Yeow Kai Chai's sophomore collection reveals a wealth of creatures wriggling within
By Debbie Chia
Pretend I'm Not Here
Pretend I'm not here: the title of Yeow Kai Chai's second book of poems speaks of anonymity and absence. It is an ironic and demanding plea, for is the book not in one's hands and the author's name below the title? He speaks, yet demands to go unheard. The request can only be acceded to by a game of pretence. Thus is the reader invited to join in the masquerade and play in the author's world of multiple identities, absence and presence, and life and death.
Inhabited by colourful characters and accompanied by a discordant soundtrack, the book's modernist universe is revealed through shifting identities and points of narration. The narrators range from 'a Golden Tamarin' and 'a meerkat standing erect on a tree stump' to a 'fly on the house'. These animal identities are the writer's costumes. A recurrent image in the 'From A Dissident's Perspex Box' – from within which the dissident both perceives and is perceived – is that of the narrator 'prancing around in her pink bunny suit' and 'twirling around in Barbie's discarded pink tutu'. The tragicomic figure of a dancing bear is conflated with the image of a disempowered male in effeminate costume, both of which are performances held up for ridicule.
Further on, the narrator makes an absurd request:
On the surface, the costume is unwanted. Yet, there is an advantage to the disguise thrust upon him – that of anonymity:
Therein lies the struggle: a costume masks but also protects. Anonymity is an advantage in the all-perceiving world the narrators inhabit. Painfully aware of 'The Glass Panopticon', 'the security camera that records without rhyme' and the 'All-Seeing-I', one suspects that the book's title resonates with these narrators. The camera turns inwards in 'Hunky Nuts Lupus', where Yeow turns his gaze upon Singapore. He picks out the National Day Parade as the site of his protest, and opens his criticism with a wry, self-reflexive disclaimer:
In his poem, the annual celebration is seen as a parade of animals, a display of 'zoological conceit'. Its leader of is at once a 'Führer' and an oxymoronic, hypocritical 'African Nazi'. He is a howling 'Lupus' seeking affirmation. In another poem, 'the Orator delivers a nation address and scratches his balls'. In this display of the survival of the fittest, the narrator finds himself neatly categorised and labelled as a meerkat, his place in the food chain displayed for all to see. The visual motif continues with his use of verbs like 'spot', 'scanning' and 'zoom in' in the poem. His visage is taken by an 'auto-roaming peacock', and everything is seen and captured by 'patriotic digicams' and the submerged crocodile. The only animal outside this perfect picture is a lone masturbatory bear.
Existence as a theme is dealt with in 'The Cambrian Explosion'. In Yeow's world, two theories of origin are plausible: that the world emerged from a plan by a single, fickle inventor, or is the result an incoherent and whimsical explosion created through random and arbitrary occurrences. Evoking the 'Big Bang', the title also refers to the appearance of animal life in fossil records 500 million years ago. The topic of evolution ('how the world begins') is also coverd in 'The Sulphur Man', where the direction of the world is determined by the flick of an old woman's wrist. His description of the world which pivots on a woman's wrist, 'itself casually turned at an elegant axel' is also the sub-title of the book. The idea of a 'Cambrian explosion' agitates against the theory of a divine creation, one which the narrator speaks of in derisive terms, as it is where man is akin to 'Plasticine', moulded in an absent being's ('whose..?') image. Yeow further interrogates the idea of God in 'A Dare On Trial' – 'is God misconstrued?'
The image of a genome factory is further used to illustrate a striking scene of creation. Primate ancestors sort through an assembly line of body parts to retrofit new lifeforms and determine their castes. A nameless theologian will 'take grilled baby octopus, crab claws and artichoke hearts over sheep placenta and human thigh' for the day, 'but tomorrow who knows?' In this vision of creation, we are but composites of fragments that were picked and assembled at random.
Despite all this, Yeow walks a tightrope between the arbitrariness of creation and the sure reality of death. The narrator shares a memory of being wary of a 'drive-by sniper's casual bullet or a racist's dagger slur'. Our origins may be uncertain, but death is a steady presence – 'still as metronomes, ticking like mine'. However, the poem ends on an optimistic note. Unlike M.C Escher, caught in his imaginary conundrum of the real and the surreal, reality is the stark materiality of the white chickens in William Carlos Williams' 'The Red Wheelbarrow', and it is all we have now. To Yeow, human evolution has only just begun.
On a less serious but equally passionate note is the topic of music, which is fully addressed in 'Memento Mori VI'. The use of musical terms and references is prominent in Yeow's poetry from such phrases as 'inverted snare taps' and 'hi-hat slips' to more weighty descriptions: 'the stylus stuck in the groove' and 'in this ticking musical box are ballerinas not quite in sync', which convey a world where unease reigns.
Pretend I'm Not Here is a robust collection of poems that cannot help but betray the author's own identity. For in between his musings on Singapore politics, life, death, memories of travels and letters to friends, the reader is able to gain a clear image of who he is: a presence created by an amalgamation of things said or left unsaid; a presence which is defined by what it lacks.QLRS Vol. 6 No. 1 Oct 2006