Joining the Blurred Dots
Arlene Ang weaves her way through intricate spaces but occasionally trips over herself in her bid to impress
By Huang Qin Qin
The Desecration of Doves
The Desecration of Doves is Arlene Ang's first full-length collection of poetry - not that her credentials impress initially, for if the reader assumes the leading and title-poems to be scrupulous indications of the volume's calibre, she will almost certainly emerge sorely disturbed: trite turns of phrases and an excessive fondness for adjectives mar the former, while the latter comes across as little better.
The discerning reader who, however, refuses to dismiss this book by such a brief inspection will soon find herself revelling in Ang's lyricism, her incredible eye for detail, and not least her near-unerring capacity to establish connections between what may at first appear the most unlikely of subjects.
'Polar Bear, Shrimp Fractal, Temple Incense and the Mutant Nurse' – despite its rather dubious title – shows Ang at her best. The work is sustained and resonant, her selection and careful placement of words deliciously sensual; Ang's most inimitable quality, however, is her ability not simply to establish relationships between, say, the four characters in the poem's heading, but also to weave them into a plausible, intimate narrative. Take the opening lines:
Ang's work runs in a similar vein throughout the volume, with the poems more often than not revealing a cryptic story as each line unravels. Our desire to unlock these codes is never completely satisfied, yet this very lack of resolution adds to their mystique without overly frustrating the reader. In this strand, we can see the title of the above poem itself as a teaser; any adept reader will ask on first sight, 'What do a bear, shrimp, incense and nurse (described in the immediate lines following the quote) have in common?' That Ang can pre-empt and provoke the reader's curiosity is a testament to her considerable talent and sensitivity.
In her hands, even everyday objects and occasions begin to take on a touch of surrealism. Yet for the select few poems such as 'The Winter of Persephone' in which their contents deviate from reality to root themselves firmly in the mythological sphere, Ang demonstrates an astounding knack to infuse a world that we had previously marked out as insubstantial with shape and form. Certainly these lines:
are no less real than the opening stanzas from 'Women in Love', in which the subject's mother falls in love with an au pair:
Indeed, Ang inexorably chooses to submerge the imaginary in the fictional while drawing out the fictional in reality, which blurs and practically gives way under the unanticipated weight. That she succeeds hinges almost entirely on her aptitude in picking out the most minuscule and inconceivable of details, her genius for word-painting and her mastery of language within which distant worlds are realised, while our own breaks apart.
Ironically enough, it is Ang's facility with language that proves to be her Achilles' heel. Take the poem 'Caged in Chiaroscuro' for instance, which closes with a stanza in which:
Beautiful, yes, but place seventeen such lines together and it becomes a mouthful, and more problematically, little more than a case of language for its own sake. All poetry is by nature self-conscious and I am not claiming that as a flaw in Ang's work, but the poem chooses abstraction over representation, with what is said being relegated to a far lower priority than how it is said. The poem eventually loses itself in Ang's effusion of words that are not simply self-conscious but self-reflexive – and dare I say, almost self-admiring.
Similarly perturbing is Ang's need to resort to trite, clichéd endings and the odd tired phrase: 'The House of Correction' proves satisfactory until it closes with "if confronted, I will admit it was all a dreadful mistake", while 'Siamese Women' is littered with unremarkable pairings like "horrified gazes" and "daily curiosity".
Surely Ang, whose poetry, at its best, sings and almost transcends its medium, is capable of more than such stale and timeworn efforts that do much to taint many of the poems in her debut collection.QLRS Vol. 5 No. 1 Oct 2005