Aaron Lee's Coastlands errs on the side of caution
By Daryl Lim Wei Jie
Aaron Lee's first collection, A Visitation of Sunlight, was published in 1997. His second, Five Right Angles, was published in 2007. His third and most recent collection, Coastlands, was published in 2014 and was launched during the Singapore Writers Festival. This bland bibliography tells us one thing, at least: that Aaron Lee bides his time, giving himself sufficient space to deliberate and reflect upon his craft. (Though perhaps writer's block is the culprit: Lee has claimed that one of his poems took seven years to write.) That alone is commendable, and a welcome change from the recent tendency to deluge and drown the public with work (a volume a year? Goodness.), leaving readers barely any time to gasp for breath. The result is that Coastlands is a volume of distinct maturity, and Lee's best so far. Incidentally or perhaps not so incidentally Coastlands has a lovely cover, with a lovelier story: it's designed by Aaron's wife, the artist Namiko Chan Takahashi, and illustrates the subject of one of the poems in the book: the Naupaka plant, common to Hawaii, which has flowers shaped as if they have been cut into half. These blooms are often found near the sea and, curiously, also in the mountains. Legend has it that they represent lovers, sundered forever from each other by the gods.
The Hawaiian influence on Lee's poetry has been profound: about a third or so of the fifty poems reference Hawaiian places or myths. This is a welcome foreign pollination, and Lee's strongest pieces tend to come from this clutch of poems. The sonnet 'Nu'u's Dream of the Mountain' features Nu'u, a figure from Hawaiian myth, who is yet another ark-builder (see Utnapishtim, Manu, Noah) escaping from a great deluge. We are brought in media res, after the flood, and the poem ends with the hero still on the ark, bemusedly reflecting that "Rain is what lured us in, and what happens tomorrow". It is a finely-wrought moment. The aforementioned poem on the Naupaka flower, 'Folk Tale 1', is a pleasing piece, if a little safe. One of Lee's strengths is his lack of showiness, a certain understatement. The Hawaiian inspiration also provides, besides mythical touchstones, a scenic, elemental grandeur. We get a lot of stars, oceans, suns, sand, beaches, skies, dawns, lights, flowers and birds. Some of this is grand and declarative, and most of it is effective and moving:
In 'Before Sleep' (one of the best in the collection), there is an undeniable beauty to Lee's lyric, and an ability to capture quiet moments:
Lee transitions from the outside to the domestic interior, hardly less disquieting.
The description "defensive gasp of the lights" is wonderfully observed. The disquiet of the surroundings mirror the narrator's state of mind. Or actually, your state of mind, since the poem is in the second person a frequent feature of Lee's poetry and Lee does well in bringing the reader into these moments he constructs. The Hawaiian environment is a good setting for Lee's lyrics. For Lee, nature is benign and congenial, and a place where one derives subtle, gentle revelations and experiences ("Dawn/ is a continent of joys./ A diversion of birdsong blooms,/ gives voice in the tongues of light and leaves." from 'The Wayfarer's Creed'). One possible objection here, however, is whether Lee's treatment of Hawaii corresponds too closely to the stereotyped, touristic images of Hawaii. Cue George Clooney's character in The Descendants (2011):
A more challenging relationship with Hawaii and its natural features might have produced a few more interesting experiments in Coastlands, and purged some clichιd lines like "We are all of us star-crossed voyagers,/ escaping by degrees/ eternally at sea" ('I Sing the Galactic'). On the whole, however, Lee's Hawaiian pieces are gently lyrical, stark and wistful ones.
