Lost in Transition
Ng Yi-Sheng traces the progress of Toh Hsien Min's poetic oeuvre
By Ng Yi-Sheng
Means to an End
When I was 14, I wanted to be Toh Hsien Min. I was at a creative writing camp, and he, an alumnus of the camp, had just launched his very own book, Iambus (1994). Sure, I couldn't understand half the words in the poems, but I was impressed - the thought of someone barely out of school actually having a book published just boggled my little brain.
Maybe it's nostalgia, but when I flip open the pages of that book even today I still find those juvenile poems surprisingly likeable. Pieces like 'Mister Seetho's Widow', 'Grandfather Thng' and even the hopelessly pretentious 'America' reveal the hallmarks of a talented young writer struggling to condense his experiences into the grandiose metric language of a borrowed tradition.
However, the honeymoon was over by the time of Toh's second collection, The Enclosure of Love (2001). Sure, he'd developed a more confident style that married his byzantine eloquence with contemporary Singaporean subject matter, but the end result was alienating rather than charming. It was just plain embarrassing to read him waxing dramatic about his "formulaic swither" and "vertigo" in 'On a good friend's admission that he is gay'. And while I was occasionally intrigued by an individual poem's gloriously overwrought language or structure, by the time I was halfway down the page I felt exhausted by the poet's voice, irritated and unconvinced.
Toh's poetry didn't feel like exploration anymore; it felt like a dead end. How to develop? Where the hell was this guy going next?
Now, after reading Means to an End, I can tentatively say, maybe, just maybe, somewhere good. You see, there were several poems I unreservedly liked in this collection fresh, charming, intelligent works like 'Peeling a Clementine', 'Snake Wine', or the winningly eccentric 'Oil', which begins:
Toh even puts out for a romantic conclusion, which verges on the maudlin, but just about manages to work:
There's also the delightfully playful 'Aubergines', which takes us on a tour of the interlinked etymologies of the words 'aubergine' and 'brinjal' in the context of a romantic relationship. It's erudite without being pretentious, filled as it is with an evident joy in language as it metamorphoses across cultures:
That being said, Toh isn't quite back to being my hero yet. While he's toned down the lofty sententiousness that made Enclosure so unengaging, traces still persist. For instance, the book's first poem, 'The Bridges', takes the memory of a lover and intellectualises all the emotion out of it I mean, another ex-girlfriend is called "your erstwhile adversary". How am I supposed to feel anything after that?
In fact, Toh seems to shoot himself in the foot sometimes with his desire to show off his cleverness. Look at 'Shirt Maintenance in the Tropics', which obliterates its conclusion with sartorial puns "I wear my heart on my sleeve, and that's why / I might lose my shirt and it scares the pants off me."
Or look at 'Post Mortem', a tender, delightful piece where the poet imagines talking to God after his death. He describes how he'd listen to the Almighty's list of his sins and errors:
That was a perfect ending, wasn't it?
But wait. There are five more lines:
I think you could smell the narcissism in the next galaxy.
I've also got a complaint from the opposite end of the ideological spectrum. Toh's retreat from the epic, early Thumboo-esque style of composition has had the effect of making his work more generic.
To put it bluntly, Toh Hsien Min's Means to an End falls squarely into the 'reluctant yuppie' school of poetry that's ruled our shelves for a while meditative segues about disillusionment with office life, little epiphanies gleaned during holidays abroad, nostalgic geographies of a disappearing Singapore.
Now, I'm not saying that poems along such themes are bad I quite like 'HR in the Time of Recession', for what it's worth. But I've already seen the face of a disaffected Generation X in the works of Yong Shu Hoong and Paul Tan. And it all makes me a little weary as Cyril Wong once said, "I don't want to hear about you driving into the rain and having a moment." (Hell, there're even three poems about European wine appreciation in here. Count 'em!)
As you're reading this review, please do take into consideration where I'm coming from: I feel I'm one of a generation of poets that's been specifically reacting to the Class of '95 by creating works invested in passion, sensation and politics poems and plays that speak to the heart and the flesh as much as to the pre-frontal cortex. So naturally, I can relate better to that more earnest, less dressy voice that's emerging in some of the poems in this book. Toh appeals to me most when he strips off his philosopher's subfusc and plays naked.
Ultimately, Means to an End still frustrates me. Its opening poems leave me puzzled, annoyed and indifferent; it's only around the centre that I encounter the real gems of the collection. Yet from its title, I can guess that it's not intended as a major work: it's the exhibition of a poetic voice still under construction, still labouring to discover itself.
I no longer wish I were Toh Hsien Min. But in a sense, most of us published poets are. We can't rely on the exuberance of our maiden volumes: we're always shifting our voices, changing a little with each new book. Trying to answer those classic, persistent questions.
How to develop.
Where the hell we're going next.QLRS Vol. 7 No. 4 Oct 2008