To Present the Meaning of Marbles
By Al Lim
The International Left-Hand Calligraphy Association
Engaging with Tse Hao Guang's The International Left-Hand Calligraphy Association gave me the impulse to play with language. I almost wanted to write this review with words spaced out on the (digital) page and follow Tse's cue to interrogate the sedimented conventions of language. Shawn Hoo calls the collection a "gallery of words" in his Straits Times review, and Mok Zining claims in Asian Books Blog that "each poem looks more like a constellation of words and phrases bounded by the page." To these descriptors of gallery and constellation, I add marbles.
By this I mean that engaging with Tse's collection, for me, was most akin to having marbles collide in my hand. Marbles not only click but also rub and scratch against one another. The harder you press them together, the more provocative the sound. While this sound is uncomfortable, there can be an addictive quality to listening to the clacking that they make. The lines and words of Tse's poems in this collection follow and twist the poetic form on the page, allowing the shapes of the words, lines and stanzas to mutate. At their centres, marbles have patterns visual, aesthetic twists while surrounded mostly by translucent space. Like marbles, Tse's poems contain much negative space seemingly blank pauses amid the poems, striated with desires and tensions. These negative spaces are moments akin to a series of breaths, measured and staggered.
One could argue that I have lost my marbles as a reviewer because the collection talks about marbles as non-metaphorical. In the poem, 'repeated errors in the survey form are intentional':
Here, the clattering to the floor has already happened a literal occurrence, not a metaphor. What the poem instead claims as metaphorical is apparently Mr Mohamed's condominium, where the clattering happened (perhaps an allusion to sky-high condo prices in Singapore). Nevertheless, later in the poem, Tse clarifies that "marbles are not metaphorical / they are journalistic". For an object to be journalistic, it involves taking on qualities of translating information into news-like reports. Following Tse, marbles are not just a metaphor in my review. They take on a journalistic quality of me translating my experience of going through the collection to shape into a report-like review. In other words, I am taking these journalistic marbles as licence for this review. And the reason for this long-winded introduction is because I keep returning to the idea of "convention" or accepted forms of meaning-making as a central problematic that Tse opens and does not quite close.
Conventionally, poetic collections could centre themselves around some place, subject or author. But for Tse's collection, these three elements seem to be decentred. First, Tse proposes in his collection's epigraph that The International Left-Hand Calligraphy Association "is a real place", with an invitation to "Please come in and touch everything." The title of the collection comes from a shop in Katong Shopping Centre, an actual association encouraging left-handed calligraphy. Katong Shopping Centre opened in the 1970s and was allegedly Singapore's first air-conditioned mall. But the title of the collection is not the main subject of these poems, nor is it simply a metaphor. The place of the International Left-Hand Calligraphy Association feels like a node in a larger, emergent, decentred network of subjects.
Here, even widely understood place-based concepts of what it means to be local or foreign get thrown up in the air. In 'it's strange I feel like I've seen this one before':
At first glance, "crooked fruit benevolence" seems to make no sense. In actuality, it seems to be drawn from a greeting that I've seen made by many Chinese netizens (古德猫宁，歪果仁). While these words make no actual sense in Chinese, they read as a phonetic transliteration of "Good morning, foreigner" from English into Chinese characters. The first part of the greeting gu de mao ning literally sounds like good morning. The second part of the phrase is wai guo ren is a homophonic translation for the characters for foreigner, but switches out the original characters for three characters meaning "crooked fruit benevolence". Hence, Tse's lines would read "it hardly / gets more local / than / this foreigner". The poet goes beyond the binary of local/foreigner, gesturing towards overlapping identities and his own Chinese roots.
Associations with Chinese are key elements throughout the collection, with the very act of the titular association's calligraphy speaking to this theme. At first glance, a series of Chinese motifs jump out with poems like 'is Chinatown your burden? limitless like the universe?', a series of free translations from Chinese poet An Qi and "in building socialism w/ Chinese characteristics". Yet these do not portray any singular readings of Chinese culture but juxtapose various adaptations of Chinese-ness. 'two minute Buddha Jumps Over the Wall' plays on the well-known soup dish (佛跳墙) but does not represent the dish at all. Rather, the poem seems to jump in many different directions at once; one of them is an allusion to the 1996 film God of Cookery with Stephen Chow, featuring the famous "exploding pissing / beef balls!" where each of them is so juicy that liquid sprays out when eating it. Rather than essentialism and representation, Chinese culture seems to explode and spray out across time and space.
