Willing to Share
Yong Shu Hoong gives readily of himself in his latest collection
By David Fedo
From within the marrow
As a newcomer to Singapore in 2007, I first encountered Yong Shu Hoong's work in the collection Over There: Poems from Singapore and Australia, edited by John Kinsella and Alvin Pang, and published that year by Ethos Books and the National Arts Council. Here, I thought, was a decidedly interesting voice. Of the eight selections by Yong included in the anthology, I was impressed by both the playfulness and seriousness of the writing: There were poems about his mother and father, Peranakan culture and the cities of Chicago and Adelaide, and most tellingly about death (including his grandfather's and Singapore's Arthur Yap). In the latter, an exquisite lyric called "With the End in Mind", Yong links Yap's funeral ("A room on the fourth floor of Singapore Casket") to his own struggle with and desire to counter mortality:
Yong, now in his mid-40s, had already published four books of poetry by then: Isaac (1997), Isaac Revisited (2001), dowhile (2002), and Frottage (2005). The last volume won the Singapore Literature Prize in 2006; it's a book largely given over to his observations on and ruminations about Australia, which he visited in 2002. Later, as an advocate for writers, Yong founded the group subTEXT, which has served as a forum for readings by both Singaporean and international authors. Interestingly, Yong majored in computer science at the National University of Singapore. He also received his MBA from Texas A&M University in the US, and the landscapes and cities of America figure in many of his poems, including some in his important new book, From within the marrow.
There are 35 poems in marrow, most of which display the kind of agility and nimbleness of writing that readers have now come to expect of Yong. And yet, there are surprises, too, both in subject and in form. The poet's father and mother appear frequently once again, and largely sympathetically, and so do the poet's remembrances of his infancy and childhood (as in "First Hundred Nights"). Death is often a subject, as in "Doing Time" and "What Physics Didn't Explain". Travels to Denmark and Sweden open up new vistas for Yong, and the prose poems in the mix ("Free Fall", "Outside the Green Mill", and "Coming to Class, After a Long Abstinence") provide a balance to the often lean and spare stanzas with their more traditional forms. Most of these works succeed, some more than others, and nearly all are crafted with careful attention to image and detail.
The best work here is the evocative "A Study on Bare Bones", from which the volume draws its title. In five stanzas, Yong presents a remarkable portrait of the human body—and, in particular, of the skeleton, our bones, which frame and outlast the rest of the body, but upon which the world nonetheless leaves its wounds:
But clues to what? The origin of "A Study of Bare Bones" comes in Yong's epigraph on the tragedy of the Vasa, an early 17-century Swedish warship that sank less than a nautical mile into its maiden voyage, and which was recovered, along with the skeletons of some 15 sailors, only in the mid-20th century. (The salvaged ship and many of its artefacts are now displayed in a popular Stockholm museum, where Yong presumably viewed it.) The poet continues his detective work without flinching:
The last stanza is difficult, and its difficulty reminds me of the pared-down images of American poet Hart Crane. Here is Yong:
In thinking about "A Study of Bare Bones", I am struck by how closely Yong's poem also mirrors to some extent the works of contemporary Singapore artist Vincent Leow, whose various sculptures, drawings and structures were on display in the Singapore Art Museum when I was writing this review. As in Yong's poem, Leow's mysterious and sometimes mystifying work—a display of femur bones piled on a table, for example—seem to take as their theme the old Latin dictum, memento mori (remember you will die). Yong, too, seems to know that death is not too far away, and yet, unlike Leow, the narrator of "A Study of Bones" seems ultimately to find comfort in an "ancient wisdom", which allows "prayers and intercessions" to "ebb and rise/from within the marrow where our souls reside." This comfort may be the poet's religion, for in "Question of Faith", Yong explains that he was a lapsed Catholic later "baptised by a Presbyterian pastor... / but never stopped praying it was faith, / alone, that murdered all my questions." For him, the soul somehow endures, like the bones.
One of the most moving poems in marrow is another travel work, the riveting "Horses", with the following notation: After Viewing Berlinde De Bruyckere's in Flanders Fields. Here the poet contemplates, in an unnamed museum, the remarkable "construction" by a young Belgian sculptress of the casts of five horses commemorating the horror of the blood-soaked Flanders battlefields of World War I. (Poison gas killed many soldiers here, too.) Yong, struck by the installation, begins by saying he "would have laid my right hand/upon the silken back of the first horse/I saw—not so much to heal it by miracle/as to try to calm its unfathomable heart."
