The Work of Language
By Mok Zining
Of the Florids
Last month, I had the pleasure of reading an unlikely pair of poetry collections, Shawn Hoo's Of the Florids and Malachi Edwin Vethamani's Love and Loss. With the books sitting on my desk and, outside, the December rains pounding on, I found myself returned to the fundamental literary questions: What does language do, and what more can it do?
A winner of the 2021 Diode Editions Chapbook Prize, Hoo's debut is a deft collection of meditations on the administration of Singapore's landscapes that showcases language's ability to define and slip, enact and resist violence, objectify and revitalise. Structuring this rich linguistic exploration is the speaker's own relationship with language, which begins at a point of alienation. In the opening poem, 'Referential', the speaker asserts:
The speaker's alienation from language, 'Referential' suggests, both stems from and exacerbates their alienation from both nature and their sense of identity, concepts that were shaped by the violence of imperialism and Singapore's postcolonial development. In these lines there is no pastoral, no ode to nature, only an uneasy lyricism. In stark contrast on the following page is a quote of Lady Sophia Raffles's, which says of her husband that "a mountain scene would bring tears into his eyes; a flower call forth a burst of favourite poetry". Here, Raffles's ease with both the concept of and lyric outpouring of praise for nature almost stings.
Can the speaker repair their relationship with language? Hoo offers us two inklings of this possibility early in the collection. 'Precocious', which records the speaker's first encounter with Alfian Sa'at's The Invisible Manuscript, suggests that the pleasures of language could provide a pathway to healing. Another possibility is offered by 'Natural History of the Florids, 19th Century', which sketches the conditions for the governance of nature in colonial Singapore before turning to the possibilities offered by a non-Western representational philosophy: "Before the Chinese painter who painted for the European eye / was the gibbon's vital motion. The pressure of the brush hands / its shadows across skin. The speed of it leaves the wind." Here, the speaker calls for a poetics capable of representing the vital life of something on its own terms, rather than a language that manages, exoticises or exploits bodies both human and non-human for the benefit of the empire.
What might a poetics derived from nature look like in contemporary Singapore? This question drives Hoo's chapbook, providing impetus for the speaker's journey away from Western imperialist ideas of nature and in search of another poetics. Charting this journey most clearly are the three anchoring 'Natural History of the Florids' poems, of which 'Natural History of the Florids, 19th Century' is the first. The next in this series, '20th Century', takes as its subject the famous Ueno Zoo and draws a connection between the massacre of the zoo's animals with that of "ten million of the species Homo sapiens". More interesting in '20th Century' is the theory of language the speaker develops: "A word is like a node you place in the field of language of arable risk / it lights up near then unnear words then you lose sight of the node. / In this case, he placed the world animal in the Japanese and the field echoed // enclosure." Here, Hoo presents a geography of language, mapping the pathways of thought and web of relations that our languages record.
It is only in '21st Century', however, that flora and fauna are no longer filed into classes or sentenced to extermination by words. Rather, they have agency. Here, repetition creates a wave-like rhetorical force, and this syntactical momentum is maintained and sharpened as the poem moves to forge a transformative alliance between humans and non-humans for ecological justice. At this point in the collection, language no longer disenchants; rather, it animates, it sings, it creates action. It wrests material bodies from anthropocentric governance and attempts to infuse the world with a vitalism.
This awareness of language's vital powers marks a turning point in the collection. Indeed, following '21st Century', the speaker, it appears, becomes capable of song. A highlight in this section of the book is 'Cicada Rhythms', which provides, rather than "descriptions" or "inventories" or "translations", "transcreations" of cicada songs that push language to the edge: "Masticate, micro-mouth, minimally, / My microquake mouthwash machine." These lines from 'I. Manic Cicada (Phaedrus)', for example, which verge on nonsense, evidence a poet at play. Language here no longer works to inscribe or disenchant, but to create pleasure and perform its own artificiality. In 'Rewilding', Hoo then takes advantage of language's abilities to slip and shape to transfigure beings and objects so that "mangosteens grew / necks and walked off like purple herons // onto the wetland of unchopped chives". Language can, in itself, be a kind of spell.
