Public and Private Longing in Heng Siok Tian’s Wallpaper
By Kristina Tom
Grandma's Attic, Mom's HDB, My Wallpaper
Heng Siok Tian's sixth volume of poems is a curious but important work perhaps best understood through the lens the poet herself offers in the compilation's final poem 'Pottering with Words':
Heng's metaphor is apt for this sometimes hodgepodge collection of poems drawn from vastly different moments in life: a tender reflection on an admirer from long past school days, snapshots of various continents visited over the last two decades, impressions of Singaporean cityscapes and strangers observed from near and afar, and elegies to a grandmother, father and, most devastatingly, a yearned-for mother. I say "curious" because I wonder about the decision – if we are to continue the metaphor – to include scraps from an experienced couturier's atelier floor, as long-established poet Heng does with some of the less effective poems of the collection. A prime example is 'Still Life' which, though illuminating of the poet's work and thought processes, seems a series of tossed-off observational exercises. The question "What's a schoolgirl's dreams made of these days?", for example, is answered with a shallowly speculative "…of boys and dudes… / Or of bags and accessories?" Compared especially to the depth of reflection offered in other parts of this overall admirable collection, the reach of the speaker's empathy is strangely curtailed here. It is one example of poems that could have been more carefully considered, or simply excised in a judicious round of editing.
But why start with leftover fabric when we could begin with the showstopping heart of the collection, what must surely be the "[w]ords sewn together" for the "monsoon" season that 'Pottering' references: poems by a daughter mourning a mother. It is humbling and painful to be invited into this relentless, raw and private grief made public in print, an urgent devastation that demands attention much like the "sentient… wailing within" that the poem 'Simple Days (Remembering Mother in Portugal, June 2015)' articulates.
The title 'Simple Days' exemplifies the deceptively simple language of observation that is characteristic of Heng, a modern-day Singaporean spiritual successor to Dickinson, to whom Heng not coincidentally dedicated the opening poem of her previous collection Contouring (2004). Sometimes coy and self-deprecating, other times careless – as in the aforementioned 'Still Life' – this subtle observation of the plain and mundane is best employed with unflinching purpose in poems like 'Aftermath' to excavate whatever may be salvaged from a dizzying array of precious debris:
'Aftermath', like the rest of the grief-stricken poems from the first and most significant section of the volume, wends its way through and back again all the many experiences of grief: remembrance, regret, guilt, inconsolable loss, and that fleeting moment of healing or even pleasure at the discovery of some small detail about a loved one, hitherto unknown. Here, a mother's "tenderness" is uncovered "folded between clothes" in much the same way that Heng leaves her sometimes gentle and sometimes startling revelations to be found amidst the direct and unpretentious language of her lines.
But grief is not mostly a gentle discovery, and the poems are at their most moving when directly evoking the dead, as 'Simple Days' does: "Mother, how might I learn your wisdom? How? / … / Forgive me, Mother, for all my thoughtlessness. / … / I want to be cleansed as heir to your music." Whether invocation, prayer or simply a desperate yearning for connection, the hunt for resolution often yields more questions:
As I said, it is painful to sit in this space of naked regret and loss, and the poems never shy away from their essential purpose of interrogation. While not all the poems reach this same emotional fervour, nor do they aim to, they remain intent on combing through the noise of everyday life for strange and marvellous finds. The poems often use the exploration of personal history as an entry point to that of national history, and when they do, any grief or regret grows softer in favour of a more celebratory tone. Consider the poem 'District 1: Tew Chew Street, 1930s':
A recurring theme in these poems is the oblique critique of official Singaporean narratives, represented here by a rather dry and sterile bit of technical information found in a 3D printed map of District 1, or what the speaker would prefer to call "mother's Tew Chew Street", a place with a name, intimately connected to a flesh-and-blood beloved, and savoured through the senses of smell, sight and especially sound. This, as the poems would have it, is the role of the poet in Singapore: to bring the song of the city to intimate and sensual life.
In this way, the physical experience of Singapore as a living land takes primacy over any kind of objective quantitative measurement, as in the poem 'My Wallpaper', which repudiates the displacement of the physical by the virtual, and of the personal by the statistical: "We are not only digits." In a single line, Heng captures the spirit of our times.
And when the poet is free to sing such songs, the results are often delightful, as in the surprisingly bawdy 'My City, My Sayang':
The ongoing critique and celebration of the self and her country in this collection communicates an attitude of constant searching – always curious, always poking and unearthing but always, as 'My Wallpaper' bemoans, "insufficient". This is as much a frustration as it is the driving force behind these insistent, vibrant poems. Given the liminal spaces the poems frequently strive to occupy, it is fitting that their often short, enjambed lines demand of the reader the same microscopic attention that the poems lend to their subjects, as can be clearly seen in the excerpt from 'District 1' above. Less of an obvious match between form and content is the characteristic way in which virtually all the poems end, with a sudden reversal or revelation in the final couplet, or less commonly, in a single ending line. The structure suggests a much more clear-cut resolution than a poem might otherwise indicate, a resounding ending that is sometimes satisfyingly jarring – as in the "3D printed contour" that rounds off 'District 1' – but also sometimes disappointingly prosaic, a disappointment set up by the emphatic nature of an ending couplet, as we see in the final lines of 'My City, My Sayang': "How is my city a song? / Hear her from within." In either case, it is a curiously tidy choice of structure for poems that persistently grapple with questions with such stubbornly indeterminate answers.
Perhaps we need to circle back to Heng's metaphor of a "season fashion show" to understand her instinct to produce a neatly finished product from the "messy" business of "[l]anguage making". We might also benefit from an examination of a related metaphor, conveniently found in the preceding section of 'Pottering':
If a poem is a tray of dim sum, then poetry-making is an act of violence: "minced words" and "greased grief" are meticulously but callously chopped and refashioned, as wounds enough for multiple lifetimes are mercilessly yoked and pressed into a perfectly crafted amuse-bouche for public consumption. It is a violence that the speaker of these poems subjects herself and her memories to repeatedly, as we see in the elegy 'Simple Days':
This is a graphic, despairing image of death, to be sure, and mainly serves as a contrast to the living memory of a mother who looms large in the speaker's psyche. But the addition of the phrase "these pages", especially coming at the end of the section, suggests that the pages of this book are like the bones through which this calamitous event, a mother's death, are now to be "raked through". The speaker has been ripped from her mother's protection, but she also puts herself willingly in harm's way in service of her art. It is a worthy and heart-wrenching endeavour to witness, even more so given the Sisyphean nature of this work. If poetry-making is meaning-making, then there is always another season for which to fashion a new manuscript, always another unknown song to be sung – all of which requires, of course, more raw meat for the making.QLRS Vol. 21 No. 2 Apr 2022