Going with the Flow: The Form of Allusion in Yeow Kai Chai’s poem “Memento Mori”
By Koh Jee Leong
I'm always reading "memento" as "momento" for some reason, "remember" as a busy Spanish shopkeeper's "a moment, please." And "Mori" is the name of a Japanese man, who will die, like all Japanese men. Sure, like all of us too, but somehow it matters that the word is a Japanese name. The bilingual pun. When I finally focus on the Latin words, on what they mean, I think of a human skull in a dark medieval painting now hanging in some Florentine palazzo. The skull is a symbol for death; it is also a synecdoche for a dead man. All our life, we hold death in our heads.
"Dear Bruce," the poem "Memento Mori" (from pretend I'm not here, Firstfruits Publications, 2006) begins, and so pricks our curiosity about the identity of the recipient of this letter-poem. I should say "my curiosity" instead, since I should not presume to speak for everyone. (I am only a shopkeeper, remember?) After all, if you are Bruce, you may not be thinking, on receipt of this poem, "Who am I?" Or you may, if the letter catches you in a strange moment. So, who are you, Bruce?
You are Bruce Wayne, of course! The secret identity of Batman, the masked crime-fighter of Gotham City, the Caped Crusader. I am sitting in my home office in New York City, reading this letter-poem again, and the sun is shining with a special sweetness after the snowstorm. The connection is irresistible. It makes sense. A superhero without any supernatural powers (Memento Mori). The World's Greatest Detective, who will figure out the clues and apprehend the guilty, as I will apprehend the poem's meaning. From being a skull, meaning becomes more fugitive, a criminal.
Batman was invented by a guy called Bob Kane, but Bruce Wayne was christened by a collaborator with the rather wonderful name of Bill Finger. The name Bruce, according to Bill Finger, came from Robert Bruce, the Scottish patriot who fought the English. As for Wayne, Bill Finger wanted a name that would suggest colonialism. "I tried Adam, Hancock… then I thought of Mad Anthony Wayne." By colonialism, I think Bill Finger meant the opposite, anti-colonialism, as embodied by the American rebels. How funny that words can slip out of one's fingers and flip. More would slip out of Finger's fingers when the comics appeared with the byline "Batman created by Bob Kane" and left Finger empty-handed. Is he perhaps the "ghostwriter" that the poem mentions 16 couplets later? Memento Mori.
Ghosts were on the ghostwriter's mind, for his suggestions for Batman's secret name were influenced by the comic book superhero, The Phantom. I remember here the poem's reference, 44 couplets later, to "vinyl phantoms". The origin-story of The Phantom provides another link to Yeow Kai Chai's poem. It all began when pirates boarded the ship of Christopher Walker and killed his father, the ship captain. Walker Jr. was washed ashore and saved by a tribe of pygmies. Walking on the beach one day, he found the dead body of the pirate leader and, after allowing vultures to do their work, swore an oath on the pirate's skull:
and became the first Phantom. His son followed in his footsteps, and his son, and so the superhero(s) gains another sobriquet "The Ghost who Walks" for his seeming immortality. How is the origin-story connected to "Memento Mori"? Through the "pirates", who "attack, bolting out of the loo" in the poem. A ghostly chain of associations, from Dear Bruce to Bruce Wayne to The Phantom to pirates to the gents. Does the chain become more solid if I mention that the tribe that nursed Walker back to health, the Bandar, were slaves of another tribe called the Wasaka? That Walker, like Robert Bruce and Mad Anthony Wayne, led the oppressed to throw off their oppression?
If Dear Bruce is Bruce Wayne, the speaker of the poem could very well be his crime-fighting partner, Robin. This deduction is supported by the reference in the next couplet to "half-winged flocks", for Batman and Robin are but half-men, half-birds. Furthermore, Dick Grayson, aka Robin, became in the 1980s the comic book character, Nightwing. What is fascinating about Robin is that he is not one, but many people. Dick Grayson was only the first Robin. There were at least four others assuming the identity and the disguise of Robin the Boy Wonder, including a woman.
Dick Grayson was the youngest son of a family of trapeze artists. His back-story fits nicely into the circus imagery developed later in "Memento Mori". After his parents were killed by a gangster, who sabotaged their trapeze, Dick became a ward to Bruce Wayne. He landed safely in Bruce's lap, so to speak. The poem indicates in a few places the same subaltern relationship that the speaker holds to Dear Bruce. In one such place, the speaker describes himself as "the fishbowl rookie". After the Second World War, the superheroes' home life became the target of homophobia. In 1954, the German-born American psychiatrist Frederic Werthem published his book Seduction of the Innocent, in which he accused the comics of portraying Batman and Robin as lovers.
The only proper queer response was to take to the airwaves. In the late 1960s, Batman and Robin starred in their own TV show, produced in a deliberately campy style. The popular series, which ran for three seasons, totalling 120 shows, mixed the high and the low for the sheer pleasure of doing so. Sexual innuendo was rife. In one scene, Batman and Robin are just about to set off in the Batmobile, with Batgirl blissfully sleeping between them:
In another episode, Batman and Robin are strapped in bondage fashion to gigantic rotating wheels. After freeing himself, Batman stumbles to untie Robin, first holding onto Robin's knee, then untying a restraining belt in such a frenzy as if he is tearing off Robin's spandex underwear. Bondage is also a motif in Yeow's poem. "Dear Bruce" may be a pun on "Dear Bruise", to be soothed by "cream", "Vaseline" and "a metaphoric pot of green", all mentioned a few couplets later. If Bruce is bruise, then the letter-poem is addressed to one own self, albeit to a synecdoche (like skull) for one's self. The bondage motif is developed to full bloom in the lines
but I am running ahead of myself. I am still looking at Dear Bruce, nor have I left it. The poem's allusions, however, do send me back and forth, as well as in and out of the poem. Back and in, then.