Second, if not for a central place or a singular culture, the collection could be said to revolve around a central subject. One such contender might be "the Painter" who shows up twice in the collection but feels omnipresent. The first mention of the Painter is in the poem 'is short, inadequate &, except for a word, totally redundant'. The poem's title is borrowed from Arthur Yap's 'your goodness'. Though instead of disclosing the redundancy of almost all the words in the poem at the beginning like Yap, Tse's poem does so at the end. In short, this poem is supposedly redundant except for one word. This claim itself is ironic given the brevity and concision that has defined much of the poetry written in the 20th and 21st centuries (with notable exceptions being epic or narrative poetry). But beyond that, what word captures the entire poem? The end of the poem goes:
So, does the reader know which word is non-redundant? Tse mentions that, for him, it is "enough". I agree that the word "enough" is a good contender, that "enough" could truly be a word that is enough. But is enough ever truly enough? And the title of the poem does imply its own inadequacy. Instead, I suggest that "Painter" might be the non-redundant word in this poem. The poem begins:
The Painter is the subject and retains significance throughout the poem. The rest of the poem unpacks other subjects of significance (i.e. satisfaction, pandas, Bonnaroo Music Festival, and light down a bare back), but nothing seems to refute the importance of the Painter.
The second mention of Painter is in the titular poem:
Life is breathed into orchids through visual art. The capitalised Painter-as-subject almost feels like a Voltaire-like clockmaker, a deity responsible for intelligent design. Further, layered onto the role of the Painter is the way past and future intermingle. The temporal aspects of the past, "seconds ago" and "recall", seamlessly blend into thinking about the present way of coaxing "tomorrow's orchids" to life. The continuous tense of "coaxing" further highlights this ongoing quality. But this Painter, if the central figure of the poem, seems to be a figure that one points to rather than the centre of the poems themselves, an important but not core of this decentred ecosystem of words and subjects.
Third, Tse also seems to take on the role of "painter" through his words, with many poems being acts of ekphrasis that string together a series of patchy images and moments. 'in the morning there is meaning, in the evening feeling' features the images "moths: / are cherries, not / bad but beginning / to be" at the beginning of the poem. Not only does the poem shift time through stating "twenty years / past" but through a sense of darkening with the onset of evening and eventual night. The emotion also parallels this shift. The title emphasises the "feeling" in the evening, where the poet writes, "you'll scare / the moths away / darling: you'll scare / the birds". Moreover, in 'the ghost words want to learn how to fly', images burst throughout the poem walrus, millipede, snake, hawk, big pearl or mist, sea monkey, ox and ghost. These subjects are punctuated with desire and the "want" to do something beyond itself to go beyond itself and "to fly".
Perhaps, the best characterisation of the poet's role here is to "twiddle / the seriousness / of the present". The micro-movement of twiddling captures a zeitgeist of anxiety that reverberates throughout the collection. "my very very clean / hands, my nails bitten / in orderly fashion" in 'this morning I woke up w/ a quick laugh like the sun' reflects a habit of nail-biting but in an orderly manner. It almost seems like the poet is describing qualities of the self without diving into a confessional register, so overly anxious about representation that the subject bites nails, but neatly. The importance of the poet, painter and forms of representation are thus highlighted here, but in a way that is deeply decentred.
The International Left-Hand Calligraphy Association subverts conventions of language, place, subject and author, presenting a decentred ecology of words. My addition of the metaphor of marbles as a way of reading The International Left-Hand Calligraphy Association is but one among many potential approaches for engagement. The collection invites us to think and witness alongside poet and painter to think with these subjects about our own subjectivities, roots and the places we inhabit. These virtues might prove to be the main challenge when reading it, as those unfamiliar or uncomfortable with formal experimentation might find these poems difficult to engage with. In other words, the quality of being lost in these negative spaces might be productive for some but frustrating for others.
Many years ago, when I had brought a poem to Tse to workshop, he left me a piece of advice that has stuck until today: "It's okay to be open and to experiment [through my poetic forms], but you shouldn't be ambiguous." Tse's second full-length collection departs from the formal poems from his first collection Deeds of Light, yet takes immense care to let the words breathe and find their own fragmented forms. These poems are neither simply free nor unfree verse, but they gesture beyond, towards more open linguistic, conceptual, aesthetic and sensorial associations.QLRS Vol. 22 No. 4 Oct 2023