The hills we do not climb
By Toh Hsien Min
One of the things I miss most about not being able to travel is proper climbing: full-day or half-day ascents of peaks that qualify as mountains. In recent years I have scaled three volcanoes on three Caribbean islands, raced to complete the 21km round trip with a 2,956 foot elevation gain to the Mirador del Paine in Chilean Patagonia within the 9 hours allowance I had to catch my connecting transport, and also huffed through the 2,139 foot ascent to Montaņa Machu Picchu just two days after acclimatising to the altitude. My friend and I even considered tackling the Gumbezkul Pass in Tajikistan before nixing it for the relatively monotonous ascent and the altitude, which was well over 15,000 ft. Climbing for me cannot be described as a serious pursuit; I don't attempt anything requiring ropes and carabiners, but this nevertheless accommodates 60-degree slopes that exceed anything Bukit Timah Hill can offer. I am not sure when I started looking out for peaks to climb, nor why this should be the case for someone who is not really into cardio. Maybe this is the most salient physical analogue to setting a goal and achieving it - an essential metaphor, if you like. It makes me wonder if it is entirely coincidence that the Covid era feels flat and forlorn, not that opportunities to strive for aren't available but that the myth-making behind it has no objective correlate.
I didn't expect to find myself thinking that a physical event could provide poetic meaning to a psychological landscape. In a more normal course of things, I would typically be advocating poetry itself as this positive force of personal myth-making quite unlike narrative storytelling. To be fair, the definition of poetry is something humankind has always struggled for and has never pinned down. Whether it is the "best words in the best order" or "what is deeply felt and is essentially unsayable", whether the key is in emphasising the sound or the metaphor, or what Lee Tzu Pheng described in 1990 to a bunch of secondary school children (of whom I was one) as the ability to help someone see afresh. But by any of these yardsticks by which we recognise poetry, my instinctive reaction to Amanda Gorman's inauguration poem was: great speech, but not a poem.
It is much harder for me to pin down the reasons for this response. Gorman pays attention to the shaping of sound, as seen in her internal rhymes ("afraid"/"blade"/"made"/"glade"). She strives for rhythm, which eludes many of our contemporary poems, and sprinkles some simile. Why doesn't it come across as poetry? After pondering for a while, I arrive at the conclusion that I recognise it as rhetoric. All these devices are in aid of reaching out, but as political speech, a call to arms. Gorman's delivery reminds me of Obama, rallying his core. Which translates into too much trying to do something, to push a position, urge a reaction. It is as far from "poetry makes nothing happen" as one can get. Furthermore, if you look deeply into the language, there is a poverty outside of the aural patterning. It doesn't stimulate the senses. The "hill we climb" is inserted as three words with no real connection to anything before or after. There is no sense of the breathless exhilaration of climbing, the bite of the moraines through the hiking boots, the leadenweight lactic acid accumulating in your calves. There is none of the fusion of the physical sensations with metaphysical meaning that makes metaphor. With her rhetorical skill, Amanda Gorman might eventually ascend to the presidency that she says she dreams of. But poetry is a different summit.
Of course, beyond the novelty of a young inauguration poet, 20 January 2021 was momentous for the world in that we had again a US President who was competent and capable of truth. Hallelujah!
Perhaps in keeping with the sobriety of inauguration day, this issue is unusual for its sheer number of essays. We begin with Jeremy Tiang's tribute to Yeng Pway Ngon, a colossus of Singapore literature who passed away in January. Wyatt Hong's account of living in California in the last days of Trump is quite mesmeric, not least when he depicts Biden "speak[ing] about bringing this nation together, about healing, and his words are like a ray of light in the dark room where I have shut myself." There are two, arguably three, further essays on identity in other places, before the sole strictly literary essay nevertheless hints at the political anxiety in modern day Britain through its 17th century past. The poetry in this issue takes up the baton of place and language, while Cheyenne Alexandria Phillips's short story asks what Singapore would be like in a future when the unmountainous island we presently know as Singapore is submerged. See you at the summit!QLRS Vol. 20 No.1 Jan 2021