Society, Excess, and Yet
By Al Lim
Anything but Human
Deconstructing reality is assuredly not a new endeavour, yet Daryl Lim Wei Jie's Anything but Human breathes fresh poetic air to this line of existential inquiry. Lim's second book released five years after The Book of Changes (2016), shifts his sensibilities as a trained historian towards the investigation of contemporary society. Rather than re-evaluating Singaporean history and identity and the development of its concrete jungles, he trains his eyes on a more ambitious project of deconstructing humans and reality.
Lim addresses how certain facts and beliefs have taken on truth value through the excesses of a late-industrial capitalistic society, of which his collection is both product and critique. While declaring itself "anything but human", in the preface translated from Chinese poet Wang Xiaoni's work, the book is deeply interested in the human condition. It wrestles with what makes us human and not human. Even that line between human and anything but human is itself questioned, calling for a reflective gaze on humanity.
Lim's collection is concerned with mimesis and replication and imitation – how one tries to progress, might regress, and all of this perhaps being somewhat cyclical. It is concerned with conveying meaning through nonsense and reality through fiction, blurring the lines where meaning-making is ultimately conveyed through excess. It is an excess that has been, to some extent, normalised and accepted as a truth regime despite its many holes and peculiarities. And it is this book's aim to poke at this normalisation through a fragmented mirror. The surprise in image juxtaposition is also calculated, not in a set rhythm or meter, but in a composition that is consistently too much. Though in saying that it is too much, one might wonder by what standards? And are those standards human?
Anything but Human is split into two parts. The first is the 'desert of the real' and the second, a 'great reset'. The former refers to philosopher Slavoj Žižek's Welcome to the Desert of the Real (2002), which argues that global capitalism and fundamentalism are falsely dichotomous, and examines how trauma is circulated and recirculated. In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it would be misleading to assume there are only two ideological stances – that of global capitalism inflected by the United States and Hollywood pit against Islamic fundamentalism. Instead, the two are mutually constitutive. The title of Žižek's book and this section are drawn from the Matrix films, harking back to Baudrillard's theory of the simulacra and the excesses of Hollywood cinema. Lim raises a similar ideological problematic and explores the trauma of reality through his poems, though he adopts a different medium and approach.
This approach includes orangutans in the bath and orchids eating cockroaches in his poem 'Domestic Bliss', where Lim writes that "each room cultivates its own particular version of truth". With each room being its version of reality, one might wonder about the house containing these rooms – its layout, occupants, histories, and domestic bliss/unbliss, let alone the neighbourhoods and the infrastructure and social relations that connect each home. He takes a series of surprising and alien images, paired with objects of familiarity, to poke at questions of how reality is constructed and its multiple approaches.
Each line in this poem is also its own stanza, loosely connected to mundane statements about the way domestic bliss might be constructed. The space between each line allows pauses for meditation, from the kettle boiling to a crisp in the first line, to then asking the reader to "consider the compostability of things" in the middle of the poem. The pursuit of happiness is not an active chasing of a passion, but it is a weird magical realist blend of inertia and the odd workings of household objects, like the fridge, toilet, cutlery and unlocked doors.
The poem concludes with "where there was silence there is now more". Excess is stressed here, where the silence has been substituted by a relation of "more-ness". The present contains something more – something has increased. It could be a desire for more as a function of economic growth, improved quality of living, or more of the same. This "more-ness" is excess, and what these poems repeatedly assert. There are nose hairs that have chips, clouds pregnant with knives, purple tongues, Hosanna in hashbrowns, world wars to avoid cremation, an Oreo wrapper as a bookmark, a bird of prey becoming a butterfly, monuments reeking of A+ blood, a makeshift Corinthian column to hang laundry, and spider-filled pork buns. In a Bacchanalia of clashing cacophonies, these images point to and away from one another, again gesturing towards excess.
The self and the "I" are often thinking, imagining, admiring and questioning various aspects of reality, but the self is not entirely passive. This self gives feedback to the universe by "shad[ing] cells of [his] own invention" in 'Fly Forgotten, as a Dream (I)'. Though the point and efficacy of this act is put directly back into question, as a poem of the same title states:
Here, the poet sees through an uncertain self, as a "refugee from the desert of the real". The poet is cast out and reflects upon hyper-reality, and questions the self's authority and legitimacy. The self in 'Junkyard Rhapsodies' also states: "I'm sorry I can't help you, can't you see I've just quit?" and right after the poet says, "I'm sorry I can't help you, can't you see I'm in charge?" The deconstruction of the self provides minimal grounds for this self to act or speak authoritatively even while being in charge.
