The Impossible Task
Felix Cheong's poems wrestle with writing as an act of worship performed by all-too-human hands
By Christine Chia
B-Sides and Backslides: 1986 – 2018
B-Sides and Backslides: 1986 – 2018 wears both its musical and religious influences on its sleeve. If B-sides refer to musical experiments that belong on the 'backsides' of old cassette tapes and vinyl records, 'backslides' also connote religious lapses. Felix Cheong is clearly obsessed with the themes of temptation and redemption, and many of the poems in this collection limn the constant struggle to be good:
In Cheong's poems, the persona is as much a voyeur of sin as an actual sinner, and the pains associated with the prospect of sinning can be wildly disproportionate to the offence. In 'Still', a man sits in a park, waiting for a tryst that never happens as "no one arrives" but is torn apart by a sense of guilt as utterly as if he had committed adultery. In 'Lost', a man feels "the damning consequence […] of a vacant heart" when his affection for his beloved wanes. To err is human, as 'Obituary' reminds us, "a life you had thought / Was all but human to a fault".
The angst over one's moral fallibility also maps over to the writer's anguish over the inadequacy of one's words. In poem after poem, the writer wrestles with words like Jacob wrestles with God, with the speaker always professing himself the worse for wear after the struggle. The early poem, 'Words', starts off with the complaint, "Why is it so hard / wringing words from the heart" and ends with the Christian lament of "The word was made flesh / but the flesh has not learnt to speak", with the penultimate line using verbatim the King James Version of John 1: 14. In many of the poems, I sense the agony of a writer who regards his writing as an act of worship. This raises the stakes considerably. If the poems are flawed, his worship is imperfect and unworthy. However, being human, his writing will always miss the mark, creating a sense of shame and guilt. Cheong plainly confesses his "intense sense of insecurity" in his liner notes, tormenting himself with thoughts such as "whatever I wrote was not good enough and if I did not write, it only proved I was not good enough".
If writing were agony, one would naturally avoid writing. However, Cheong also believes that God has given him the talent of writing and questioning, and to refuse to write would be to incur the sins of disobedience and bad husbandry. In 'Damn if I Do, Damn if I Don't', he alludes to the biblical parable of the talents: "What would have been the worth / of this talent / if I'd simply buried it".
On the subject of talent, we are rarely in doubt of Cheong's skill as a poet, even in a collection modestly named B-Sides and Backslides. One of my favourite poems is 'Checklist for Poetry', which is worth quoting in full:
That said, some of the satirical and topical poems do not work well for this particular reader. 'The General Who Cried "War"', 'Confessions of a Siam King' and even 'Headmaster Lee and the Impossible Door' left me cold, even if I admired their cleverness. Some of the celebrity elegies also read as rushed, insufficiently revised poems but could conceivably be excused in a collection that has preemptively labelled itself as 'B-sides'.
Another quibble I have is that there is not as much formal or linguistic experimentation in the poems as one would expect from a collection of 'B-sides'. While Cheong admires the "outrageous", "outlandish and really-out-there songs" that the Beatles sneaked onto their B-sides, Cheong has not really done the same, although 'A Scatological Poem' aims to shock.
Last but not least, befitting a collection that thinks of itself as part music and part poetry, the liner or introductory notes to each section frequently riff on Cheong's musical and literary influences. The tone in these notes is smoothly self-deprecating and charming; the lyricism of the poems came through at the book's launch last year, where Cheong read his poems to the accompaniment of musicians Natalie Ng and Theemptybluesky (Mervin Wong). The three also work together as art collective Osmosis. This latest reinvention of Cheong as a poet-musician is very interesting, and I hope he does not "beat another muttering retreat from poetry".QLRS Vol. 18 No. 1 Jan 2019