There are at least two works of fan fiction with the title "By the Time You Read This", so an instant of googling tells me. The expression appears in the animated feature Cars 2, but the movie was released in 2011, eight years after the poem's first publication in 2003. It is also the title of a song by Woods of Ypres, a Canadian blackened doom metal band, but the album Woods IV: The Green Album was released in 2009, also after the poem's publication. Here's a pretty question: how can an allusion refer to an ur-text in the future? (The answer may be found near the end of the essay.)
The American movie Boys Don't Cry, released in 1999 (the right year, thank goodness!), starred Hilary Swank as a transgender young man Brandon Teena, a kind of Robin when Stephanie Brown was Robin briefly. Wandering into Falls City, Nebraska, Brandon finds friendship with a group of guys and love with a girl, Lana. When his friends discover, unmask, who he is, he is raped and murdered. He was a letter-writer, just like Yeow. "Dear Lana," Brandon wrote, "By the time you read this I'll be back home in Lincoln. I'm scared of what's ahead, but when I think of you I know I'll be able to go on. You were right, Memphis isn't that far off. I'll be taking that trip down the highway before too long. I'll be waiting for you. Love always and forever, Brandon."
It's tragic. By the time you read this, I'll be dead. That is the right way to complete the sentence, just as rape and murder are the foregone conclusion to satisfy the arc, the ache, of tragedy. But the sentence can be completed rightly in a non-tragic sense too. It all depends on context. In the British sitcom Bottom, which ran from 1991 to 1995, Eddie and Richie are bosom buddies living off government largess. In one episode, Eddie reads what appears to be a suicide note from his best friend:
If you think this has nothing to do with "Memento Mori", you have obviously not read the end of the poem.
One buddy (Bruce, Eddie, Brandon's killers) will remember almost nothing while the other will recall the experience's complex sensorium: half-winged flocks, a weathervane, salt, stale. If words fail to bring back the memories, we still have the words themselves with their powers of evocation. If we don't remember the scent of stale, an old-fashioned word meaning "piss", we still have the urinary flow of words, uninterrupted by piratical surprise.
Where are we? In Old French, cistern refers to a dungeon, an underground prison. 24 Owls is a 24-hour restaurant in Bangkok. So let's imagine ourselves in a Bangkok sex dungeon, watching the speaker, all lubed up with Vaseline, getting pounded, or tenderised, cream in ecstasy after being edged for 24 hours. Is this what the lines mean? I don't know, but let's not kill it. Go with the flow. In anatomy, cistern is also any reservoir of natural fluid in the body.
What does a bounty hunter want? Not sex, but money, the pot of green at the end of the rainbow, green for American dollars, more potable than gold. The Bounty Hunter is a 1954 western film, directed by Hungarian-American André de Toth. The Bounty Hunter is a Marvel Comics supernatural supervillain, who fails to bring in Johnny Blaze (Ghost Rider, not Walker), and so is dispatched to hell. The bounty hunter is Duane "Dog" Chapman, the star of the American TV series, Dog the Bounty Hunter, about his exploits chasing down real-life fugitives in Hawaii. The last possibility sounds least plausible (reality TV in a serious poem???) but MAD Cartoon Network produced a parody ad called "Frog the Bounty Hunter", in which a Chapman-lookalike frog is run over by cars and squashed into "puree" on the road. Frog puree is green, of course.
Equal to the bounty hunter in avarice is the squealer, or the police informant. What is the valuable information here? Say "rosebud" and any cinephile, such as Yeow, will reply, Citizen Kane. Recall this iconic film, co-written, produced and directed by Orson Welles and starring himself, how "rosebud", the last word uttered by Charles Foster Kane, the wealthy newspaper magnate, is taken by everyone to be the key to his life. In "Memento Mori", the key is perhaps a keyhole instead, if the rosebud tattoo on the posterior is to be read as a metaphor like the pot of green, to be read, that is, as the anus.
But here, we should recall the sober words of Jerry Thompson, the reporter tasked in the film to find out the meaning of "rosebud".
"Rosebud" in Yeow's poem tempts one to hang one's entire interpretation on that one hook. It is, however, only a piece of the puzzle, and all the pieces are equally important in completing the picture. Traditional art wishes to persuade us that life's mysteries can be solved by means of a key, that there is a figure in the carpet if we know where and how to look for it. Subversive art, among which I count Yeow's poetry, tells us that the figure is the carpet. "Memento Mori" subverts our expectations by mocking them. If a mangosteen, like Chekhov's gun, appears early in a poem, it absolutely must go off at the end.
"Portentous mangosteen" is very good, very funny. (An aside, I consider "Blood makes noise" an incredibly imaginative description of a bruise, if that's what it means.) Instead of looking for portents in a mangosteen, the poem advises us to
The salaciousness of these lines is enhanced through allusion. In Andrew Lloyd Webber's 1970 rock musical Jesus Christ Superstar, Mary Magdalene sings that she will soothe Jesus with myrrh "for the fire in your head and feet" and urges him, in a refrain swelled by the Apostles' Women, "Close your eyes and relax." You can understand why some Christians think that the musical is blasphemous. I still remember my Baptist pastor condemning the musical in church and warning us not to see it when it travelled to Singapore. I did not see it then, and now watching it on YouTube I enjoy the anointment of illicit thrill. The allusion to Jesus Christ Superstar explains not only the salacious but also the salvific tone in Yeow's lines. Jesus Christ will spread on a cross.
Here's a puzzle: manatees have no legs with which to spread; they have paddles for tails. They have, however, genital holes, in both male and female, which they could spread. They have anuses too, of course. According to Bruce Bagermihl, author of Biological Exuberance, male West Indian manatees have been observed to engage in same-sex sexual activity by unsheathing their penises and rubbing them to ejaculation. The things you learn from googling!