Yong confesses that "it's okay to be touched by this installation", and continues:
The practice of linking something publicly observed and witnessed — the five casts in "Horses" or the many bridges crossing Pittsburgh's three rivers (in the first poem of the collection, "Bridges") — with something personal in the poet's interior life is common enough in Yong's verse, as it is in works of many, if not all, poets. Yong makes these connections without a hint of sentimentality or melodrama; there is even humour in the embarrassment of not being able to come up with anything better than the animal of his zodiac sign. If the ending of "Horses" is ambiguous — is Yong being literal when he writes that there will be a day to come when "my hair will be shorn for ink brushes / and my hide melted into glue"?—the equation of the fate of the horses at Flanders fields, and man's fate, is sombre and clear.
Yong lightens up in the brisk and short-lined "66" (the final selection in the book), in which the poet, "trying on self-importance / for size," links the date of his birth with "that famous highway / also the Mother Road / traversing America," and then with
But Yong shifts gears and tries to uncover "the original spark" between his parents which led to his birth, to his very existence:
Rewinding to the moment when the egg was fertilised and became one's own being is a not-uncommon fantasy for many; Yong even relates the wish to the desire of British playwright Harold Pinter to start a drama's action at the end before moving the plot backwards to the beginning. But the miracle of conception, "that cursory moment", and perhaps the circuit of our very lives, occurs mostly in darkness, the result of "someone unseen / [snuffing] out the lights."
Night figures in at least two of Yong's other poems, "A Brief History of Sleepwalking" (not the world's, but the poet's), and "Taming the Floods", a work about the narrator's nightmares. In "A Brief History of Sleepwalking", only 16 lines long, the young narrator is still living at home, and his mother says her son's nocturnal steps showed only that he "was too anxious to get ready for school." Yong continues:
(There are those bones once again!) Still, sleep is an uneasy routine for Yong (or for his narrator):
A slightly longer work, "Taming the Floods", begins with the poet as a child unable to sleep and "bawling my head off", and then proceeds to his father, "barging at nighttime / through my bedroom door" to provide comfort and reassurance. Perhaps the nightmare was caused, among other things, by a "skeletal apparition / the result of dozing off / on a bloated stomach". Who really knows? But now the poet is an adult, and while the old fears may be gone, there are new ones, disguised as bad weather:
I loved the quiet simplicity and rhythms of both of these poems, especially the latter, with its beautiful image of the restless poet remembering, as the storm approaches, the consolation brought to him by his father long ago. Of course, new times bring new nights.
Another mostly successful poem is aptly titled "Between Forgetting and Clinging To", which once again is about memories, or rather, as Yong puts it, "the incapacity to forget". He begins with an odd question:
At 90 years of age, Yong's father, according to the poet, has no "memory loss"; perhaps "the curse of amnesia does not run in the family". Thus, the poet abhors those "wretched episodes from history clinging to me/like sand and humidity". Yong continues:
Yet Yong turns the poem on its head in the last four lines, claiming now that
So, I inquire, which is it? To throw, or not to throw? Keep the old verses and dreams, or not? Here Yong seems to equivocate just a bit, and left me wondering, despite the dramatic set-up, what his answer really is.
Of the three prose poems, I admired parts of "Free Fall", a rambling work about various exhibits in Swedish museums, but found "Outside the Green Mill", a "poem" about a "curbside singer" in Chicago, curiously flat. So, I thought, was "Coming to Class, After a Long Absence," although it had its moments early on. (Teaching is not an easy profession.) "Free Fall" is displayed as both a series of journal entries and as a kind of memorandum, but I found it to be full of possibilities. Here is how this "poem" ends:
I liked the sharp images Yong conjures up in these lines, simple as they are, and their juxtaposition, too. And while the individual fragments of the poem, with the "musky" scent of Swedish museums, various notes about the weather and the suffering of Christ, and a clever comparison of the hull of a Viking ship with poetic lines "contorted into stanzas", are more often than not sharply observed and intriguing, the body of the prose poem, in my view, doesn't quite hold together.
Anyone approaching Yong's work comes face to face with a writer who is willing to share himself readily with the reader. marrow is an autobiographical scrapbook; almost every poem in the collection is replete with "I". We learn about Yong's experiences of National Service ("Defining Moments in Army Barracks", among others); we hear about his failed attempts as a child to play the piano ("Not Trying to Hold the Notes"); and we observe him on a walk through Little India ("Purification"). Revelations? Yes, absolutely. Confessions? No. (With one possible exception: The narrator of the wry "Sibling Rivalry" claims that a "literary prize" which he had won — apparently the 2006 Singapore Literature Prize, which I referred to earlier — was actually discovered later to be a shared prize or, as he says somewhat ruefully, "honour divided".)
In yet another memory poem, "Rock Garden," Yong recalls visiting as a child a public park near Tiong Bahru, "with its random assemblage of boulders/which must have read like strange coordinates/when viewed from the air". Now, years later, he has crafted through the landscape of his work in marrow — with poems that are diverse, challenging and insightful — a fresh world where the coordinates are not "strange" at all but, at least in my reading, mostly true. It is a significant achievement.QLRS Vol. 9 No. 4 Oct 2010