The Confessional: Familiarity and Defamiliarisation
Poems return surprising turns of language and image
By Jonathan Chan
How To Live With Yourself
For a long time, I have known Ang Shuang only as the "darling of SingPoWriMo", or the Singapore Poetry Writing Month. Prodigious and prolific, she had the canny ability to take from the month's prompts exquisite turns of phrase, each day posting poems with such flourish and rawness that they would compel an avalanche of likes and admiring comments. One of Ang's poems from there that I remember is 'The Magician's Daughter', a kind of ars poetica reflecting on her father's role as a scriptwriter of Chinese-language television:
The poem's conceit is as elegant as it is compelling: a magician's daughter who cannot seem to stop her own inherited magical abilities from manifesting, whether by "[swallowing] a bullet / and [spitting] it out whole" or having pennies "[turn] up / under my tongue". The voice of the speaker's Mama is interpolated, saying, "this country is no place / for magic. / Tricks do not fill empty bowls / with rice, only rabbits." The poem's indentations break the lines in such a way that help create a sense of the poem's conversational prosody. More crucially, it serves as a kind of narrative genesis to Ang's own creative biography, of the compulsion to continue writing poetry amidst the stifling conditions that persist in contemporary Singapore. It was with a kind of ease and familiarity that the poem came at the beginning of her debut collection How To Live With Yourself.
At their best, Ang's poems are devastating examinations of the self's psyche and body, all while threaded through with deep tenderness. They bear an unflinching instinct towards self-examination, one that sometimes verges on self-excoriation, all with a sense of surprise and intelligence to their images. It is evident that Ang is both conversant and comfortable in the confessional mode, parrying with melancholy, homesickness and bodily unease. As described in an essay in Poetry Magazine:
Ang's engagement with such psychological experiences recurs throughout the volume, particularly in mentions of bodily harm, disfiguration, or the ingestion of prescriptive drugs. The collection's two blurbs make clear that she is fashioning herself within a particular lineage of Singaporean confessional poetry, including Cyril Wong, Amanda Chong, Stephanie Chan and Jerrold Yam. Other writers identified as being part of the genre are also cited – Richard Siken and Sharon Olds. Perhaps even more explicit is her invocation of Sylvia Plath at the book's beginning, her quote "I want to love somebody because I want to be loved" echoed in Ang's dedication, "For all the people I have tried to love." Perhaps this impulse towards love is what is present throughout Ang's collection – a desire to find a love sufficient for herself and those around her, all facets of what she intuits means to "live with yourself".
Ang's collection is divided alliteratively into six sections: 'Identity', 'Illusion', 'Inheritance', 'Impasse', 'Impulse' and 'Intersection'. These variously intuit the prisms by which Ang examines the poetic self: self-examination, self-deception, the situation of the self in relation to family, the barriers to self-understanding and impulses that lead the self to distant locales, and the convergence of these elements in the self. One does wonder, however, whether the kitsch of the alliteration detracts from Ang's larger, more profound project of interrogating the self, the "I".
Ang's standout poems display a convincing interweaving between psychological introspection and the deft employment of images, particularly those pertaining to the body. 'Personal Statement' introduces a speaker who is afraid of "looking up from blank porcelain" and seeing "nothing", one who keeps a razor to "peel my skin back", one who "looks like my mother / who taught / me that / a copy of a copy / always ends up distorting." There is a sense not only of simmering revulsion towards the sight of one's body, but a deeply held desire for disfiguration in the pursuit of beauty and self-acceptance. The body is transformed either surgically ("I paid a surgeon / four thousand dollars / to burn off / part of my cornea") or digitally ("I slice myself / into Snapchat stories"), or pharmaceutically "I take a small white pill". The wounded body is "apple-hurt", fragile, skin loosening "like a ribbon / that I keep / unraveling." These descriptions of bodily transformation, emanating from a place of self-loathing, draw to mind writing such as that present in Plath's The Bell Jar. The invocation of the damaged body furthers Ang's placement in a lineage of confessional poetry by expressing a depth of psychological intensity and physical pain in an unflinching manner. The reader is brought proximate to the many ways in which the speaker's self-image, especially as a woman, is subject to and tarred by insecurity.
