Of Family History and Personal Faith
By Crispin Rodrigues
I have always been drawn to Christian poetry and poetry on migration, which is why I was quite intrigued with Jonathan Chan's debut collection going home – because of its blend of family history, migration and Christianity. In many ways, it follows a trajectory of writing that stems from the first wave of post-independence Singapore poets like Edwin Thumboo and Lee Tzu Pheng. Here, poetry acts as memoir – an act of reflection and a bridge between narrative gaps in history and faith. It is both a salve and a glue that holds identity together. Chan employs poetry as a witness towards acts of migration and faith, and the love of parents for their children.
Chan sets the collection up as a confessional culmination of his own ancestry. From the start we are offered a family history dating back to 1900 as he writes about how his great-great-great grandparents arrive in Malaya from Canton, and then takes us on the various journeys that his forebears have taken before his own journey. This premise sets up Chan's collection to emulate the Singaporean experience – migration, emigration and reintegration – which nicely sums up the collection's main concerns.
The poems in the collection hover around three main threads: poems that profess personal faith, poems that navigates the personal history of migration, and poems that navigate the experience abroad. I find these three threads the most exciting because of how well they encompass just the right amount of pathos in each poem holding faith in a manner that isn't preachy and holding migration such that it doesn't become destined. Each poem keeps the reader in a moment that is explorative but not exploitative, and in doing so, presents poetry that achieves harmony. Take the poem 'milton mansion' for example:
Here, we are offered the picturesque sight of Victoria Harbour, this symbol of hope and welcome for a migrant family, and yet there is a strong sense of retentiveness in the hesitance of each line. It feels as if there is little welcome in a place for migrants despite a possible land of opportunity, and the line breaks speak volumes of the fleeting nature between migrant and interloper. Horizontal images in the poem – "pron[ing]" and "longhand", and many other images – suggest hiding from potential systems of oppression, surveillance and otherness that come with immigration and working as a migrant, as seen in the conclusion of the poem:
Here, the grandmother is an outsider looking in, unaccustomed to why her daughters, the "girls" are laughing or why there is a line break in "live with / him", suggesting an alienation for her, but the potential for her children to set roots in Hong Kong. The symbol of the role that mothers and grandmothers play in this collection is tremendous, functioning as not only a bridge between cultures as migration takes place, but also a critical lens to which new culture leaves the old one hanging and struggling to integrate.
Alongside the poems on migration, the Christian poems also draw a similar outsider/insider dichotomy between a sense of inner peace due to belief, as seen in a poem like 'patience':
Here, there is a disjuncture between the act of "pray[ing]" and "native eloquence", suggesting some form of foreign influence that has altered the persona's attempt to find an inner peace within themselves. This disjuncture is perhaps due to the act of travelling – "a wandering mind" and "a patchy road". The obstacles on the path to finding greater transcendence seems to stem from a movement away from the source of inner peace, such that finding one's way back is much more difficult than moving away.
I do think the collection could have sat longer in editing before being published. At times, going home reads like this – a tribute to other voices with the poet's own hovering just below the surface. While the poems are brilliant by themselves, they tend to follow well-worn paths by other great poets. While reading Chan's collection, I thought of Robert Frost. I thought of the American Transcendentalists like Emerson and Whitman. I thought of Li-Young Lee. Now, this is not a bad thing in itself, but for any debut collection, I wanted a greater sense of the poet peeking through rather than these other poets. The best poems for me are the ones where the poet's voice is clear, poems like 'sik fan', 'coffers', 'unagi-don' and all the poems with halmoni (grandmother in Korean) in them that demonstrate a distinct voice. But at other times, the poems – particularly the Christian ones – can feel like they are overwrought with tropes from older poets.
In terms of organisation, I did feel that the collection struggles to hold its narratives together across the poems. This is not new (this reviewer is guilty of it and has been called out for it before) and is quite common of the SingPoWriMo generation of poets, who challenge themselves to think of poetry essentially as static, de-contextualised and individualised assignments. Like overachieving students, many of them are able to handle the SingPoWriMo prompts within the context of the day and end up publishing a set of SingPoWriMo poems as a collection (once again, this reviewer is guilty of this). I do think that towards the end of the collection, the poems tend to wane a little, with a tendency to blend into a certain monotony, which could be resolved with a reconsideration of the organisation of the poems in the collection to tighten these narrative threads. There are also times where I wonder if I've missed something in the collection, as a prayer poem is designated 'prayer (vi)', but I didn't see any earlier prayer poems. The last poem 'epistle', though, is a wonderful way to end the collection in bringing together the narrative threads in a lucid way with a declaration of self-love by acknowledging the mysteries of life through the persona's relationship with God. I just wish there could be more of such instances throughout the collection instead of the final hurrah.
As a debut collection, going home is a wonderful read that establishes Chan's love for the literary tradition and blends with the rich new voices in today's literary scene. His technical craft is brilliant, and I look forward to reading more of his work as he pushes himself further with the next publication he puts out.QLRS Vol. 22 No. 1 Jan 2023