity of potential topics afforded by the form means that lyric verse cannot delineate what Contour is about. The true focus of the anthology is in its full title, Contour: A Lyric Cartography of Singapore. As the title's reference to map-making suggests, Contour's editors are attempting to gather poems which question and engage with the lived and political realities of the nation-state. This focus subverts the progressivism of Contour's multilingual ethics, leading it to echo narratives of forced racial integration.
In all fairness, an anthology about the contested nature of Singaporean identity and nationhood has the potential for energising dialogue. Sadly, the editors of Contour feature poems that tend towards familiar and tired discussion points. Some succeed: Hamed Ismail's "The Serenade of Lost Beaches" (translated by Azhar Ibrahim) is a fine invocation of transient identity through an elegy of reclaimed beaches, and Tan Ju Lyn's "I didn't know my grandfather was a war hero" makes a moving and full-hearted tribute to her grandfather, an RAF pilot who served in World War II. But many fail to meet the mark. Leonard Ng's "Forgotten Roads", for example, frames the topic of modernisation through the tired myth of Singapore's transformation from a sleepy fishing village to first-world country ("Once, a kampong stood here, houses roads; / then a highway crashed through / and resettlement came"). Likewise, Joel Kenneth Gwee's poem about terrorism, "Not If, But When", bludgeons readers with a cudgel of child-symbolism:
While Contour's critical introduction claims that poems are arranged to heighten similarities and contrasts, most result in discordant mismatches. Consider Janet Liew's "The Day of the State Funeral", which portrays the nation's uncertainty after the death of Lee Kuan Yew:
And contrast it with the poem that precedes it, Leong Liew Geok's "City of Trees", which was written as a tribute to the "Chief Gardener" Lee Kuan Yew. While Leong's and Liew's poems both tackle the topic of Lee's legacy, there are clear differences in outlook. Liew's poem, focused on the future and negotiating uncertainty together, is diametrically opposed in its concerns against Leong's pastoral vision, which frames nature's bounty as the result of Lee Kuan Yew's foresight:
I will admit that I find "City of Trees" lacking in precision: its ending line "Labours of a green green state" subsuming efforts by local and foreign gardeners under the abstraction of a monolithic utopian state. What, exactly, does Leong's throwaway mention of 'labour' even constitute? The result of pairing Liew's and Leong's poems together is that the flaws in Leong's poem are magnified, while the nuances in Liew's are drowned out. Reading Liew's nuanced take on mourning after Leong's unadulterated praise is like trying to savour a fine aged whiskey after gargling Coca-Cola. Could a third poem have been commissioned or reprinted to serve as a bridge? The editors of Contour have shown that they are able to commission reprints of poems such as Aaron Maniam's "Inspired by a Child, Just Before National Day". A curious choice, given that Contour already has poems such as Low Kian Seh's "Renewal", which dramatises the unmooring of national identity vis-à-vis Singapore's constantly renewed landscapes ("nothing stagnates in this city. lifespan / rarely exceeds ninety-nine years.") One wonders if reprints are decided by editors with favours to dispense and axes to grind.
There are other editorial choices that magnify the problems in Contour's composition of Singaporean identity. The inclusion of queer poets such as Stephanie Chan, Jerrold Yam, Carissa Cheow and Cyril Wong is progressive at a glance, until one realises that their poems are devoid of queerness. Likewise, the inclusion of European-born poets such as Derek Trueman and Pierre Vinclair serves to highlight the absence of Asian migrant worker poets such as Pan Yang, Ripon Chowdhury, and Md Sharif Uddin. Is there no space for migrant writers, who uphold Singapore's economy and way of life? Returning to the question of an anthology, we recognise that any kind of representation will, by nature of delineating boundaries, result in exclusion. However, the trend of who is included in Contour only serves to reinforce prevailing narratives that queer poets can be included only if they leave their queer identity at the door, and that migrant poets are likewise barred from entry unless they have a permanent residency card.
A number of poems could also have been edited for greater sensitivity. Lauren Lee's poem "Tumasik", for example, commits the sin of resisting British colonisation by paradoxically asserting that an empire already existed before it ("we built empires upon her breasts / long before they spotted a tiger / slinking about her brushy bush"). Who is the "we" that Lee speaks for? The indigenous peoples of Temasek? Some investigation into Lee's background shows that Lee is an American woman who has taken her spouse's surname. Putting aside the issue of letting a white individual write on behalf of a bygone Asian civilisation, a closer look at Lee's poem reveals a troubling use for violence:
Ecofeminist scholars such as Annette Kolodny have written about how American writers have used female images to portray the American landscape as nurturing and giving. Lauren Lee, an American-born writer, appears to have reproduced this gendered trope in portraying the indigenous inhabitants of Temasek as savages and rapists. I have previously admired Lee's work in A Luxury We Cannot Afford, where she wrote about her partner's Singaporean heritage without appropriation in her poem "Omeros". Unfortunately, the relative obscurity of the editorial process suggests that editors did not help Lee navigate her poem's pitfalls. This is to the detriment of both the poet and the vision of the anthology.
As I finish reading my copy of Contour, I am left wondering what exactly is the lasting merit of the anthology. Some positives: I am heartened to see poets such as Esther Vincent and Stephanie Chan engage with eco-poetics in their respective poems "island city" and "Buried". We need to nurture an understanding of our natural environments more than ever, to alert us to the fragility of the global climate. I am also grateful for translators such as Azhar Ibrahim, Xu Zhipei, Shasel and Ahmad Md Tahir, who have made commendable attempts at bringing vernacular poetry to English-reading audiences. However, the unevenness of quality and significant lacunae in representation have weakened this anthology's scope. No doubt, it attempts to integrate poets across language communities, but a more robust plan and editorial framework is needed to support that vision. Editors could begin by reading an interview with Nate Marshall, Kevin Coral and Quraysh Ali Lasana, who curated The Breakbeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip Hop (Haymarket Books, 2015). In it, they discuss the importance of featuring marginal voices such as women and queer poets, and fairly representing diverse communities, and how proper arrangement serves to highlight how the vocabulary of previous generations is adopted and innovated upon by the next. Alas, Contour is a cautionary tale of editors upholding a sanitised vision of racial harmony without proper attention to craft and arrangement. Its melody is snuffed out before it can be properly heard.QLRS Vol. 19 No. 3 Jul 2020