The sense of consanguinity and fleshly ties within the family of Ang's speakers also becomes a means of distortion; the self becomes an inadequate replica of the parent. This is explored again in 'Inheritance', which is split into four adjacent stanzas titled 'Ahma', 'Mama', 'Jiejie' and '[ ]', four generations of women each rendered in particular and specific ways. If the poem's set-up portends an exploration of generational trauma, its effects are rendered perhaps somewhat unexpectedly. The sequence's progression reveals the ways in which the value of a woman, particularly within certain Chinese conceptions, has slowly shifted away from harsh objectification. 'Ahma' states, "girlbodies exist / as currency" and "I know my worth completely: / How many fistfuls of fresh / copper." 'Mama' becomes "the Axis of Reality" and "Queen of the Dinner Table", a love exchanged "for simple indispensability". This ferocious sense of transaction dissipates, somewhat, upon the third generation – 'Jiejie' wants to be "like some winged thing / So dainty" while '[ ]' speaks of "Every winged thing" born "into a garden / of sorrows so old." The degradation and cheapening of a woman's body pass through generations of societal transformations. Yet, while it is tempting to say that such limitations are completely sloughed off by the poem's conclusion, there remains the need to "grow daintier / than air", a feminised delicacy that obstinately remains.
The spectre of bodily harm and dissatisfaction looms and emerges in various subsequent poems. 'The Last Illusion' turns from the image of "burying a childhood possession" to the psychological technique needed to convince the speaker's niece Heidi, to eat "the food she is meant to eat". "(S)ome other adult will pretend / to grab the spoon & swallow it whole, / & something instinctual will kick its little feet" – there is a sudden transference of desire for that which Heidi once refused. To the speaker, it is not merely the sensation of treasured possessions that have been lost that is tied to a child's fickle desires; the poem turns to the revelation that it was the speaker's "I" that left "you behind", "the bird, / the heart, / the once possessed". This sense of a yearning – out of love, or regret, or envy – forms the poem's emotional backbone.
It is a sentiment reiterated in 'Rimmel #100', in which shame and desire bristle and mingle. The poem begins:
Herein, one finds again the acuity with which Ang engages the vacuousness of an idealised femininity, tantalising embedded in makeup marketing. There is a sense of the artifice, the materiality of a lipstick set against the body's unravelling. The arbitrariness, the temporariness perhaps against the persistent discontent the speaker holds towards the body is tied intimately to the feeling of being "unwanted", of "this undesired undesirability".
If these poems keep their gaze on situations of domesticity, largely within the confines of Singapore, poems in the latter half of the book mirror Ang's own move from Singapore to New York City. It is tempting to see Ang's poems about America somewhat cynically, lying squarely within the cliché of the Chinese Singaporean poet forced to confront the sensations of being made foreign or minoritised. Such self-contemplation emerges from being ethnicised within a new social schema, an alienation that comes with distance from Singapore. It is a force of being regarded with foreignness that induces a need for an identitarian clarity – these are tensions from which I have not been exempt from in my writing as well. Yet, Ang's poems on these questions of movement and homesickness are executed with aplomb – they are poignant, complex and wonderfully moving.
'Looking Back on Home Before I've Even Left' pre-empts the melancholy of distance from home, likening such retrospection to "skipping ahead to read the last page". Ang's speaker describes "coming home" as "an exercise in restraint" and "giving the heart a metronome", a steady rhythm against which the fantasy of leaving Singapore must necessarily be contained. In 'Sorrow', we find the speaker having already returned to Singapore from New York, her body "[behaving] like it never left", accustomed to the corners of home, jet lag "but a faint swash / of memory". It is a physical, embedded sensation of a bypast sojourn that remains, the "sorrow" faced in a life after a sated restlessness that the speaker describes as "selfish preoccupation". It is "sorrow" that must be wielded only to describe "the sight of flowers loosening / from the trees". 'Sunshower' crackles with an intelligence of images: "an invisible thread / long enough / to stretch across the whole Pacific", a "phone-conch", raindrops "against the sun's fingers". Here, distance portends an unravelling friendship, one seemingly helpless to prevent the "swallowing" of "pills". And with 'Quarantine Blues', a phrase so saturated with pandemic-related meaning, stillness folds again to restlessness: the speaker desires to "take a knife / to this view" of "the thin strip of blue" visible from the hotel. "(T)his country folding into itself like a lantern / beneath a sudden downpour", so the speaker describes. These poems are best in finding in these sensations of alienation, defamiliarisation, passage, and return surprising turns of language and image. They help to enlarge the scale of Ang's preoccupations, the challenges of living with oneself not only in a context most familiar to the individual, but also in contexts much further apart. It all registers in the body.
Admittedly, one of the difficulties that arose for me in reading Ang's collection lay in my own familiarity with SingPoWriMo and its prompts and processes. This meant that upon reading some of Ang's poems, it would become immediately clear to me that they were written to satisfy a prompt. For example, 'How Do I Write This Poem?', structured as a series of questions about craft, was likely written in response to a prompt about writing in questions or koans. 'Defiantly Effervescent in the Face of the Sixth Extinction' is presented entirely in capital letters, leaping off the page with an almost intrusive aggression. 'BTO' details the anxieties that surround successfully applying for a Built-to-Order Housing Board flat, though with lines beginning with words starting with the letters "b", "t" and "o". Such poems sometimes came across as exercises in cleverness, detracting from each poem's substance and significance.
