Epic Versions, Uneven Results
Eddie Tay’s latest is a mixed bag
By Cyril Wong
A Lover's Soliloquy
Eddie Tay’s latest offering is divided in three sections. The first is the long title-poem, ‘A Lover’s Soliloquy’, the second is ‘Versions’ – translations of Chinese poems by Li Shang-yin (AD 813-858), and the third, entitled ‘Everyday Poems’, is made up of exactly that, which is not necessarily a good thing.
The title-piece is a sustained, resonant meditation on love, love lost, and spiritual conflict, a unique juxtaposition of emotional and religious tensions seldom explored together within a long poem. It is a testament to poetry’s capacity to comfort and illuminate. The speaker’s heartbroken “I” splits from the personal to enter the universal, possessing, in the poet’s words, even the “bodies / of captains, sailors, pirates.” The speaker seems to speak from the grave (“Oh beautiful poem, / tell of my death.”), and also seems to represent, for a moment, the voice of an old Chinese poet, before jumping into the present where he searches for his lost lover among “restaurants, pubs, a night life.”
The poem’s imagery is haunting and full of surprises (eg. “The doors open, / and they flow into trains / like clockwork”). The cityscape is familiarly evoked as coldly precise and soulless – “our city is rational”, “a country ruled by numbers”, “every street is measured”, “every building is indifferent” – contrasted against the emotionality of the speaker, who seeks solace not in the present but in a romanticized Chinese past, elevating unrequited affection to a level of timelessness that other poets have done before him, so as to feel less alone.
Jesus makes an appearance in the poem, as the poet writes, “Christ blows His bugle, / but I see your face / forged in the cauldron / of my mind.” Even his Christian faith will not save him from his agony. It is melodramatic, even campy. But this is part of myth-making, after all, and this is what the poem achieves by expanding a private sense of grief and loss to epic proportions. Yet, the speaker in the poem recognizes that he is ultimately “negotiating / with absences”, that such romantic imaginings only form a weak bandage over the loss he must eventually confront. As such, instead of returning “to another self in China, / rise in an unfamiliar room / of calligraphy”, it is best to “scatter / like torn pages.”
The next section proves to be a disappointment compared to what has come before. Perhaps it is the choice of poems by Li Shang-yin that Tay has chosen to translate. In this set of poems, the speaker longs for his love to be his “river goddess” and he to be her “river reed”. It is that kind of poem, full of romantic abstractions – “They now suffer madness of the moon; / the winds of the earth roll on” – but little else. Beautiful to read but the context for the emotionally-charged language remains sketchy and unmoving.
With each poem, more breathtaking nature-imagery abound (“Do we share our thoughts / the way willows share the wind?”) and some lines are haunted by a sense of foreboding – “The rain replies with a fragrance of blood...” Perhaps it is the convention of traditional Chinese poetry to freeze a moment suffused with mood and feeling as an end in itself. Plenty of such moments abound in the poems, linked by vague narratives about a scholar who made the mistake of loving “finery and women” instead of his “scrolls” or “a country cracked open by greed and snow.” In translation, however, such lines as “you would leave me / to wander in the wilderness of my soul” reek of cliché instead of sounding poignant or dramatic, and that motif about a dead lover has grown tiresome by this point (“I search for you among tombstones / broken by the river”), not helped by such hackneyed-sounding moments as this: “My arms weak as vines, / no wine restores / the lion of my strength.”
The last section, ‘Everyday Poems’, recall plenty of Singapore poems that evoke a earlier time in the country’s history, often recalling a past event in the poet’s life so as to make a point about the present. ‘Never Forgotten’ has this to say,
It is like reading Arthur Yap’s poetry, particularly because it recalls the ambivalence that Yap encourages when viewing the contrast between the past and the present. In the instance of this poem, it may or may not be implied – depending on how you read it – that someone should understand in this day and age to chase away the dog. The poem simply states that it does not happen anymore, for better or for worse.
This and the other poems bear the theme of nostalgia that Yap and many other poets in Singapore have engaged with. Tay’s direct, easygoing voice and his sensitivity to casual human relationships also bring to mind Yong Shu Hoong’s poetry, such as in ‘After a Class Reunion’, where he writes, “we were classmates after all... It is easy to be friends. / After that, it is easy to become strangers again.”
‘Jogging Before Dawn’ bemoans the familiarly inane troubles of yuppie life and our race to maintain it everyday (“I race the impending sunrise…my legs pumping, pumping, pumping.”), while ‘One Afternoon’ recalls the same old story about unhelpful and ungracious neighbours. Old family members are recalled fondly, and the loss of a Chinese dialect disables the poet’s ability to communicate with his grandparents. These themes are familiar territory for local poetry, yet Tay manages to engage without seeming tedious. At the same time, it is not very interesting either, since the poems here lack the imagistic and imaginative inventiveness of the first section. There are some trite moments, however, as when Tay writes in ‘Obedience’: “No child dare climb these trees, / for chaos is not theirs to learn.” It brings to mind that inane, pseudo-profound line Galadriel says to Frodo in the movie version of Lord of the Rings, “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.”
The last poem is a marvel though. ‘My Other’ is very Stephen Dunn. The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet writes in a similarly anecdotal style with a touch of surrealism in his work. Here, Tay writes about an “other” within him that seems to represent his more enlightened and poetic side. He makes his point with allusive wit and a sense of wonder:
QLRS Vol. 4 No. 3 Apr 2005