Brave New Singapore Poetries
By Christine Chia
New Singapore Poetries
New Singapore Poetries is the antithesis of the exam-friendly anthology I co-edited, Lines Spark Code. It is fabulously transgressive and untranslatable. It demands the reader's surrender to pleasure as the first principle, and productivity as the last, if even that.
The anthology opens with ila. Her first two poems, 'seni itu sunyi' and 'Diam-Diam', are untranslated and unglossed Malay poems. The editors, by choosing to place these poems here, announce that they want to unmoor the complacent competency of the English monolinguist. Only in the third poem, 'Hari Kebangsatan', is there a concession to English:
If the reader lacks proficiency in Malay, there is imperfect understanding that can be derived from patient use of Google Translate. Alternatively, the poems require a real-life test of how robust your friendship with a Malay-speaking friend is, by asking for extended help in comprehension. 'Pura-Pura Parade', the last selection from ila, comprises of flash prose pieces that are infused with "sci-fi, spiritualism, and speculative elements". Dreamlike and fantastical in their intensity, they are characterised by respect, love and identification with animals, plants and spirits.
Anurak Saelaow's section, in deliberate contrast, strikes a decidedly more Anglophone note. There is an arch and meta-poetic reply to John Ashbery's 'Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror' with 'Bat Bridge (Self-Portrait as a Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror)':
What emerges or is new about New Singapore Poetries is a focus on sex and sexuality; it is definitely not for the sex-negative. You will find clear pornographic references in different poems by different poets. In Kenneth Constance Loe's 'It Starts with a Nip', the reader is asked, "do you scroll hard and fast to the money shot […]" and Marylyn Tan's "tagged 'singapore'" is an entire found poem of selected titles from Pornhub and other websites. Shawn Hoo's section ends with an 'Ode to the Public Toilet' and cruising:
While sex is front and centre in this collection, what is no less prominent are the religious references, as seen in Hoo's poem, and notably in Marylyn Tan's section. For Tan in particular, both frames of reference inform each other to explosively sacrilegious effect in 'THIS IS MY BODY' (part 3 of 'CURSING THE FIG TREE') where "jesus [is reimagined] as a teenage girl" who needs a BDSM safe space and safe word.
This brings me to the next point, which should be obvious by now, that New Singapore Poetries is not a collection for those who are strictly religious. While the collection is intentionally rife with heresy, there are also poems like 'John at the end of his days':
Lisabelle Tay's poem would not be out of place in a devotional anthology. While a fair number of Tay's poems are conventionally Christian in their tropes, like some of Nathaniel Chew's poems in the same anthology (please note that some of his poems also have a whimsically absurdist influence), her opening poem in the section, 'Mangosteen Season', reveals a meditative sorrow about one of the most officially Singaporean institutions, National Service: "freshly shaven boys posturing, some trying / not to cry, […] some to die?"
Since we are now on the topic of Singaporean tropes and institutions, I am glad that the Merlion is mostly laid to rest in this collection, making only an appearance in 'The Merman Dye and Another Man Talking' by Jack Xi, where he is an alluring transgender merman. Xi's most polarising poem in their section, perhaps, may not be 'The Merman Dye' but 'A Lot Like Ourselves', particularly part 'vi. meat from five or six cows in one container':
The same stanza is repeated verbatim nine times on the same page. You either love this poem or you hate it. You may even question if it is poetry. A parallel puzzle is Lune Loh's 'Breath as Cinema' where the twin cinema form is stripped of all words, and made up only of punctuation marks which register where the words would have been. Here, the reception towards Marcel Duchamp's readymade urinal gives us a helpful precedent. Those who want to condemn will find plenty to feel their ire while those who want to praise will find much to admire in these poems. Xi's poem is also dedicated to Andrew Kirkrose Devadason, another poet in the anthology, who also has a companion poem, 'This Blender Grinds the Meat', composed also from the same found text of a Business Insider Nederland article on a McDonald's meat-processing factory:
The two poems lead us to the unavoidable conclusion that the enemy is the big bad corporation, or the latest manifestation of economic imperialism. In worms virk's poems, the (bad) Man is not McDonald's but SMRT:
Of course, no Singaporean poetry anthology, even one as iconoclastic as New Singapore Poetries is, can fail to mention the Man/Men, Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Sir Stamford Raffles. While Mok Zining uses and dismisses the latter's letter to Princess Charlotte as found poetry and greyed-out footnote in history in 'Lesson on Cuttings: Trimming Unnecessary Affixes', Marylyn Tan refashions Mr Lee into a BDSM daddy in 'daddy issues'. Shawn Hoo also addresses Mr Lee as a "paranoid boxer" in 'Placard': "This poem / is and isn't about you."
Last but not least, New Singapore Poetries is not for the lazy. Despite the many textual pleasures it promises and delivers, only committed readers will enjoy excavating the layers of intertextual references in poems like Ally Chua's 'Martin Scorsese and I Get into a Taxi', Laetitia Keok's tour de force homage to Sharon Olds' 'I Go Back to Back to May 1937' in 'Maxwell Food Centre (1997)', Lune Loh's 'I WAS BLUR AND FORGOT WHEN MY ASSIGNMENT WENT', Christian Yeo's 'Bath Towel Sits at the Intersection of Two Chairs', and Hamid Roslan's 'The Shape of a Body Uncertain' which ingeniously translates extracts from Walter Benjamin, Anne Carson and Sahih al-Bukhari into Malay, and interweaves them into a new text of Southeast Asian myth and legend.
Against the mental gymnastics required from reading the poems above, it is a relief to sink into Shou Jie Eng's New England historical prose poems set in a world of whaling ships a la Moby Dick in 'Eight Divers'. Similarly, Izyanti Asa'ari's poems are also affecting in their relative simplicity, as we see in the opening poem, 'Rubik's Mess':
The variety and contrast between the different poets/sections is what makes New Singapore Poetries such a rollercoaster read. It's a collection that is clearly meant to repel many, as cautioned above. At the same time, I foresee its admirers will be as many, and equally fervent, as it is undeniably a brave new landmark in Singapore poetry anthologies.QLRS Vol. 22 No. 2 Apr 2023