Of the Florids takes its place alongside other recent Singlit titles in the field of ecopoetry, including Daryl Lim Wei Jie's Anything But Human (Landmark Books, 2021) and Esther Vincent Xueming's Red Earth (Blue Cactus Press, 2021). What is beautiful about Hoo's chapbook, in my opinion, is that it is a text that gestures to burgeoning possibilities and creates openness. The closing poem, 'Postscript, Torn Pages from The Discovery of the Florids', however, reads almost like a manifesto on the florids as "a pedagogy of pleasurable city-living". Its language is assertive, sure, and almost forecloses or predetermines the ambiguous teeming of the collection. I wonder if a more effective gesture might have been to leave things unsettled, to create space for new ideas to arise, rather than to define a new field. Still, as a whole, Of the Florids is a tight collection and an exciting debut from Hoo, and I look forward to reading whatever he turns his pen to in the future.
While Of the Florids attunes the reader's ears to the artificiality of language, Malachi Edwin Vethamani's Love and Loss employs language to collapse distance, even to get around the mediating effects of language itself. Vethamani's third poetry collection and fourth book comprises a selection of poems – both new and previously published poems from Complicated Lives (2016) and Life Happens (2017) – culled by the late Wong Phui Nam into a "comprehensive map of 21st century love and its losses and failures".
With language as their material, some poets are capable of bringing their readers into a space where, paradoxically, language no longer matters, and what remains, instead, is the primacy of experience. Love and Loss accomplishes this within the first two pages, which place two poems, 'Entwined' and 'You are, I am' beside one another.
Together, these poems set up the ideal love between "I" and "You" that will come to frame the collection as it charts the physical and emotional space between two subjects. Like the subjects, 'Entwined' and 'You are, I am' are each poems in their own right, yet they also inform and are informed by one another. While 'Entwined' provides a sort of blueprint for the structure of 'You are, I am', the latter employs the present tense to push the mingling of "You" and "I" into action, opening something fixed into a space that is still in the process of becoming. Vethamani's use of language is bold in its spareness, and it is this spare quality that invites its readers to sink into a space of profound intimacy between two beings.
But there are infinite ways of relating to another person, and following the opening poems, which depict the idyllic union of "You" and "I", the collection quickly plunges into the disillusionments, devastations and dissolutions of love. There is 'A Sign', which captures the desolations of love's betrayals; 'Caresses on My Keyboard', which portrays a love simultaneously enabled and mediated by technology; 'Encounters', which transcribes the stilted conversations of casual intimacies; and 'Transitions' – "Monogamy // slides // into open relationships // slips // into time-sharing partnerships. // The old lie: I won't fall in love. / I will come home to you." There is also 'Bland Plums', a particularly poignant portrait of longing:
'Bland Plums' is a perfect example of the poet's mastery at mapping the subtleties of the interpersonal and conjuring complicated emotional experiences in a few distilled lines. Reading the collection, I found myself alternatively devastated, soothed, even seen.
Throughout Love and Loss, the speaker creates a space, and in fact makes it safe, for the reader to dwell in love's intimacies, ecstasies, unfulfillments and failures. This is in stark contrast to the ways in which love is policed and surveilled in our societies, as captured in the poem 'If':
What Love and Loss creates for the reader in this wider societal context, through the speaker's offering up of their experience, is a sense of identification with love in its many forms. In this sense, it builds no less than a common lyric and ground for a profoundly human experience.
Not a dutiful reader, I noticed the epigraph of Vethamani's collection only after I'd finished the book (I am tempted to blame the monsoon – humidity makes the pages stick): "Thou reader throbbest life and pride and love the same as I, / Therefore for thee the following chants." The epigraph, taken from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, crystallised for me the work of the collection in its generous offering up of its words as a gift. It strikes me that Vethamani's poems don't just paint the intricate romantic dynamics between lovers, but also perform the intimate and incredible work of communication that language enables between a speaker and a listener, a writer and a reader and, indeed, one consciousness and another. Love and Loss offers its readers a remarkable gift, bound by the time it takes to read the collection and yet also timeless, as put beautifully by the closing poem, 'Epitaph': "Remember my life / and in death, / I offer you nothing."QLRS Vol. 22 No. 1 Jan 2023