If you are going to try to gatecrash an exclusive nightclub with your ho, your Moll, you should expect the bouncer, stricken or not, to push back and, in the ensuing fight, to hurt Molly, maybe even kill her and then dump her dead body at the corner shop, don't you think? Especially if both of you are high on fuck like MDMA, known on the American street as Molly, and to party boys and girls the world over as Ecstasy, AFTER you have been "tenderised" not just by pounding but also by the use of chemicals, smoked your "pot" of green and "shot" up with junk. Where do you think you will end up, fuckwit, if not in a "circle" of the Inferno, the one reserved for a "Gleaner" like you, for the sin of gluttony, which in Dante Alighieri refers to a self-indulgent sensuality?
The Silencer is a 1992 American movie directed by Amy Goldstein. This is how IMDb.com describes it: "Harley-riding Angel (Lynette Walden) plays to win in her fight against a slavery and prostitution ring that abuses young runaways – It's a life-and-death game in which video-games hold the clues, and the only way to win is to kill without conscience. The chill of each killing drives Angel into the arms of anonymous lovers – a desperate attempt for affection – but her ex-boyfriend George (Chris Mulkey) is watching… In a demented rage he stalks her through her steamy video-arcade reality." Prostitution! Murder! Promiscuity! Mayhem! Video Games! The last sets up one interpretation of the next lines in "Memento Mori".
This is a scene of BDSM, complete with flogging, hot wax and exotic rope work, in which the aforementioned well-spread manatee, sometimes called sea-cow, is hog-tied and calling for kelp, its favourite snack. This is also a scene familiar from comics and thriller flicks, in which the superhero or secret agent is tied up and tortured, or else the person he must save. This is also a video game played by two players 5000 kilometres apart, the distance between Singapore and, say, Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia. The possibilities do not exhaust the lines. The poem combines these scenarios, and others that slip me, in a fresh and entertaining way. I love the aptness of the neologism "Faradised" made by coupling "far" and "paradise". I am tickled by the humorous pun in "calling for kelp". My imagination is provoked by the surrealistic image of a lasso of tadpoles (a rope of semen?).
André de Toth reappears here, this time as the director of the first colour 3-D film House of Wax, in which a sculptor murders innocents and incorporates their corpses into his waxworks. So does Dante, I mean, reappear. In the third Circle of Hell, where gluttony is punished, Dante meets a Florentine contemporary called Ciacco, whose name means "hog". According to Wikipedia, de Toth is known for his gritty B movies in the crime and western ("lasso") genres. According to T.S. Eliot, Dante is God. In mixing high and low cultural references, "Memento Mori" is but practicing promiscuity in another form. It is conceivable that MAD Cartoon Network reappears here too, if "tadpoles" is an allusion to "Frog the Bounty Hunter", the parody ad.
The on-line Urban Dictionary defines "casserole" as a playful alternative term for "asshole" (rosebud!). The word "role", standing for role-playing games, hides in the speaker's "casserole". These lines have not yet left the BDSM/crime thriller/video game scenario. T.S. Eliot was certainly a subtle Tom. His Sweeney poems, which show he was no stranger to houses of ill repute, are rich with sexual disgust. He would be "wary of creepers". We cannot rule him out, but we must not fixate on him. Tom in these lines is Peeping Tom, a name descriptive of an activity, and not a particular individual. It is the name of a role to be played.
In the 1960 British thriller Peeping Tom, a serial killer named Mark Lewis films his female victims while stabbing them. He wants to capture the look of fear. On the level of self-reflexivity, the psychodrama is an allegory of film's propensities for desire and murder. The gaze of a camera is inherently voyeuristic. A poem, on the other hand, is a pleasure in the mouth. Like casserole and spam. Poems have to be read aloud to be savoured.
Peeping Tom was written by Leopold Samuel Marks, better known as Leo Marks. As a cryptographer during World War II, he phased out double transposition ciphers using keys based on preselected poems. The poem codes were easy to memorise but also easy to break. He assigned poem codes to emergency use only and tried to enhance their security by using original poems instead. In fact, he wrote many of the poems that were later used by British agents. One of his poems was written for a girlfriend, Ruth, who had just died in an air crash.
Leo Marks the cryptographer wrote Mark Lewis the serial killer into being. A comment on IMDb praises the film script and explains its power as arising from the wartime experience of sending other men behind enemy lines to die. I am more inclined to think that, in Mark Lewis, Leo Marks is accusing himself of forgetting Ruth, after promising in his poem to devote the rest of his life to her memory. Is the IMDb comment right or am I? Both ideas say more, ultimately, about us than about Leo Marks or Peeping Tom. I hope, Dear Reader, that you get the analogy I am drawing here to my reading of "Memento Mori". This shopkeeper is capable of occasional subtlety.
The term "spam", shorthand for spiced ham, may remind readers of a popular sketch on the British TV show Monty Python's Flying Circus, broadcast from 1969 to 1974. If hogs can be tied up, spam tends to be canned. In a sexual sense, "spam protection" refers to prophylactics. In computer language, "spam" also refers to mass online messages from some Nairobi princeling who is down on his luck. I am never sure whether I am in actual or virtual reality in Yeow's world. Or in the animated world of cartoons, as the Dali-esque "winking bedpost" suggests.
Instead of a lonely strip, the limousine slows down on a desolate "scripture". The action it promises is not only sex but also filmmaking, with a desolate "script[ure]" and blinking "[head]lights". The filmic qualities of these lines are captivating. We have seen this scene before, but never quite like this. So the allusion to A Streetcar Named Desire – "between kindness and stranger" – is not to the stage play but to the film, directed by Elia Kazan in 1951, starring Vivien Leigh as Blanche DuBois and Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski. One difference between the stage and film versions has often been highlighted. In the play, Blanche's husband committed suicide after he was discovered having a homosexual affair. To meet the Hollywood Production Code, the film changed the reason for his death to "a general weakness".
