Hand on Heartlands
Aaron Lee finds Paul Tan eminently readable, but wants him to risk more
By Aaron Lee
First Meeting of Hands
Paul Tan needs little introduction to the local literary scene. His two previous two volumes of verse, Curious Roads (1994) and Driving into Rain (1998), won prizes at the Singapore Literature Prize competitions. His writings have appeared in publications like the Straits Times, the New Straits Times and Commentary. For a time he also co-organized the monthly Forum readings at the National Library.
First Meeting of Hands, Paul's third collection of 39 poems, was jointly launched in September with five other books at a Firstfruits event at the Singapore Art Museum. Upon several readings of the book, three distinct parts to this work can be discerned—the first addressing issues relating to Singapore society, the second relationships, and the third an Aesop-like series of poems about animals.
For a start, it is obvious (and commendable) that the poet has continued to be craft-conscious— he has chosen to start and close the collection with a poem about his writing experiences. These and other poems reveal that his writing is often born spontaneously in the midst of his everyday routine. He displays a disposition for observation and reflection, with the occasional tongue in cheek or questioning stance that we have come to know from his earlier work.
In "Perspectives", the poet narrates a list of how Singaporeans are regarded in other countries—a theme that is also present in the travel poems of his previous two collections. The stereotypes of Singaporeans are highlighted in turn with disarming objectivity; from our seeming arrogance, to our relative prosperity and materialistic attitudes, to our colonial history that we are even now attempting to shrug off. Interestingly, the poet does not deny that he is any of these things; however we do go away with a sense that he knows these are not our only qualities:
In "Reservist" Paul once again turns his attention to the quintessential Singaporean male's experience of national service. We detect a certain sense of detachment in this piece, in which he describes a fellow soldier's injury "as if from a distance". The poet's persona is "there but not there", much like the soldiers' experience of being asleep in the field, "suturing fragments together in their dreams". Despite such unique experiences, in other pieces the poet acknowledges the essential banality of Singaporean existence. Our way of life is seen as unthinking, safe and cocooned. In "You'd Better", the poet adopts the didactic tone of someone in authority-- perhaps a politician or a social commentator (the poet himself was previously a journalist):
A long list of things we should worry about includes bird flu, hijackings, our children failing their tests, and closes with the observation that we have somehow fashioned a safe harbour (real or imagined) from these threats. With the final image in the poem of a 'heartlander' and his wife at rest, the poet reverts to a subtlety that is more familiar to us:
The next piece "Makeover" resonates with us in the aftermath of a recent general election—written in the voice of a senior government official, it discusses an election strategy of fielding a candidate with attributes that would show the government as being 'progressive'. I rather enjoyed this piece, although I preferred the original ending in a previous version of this poem:
There are a few poems, like "Pandan", "Agar-agar" and "Monsoon" that are more aptly characterised as 'snapshot' pieces, with little to show by revelation. It is not simply a question of those poems being too short, for by contrast there is the 10-line, yet pointed piece "Famished" which re-examines traditional ancestor-worship practices during the Chinese seventh month. With some much "currency" being transmitted by fire into the afterworld, the poet asks half seriously, which will be ruined first—our immediate environment or the nether economy?
Happily, the middle section of poems about relationships anchors the book and gives it a solid core. Nevertheless, when it comes to these poems, I wish the poet were not his usual subtle self. If Alvin Pang's poetry is interrogatory, Paul Tan's tends to the other direction. In the poem "Mouth" he observes, somewhat ironically, that a fellow poet's writing is extremely subtle, with "no tracks exposed". I surmise that he must be aware that his writing sometimes evokes "[his] own absence", for this is a line that appears in another piece "Gift". For this reason, I regard the poem "Reflection" as being a somewhat unrepresentative poem in this collection—the poet has saved his most serious efforts at questioning for when he looks at himself in the mirror: five questions are posed and no answers given, only one observation.
"Orchids" is interesting in that it reminds me of Ho Poh Fun's work; both poets have the same disposition for floral (not florid) metaphor, and both apprehend the environment inhabited in each poem in a selective, as opposed to sweeping, manner. Similarly, "Nathan Road, Hong Kong" ends too abruptly. Are we meant to infer that the poem that sprang to mind while the poet waited at a department store for his friend could not be completed once the friend returned? If this is not a clever conceit then it is a comment on the fickle muse of poetry.
In this section, "Waking Up" and "Autumn" stand out. The first is a 'morning after' poem of sorts, ending with some touching lines that evoke impending loss:
This poem foreshadows the theme of regret that is subsequently revisited in "The Cattle Egrets Spend a Season Here", the best and most insightful piece in the series of animal poems. I feel that the other animal poems work with varying degrees of success. The pieces about the tapir and the monitor lizard ones do not say much, but "The Polar Bear Wishes to Upgrade" is provocative. Does each of us, in our manufactured air-conditioned environment, know that we are out of our element? Do we feel in some distant memory the tug of another life?
In an article published last year in Harvard Asia Quarterly, the poet-academic Dr Gwee Li Sui referred to Paul Tan as "a true master of little moments". The poet himself said in a 1999 interview with Professor Kirpal Singh (recorded in Vol. 2 of Interlogue) that he strives to create "nuggets of verse that can be read (and written) in a relative flash."
First Meeting of Hands is eminently readable, and to my mind it presages the next phase in Paul Tan's development as a writer - to risk more and delve deeper in his poetic endeavours, and not be content to merely uncover what lies beneath daily experience. For this, he may draw useful guidance from the admonition in "Autumn", not to be "ignorant of the price/ of too much patience, letting things be".QLRS Vol. 6 No. 1 Oct 2006