The Myth that Dare Not Speak its Name
Singapore poets dance cautiously around sketching portrait of country's founding father
By Philip Holden
A Luxury We Cannot Afford: An Anthology of Singapore Poetry
I was looking forward to reading this collection, but I did find myself, initially at least, troubled by the way in which it is framed. A Luxury We Cannot Afford is a collection of poems from Math Paper Press about Singapore's first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, that somehow does not dare to speak his name, and resorts to elaborate circumlocution. Lee is referred to in a foreword and introduction as 'The Man', and the poems themselves resort to elaborate strategies of not quite naming, from Mark Nair's acrostic 'Lord knows, yah', in which Lee's initials are endlessly repeated, to Sze Yao Tan's punning '管You'.
Much poetic language is, of course, about certain very precise forms of indirection and ambiguity. In his introduction, Gwee Li Sui rightfully points out that so many poems have been written about the Merlion, "a gimmicky symbol of the national will", but very few about Lee himself — although one of my favourite poems, Dudley De Souza's 'The Convert', is a very honourable exception which perfectly captures abandoned middle-class dreams of social change in the post-independence years. Gwee also makes the perceptive point that many of the much more popular genre of Merlion poems take the mythical creature as a proxy, and become ways of "writing about The Man and avoiding his mention". Yet, in an age in which there's increasingly robust and open discussion of Lee and his legacy in film, auto/biography, popular history, academic writing, and the visual arts, it's not immediately clear why such a strategy needs to be extended further.
If a reader moves past the frame, she'll find that Christine Chia and Joshua Ip have done a wonderful job in collecting a rich variety of poems by both established figures and newly emergent voices: as the editors point out, the youngest contributor is 15 and the oldest 95. The poems are divided into three thematic sections, but topical and poetic connections are woven throughout the collection.
The most visible of these is, inevitably, politics. Edwin Thumboo's 'He Who Buildeth' is very much in the spirit of his early occasional poems, depicting Lee as caught up in the frottage of history, clenching "our/Stiffening ambition's amassing drive" and later, in retirement, serene in the face of "children of success" whose "ungracious, niggardly minds/Spew and twitter across the internet". While further poems also praise Lee's political legacy, others ask us to re-evaluate it. Alfian Sa'at's 'The Government of the Self' starts surprisingly gently, with a vision of Lee retiring from political life and refusing wealth and ongoing influence, entering a world of "[s]ilence and austerity"'. Once while jogging, he recalls, he had paused to catch his breath, and, above him, "heard the call/Of an oriole beckoning from its crypt of branches." Yet in the conclusion of Alfian's poem, Thumboo's "niggardly minds" are transformed into something very different:
Cyril Wong, in 'Threshold', riffs on a more ubiquitous metaphor. Singapore, Lee's "undisappointing child,/ slapped to cowering", now finds its "whimpers swelling to elegant complaints". Jeremy Tiang's "When Harry Met Maggie" is initially more playful, its iambic pentameters transposing an ideological relationship into personal terms, centred on a mutual "relief of finding someone who understood". Yet Lee and Margaret Thatcher, in an imagined afterlife, now look back with uncertainty on their legacies, haunted by the fact that "it's how you treated those you didn't love that counts".
A second strand in the collection plays on the mythical or the fantastic. Ng Yi-Sheng's 'Snow White' draws on another famous LKY quotation in envisioning him sleeping, like King Arthur or Bernardo Carpio, under Fort Canning, ready to emerge and carry out a well-known promise. Toh Hsien Min, in contrast, merely re-embroiders the story of Parameswara's actions on coming to Tumasik, and leaves his readers to draw parallels with events nearly six centuries later.
Yet there's also a third, perhaps surprising, element that saturates the poems: a search for and indeed passionate investment in the personal. Lee's story as told to us by himself or others is a very public one, with little space for private emotion: several poems attempt to fill up this emptiness. The entry point is often Lee's marriage to Kwa Geok Choo, and his imagined emotions during her illness and on her death. Sandesh Sambhi's 'Fever Dream' imagines jumbled memories of a courtship and a life together; Shawn Hoo's '02/10/10' describes the moment of parting after a lifetime spent together, and with no certainty of the afterlife: I tell our children:
At times, this attachment to the personal turns reflective. In one of the most powerful poems of the collection, Norashiqin Toh's 'At Dusk', the persona witnesses Lee's arrival at a function. She wants, as he passes her, to reach out and touch him in exactly the "urgent way I wanted to touch / Monet's water lilies in the Orsay". He speaks, but she does not hear the sense of his words, conscious only of "silvered hair and thinning skin." The poem concludes in a fine balance: a critique of Lee's subsumptive rationality that paradoxically denies his own humanity is counterpoised by the onlooker's "wonder" and a desire for empathy that cannot ever quite be realised.
In A Luxury We Cannot Afford, then, there are perhaps more Lee Kuan Yews than there are contributors. In his introductory essay, Gwee remarks that the collection is a "social document", and this is perhaps more true than the editors of the collection or many of the contributors realise. "Singapore," the blurb on the back cover of the collection announces, "is a country of many self-invented, transparent, or self-made myths and fables, but one looms above them all. 1969 marks the famous declaration of the myth: 'poetry is a luxury we cannot afford'." To say that the literary is inessential is certainly a fable. But I wonder what the myth we live by really is. For the story of Lee Kuan Yew as Plato's philosopher king, expelling the poets from his new republic, is just another very good story.
Search for that "famous declaration" in newspapers, in government records, in the national archives, even in the nineteen-volume Papers of Lee Kuan Yew, and you find nothing. Try another approach: trace a thread back into a labyrinth of scholarly references. Were those words said in a speech, or let drop as a casual remark? Where? When — in 1968 or 1969? In obscure, long-forgotten magazines from the 1970s the trail of secondary references goes cold. Talk to witnesses? Even those who heard the words pronounced now cannot agree on when they were uttered, and cannot recall their precise context. And the "famous declaration" wasn't uncommon at the time, even among poets themselves. Edward Baugh, the Jamaican poet and scholar, recalled having an emotional workout through the domestic English agonies of Philip Larkin, experiencing "authentic shivers, gooseflesh". And then, he wrote in his poem 'Cold Comfort', there was a moment of self-reflection, of doubt about whether as a postcolonial writer "death poems and/ love poems are luxuries/ we in the third world/ cannot afford".
It's a wonderfully quotable quote, of course: it sums up perfectly what we all think we know about history. But there's something more about imagined deities, heroes and monsters, especially those we find we still cannot name. From Yahweh to Cao Cao to Voldemort, they terrify and fascinate us in equal measure. We often think we are escaping from them, but in fact we are all the while pursuing them. If we are persistent enough, if we follow them far enough into the darkness of history, we may corner them. In weariness, they may turn to face us. And it is at this moment, as Toh's poem perfectly suggests, that we see ourselves.QLRS Vol. 14 No. 1 Jan 2015