To recall, Blanche's famous words "Whoever you are, I have always depended upon the kindness of strangers" are spoken to the doctor who has come to chaperone her to a mental institution. The stranger is not only strange, as in unfamiliar, but is also "whoever", that is, interchangeable. It does not matter who the doctor is; he does not even have a name. His part is to play the role of the doctor, just as Peeping Tom is so called because he plays the role of a peeping tom. I also want to point out the exactness with which Yeow deploys his allusion (for by doing so, I demonstrate my own peeping power). Blanche's "I have always depended" is qualified in the poem to become the more realistic "though not always". Blanche is delusional; the poem is not, or at least, not always.
The American TV series The Hitchhiker (1983–1991) is an anthology of mystery thrillers linked and told by the eponymous character. Every instalment begins with him trudging along some road, with his duffel bag strapped to his shoulders. The "gambit" stuffed in the bag is the plot hook. In Season 1 Episode 1, which shows a gratuity of skin, an ambitious young man murders his older newly wedded wife in order to be with his wife's stepdaughter, the heir to the family wealth. He is a bounty hunter, in a sense, and gets his appropriate comeuppance (the denouement involves a bird). The Hitchhiker was played by the actor Page Fletcher, who owned the chiselled good looks of a pin-up model, or what may poetically be called a pageboy.
In the 1950s the pageboy hairstyle became very popular among women. "Its most notable feature," according to Wikipedia, was "the bangs made famous by the fifties glamour and fetish model Bettie Page." To dissociate the hairstyle from a sexual subculture, a spurious explanation sprang up to the effect that the hairstyle was named after the "pudding-basin" haircut of a medieval pageboy. I like to think that "Memento Mori", with its promiscuous associations, counters such a kind of sexual apartheid.
As its name suggests, the pageboy haircut conferred on both men and women sexual androgyny. It is striking that both "stranger" and "hitchhiker" in the poem are not marked in terms of gender, and other actors, such as the limousine (which "slows down" and is capable of "promising") and headlights (which "blinks"), are gender-neutral. When this section finally produces a gendered term – "pageboy" – it turns out to be highly ambiguous. This lack of gender marking permits the reader to read either gender into the pick-up scene. A woman in the limousine picks up a hitchhiking man. A man in the limousine picks up a hitchhiking woman. A woman in the limousine picks up a hitchhiking woman. A man in the limousine picks up a hitchhiking man. All are permitted by "scripture". After all, the hitchhiker "straps on" a duffel bag as if strapping on a dildo. This does not mean that the hitchhiker must be a woman but rather points to the gamesome nature of the scene.
The multiple gender possibilities of the scene are matched by multiple meanings of the last line "If this flails, flip the pageboy." "Flails" plays on the word "fails" in a manner reminiscent of the mockery of East Asians for pronouncing the "r" sound as "l". This mispronunciation is a trait of the stereotype of the Chinese in old Hollywood films. More on this when we come to John Yau. "Flails" can mean (1) to beat with or as if with a flail, and (2) to thrash about. In other words, to flail is both to act and to be acted upon. Active and passive. Top and bottom.
The second half of the line is just as rich in meaning. To flip the pageboy hairstyle is to curl the hanging hair outwards instead of inwards. If "pageboy" is read as printed matter, you can flip the pageboy by turning a page of a book. If "pageboy" is read as a person, you can flip the pageboy by turning over the boy (or girl) on his (or her) back (or front). The book and the body are both old media. If you are partial to newer media, you can also flip, or change channels, on a TV remote. On a more whimsical note, a pageboy also sounds very like the Game Boy, the handheld video game device developed by Nintendo, which was wildly popular in Singapore in the 1990s.
Heeding his own advice "to flip the pageboy", the speaker channel-surfs and watches three different shows all starring girls. The first appears to be a talent show broadcast by Dream Satellite TV, the first all-digital Direct-To-Home (DTH) television broadcasting service via satellite in the Philippines. The show offers a chance to go from rags to riches, to "leapfrog" from a garment factory ("the cuff") to a star factory. The poem undermines the hope, however, with its bathetic comment, "It's merely a couch, after all." The second is a noir thriller in which a girl called Ginger dies horribly. The show is rendered in vivid colours – ginger, magenta and apple white. The 1956 movie The Conqueror stars a white man playing yellowface. John Wayne is the Mongol chief Temujin, who goes on to become Genghis Khan. More on this when we come to John Yau.
Before the third show, the reader is afforded a pause, when "a polite pixel blooms into moon," a combination of words and images that is reminiscent of Pixar's and DreamWorks's logo animations, shown at the beginning of a movie.
In the third show, the girl – "moody,//pimply female" – becomes the unhappy adolescent of hundreds of American high-school movies. "Swing low" may allude to the American spiritual "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot", written by Wallis Willis sometime before 1862. In Yeow's poem, "glistening/jocks," sweaty on the playing field or freshly showered in the locker room, "talk big" and, with the same mouth, "swing low", a slang term meaning "to perform oral sex", used in rap music, for instance, In sum, the eclectic choice of shows, reinforced by the time markers ("the other night", "this morning"), suggests that the speaker watches whatever is on TV, perhaps because he suffers from insomnia.
If the speaker has been a mere "couch" potato, his addressee has not been idling. Dear Bruce has "trailed", like a detective or stalker, a woman to her shower room. "Cyan" may indicate a blue, or pornographic, flick. The photographer reminds me of Mark Lewis, the Peeping Tom who films his victims as he stabs them with a knife hidden in his tripod, but Mark Lewis does not have a wife. The scene here recalls Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 thriller Psycho, with its famous killing in the shower. The velvet curtain? David Lynch's 1986 dark mystery Blue Velvet is indebted to the 1950s noir films. Two years earlier, Brian de Palma made his 1984 thriller Body Double in homage to Hitchcock.
