Problems and Promises
First collection a curate's egg
By Nicholas Liu
The Stamp Collector's Wife
If the worth of a poet is determined by her finest work, Grace Chua is a good poet who has written a bad book. Her first collection, The Stamp Collector's Wife, contains moments, and occasionally whole poems, that reinforce my hope that local poetry — too often written as if literary history had ended with the death, if not the birth, of Modernism — might at last be entering the present. Regrettably, these moments and poems serve only as little islands on which readers may rest as they cross a sea of forgettable verse.
A fundamental problem with the poems in this volume is their imprecision. Chua seems content with the satisfactory word and the serviceable phrase, but good enough, in poetry, is just not good enough. The first stanza of "Canticle" exemplifies this flaw:
"[P]rim, hymnal, certain/and everlasting"—a list of four abstract adjectives which are neither interesting themselves nor unexpected in conjunction—produces the clarity of the admissions essay rather than the clarity of a poem. The phrase "pinafored, churchgoing, self-/righteous" continues this exercise in the art of the bleeding obvious, but lines five and six are still worse: Are there such things as flexible steeples? (I suppose a balloon chapel might have one.) For that matter, what are we to make of "high, tense, moral"? If they refer to the addressee, "high" fails to make sense; if they refer to the steeples, "tense" and "moral" are the nonsensical terms. Simply put, there are too many words here, and they are not the right ones.
Two stanzas on, Chua remains doubtful that the reader has attended to her theme of innocence versus experience, naïvely-held dogma versus messy life. She thus inserts a stanza of equally unsubtle opposition:
Chua appears to abhor an unmodified noun; the world of "Canticle", and of the book as a whole, is one in which few mere fields, magnetic fields, or grown-up fields (whatever that means) can be allowed to exist. No, one must make room for a "magnetic grown-up field". Nor can "blessed" simply mean "mad"; it has to be a "swear word"—an "aspirate" one, no less, as if the reader cannot be trusted with pronunciation—that means mad. Oddly enough, this over-explication coexists with a sense of unintended slippage. Take the list of things counted in the "[l]itany of flexible things". Lips I will grant, awkward though it may be to describe them as "flexible". However, "[S]parrows of the field", are not particularly known for their flexibility (the thought seems a little cruel!) and the act of "limbering up/for gym class" is no more a "flexible thing" than the act of running is a "fast-moving thing". What the field of "tv ads,/of coffee, late nights, soap operas" has to do with flexibility is similarly vague. The disruption which such category errors introduce might have been productive in a more experimental piece, but here, it only obstructs.
I won't pursue this point any further, for fear of replicating Chua's error of overkill; suffice to say that the poem doesn't end up anywhere at all unexpected. Here are two representative lines from further on in the poem: "You amend hell, live in a room called love that is tinder,/and your sere guilt sets you aflame." (Enough said.) The only interesting feature is the form—the poem is a modified sestina—but the thematic concern it serves to dramatise is so readily apparent (rigidity versus flexibility; the Apollonian versus Dionysian) that the pleasure of it quickly fades.
This takes me from the question of technical competence to the other, thornier problem in Chua's poetry, which is its often passé subject matter and themes. Of course, earnest love poems, break-up poems, growing-up poems and the like remain viable in our age, but, as William Carlos Williams said (albeit of formal poetry), "In this mode, perfection is basic." Something more than competent reiteration is required, but competent reiteration is the best we are given in poems such as Chua's brief, portentously titled "Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit":
Abridged version: Her breasts were like sweet fruit. He liked them. Good for the lovers, but what about the reader? Are we in need of more comparisons between breasts and fruit and, if we were, couldn't we do better than "sweet and taut,/ripe with love"? The poem is an old wineskin full of old wine, as is the poem that follows it, called "Prophecy":
Again, the ideas are as tired as the language. One need not even turn to literature to find precursors to this formulaic lament for a doomed relationship; a trip to the cinema will suffice. Adding the familiar trope of relativity, much loved by the Modernists and scholars of Modernism alike, does nothing to improve things. "Will you believe me / when I say I know how it will end?" Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.
Not all of Chua's poems are as ham-handed as the ones I quote above. Sometimes she gets the alchemical process right, as in "Homesick":
The poem is made by its restraint and its resonant, perfectly-pitched ending. The repetitiveness here is neither gratuitous nor over-important; its echoes suggest, without too obviously telegraphing, the weight of precedents and expectations, both literary and familial. What the poem suggests about the position of a young person in an unfamiliar land, the knowledge of which others (one's parents; one's literary antecedents) already claim mastery, is left gratifyingly implicit, though it is easy enough to infer.
Chua moves here from comprehensiveness towards suggestion, and from self-consciously "deep" turns of phrase (poetic noises, really) to a freer register. "Homesick" is at once more assured and more venturesome than the poems discussed earlier, a pattern repeated in the handful of other successful poems in this book, such as the relatively experimental "Geography Lessons" and "Planting". This isn't to say there aren't also some cloying, twee experiments in the mix as well—"(love song, with two fish)" is one, and the cringeworthy bit of quasi-textspeak "rcvd grf" is another—or that experimentalism is necessarily better than traditionalism. It's simply that on the evidence of this collection, Chua seems to profit more from working in less conventionally lyrical modes. These poems, as well as a few startling individual lines—"Perhaps some poem changed our life and we changed it right back again" ("Gardening in Hell") and "In me you set some bright fish moving" ("Tempest") are two which have stayed with me—allow me to look toward Chua's next collection with interest rather than with dread.QLRS Vol. 9 No. 4 Oct 2010