Full On, Close Up
Established Singapore poet draws diverse sketches across two volumes
By David Fedo
When the Barbarians Arrive
The reputation of Alvin Pang as the premier young Singaporean poet, or at the very least a star in the small constellation of an exclusive group of this country's poets writing in English, is hard to challenge.
A literary entrepreneur, anthologiser and superb reader of his own work, Pang's poems over more than 15 years puts him ahead of or in such diverse company as Toh Hsien Min, Yong Shu Hoong, Cyril Wong and Felix Cheong all superb writers. Although decidedly different in poetic temperament and output from Edwin Thumboo, clearly the ιminence grise of Singapore verse, Pang seems to be the logical successor to assume Thumboo's mantle. He has sustained the high quality of his work since the 1997 publication of his remarkable first book, Testing the Silence (Ethos Books). Named Young Artist of the Year by Singapore's National Arts Council in 2005, Pang has just published two new collections outside Singapore: When the Barbarians Arrive (UK) and Other Things and Other Poems (Croatia), the latter in a comprehensive dual-language (English-Croatian) format. Both volumes are on sale online, and each contains new work as well as poems from Testing the Silence, and from Pang's later collections, the well-received City of Rain (Ethos Books, 2003) and What Gives Us Our Names (Math Paper Press, 2011).
The poems in these two new books (a total of 26 in Barbarians and 49 in Other Things) are rich in subject and in treatment. His work can be difficult, and therefore hard to categorise. But what gives Pang's verse its freshness is its immediacy and intimacy, qualities increasingly found in the best of the less formal modern and more personal Singapore verse. Pang engages with life, with all of its burdens and uncertainties, as well as its poignancy and beauty.
One of Pang's most well-known poems a favourite of mine is 'Psalm of Birds and Birthdays' (collected in Other Things and Other Poems), dedicated to the Filipino poet Marjorie Evasco, that begins in medias res as a tender domestic portrait:
The poet, watchful and approving, surmises that the "hatchling" nestled in his dedicatee's hand is momentarily free of fear, safe from the danger that inevitably imperils all living things:
Note that the poet doesn't tell us why or how the tiny bird has become cradled in his dedicatee's hand. It just is, and the peaceful scene becomes a kind of psalm of grace. But then the narrator describes an earlier experience he has had with another "fallen nestling", although this time the young bird has died, with "ants come already to claim it," and which the narrator sadly covers up with leaves. Pang then moves the poem abruptly to his daughter and goldfish, and ends it with these additional lines on the stark reality of death itself:
'Psalm of Birds and Birthdays' is typical of Pang's best work. A quiet scene of family serenity, lovingly portrayed, is broken by a disquieting turnaround. The final question why do we live? is left unanswered, although "loving others" might be one simple and obvious guess.
Another moving but very different poem, 'Salt', published in both books, is a dramatic work about the unfortunate, doomed wife of Lot, who, as recounted in the familiar Genesis narrative, disobeyed the angels and looked back at the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, thus becoming a pillar of salt. The poem appears to be told by one of Lot's two daughters. Lot himself, in the Old Testament and in Pang's poem, was a mixed bag:
We are thus reminded that Lot, the nephew of the soon-to-be-great patriarch Abraham, was willing to 'give' his daughters to the rabble surrounding his house, and who later, drunk, slept with the two daughters who bore his children. Not exactly pleasant stuff.
Pang's take in his artfully crafted poem is that the unnamed wife looked back on the demolition of the two cities as a kind of self-sacrifice, turning wilfully, "on purpose":
And Pang finishes the poem on a somber note:
Here we have another intimate 'family' poem, but without a hint of the soft light and warmth of 'Psalm of Birds and Birthdays'. Darkness rules, and not just from the spiralling cinders of the tumultuous conflagration.
Two of the most evocative poems in Barbarians, 'Initiation', an affectionate remembrance of the poet's father, and the Hemingway-esque 'Fly-Fishing', spin the subject of fishing into a brief on the relationship of man to the rules of nature. I admired in 'Initiation' how the father becomes a kind of magician to his children, working "a secret ritual with his hands" and getting the hooks baited and ready to go. It's a touching but resolutely unsentimental poem. In 'Fly-Fishing', the poet's description of the fisherman "laying out a line from / life to life" becomes a kind of "morse-code of motion"; as usual, Pang's description is crisply apt.
The two title poems of the collections 'Other Things' and 'When the Barbarians Arrive' are prose poems, of which there are a number in each book. But here the form is, in some ways, problematic and even provocative: Are the paradoxes, contradictions, simplifications and ambiguities often embedded in the prose lines really more effective than they would be if they had been executed in traditional verse? For example, what do we make of the opening stanza (sentence?) of 'Other Things'?
Are the key words 'faithlessness', 'need' and 'love' meaningfully linked, or not? In this case, I'm just not convinced.
Yet the second stanza "Other things mean other things" reminds me of Gertrude Stein's impatient dictum, "A rose is a rose is a rose", and the American poet Archibald MacLeish's famous line, "A poem should not mean / But be" (from 'Ars Poetica'). Here I believe that Pang is warning us fairly not to read too much beyond the literalness of the language. (So much for the mavens of deconstruction!)
The title poem of Barbarians (also included in Other Things) is a series of 17 apparent behavioural directives issued presumably by one surrendered citizen to his fellow captives; neither the "barbarians" nor the victims are identified. Grounded in irony and heavy in sarcasm, the directives the commands by the unknown narrator seem intended to deceive, confuse and perhaps even curry favour with the captors. As I wrote in my copy of the book on a first reading: "But what is the point of the commands? To resist? To surrender? What?"
The poem, unusually opaque for Pang, begins in rough prose declarations, not quite verses:
And it ends bitterly:
So, what's going on here? Pang creates a mystery of clipped sentences, tense and ambiguous; nonetheless, there is a menacing quality to the poem which is hard to forget. Who is the conquered, and who are the barbarians? Pang is unyielding; there are no clear answers.
Pang sets a number of his poems in familiar Singapore sites, including the somewhat funky Holland Village, often called by New Englanders the Harvard Square of the city-state, and even in upscale grocery chain Cold Storage. The deftly-written 'To Go to S'pore' (reproduced in both books), with
creates an intriguing space of sights, smells, office towers and neighbourhoods. It's also a deeply personal poem, with an uncle having "slaved himself blind / reading by candlelight", and a grandfather buying off a health inspector by bringing him a drink. The ending has a lovely authenticity:
Then there is Pang's poem ('Merlign', in Barbarians) on the famous Merlion, the towering sculpture of Singapore's lion-fish icon. The poet appears to be both admiring and sceptical:
Pang's take on the Merlion is quite different from Thumboo's famous poem, but in its balance of playfulness ("Even though there are more / websites on you than verses") with gravity ("lost causes and years of waiting"), the poem does present the Merlion as a worthy, if imperfect, symbol.
A closing note: In the afterword to Other Things, Croation editor and translator Silvestar Vrljić refers to Pang as "certainly the most interesting young Singaporean poet, [and] by saying this, we are talking about a country with a very rich poetry culture". It's a generous compliment, both to Pang and to Singapore itself a note of flattery which might even make some Singaporeans blush. But in my view, as an American observer of the Singapore scene, it has the ring of truth. Pang's two new books, now with international exposure, and the growing number of recent works turned out by other talented Singaporeans, provide a body of convincing evidence.QLRS Vol. 12 No. 2 Apr 2013