In filmmaking, a "body double" substitutes for another actor in such a way that his or her face is not seen. What is maddening about Yeow's lines is that the allusions are nearly identifiable, but not quite. They are a mirror that reflects "an inverse body double" but do not show the face of identification. When you try to seize them, they vanish in a "puff". Smoke and mirrors is an expression derived from magicians' illusions, as the poem reminds us.
We are still in the realm of horrified domesticity. In Joni Mitchell's 1975 studio album The Hissing of Summer Lawns, the title track is about a woman imprisoned at home by her man. He treats her like a valuable piece of property, much like his "diamond," perhaps 36-carat, "for her throat." Behind a barbed wire fence, from her window sill, she could see the blue pools in the squinting sun and hear the hissing of summer lawns. The album sleeve shows a line of African natives carrying a huge snake.
"The serpentine song" could refer to another track on the same album. In "Don't Interrupt the Sorrow", the listener hears, or rather overhears, rather mysterious snatches of conversation between a man and a woman in a bar. Three lines of the song have attracted much debate over their meaning.
Different explanations of the man's words have been offered. He means to say, in a condescending manner, "You're not just liberation, doll" but slurs his words because he is drunk. Or he does mean "notches", alluding to the expression "notches on the headboard", while pointing to the beer bottles as evidence of the woman's hard night of drinking. Or the liner notes carry a misprint and the words should be "Your notch is liberation, doll." Whatever is the true explanation, crucial for Yeow's poem is that these lines, in "the serpentine song", are ambiguous and their meaning cannot be resolved definitively. The ambiguity, and this is important too, does not detract from the musicality of the luscious lines.
A fainter, more far-fetched link is to Monty Python (spam!). According to Wikipedia, John Cleese, one of the show's creators, suggested "python" for its name because he wanted something slimy and slippery. The British connection is strengthened by the word "serpentine", also the name of the recreational lake in Hyde Park, London. For its signature tune, or serpentine song, Monty Python used the American military march "The Liberty Bell" composed by John Philip Sousa. The idea of liberation – from patriarchy, from colonialism – appears to be intertwined with escape from an oppressive Eden, the hissing of summer lawns.
"Luscious Jackson" is an allusion to the 1990s all-female alternative rock band of the same name, which took its name from Luscious Jackson, a now-retired male American basketball player. The band, in their luscious and liberated music, "pops out", or escapes, from the serpentine song, in the same adept manner, perhaps, as the basketball player popped his basketball-sun-orange out of his hands and into the hoop. More on the transgender band later.
Could Luscious Jackson also be Samuel L. Jackson who plays the hitman Jules Winnfield in Quentin Tarantino's 1994 black comedy Pulp Fiction? If you squeeze a cleaved orange, you are likely to get pulp. In the film, the two hitmen Jules and Vincent Vega (John Travolta) have to retrieve a suitcase for their crime boss. For the purpose of filming, the suitcase contained a hidden orange light bulb so that it gave off an otherworldly glow.
If Pulp Fiction is one of the many criminal sources of "Memento Mori", as I suspect it is, then Dear Bruce could also be Bruce Willis, who, as Butch Coolidge the aging boxer, turns on the hitmen's boss, Marcellus Wallace. The later reference to "my little pumpkin" in the poem could also allude to Pumpkin in the movie, who holds up the diner in the opening scene. Besides naming names, the poem evokes scenes that find correspondences in the film as well. When Bruce/Butch and Marcellus are captured by a pair of sadists, Bruce/Butch is tied up (like the hog-tied Dear Bruce) while Marcellus (like the poem's speaker) is raped. Also, as critics have observed, much of the action in the movie revolves around the use or need for the bathroom. In Yeow's poem, "Pirates attack, bolting out of the loo" and "Luscious Jackson pops out of the room."
The American film director Woody Allen is, of course, responsible for Crimes and Misdemeanours, the 1989 drama about adultery and filmmaking. But why does Yeow's poem crown him as a "prince"? In the 1976 comedy The Front, written by Walter Bernstein and directed by Martin Ritt, Woody Allen plays a restaurant cashier and small-time bookie who goes by the name of, wait, wait for it, Howard Prince. To earn some extra cash, the bookie becomes a front man for TV writers blacklisted for alleged Communist sympathies during the McCarthy era. Prince signs his name to the TV scripts and so the real writers become, in effect, his ghostwriters.
"Lustrous misdemeanours", hinting at "lust" in the spotlight, may allude to Allen's family scandals: his love affair with his adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn while still in a relationship with her mother Mia Farrow, and the charge of molestation by another adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, when she was a child. There are many third parties in this tangled web of relationships, but it is odd to dust "the third party" for fingerprints when it is more usual to dust a crime scene, and not a criminal. The poem suggests, in a neat semantic twist, that "the third party" is not only a person, but a scene, another party after the first and second ones. A party is only a party if it has lots of people. Throwing its doors open to so many people, most of whom share the same name, "Memento Mori" is a death-themed party, a celebration of mortal life.
Luscious Jackson, the alt rock band, returns here for a repeat performance (back and forth, in and out: the form of allusions is also the form of reading). Their "Here" music video takes place in a roller disco, with the band playing in the middle of the skating rink, and two teams of women skaters trying to knock the other team off. "Smoked by dry ice and progressive trance," Yeow's poem is more chill. Instead of joining the intense competition of team sports, it tries to make contact with an "informant", even if the contact is "solvent", meaning temporary, and possibly alluding to solvent abuse.