The effect of this was also to distract and detract from the book's larger frame and conceptual arc, that being Ang's interrogation of the poetic self. Perhaps, it is a reflection of my own biases that such poems sometimes feel more like exercises in cleverness, however truthful the emotional core of each poem. 'Identification Keys' is composed of a series of stanzas that are self-contained and loosely related, but sometimes turn to puns such as "Girl clutching gun / Girl gunning clutch", or rely heavily on anaphora such as in "Self as tiger eating its own paws / Self as brain undressing every gesture of affection." 'Poem Without Words for My Body' and 'What is Recovery, If Not a Relapse Persevering?' are moving and effective, but I was nevertheless thrown by the former's use of blank spaces throughout the poem and the latter's being a recognisable response to a prompt inspired by the quote "What is grief, if not love persevering" from the show WandaVision. 'The Right Set of Teeth' features interpolations of quotes from parliamentary speeches about the necessity of National Service in Singapore, which seems like it might have been a found poem in its genesis, though ultimately could have been more trenchant in its critique of the misguided masculinity propagated in the armed forces. One suspects that these poems in particular could have been excluded from the collection or undergone more reworking.
It would, however, be too simplistic to say that these always come across as gimmicky. Ang's series of 'Self-Portrait' poems were mesmerising, taking the perspectives of a variety of mythicised women: 'Self-Portrait as Judith with the Head of Holofernes', 'Self-Portrait as Chang'e Midway to the Moon', 'Self-Portrait as Penelope on the Shores of Ithaca' and 'Self-Portrait as Circe on the Shores of Aeaea'. I was intuitively reminded of Theresa Cha's activation of female muses in her sequence Dictée (including the Korean revolutionary Yu Guan Soon and Joan of Arc), and of Jee Leong Koh's dialogic poems with female figures in Steep Tea, such as Aemilia Lanyer, Eavan Boland and Lee Tzu Pheng. Yet, while the latter two take dialogue with female voices as essential to the conception of their poems, to Ang such muses operate less as dialectic partners, but as conduits by which she can tease out some of the means by which women have suffered and been degraded in literary narratives.
The collection's final three poems, as well, tackled conceits central to the question of poetry to luminous effects. Ang's 'Ars Poetica', for example, asserts:
It is simple and effective, a familiar presentation of the poet as a conduit for beauty. The poem that follows, 'Poems Translated for My Lover', describe a lover who "pulls out one word & holts it / against the light of my life, squinting / as if he is willing my poem see-through." In a way, it is a more familiarly Singaporean examination of the continued perception of poetry's novelty. And the collection's final poem 'Gravity | 雙', it a tender summation of the collection's many themes tied to movement and to identity, all within the question of the persona changing her name.
Ang has long been held up as one of SingPoWriMo's most prominent alumni, having sharpened her craft and developed a distinctive voice through her many years of partaking in the month-long challenge. Her decision to undertake a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Sarah Lawrence College after completing an undergraduate degree in law at the Singapore Management University was seen as an affirmation of the strength of the SingPoWriMo system and community. One could bear public witness to Ang's development as a poet, while it has been said by SingPoWriMo community members that the warm reception of Ang's poems likely contributed to her decision to undertake an MFA. Ang was also active as a member of the ATOM collective, a poetry group which itself grew out of SingPoWriMo and includes other writers who have published poetry collections – such as Crispin Rodrigues and Topaz Winters. It was thus with great anticipation that How To Live With Yourself was announced, especially at a time when it seemed there were fewer and fewer solo poetry collections being published in Singapore. However, the lustre of Ang's debut was diminished by the controversy surrounding Math Paper Press, which has led to surprisingly muted coverage of her book.
Nevertheless, as a debut, How To Live With Yourself is a confident entry into a profound lineage of self-reflexive poetry in Singapore. Ang's voice rings clear in its expression of the many psychological, physical and medical contentions that so many, especially young women, continue to struggle against. A female reader might, perhaps, better appreciate the contours and nuances of Ang's work. If anything, one wishes that the collection could have had a table of contents, if only for ease when referring to favourite poems. Moreover, one wishes that this collection could have been more carefully arranged – many of its poems could have been cut and a lither sequence could have made for a more powerful presentation of Ang's vulnerability, compassion and fine rendering of visceral affect.QLRS Vol. 21 No. 4 Oct 2022