Handle Poetry With Care
Finding a point of access
By Yeo Yen Ping
Broken By The Rain
“Please be gentle with me. I am only a book.” In the older library books, you can still find these charming lines stamped onto the title page, encouraging you and me to treat it with love and consideration. As even Primary Ones would be able to tell you, that means not dog-earring the pages, or defacing the margins with thoughts other readers couldn’t care less about. But it might as well have read, “Please be gentle with me. I am only a human being”, considering the extent of emotional investment writers typically put into their work only to find, at times, unappreciative readers. This isn’t necessarily the fault of the reader, of course, who must bring to bear on the reading a scale of values and scope of experience quite unique to him. And especially for a dusty section like “poetry” (enunciated with an accompanying sense of alarm by a good many readers at the library), the writer’s undertaking is often misapprehended, if not maligned. Apart from the scathing remark or review you’d occasionally come across, there’s also a lot of fear associated with poetry, and perhaps the two are somehow related. Even so, poetry isn’t supposed to be intimidating; but tell that to any random adult visitor to the library.
That is probably why the first thing that impressed me about Broken By the Rain was the lucidly written afterword “Combustion of Yourself: The Process of Assuming Voices” (I began reading from the back). The poet, in bare terms, lays out the back story of the collection’s becoming – from the depletion of “creative ammunition” while writing his Masters thesis, through feverish dreams and reflections, to the influences that inspired the reinvention of the dramatic monologue, Felix-Cheong style. In essence, he draws from sources as diverse as a puppetmaster’s 5-step approach to creating fictional characters, and pours both insight and inspiration into such colourful vessels as sex workers, serial murderers and detectives. One of the questions that might occur to the reader is, to adapt a line from Isadora Duncan, if the poet could explain it, why would he still need to dance it?
You wouldn’t think that poets felt inclined to explain themselves to their readers if you have only been reading local offerings from recent years, but look 10 years back, and you’ll find books like A-Musing 69 (1991) by Anna Wang, who introduces her collection with the hope that “each reader will find some poems particular to his or her intellectual or emotional tastes”, or Goh Sin Tub’s Moments in a Singapore Life from the same period that pitches itself as
Statements like that sound a little naïve in 2003, and I hesitate to press the issue further as I don’t wish to imply that current poetry is in the custody of an elitist enclave, or that it has become unreadable. Readability isn’t the point. While relatively older poetry seems to be more readable in a prosaic sense, recent trends see a marked development toward complexity and variety; to be specific, complexity that exceeds the inclusion of quirky orthography, unusual page formatting or sizes, and variety that involves translations of mother-tongue poetry into English, including a resurgence of niche interest in Sung and Tang poetry, expat poetry, NS poetry, and miscegenated formations that look like poetry. More significant than that is an accompanying consciousness of innovation and personal style, seen in eminently readable examples as Gwee Li Sui’s Who Wants to Buy a Book of Poems? (1998), with its idiosyncratic and effortless style, or Thusitha De Silva’s Speed Camera and Other Stories (2002) with its unusual sense of humour and a surreal eye. Taking this view, Broken By the Rain – the first extended effort at elaborating on the dramatic monologue as a form – is comparable to these works in so far as it uses both an effective and original approach, and shows the maturation of a voice that’s distinctly individual, made all the more accessible by making his method plain.
But that does not make the poetry plain; instead, the afterword makes reading the poems themselves paradoxically mysterious and retrospectively fruitful. Finding his imagination increasingly strapped down by a controlling image, Cheong attributes the shrinking scope of his poetry to its over-reliance on “the stamp and stomp of . . . personality, its radius reaching only as far as experience would permit”. These lines actually prompted me to reread his previous two books – the first, Temptation and Other Poems, published in 1998, and the second, I Watch the Stars Go Out, in 1999.
Those who’ve read Cheong’s previous work would be familiar with his religious preoccupations. Oppositional forces set against each other – the sacred and the profane, the spirit and the flesh – are frequently represented by a struggle between the personal and the impersonal, or, to put it another way, the war within the self to withstand the pressure of personality.
Through the older poems that deal specifically with religious ambivalence, the struggle of the poet as image-maker confronting himself endures and finds no resolution in the 2003 collection. Compare the spirited combat against a dusky double in “Shadow Boxing” –
with the remote recognition of a spectral dread in 2003, “You hold a man in the mirror for a spell but he turns away. His contempt is yours” (“Dancer from the Dance”, Broken By the Rain). The poetic strategy has matured beyond the restlessness of the poetic personality raging within its confines, especially since the limits seemed also, at the same time, to have served as a form of self-defense – “at heart I’m still a child, / unable to weather my storm” (“Testing the Waters”, I Watch the Stars Go Out) – a defense ambiguous in merit if the territory beyond can only be gained by the deliberate rejection of the personal, a breaking of these very limitations.
Broken represents, perhaps, not so much a triumph of self-expression, as a triumph over the self and its limitations (which inhibit identification with the subject, deemed essential to the making of potent images). The premise seems to be that the poet who cannot become the thing he seeks to portray by an imaginative transference, which requires the rejection of the self, cannot truly portray it. Not infrequently, the process necessary for coming to terms with it involves an act which is at once both one of propitiation and conquest (“Dancer from the Dance”, “Artemisia”, Broken By the Rain), of bridging that emotional distance that keeps apart even the most intimate of human ties – an ordering impulse, the first tendencies of which are already evident in his writing in 1999 (“Denial”).
Although the material he uses in 1999 is a lot more diverse, the focus on reinventing his method in the 2003 collection has served to cultivate more fully the natural features of the poetic personality – his longstanding thematic concerns, the trademark puns and understated voice. The chief difference, however, between Broken and his previous work, and probably amongst any other local collection of poetry found on the library shelves, is the way the individual poems are held together by a sustained stream of flowing, growing images through its entirety, never solidifying into emblematic rigidity. Without sacrificing the integrity of the individual pieces, disparate motifs – crosses, tulips, streets – blend into each other to form an organically interrelated whole. In place of the yearning for the ineffable, and instead of regretting the “prayer that hardens to bead, and bead to stone”, Broken as a totality never congeals. Reading it is a little like tracing the trajectory of thematic variations through the movements of a symphony, though the experience is probably best described by the poet himself in a group of particularly beautiful lines from “Fireworks over the Brisbane River”:
Librarians sometimes speak of the “average reader”, but if there is indeed such an animal, we have yet to find and classify it. Each poem must bring a pertinent insight to bear upon the reader’s attention, Cheong mindfully says. Likewise, the reader who is exposed to an assortment of styles would be in a better position to bring pertinent insights to bear upon the single volume before him. To the average, or not-quite-average, reader: to find and determine for oneself these threads of continuity requires no more than reading across the length of the shelf, which proves to be more important for fairer criticism, than reading deeply into any single fragment. This imparts not only the advantage of perspective, but avoidance of unnecessary anxiety, or worse, brusque handling, when reader meets poetry. After all, as you’re reminded on the title page, it is only a book.Felix Cheong’s work to date:
Temptation, and Other Poems (1998), SING 821 CHE
I Watch the Stars Go Out (1999), SING 821 CHE
Broken By the Rain (2003), SING 821 CHE
Other works mentioned:
Anna Wang, A-Musing 69 (1991), SING 821 WAN
Goh Sin Tub, Moments in a Singapore Life (1993), SING 821 GOH
Gwee Li Sui, Who Wants to Buy a Book of Poems? (1998), SING 821 GWE
Thusitha De Silva, Speed Camera and Other Stories (2002), SING 821 DES QLRS Vol. 2 No. 3 Apr 2003