"Memento Mori" calls on the reader to slide – go with the flow – not only to the DJ's spin but also to his or her fumble. Mistakes are par for the course, as is death, even the extinction of a whole species. Humpback whales are famous for their long, loud and low-pitched "songs", at least the males are. The speaker's styling himself a "rookie" may bring to mind many male buddy movies, and not just the 1990 cop drama The Rookie, directed by Clint Eastwood, starring himself as the veteran detective, and Charlie Sheen as the newbie. The movie was panned by the critics; it was considered a bad fumble.
The quotation stumps me. Googling does not turn up its source. For the first time in the poem, we have not the elusive, ambiguous and hydra-headed allusion, but a direct quotation, set off definitely by quotation marks. Who is being quoted here? Then I come upon an interview that Yeow gave to Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé in Luna Park, a blog about literary magazines. In the interview, Yeow said/wrote:
Chop Suey is a collage, but two threads tie it together. The first concerns the music career of the American cabaret singer and pianist Frances Faye, who was lesbian. The second thread is the activity of a camera club, which gave the film its name, set up to photograph Peter Johnson, a student wrestler turned magazine model. Speaking in voiceover about filming Peter Johnson and his friends, swimming in a pool, swinging on a monkey bar, parading in the studio in drag, Bruce Weber wishes that he is their carefree age: "In my fantasy, I'd have been one of those kids clowning around without a care in the world." Then he says, what Yeow quotes and affirms is true for him too, "We sometimes photograph things we cannot be."
If Dear Bruce is Bruce Weber, does this mean that he cannot be Bruce Wayne, as I supposed? Or can there be more than one Bruce, even as many as there are readers? I recall an email exchange I had with Yeow about another poem, "From Z to A, a Zoetrope with Spiracles". When I asked him about the identity of Joe in the poem, he said that Joe was someone he knew and that he could also be average Joe, the Everyman. He also confirmed my hunch that Joe referred to the G.I. too. One name but many people. One sign but many referents. But this idea does not by itself sanction the reader to make of the name or sign as he or she wishes. A sign may have many referents, but the author can try to predetermine all the possible referents.
To understand Yeow's take on the question, I return to his Luna Park interview. When the interviewer questions the title of the collection, pretend I'm not here, Yeow responds,
This statement is of great interest to the study of allusions in Yeow's poetry. Strictly speaking, it does not rule out allusions to biography, but warns the reader not to treat such biographical allusions as the distilled "meaning" of the poem. The biographical fallacy is familiar. Yeow is saying something more, however. He posits an inverse relationship between biographical knowledge and the pleasures or understandings we can get from the work – "The less we know of an author, the more we would be able to mine from his or her works." This is still within the country of New Criticism. He escapes that territory, with his clarion call to readers to "step out of their shells and be whoever they want to be." Whoever. Blanche DuBois: "Whoever you are, I have always depended upon the kindness of strangers." Yeow's poetry incites us to be any of the people inhabiting his poems. As a reader, I am not only permitted to read Dear Bruce as Bruce Wayne, but also to read Dear Bruce as me.
It may seem odd to rely on an author's statement to do without the author, but this is precisely what the title of the collection asks us to do. We are to "pretend I'm not here". "I" in the title refers to the author. We don't have to seek the author's sanction for how we read the poem. "I", however, refers to the reader too. We are to pretend we are not here by letting go of our egos and entering into the various identities on offer in the poetry. We can be Bruce, Molly, the Spectral Gleaner, Peeping Tom, the hitchhiker, Ginger snapped, Luscious Jackson and Mr Gatecrasher. We can be hog-tied in the Faradised House of Wax, calling for kelp. We can be the sad-eyed factory girl leapfrogging from the cuff onto The Dream Satellite as the World's Greatest Trapeze. We become co-authors, with Yeow, of the poem, and, like the author, we can photograph things we cannot be.
Bruce Weber's film Chop Suey has for its soundtrack an enticing eclectic mix of music. Yeow describes its associative collage of images as "jazzy" in the Luna Park interview. The same epithet can be applied to the lines above for their improvisatory and virtuosic quality. Dub, as a genre of music, grew out of reggae in the 1960s. According to Wikipedia, "Music in this genre consists predominantly of instrumental remixes of existing recordings and is achieved by significantly manipulating and reshaping the recordings, usually by removing the vocals from an existing music piece and emphasising the drum and bass parts." The Underwolves is a British drum 'n' bass collective formed by Professor Stretch ("the stretch limousine"?) and Ned Kelly. To dub the Underwolves is to turn up the volume on drum and bass.
Jamming with them in Yeow's verses is the American band Squirrel Nut Zippers, playing an uncategorisable fusion of Delta blues, gypsy jazz, 1930s-era swing and klezmer. The balls-shrinking excitement produced by the jam session is indicated by the band's name. "Nut Zippers" is a term from the American south for a variety of bootleg moonshine. The band took its name – Squirrel Nut Zippers – from the title of a newspaper item about a very drunk man who climbed up a tree and refused to come down. One of the band's two vocalists was Katherine Whalen, of "humpback whales of goodbye", perhaps. The band scored their biggest hit in 1996 when they released their single "Hell". Written by Tom Maxwell, another subtle Tom, the song has the penultimate line, "Lose your face, lose your name."
Let's recall Yeow's ars poetica: "Poetry for me is liberating: To be faceless is to be free." He is "the tinted conductor", hiding his identity behind dark glasses, and gliding "on a gondola along the historic hydraulics," a line that sounds like a parody ad. Complicating the dubbing is the undertow of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, activated by the words "boys" and "gondola" and the figure of the maestro. Sex, or "sniffing for a rise among the polygraphs," is by now a familiar acoustic element in the complex orchestration of these lines.
But why "arrest" the dubbed Underwolves? What have they done? To dub is to add music or speech to a recording, but it can also mean to make a copy. In other words, "the dubbed Underwolves" are arrested for not being the original, but pirated copies ("Pirates attack, bolting out of the loo"). They are then put on trial in the next section of the poem. What is in fact on trial is the poem's method, the recombination of allusions. Is dubbing to be seen as mere plagiarism or creative re-mix?
