Limping with Fever and Discomfort
From Where I'm Standing is fittingly inert
By Nicholas Liu
From Where I'm Standing
The British poet Maura Dooley praised Terence Heng's first collection Live a Manic Existence with a Cup of Sanity in Your Hand as "a tour de force... cutting but never bitter, Heng is a master... of the short urban lyric." Closer to home, Heng is known to admirers for his daring use of local as well as foreign vernaculars to explore such difficult themes as identity, alienation and love. Coming after a break of seven years, Heng's second collection of poetry From Where I'm Standing was one of the most anticipated local releases of 2004.
I lie, of course. I've never heard of Terence Heng and odds are that unless you're a scenester, neither have you. As far as I'm concerned, this is no great injustice, for From Where I'm Standing is a terrible book.
The twenty poems in this collection, as its title suggests and its blurb ("It is sometimes said that by adopting the role of a quiet bystander, we can uncover the little secrets of everyday life") makes painfully explicit, are mostly, though not entirely, written from the point of view of an observer. This dovetails nicely with the book's other properties of being lazily written and inert. Precision and direction are virtues alien to Heng; his idea of poetry is chunks of supposedly poetic-sounding words ("monochromatic", "fluorescent", "refractive") mashed together and left to fall into whatever configuration they will. Take the first poem in this anorexic (not slim) volume, given pride of place as a sort of epigraph:
Why tell us that the narrator is "in the car / on the way to church" when the information adds nothing to our understanding of the poem and isn't inherently interesting? I suspect this bit of pointless scene-setting was included simply because it was the literal truth. The problem is that the literal truth can be very boring.
Heng's auctorial laziness extends also to the images used in the poem. "[A]n arc / of blistered sky" is weak, as the trail left behind by a jet really bears little resemblance to blisters, which are, in any case, not caused by tearing. Similarly, in the next stanza, it is difficult to see in what sense a "streak of clouds" can be said to be "the blue sky's tears" – a trite, cringe-worthy phrase in itself – unless of course Heng means to refer instead to the streaks left by tears, in which case he should have said so. Even on the most basic level, these metaphors fail to function. (For that matter, so does the grammar. The streak are?)
Perhaps recognising that imagery is not his forte, Heng ends the poem with a barrage of grand abstractions which are, sadly, also not his forte. The streak is "left by a passion / of little boys' dreams / and young men's desires." The awfulness of this too-cute formulation should be apparent. Whether it makes any sense at all is debatable – perhaps, if you grant that Heng uses "a passion / of little boys' dreams" as a new coinage in the same vein as "a gaggle of geese" or "a murder of crows".
It may seem strange to devote so much thought to so slight a poem, but it is worthwhile given how perfectly the poem encapsulates the key failings that make From Where I'm Standing such an embarrassment. The same inability to distinguish between details that add to the poem and those that only take up space is seen in lines like "The air conditioning smells different, / the trolleys move when you hold / down the handle instead of letting go" ("Home") – one of the most banal attempts at evoking foreignness I have ever read – and the bathetic last line "Mother made me learn with cheap chinese play-doh" ("Bachelor at Borders on a Sunday").
The lazy, ill-fitting imagery turns up in literally every poem, whether as "stingray / melting on your tongue" ("Home"), as a girlfriend "[a]sleep in her feather soft bed. / The sheets caressing her feather soft skin" ("Army Camp, Sentry Duty") – Heng failing to appreciate that while a bed is soft in the same way that feathers are soft, skin is a different matter altogether – or as the idea of a lover "kept silently / in that special pewter locket in your / mind's eye" ("Army Camp, Empty Queue at the Phone"). That last example in particular is classic Heng: wanting to introduce both the idea of keeping and the idea of silence, he simply turns one of the words into an adverb, oblivious to how inappropriate it is to attach an aural value to a metaphorical action. In the same way, not content with the tweeness of "special pewter locket" by itself, he thoughtlessly tacks on the qualifier "in your / mind's eye", absurdity be damned. "I the Subject" contains another, still more egregious offence of this nature in the phrase "nameless stranger-crowd", a product of the "if I hyphenate two clichés, the result will be original" school of poetry.
As for the poorly used abstractions, lines like "you are desolate, lonely" ("Army Camp, Empty Queue at the Phone"), "I am calm and enthralled" ("Girl in Paris") and "Where fancy turns the heart is absent. / Only fancy lives for her" ("Attraction") ensure that they too do not lack representation.
Two poems (other than "Blistered Skies") demand special attention. These are "Little India" and "The Ballad of Ricky Tan". "Little India" is unusual in that it almost works. Here's the first stanza of "Little India":
This is not great writing, but it's a start. There is a sense of urgency in the opening found nowhere else in the collection, and the subject matter is, if not new, at least not worn enough to be an instant soporific. The mark of poetic laziness is on this stanza – note the unusually mobile noses in the third line – but is less obvious than in other poems, and it doesn't entirely undercut the impact of the effectively direct "You say it's hard to see me / at night unless I smile." The second and last stanza, however, does:
Why go from the stronger "slaughtered" to the weaker yet more melodramatic "die for them"? Why insert an apparent turning point only to follow it with more of the same? Why sum up a nuanced issue with so pat and contrived an ending? The subject matter of the poem should leave the reader with questions, yes, but not these questions. Even when he starts strongly, Heng cannot maintain a poem for long before it collapses.
"The Ballad of Ricky Tan" is even more ham-handed in its treatment and, unfortunately, not as short. At four pages, it is the longest poem in the collection. It is also the worst. Divided (rather unnecessarily) into five parts, each given a Roman numeral, it features shifting but consistently annoying end rhymes. Here is the beginning:
In part II, it transpires that what Ricky Tan shall be is a clingy, needy wreck whose only distinguishing feature is his love for an unnamed maiden. He sings "an ode to all her beauty great" that lasts for four and a half stanzas, and when he's done, his beloved's eyes reply (it seems this is normal in the world Heng inhabits) by "calling calling"
In part III, the maiden essentially tells Future Ricky that she needs some space and can't commit. Now, the title of the poem does suggest that this is an exercise in applying an epic form to mundane events, but Omeros this isn't. At any rate, Ricky won't be swayed:
Perhaps those are his office hours.
In part IV, our Ricky is jilted and "left in the raging land, / with tears and sobs and sighs", and in part V, he wonders how the maiden would react if they were to meet in the future:
I do not think 'I loved her and / so did she' means quite what Heng thinks it does. The answer to those questions, by the way, is a no:
That is the last stanza of the poem. I suppose it would be out of character for Heng to bear in mind the context of the beginning of the poem in writing its end.
One would expect this level of competence from an adolescent beginning to write, but coming from an adult whose first collection was published eight years ago, it is puzzling, to say the least. Terence Heng is not without experience and some amount of talent; I can only hope that at some point in the future, he will be able to put them to better use, and that these lines from the final poem in From Where I'm Standing, "Nonchalance", will remain merely descriptive of the poems in this volume rather than prove prophetic of Heng's poetic career as a whole:
QLRS Vol. 4 No. 3 Apr 2005