Rubbing Out New Maps
Yong Shu Hoong charts new ground in his latest collection of poems
By Boey Kim Cheng
Frottage, according to the OED, is the art of rubbing, tracing the contours and textures of objects on paper. Its other meaning is less aesthetic or erotic rather than salacious: the act of rubbing against a clothed body for sexual gratification. Frottage is a governing trope in Yong Shu Hoong's eponymous collection; the poems are tracings of the moments of travel, a rubbing into existence of contrasting landscapes and cultures. The aesthetic process attempts to uncover hidden contours, underlying subtexts and connections between different words and worlds, but the carnal meaning is also present in the subject's desire to connect with other bodies, to arrive at a sense of self through the agency of an other.
The collection assembles several visits to Australia into a narrative reel documenting the moments of epiphany as well as frustration. They trace the unarticulated connections between the traveller and the native, the foreign and the familiar, home and abroad, Singapore and Australia. It is a kind of road documentary, recording the observations and encounters of the travelling eye. The telling influence is Agnès Varda's The Gleaners and I, a documentary in which Varda goes on the road to glean images of gleaners, people who collect scraps and discards. Yong's poem "The Sea" actually transcribes a reflexive moment in the film when Varda visually interrogates her gleaning hands:
Like Varda's film, Yong's poems glean the images and experiences that happen on his itinerary. They rescue from oblivion the brief moments of perception and connection. Like Varda too, he does not hesitate to insert himself into the frame, if only to underscore the irony, the knowledge that whatever knowledge accrues from the journey is only a contingent and subjective truth.
These poems are thus provisional mappings, aware of the fragility of their perceptions and the vulnerability of the traveller-observer, taking place against the background of recent atrocities. The opening "One Week of Goodness" maps a bus journey to Brisbane against the background of rock music and news of the imminent invasion of Iraq. The Bali bombings find their echo in "The Misfortunes of the Immortals" and "Ground Zero." Implicit in these poems is the question of the pertinence of art in the face of the ineffable, and the poet's right to exercise his lyric gift "in the presence of the unfree and the hurt," in Seamus Heaney's words. Art does not provide any consolation. The only salve is human connection, and the longing for this is a palpable theme in Yong's work. Forster's injunction "Only Connect" is an apt imperative here.
"Owl Harlequin" humorously records an encounter with a half-deaf old man who chances upon a reading by touring Singapore poets at a Brisbane library. It is an awkward and comic moment, but the poem respects the humanity of the old man and draws two strangers with nothing in common together in a fleeting connection. There are other moments of tenuous connection: in "Dancers" the traveller finds himself momentarily at home with a hostel room of strangers; "The Islands at the End of the World" recreates a touching moment of connection with an indigenous family. Evident in all these encounters is Yong's sensitive approach, his intuitive apprehension of the humanity of the other and an ability to discover a meeting ground in the most unlikely places.
But too often the traveller finds that what he perceives to be lasting connections turn out to be just transient liaisons. The friendships do not survive the journey. "Another Lesson" describes Yong's disappointment at the silence of somebody encountered on his journey. Despite the painful lessons, the romantic notion of travel and friendship is something that he clings to. Yong's need to connect in a way mirrors his country's desire to be part of an alliance, a puny island's need to align itself with a larger sympathetic other. The gaze gravitates naturally down under to another island, a much larger one that cartographically looks like a blown-up version of itself. This big island is equally stranded geographically and politically and, like Singapore, has looked to Big Brother across the Pacific for fraternal alliance.
While Yong takes pains to point out the common history between Singapore and Australia, and assiduously practices cross-cultural interaction on his travels, he does not seek to airbrush the glaring differences, the huge divide in politics and culture between the two countries. In "Conversations with an Outlaw," an ironic apostrophe from a law-abiding citizen to an iconic Australian outlaw, Yong addresses these differences:
The comparative mapping is spot on, in view of the recent hanging of the Australian drug trafficker Nguyen Tuong Van and the friction it caused between the two nations. Yong takes a bold look at home through the lens of its other, a continental island that is its antithesis but to which it is inexorably drawn. His journalistic training unravels the contradictions, the fissures and flaws that separate as well as connect the two countries.
In his comparative geography, Yong also digs back to the issue of Christmas Island, which passed from Singapore into Australia's hands in 1958:
Yong envies his naturalised countrymen on the island their "laid-back/Australian ways," the soporific paradise contrasting with the manic cityscape that is Singapore. This is a glimpse of the old Singapore, the pastoral past that existed before the industrial tide swept it away. In a curious way, the island also provides a possible conduit, a way of connecting the two island nations, Singapore and Australia.
The frottages by Yong bring to the surface further correspondences and connective tendrils between Singapore and Australia. An inescapable theme is the Singapore diaspora, the steady trickle southward to Australia. Yong leafs through his own family history, and recalls an uncle who emigrated. He visits his uncle's family in Adelaide and discovers that his youngest cousin "speaks no Hakka." In perhaps the best lines from the collection, Yong observes:
Yong puts his finger on the pulse of the emigrant community; they have sacrificed their roots and sense of origin. "Adelaide" and "In the Valley" are moving narratives of diaspora; but the poems could have gone further to unearth the quarrel with home, the push and shove factors that triggered the emigration, and explore how the migrant relocates and reinvents himself.
There are a few other poems where, instead of tentative tracings, a firmer definition is required. Lyrics like "Seashell Flowers", "The View from My Window" and "Unreasonable Animals" and the portentously titled "The Misfortunes of the Immortals" are half-hatched, structurally and thematically. They seem to skim the surface of the poet's impressions rather than plumb the experiences. Even the enthralling "Conversations with an Outlaw" could do with more amplification of imagery and thought. One feels that Yong is too cautious to cross the threshold and push the poem beyond its boundaries.
But these are minor flaws in a collection of compelling mappings. There are real people, real places, and some truly delightful and unforced conjugations of Singapore and Australia like "Pinnacle Tours". The collection illuminates the binaries of home and abroad, Singapore and Australia, self and other, in engaging juxtapositions and collages. The voice is always clear and credible, informed by a longing to connect disparate worlds. These are well observed and crafted poems, mature frottage work or gleanings that supply new ways of negotiating the spaces between the two nations, tracing new routes to bind the two islands into an imaginative cartography.QLRS Vol. 5 No. 2 Jan 2006