The prosecution produces a Polaroid "by the photo lab assistant", an expression that is ambiguous. Did the assistant take or develop the Polaroid? Was s/he a creator or a mere technician? The indeterminacy inheres also in the evidence: the Polaroid shows the fugitive, or "someone like her". It is ironic that an image of a person, and not the person, is produced as evidence; a copy is produced to condemn the practice of making copies. The parodic "Siberian Shrine of Revelations" will give no divine help in determining the issue. At this point, it is useful to remember that in the 1993 action movie The Fugitive, Harrison Ford plays a Chicago surgeon falsely accused of murdering his wife. The poem's allusion to the movie thus implies that the defendant on trial is falsely accused too. Furthermore, the movie is based on the 1960s TV series of the same name. The movie is itself a copy.
Responding to the prosecution's flawed case, the defence "pulls out the strumpet", as if pulling out a trump card, the woman herself, but the "strumpet" turns out to be a faked ID showing the woman in disguise. The faked ID is, however, an entirely appropriate piece of evidence for the defence of allusions as creative re-mix. The ID pictures the fugitive but not in a single or simple way. It speaks, instead, of multiple and changeable identities. It says, pretend I'm not here.
Richard Condon wrote the novel The Manchurian Candidate, published in 1959. The plot revolves around an American soldier brainwashed by Chinese and Soviet Communists into assassinating their political foes in the USA. The "strumpet" in the story turns out to be the soldier's mother, a Communist agent who is his handler.
The novel has been adapted into film twice, first in 1962 by John Frankenheimer, and then in 2004 by Jonathan Demme. According to Wikipedia, it was discovered in 1998 that Condon's novel adapted several long passages from Robert Graves's novel I, Claudius. In the opinion of forensic linguist John Olsson, "there can be no disputing that Richard Condon plagiarised from Robert Graves." Olsson went on to state that "As plagiarists go, Condon is quite creative, he does not confine himself to one source and is prepared to throw other ingredients into the pot." Condon is, then, a creative re-mixer.
In his Luna Park interview, Yeow defends his use of pop culture in this manner:
In this view, allusions are not necessarily derivative; they can be enlightening if they are creatively deployed – adapted, edited, re-contextualised, combined. I don't want to suggest that Yeow is defending Richard Condon and his ilk in "Memento Mori". He is pointing out, I think, the fine line between plagiarism and creative re-use, a line, one may add, that bothers musicians and filmmakers much less than it does writers. Most writers, anyway. Cue: enter Mr John Yau.
John Yau, born in 1950, is reckoned to be one of the most important Asian American poets. Two recent major works of criticism on Asian American poetry – Timothy Yu's Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry since 1965 and Dorothy J. Wang's Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry, devoted chapters to John Yau. In at least two separate interviews, Yeow spoke of John Yau's influence on his poetry. They share not only a passion for old Hollywood and noir films, but also a determination "to erase the line between classicism and pop, high art and street" (Interview with Yong Shu Hoong in South China Morning Post, 30 October 2005). Is it a coincidence that the surnames of both poets – Yau and Yeow – sound alike?
One of John Yau's most famous creations is Genghis Chan, private eye. Genghis Chan is a parodic protagonist that combines two opposite stereotypes of Asians in popular America culture, the yellow peril of Genghis Khan and the shuffling asexual detective Charlie Chan. In her book Dorothy J. Wang pays particular attention to the subversive potential of Genghis Chan. In Yeow's poem, the fugitive elopes with Mr John Yau to the Gobi Desert, which straddles north China and south Mongolia, and extends east into Manchuria. Mongolia is, of course, the base of Genghis Khan's world-spanning empire. By mocking American culture, John Yau lays himself open to the charges of non-assimilability and divided loyalties, just as the fugitive's elopement to the Gobi seems to confirm her alienation and betrayal.
On hearing the news, the court erupts: "O, Eureka!" – from Greek, meaning "I have found it!" – in the belief that it has found confirmation of treason. The court is wrong, for the poem does not rule out the possibility that the fugitives are not double but triple agents. In fact, as the poem will go on to narrate, the two of them are not received into the Communist bosom, but are looking hard for "the mythical modem". On the question of patriotism, Yeow's poem argues that it is too easy to mistake criticism for disloyalty.
What about the question of plagiarism before the court? By invoking the name of the "impresario" Mr John Yau, the poem is calling on its not legal but literary precedent. An impresario organises and manages public entertainment, just as John Yau and Yeow organise and manage their allusions and wordplay and scenarios for the entertainment of the reader. Only a damn fool would think that the work of an impresario is non-creative. The court is no fool, in this different interpretation. "Eureka" was supposedly what Greek philosopher Archimedes shouted when he discovered a method for determining the amount of silver mixed in with the gold. "Memento Mori" is a mix of many things, but its method of mixing should be hailed as a discovery too.
A modem is, in essence, a device that encodes and decodes digital information. The idea of code continues the spy thriller starring the female fugitive and Mr John Yau. The modem is mythical, however, hidden in either arcane knowledge or the down-home advice that Forrest Gump's mother gives him in the 1994 blockbuster that bears his name. A simple and foolproof way of communication is a myth. Does the hopping lamb refer to the use in karaoke of a symbol indicating which words on the TV screen should next be sung? In any case, Forrest is a lamb, the impossible myth of American innocence. In a very short time, the lamb hops to the end of the line of verse, and the assassin, sent to kill our two fugitives, is dead. The end to the movie is in sight, but there remains
Joe Dante (the other Dante) directed the 1984 horror comedy film Gremlins, about creatures that are able to multiply themselves if they touch water. The movie also spawned several video games. Atari came up with one that bombed in the market. The second version was better received. The player has to kill the gremlins and prevent the mogwai from touching water. At higher levels of the game, walls and furniture, such as a cabinet, appear in the video game to complicate the state of play.