Less successful are Lee's takes on biblical stories. Retellings of Psalm 23, the stories of David, Delilah and Judas do not add much that is particularly interesting or stylistically exciting. The situation of a middle-aged Delilah goes:
The phrase "she felt brazen" does not accomplish much, poetically, while the attempted understatement of "though it must have been a murderous end" falls flat. In 'Judas, a Little While Later', Judas tells us that "I yearn for a new beginning". The poem also has the grammatically puzzling line "Of course the thoughts will not stop lamenting in my head". These pieces do not quite succeed mainly because the voices of Judas, Delilah or David are not distinct enough, and in the end are unconvincing. They would have benefited from a more adventurous treatment. Similar problems trouble 'Lament', a poem written from the perspective of Iapetus (or possibly his wife, Clymene), father of the Titans Atlas, Epimetheus and Prometheus. For one, the poem is a little out of place, the only adaptation of a Greek myth in Coastlands. The voice is not evoked strongly enough, and we start off with Iapetus saying:
This is perhaps a little too ordinary for a family of Titans. One of the problems of Coastlands, as hinted before, is a tendency for the poems to be on the safe side. In 'Breakup', another poem that felt somewhat out of place, we have unfinished wine in a glass, cigarette stubs, and meanwhile "The minutes go missing while he wonders whether to stay". Lee's mastery of the moment thus sometimes slips. This is evident in the poem with the all-too-leading title of 'Disquiet' (apparently set in Telok Blangah). Here a girl and a her mother are buying economy rice. Then:
The supposed pathos of the moment is not quite achieved, nor does it really make sense. In general, Lee's Singapore poems are not as successful as his Hawaiian ones. An exception is 'Folk Tale 2'. a take on the story of Radin Mas Ayu, a sixteenth-century Javanese princess who dies defending her father from a keris attack, with the fine line "To regret is to yearn/ for miracles while/ paying debts untold". Lee's eclecticism also makes one wonder if the collection forms a sustained, coherent whole. The series of Hawaiian poems certainly do, and befits a collection with the title of 'Coastlands'. But the middle section of the volume seems to lose this thread: we have poems on the poet's childhood, the biblical stories, a poem about a librarian, about the painting 'Seafarers' by Anna Berezovskaya' (the only ekphrastic piece in the whole volume), about a hospital visit, about poetry and words. And what is one to make about a sonnet supposedly written by Colonel Normal Macalister, once lieutenant-governor of Penang, to his wife, Lorna? It is sometimes hard to see what ties the collection together.
The main problem with Coastlands, however, is that despite the sense that Lee's poems are hard-won and well-considered, the word choices and images do not always work. They sometimes fail to fully convey the no doubt genuine emotion and feeling that lie behind the poems. First off, it should be said that there are many good, surprising lines, such as "eyes scrunched/ against splinters of sun" ('The Poet in Hawaii'), or "I have never been/ more and more sure of less and less" ('Poetry Returns'). But a good example of a poor choice of words is 'random', used first in the prose piece 'Story Sketch': "The next day, Thomas is entranced by a random view of the gutted mountain at Diamond Head". This use of "random" is repeated in the poem 'Close Quarters', about a visit to the hospital: "Then sent up via a random elevator,/ I begin wandering this labyrinth". Using 'random' in exactly the way a teenager might ("Oh wow, this church/tree/piece of dog litter is so random!") will not do much for the poet. Another is 'insensible', also used twice. In the first instance, from the poem 'Folk Tale 1', "The sun sinks to its knees, insensible." In 'A Tiny Idea', "You climb into the twinkling trees, survey the insensible sky". What, exactly, is 'insensible' supposed to mean here? The sky and sun are presumably already incapable of sensation, and they are certainly not imperceptible. (Though one could argue that in the first instance the sun has been personified.) This use of 'insensible' serves to puzzle. What about 'decimated' in the line 'Now that he's been decimated, you ask to interview me', from the poem 'Public Librarian'? Decimation, originally, was a form of military discipline meted out in the Roman army: mutinous legions would be culled by a tenth (decem is ten in Latin), often by lot. It then came to mean "to destroy a large proportion of" in the sense of "parts of the country were decimated by the epidemic". Neither meaning works here: a single person cannot be decimated, in either sense. Similarly, some of the images simply fail to work out. From 'Poetry Returns':
It is difficult to tease out an image here, and the same problem plagues similarly pastoral lines in 'The Poetic Reader':
One wishes then, that more work was done to fashion the images, rather then just compound the abstract and the more concrete. An egregious offender is found in 'A Mythical Tail' (a Merlion poem dedicated to Edwin Thumboo!), where "pollution" is described as "frothing the bay like a bad conscience". (Indeed, this problem is widespread in contemporary poetry: the school of the senseless simile has many acolytes.) The poem also has the phrase "somnolent bemusement", which is surely too much of a mouthful. Lee's poetry, in this aspect, has equal parts hits and misses.
This review of Coastlands is then, a mixed one. Aaron Lee is capable of writing moving, lyrical, thoughtful and at times unexpectedly powerful verses. Even when he does not quite pull things off, such as in the poem 'A Letter to my Unborn Son', there is a genuine depth of feeling. His poetry is backed up by wisdom and closely observed experience. But several problems prevent Coastlands from being a success. Some pushing of the envelope might have produced more adventurous pieces. Some closer editing and scrutiny would have weeded out some of the more unsatisfactory images and word choices. But there is enough here to make this reviewer look forward to Lee's fourth volume.QLRS Vol. 14 No. 1 Jan 2015