Heartland of Myths and Alter Egos
Aaron Lee finds Ng Yi-Sheng's poetry accomplished and mischievous
By Aaron Lee
On the basis of Ng Yi-Sheng's impressive debut collection, Last Boy, it would be tempting to label him the next enfant terrible of Singapore poetry, taking over the mantle of Alfian Sa'at. Certainly the young poet's writing is accomplished enough, even if his thematic concerns tend to be less polemical.
Ng has assembled a miscellany of 34 poems in which he explores issues ranging from the personal and intimate, to the erudite and spiritual. He deftly addresses the themes of relationships, family, mythology, science and mathematics, culture and subcultures, and all with a certain sense of whimsy and playfulness that stems from his own inimitable personality.
Take for example the poem, 'kami/kaze', an inventive piece featuring alternating lines of time-warped correspondence between an ancient samurai and a modern-day astronaut. Mankind's ultimate condition remains the same, the poet says, not only across race and language but also across culture and time. What this condition might be is explicated in the next poem, 'The Refugee Angel', a piece reminiscent of the Wim Wenders movie, Wings of Desire, and evocative, perhaps, of man's lot as originally divine but presently fallen.
Ng recently graduated as a student of comparative literature from New York's Columbia University, and it is obvious that he is at ease mining and referencing the rich diversity of Greek, Chinese and even tribal myth and culture. In 'Caduceus' (referencing the winged staff with two snakes wrapped around it associated with Hermes), he introduces the God/ I discourse and the two closing lines exquisitely come to a recognition of sorts, if not a resolution:
Similar references are included in a discursive piece called 'Gignomai' – from the Greek verb "to be", and 'Leda Revisited', a retelling of the seduction of Leda by Zeus. The mythological Leda, daughter of the Aetolian king Thestius, was seduced by Zeus in the guise of a swan, resulting in the birth of Helen, later known as the beautiful "Helen of Troy".
'Hymne', an ambitious cento (a Roman classical literary form in which lines from different poems are stitched together in one poem), is generally a successful experiment. Drawing on poems both famous and obscure from all literary periods and traditions, Ng weaves the lines into a variegated tapestry:
Ng's relationship poems are vital, compelling and revelatory about the poet himself, and for this reason, they are the core of the book. 'Heartland' is about the time he spent in New York as a student – the years that, by his own account, were forcibly formative in his personal values and attitudes. Whatever is less poignant as a love poem, more clever, but just as impactful.
'Patriline' is a long poem about Ng's family history and just as telling about Ng himself. Even a short poem like 'Photo of Goh Choo San' is moving and finely wrought. Balanced against these are poems such as 'Equidistance' and 'Meitnerium Anniversary' – both good pieces with mathematical or scientific metaphor. Ng, it seems, is not just deft with words but also numbers. In 'Translations', Ng even explores the meaning and evocations of commonly-used Chinese pictograms, helping us to see them through new eyes.
With such a melange of poems in this collection, Ng nonetheless cleverly retains an overall coherence with pieces such as 'Ne Zha', a poem of Chinese mythical allusions that cleverly ends with a conflation with Greek patricidal metaphor:
Ne Zha, a trickster deity is reminiscent at once of Hermes and Loki and also an allegorical cousin and prefiguration of Anansi of West African lore, the key character of a later poem, 'Legend'. The tone of the poem is playful, in keeping with its central figure. We recognise it and all of them as alter egos of Ng, inviting us to prance with him on the brink of imagination and meaning. Certainly, there is no want of mischief, language and love to be found in this book.QLRS Vol. 7 No. 1 Jan 2008