Now imagine a super-game, in which you have to confront not only clutches of gremlins, but also "a tentacular dolly", an animal clone that goes spectacularly wrong, sprouting tentacles that look like the sandworms on the planet of Arrakis in David Lynch's 1984 sci-fi movie Dune, AND not one but several mummies as savagely intelligent as Boris Karloff who played the Egyptian prince Imhotep resurrected in the 1932 American film The Mummy, and since revived for the action-adventure franchise of the same name at the dawn of the new millennium. How long do you think you will survive, even if you take up the character of Brendan Fraser in the game? Don't forget you are "dogged by clocks, celestial bells," as your time runs out.
This is not just a video game, of course, but a metaphor for mortal life, with its horrors and dangers. In the Luna Park interview, Yeow revealed that he wrote "Memento Mori" after his maternal grandmother died in 2003. "It was the first death in the family that truly affected me," he said, "and made me rethink life." In the nightmarish vision of the poem, the mummies – perhaps, his mother and her mother – huddle in fear, caught between "first light" and "final knell". How can the speaker not feel guilty at outliving his loved ones, and how can he not wish to slip out through the keyhole "guilt-free"? The guilt may be more particular than survivor-guilt, if the "cabinet" stands for the gay closet.
One cannot be free of guilt, just as one cannot be free of death. The immunosuppressive virus will take over, attacking the body's very defences, and any artificial means of life support, such as a motorised pump, will break down. The best that one can do in the face of such certainties is to "switch off the jury", like switching off a video game, for a while. The advice is maternal: "drink up, my little pumpkin."
I am not entirely sure who or what the Hyphen Bandit is. My best guess is that the term refers to hyphenated identities, such as being Asian-American, and so speaks of having more than one identity. John Yau's father was half-English, half-Chinese. If Dear Bruce is also the martial arts exponent and actor Bruce Lee, we may remember that his mother Grace Ho was purportedly half-German, half-Chinese, which makes Bruce Lee a hyphen bandit too, to be summoned to court to testify to the richness of a multiple life.
A stylus has been a writing instrument from ancient times to our information age, from the time of wax tablets to the era of computer screens. In music, it is also a needle used for cutting grooves in a recording disk and for reproducing the sounds of a phonograph record. In Yeow's lines, in addition, it is a metaphor for the phallus, signalled by the interjection "man". Since it is a Bulgarian stylus, we should not be surprised that it will bulge, or "swell". The next, and final, couplet gives yet another meaning to the stylus. It is also the gun of the cowboy locked in a deadly duel, the result of which will decide between life and death.
The poem has amassed from its length many circular forms. Near the beginning of the poem, the speaker says he will recall "a weathervane stir, rudder or tongue". Then follow a succession of round objects: a pot of green, rosebud, mangosteen, full moon, a cleaved orange, fishbowl, roller disco, vinyl records, clocks and pumpkin. In the last couplet of the poem, truth "swivels", or turns around suddenly, and we can all go back to where we come from, home.
The non-linear progression of "Memento Mori" recalls the circling structure of many ground-breaking films, such as Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction. As The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics reminds us, allusion may not only be topical but also formal. The form of an artwork may allude to the form of another work of art. "Memento Mori" alludes to characters, scenes and motifs in film, but its deepest debt is to the form of films. It acknowledges that debt at the beginning of the poem ("Dear Bruce") and at the end. When truth swivels round, and the guns are fired, and the result is known, the show is over, the credits roll, the lights go up and the janitor swipes at your feet with his broom.
A charge often levelled at experimental poetry is that it is always and only about language, in other words, itself, and not about common human experience. Such poetry may tell us something esoteric about linguistic reality but not anything accessible about family, romantic love, travel, natural beauty and mortality. This charge can be dismissed in two apparently antithetical ways. First, a careful study of a poem's allusions, as this shopkeeper tries to do here, will show that the poem does grapple with ordinary preoccupations. "Memento Mori" is about language, in particular, the language of pop culture, but it is also about death, friendship, sexual longing, music, personal identity, family – the stuff of truth and beauty.
The second way of dismissing the charge of esotericism seems the opposite of the first. One may argue that all poems, not just experimental ones, are ultimately about language. Poems are forms of verbal expression. How a topic is handled in language is more important than what the topic is. As such, poetic form always possesses a sense of irony towards its subject matter. Instead of grieving for a dead grandmother, for instance, the poet is thinking about the best way of writing about the grief. From this linguistic preoccupation, all poems arise. The experimental poem is different from a non-experimental poem only in degree, and not in kind. Like those escalators with transparent sides, the experimental poem exposes the inner workings of all poems.
"You don't have to understand every single thing in my poems," Yeow said in the article in South China Morning Post. "I certainly don't. So, just go with the flow. The pop-culture references can be understood as such, or they can be appreciated for their linguistic nature, even if you have no clue what they allude to." I have taken Yeow at his word: I have not fretted over not understanding everything in the poem, but have enjoyed the research, thinking and imagining that this poem provokes. It has been a wild ride, and I will be going at it again and again. Isn't that one of the traditional criteria of a great poem, that it bears repeated readings? That it demands, and rewards, repeated readings?
I am concerned that in our advocacy of accessibility and traditional craft, in order to entice reluctant Singapore readers to poetry and to establish some kind of "objective" criterion for literary judgment, we overlook or undervalue the achievements of our most interesting poets. The next generation of Singapore writers may "discover" Yeow, in the same manner as Arthur Yap is now read and quoted with such relish, and wonder how their literary elders could have feted the Edwin Thumboos of their time.QLRS Vol. 14 No. 2 Apr 2015