Elaborate description conceals undercurrent of anxiety
By Cyril Wong
City of Rain
If good poems offer fresh and idiosyncratic perspectives of the world with lively and startling metaphors, this second collection of poems by Alvin Pang is full of them. With City of Rain, Alvin has undoubtedly filled the shoes of Billy Collins for the Singaporean literary scene. Rooted enthusiastically in our local, urban context, Alvin outdoes even the American Poet Laureate himself in terms of the flashiness of his imagery and the sheer range of ideas skillfully displayed in so many of his poems.
More serious than they seem, Alvin's poems both celebrate as well as complain about his existence within this capitalist city-state, often both at once in the same poem. The first two sections of the book – Real Estate and Shades of Light – are made up of such poems. Take the first poem in the volume, for example, in which the poet takes a satirical stab at our country's delirious penchant for redevelopment and the Singaporean yuppie's insatiable desire for bigger and better living comforts:
Alvin's imagination knows no limits. Even readers who do not fully appreciate the poem will laugh and gasp at the wild take on alternative worlds and his ability to make one take a fresh glance at things we believed to be familiar.
Moving away from the persistent word-play and inane poeticising of places like the Singapore River in his first volume, Testing The Silence, Alvin's poems now conceal something darker. There is an undercurrent of anxiety about the worth of our lives behind the routine of the everyday; what Filipino poet Alfred Yuson calls the 'urban quotidian.' Readers who avoid depressing themes in poetry are lulled by Alvin's flights of fancy and accessible humour before confronting disturbing lines like 'Self-inflicted violence with a toothbrush', 'Your footsteps / echo in the hollow air as if they matter' ("Morning Shift"), and existential questions like 'Where did you stop along your life / and forget how to live? Was there a wrong turn?' ("Arriving in the Modern City-State").
Less a criticism of other Singaporeans than one directed at his poetic persona, Alvin's poems, specifically in the first few sections of the book, are more playful and questioning than directly critical, let alone didactic. Take for example, this line, 'Isn't this defeat so subtle, our bohemian afterlife, / token as a piece of heaven, resounding in seclusion' ("Shades of Light in Holland Village"). One feels that Alvin's poems desire to be liked; only obliquely dissing the complacency of our too-comfortable yuppie culture.
And what is there not to like? Alvin's poems can be read as stand-up "comedy" (or "commentary") and still introduce new audiences to the joys and possibilities of poetry. It is only as the collection progresses that the poems become subtler and more complex; in other words, more poetic. The themes also move into more troubled territory. Whether dealing with the sad plight of immigrant workers in "Made Of Gold" or a young girl's unforeseen suicide ("No Sign Before"), Alvin shows that he can play on both sides of the fence, proficient with bright sunshine as well as unsettled shadows. But the poems are more than simply effective. Take the last few lines of "No Sign Before", in which he describes the girl's room, concluding with a devastating comment about our inability to relate to the victim:
Alvin's propensity for elaborate, evocative description is present in almost all of his poems. Even in the above poem, Alvin goes on a bit too long about how the girl's room is not like 'the troubled cell of some precocious / martyr, secrets carved on a desk's pained skin; sheets bleeding floor-ward [...]' when a shorter poem might have had a more cutting effect.
Poems like "Why We Go to Movies" and 'Poem for an Engineer' bring to mind again Billy Collins' poems at their most engaging and imaginative without being inaccessible. The latter, for example, is ironic and self-reflexive about the act of writing poetry, the pointlessness of it that is its own freedom: 'What do poems know about / the imperatives of balance and stress, the calculus / of load-bearing metres?' Yet the poem ends vaguely and rather disappointingly despite the pleasure most readers will have in reading it: 'straight / lines on paper that will one day become a bridge, / a skyscraper, a lighter-than-air miracle.' The poem might be for an engineer but it says nothing really about the poet and why he writes as opposed to the work of an engineer; why the contrast and why is it so interesting that it should warrant a poem? The poem sounds incomplete, like many of Billy Collins' poems, although many Americans would probably not notice, having enjoyed so much of his magical turn of phrases and clever metaphors: how can it be easy to fault a poet after he has offered such reading pleasure?
These expansive poems buffer elliptical poems like "A Poet is Instructed by the Death of His Master". The reader, having enjoyed the previous poems, is now more willing to read into what is not said in its concise stanzas. Take the opening:
A richly quiet piece about accepting what is almost impossible to accept, letting go and forgiveness, it is also reminiscent of Jane Hirshfield's work. Moreover, Alvin can afford to be as daring as Hirshfield by saying or directing the reader less, making the reader work harder to garner her or his own meanings from the poem (for starters, as a minor example, one could remove 'Know this' from the poem's beginning).
Alvin's wordiness works against his poems, especially those about love. These poems suffer from over-abstraction, and read like the less impressive poems in a volume by Carol Ann Duffy. Take, "The Memory of Your Taste", for example:
This poem reads more like a lengthy, academic or literary exercise in image-making than something that springs from any genuine feeling. Not to say that the poem is not enjoyable – it is, but after reading such poems like this and "Sea And Sky", I am left with little more than admiration of the poet's craft. On the other hand, poems like "In Transit" remain memorable, fresh and personal in the best sense with every re-reading precisely because they balance verbal virtuosity with a real glimpse of the poet's personality. Look at these lines:
The tone is slightly mocking, but always kind. The last line in the above extract reminds me of the best of Stephen Dunn, whose poems often discover that exact and refreshing equilibrium between a mere anecdote and a poetic-cum-philosophical statement about life.
Different poems will appeal to different people. Some will still find Alvin's pieces neither funny nor poetic, despite their crowd-pleasing tendencies. But who can fault the poet for simply wanting to be heard as well as appreciated? In any case, this long-awaited second volume by Alvin might just be the thing to get less literary Singaporeans – and there are so many of them – remotely interested in poetry.QLRS Vol. 2 No. 4 Jul 2003