This contradictory relationship is also conveyed in 'Singapore Pastoral' with the nature of reality as a problematic circle:
There is a contradiction in the reeds' diet – sustaining itself (life) through the death of an old man. The collective "we" that needs food will then use it to make rice blue. Blue rice is usually made blue either by dyeing rice with butterfly pea (nasi kerabu) or through the development of a bacteria (chromobacterium subtsugae) that can cause food poisoning. Life and death in this production process, coupled with its instrumentalisation for our subsequent dietary needs, depicts a chain of contradictions, questioning the boundaries of what is right or wrong, or how we have come to accept this reality.
The second part of the book, 'great reset' was the tagline at the 50th World Economic Forum in 2020, gesturing towards the opportunity to rebuild societies and economies amid the global Covid-19 pandemic. Yet, the solutions proposed of a stakeholder economy, sustainability through Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) metrics, and harnessing the Fourth Industrial Revolution for the public good remain at a global solutions-based level. One wonders how this translates into national or local initiatives, and the everyday lives of residents themselves who might want but are unable to afford to "reset" in such a way. Here, Lim offers an opportunity to rethink the "great reset" through history and the lens of everyday-ness.
Fittingly, the section opens with Wong May's writing on the sun hatching itself "for God knows / how many years". It ties in a cosmic register with how we will not live to know or see the sun's hatching, questioning the time cycles experienced within human lives and how our actions now impact the future. For whom are we resetting, and who is the "we" that we will be part of resetting, as opposed to the definitive "we" that will all have passed by the time the sun hatches? In relation to resetting, he intersperses his poems with translations of Bai Juyi, and a thread of 'Narrative' poems, rethinking aspects of flow, linearity and organisation. In a way, he is perhaps resetting his own poetry.
Lim is not taken with linearity. 'Genesis' is an allusion to its biblical roots, while referring to the idea of "development" towards a future:
Again, Lim deconstructs reality by reflecting on teleology and stages of development. If one does not even know what one's next stage of development, would it even exist? And if it does, how might that person ask for guidance?
The series of 'Narrative' (I to XI) poems also question conventional narrative flows. Each of these poems has one or two other poems between them, producing a punctuated rhythm. Moreover, in 'Narrative IX':
To be sure, the poem engages the reader and the reader's interpretative abilities and makes the reader complicit in ordering the poem. Reality is usually all over the place, messy and complex. Yet when we try to make sense of meaning, words and sentences tend to cohere in service of that, and so does this poem. What would it mean to reset our expectations of narratives in each poem and how they usually flow together?
Extending further back into history, the Bai Juyi experimental translations are part of a longer conversation that translates Tang era poets into contemporary poems, including Boey Kim Cheng's Gull Between Heaven and Earth (2017), Joshua Ip's Translations to the Tanglish (2021), Wong May's In the Same Light: 200 Tang Poems For Our Century (2022) and his letters to the Tang poet.
In a way, Lim's Bai Juyi poems work to question the Eurocentricity/Sinocentricity and negligence of history in the crafting of global solutions. In other words, what can we learn from a Tang poet in the light of Covid-19? While this is admirable, it takes away from the diffuse questioning of place that preceded the Bai sections in the book. 'The Futility of Lists' traces the speaker's mother's soup to the Domesday Book records in 11th-century England, the Yad Vashem (Holocaust Memorial), Baijiaxing, the Iliad, the Singaporean Bukit Brown cemetery, the periodic table and Bertrand Russell's logical paradox. In questioning the utility or futility of listing as a historical practice and whom it leaves out, the diffusion and multiplicity of space add to the interconnected tropes of unpacking reality's constructions. Or consider 'Parkway', which similarly brings in a pretzel maker from Cebu, Sarawak noodles, a scent from Azerbaijan and a tribal mask from London. Hence, in repeating the Bai Juyi poems as a central thread in the second part of the book, the diffusion and questioning of a multiplicity of places become funnelled into a bounded conjuncture that has more concreteness than expected, which takes away from the underlying questioning of place and reality that is echoed throughout the collection.
Lim's collection of poems is thus a playful and ambitious take on deconstructing reality and composing two parts – simulacra and a reset. This collection insists on more and excess, diffusion of place, circularities of food production/consumption cycles, and how absurd normality has become. In post-truth, in hyper-reality, one wonders to the extent to which the ground one stands on is solid. If everything is contradictory, what is the point of anything at all? Yet, despite all these abnormalities and unsettling reality, Lim's poems insist that there is a need to move on, to keep on.
"Now get back to work."QLRS Vol. 21 No. 2 Apr 2022