Precious Stones, Sometimes Inscrutable
Rewards await diligent readers of substantial compilation
By Gilbert Koh
Reaching for Stones
This hefty collection, compiling the writer's works from 1963 to 2009, opens with a promising poem entitled 'Lallang', which is striking for its imagery:
An explanatory footnote states that lallang is "imperata cylindrical, a tropical grass that has sharp edged leaves that can draw blood if handled carelessly". I found it curious that Nair would have bothered to insert such a footnote (surely 'lallang' is not such an uncommon word in Asia), when elsewhere in the book many greater mysteries are regularly left unexplained.
Many of Nair's poems read like entries in a private journal, or messages to friends and acquaintances. The problem is that Nair provides little context for the general reader, who is often left feeling somewhat like a not-so-welcome stranger deliberately being kept in the dark. An example is the poem 'turning point (for andy)':
That was the entire poem. At the end of it, 'Andy' remains faceless and colourless. Without knowing anything more about Andy or his past troubles with Nair, it's difficult for the reader to care about the poem. 'Celine', a five-line piece, has the same flaw:
It's clear that as a writer, Nair connects deeply with the people in his life. Friends and family members populate and inspire his poetry, so much that he often includes their names in the titles of his poems. Apart from 'turning point (for andy)' and 'celine', other examples include 'sincerity (for mohd.); 'the land (for k.c.g.)'; 'for laura'; and 'the forsaken (for ho ping)'. Some of these poems are interesting – however, all of them could be improved if Nair had bothered to flesh out the background and compose with a little more consideration for the general reader. Otherwise, these poems smack a little too much of the writer's self-indulgence.
One poem I did enjoy was 'gamblers never win, but here's fifty dollars (for kong kong)'. In this warm, nostalgic poem, Nair writes about how his late father-in-law used to go on holidays with the family to Genting Highlands. While not a gambler, his father-in-law would nevertheless give Nair $50, just for the amusement of seeing how long it would take for the younger man to lose it all at the casino:
At its best, Nair's poetry is striking for its use of imagery. Perhaps this is to be expected, for Nair has a passion not just for poetry, but also for painting. In fact, in his poems, Nair often employs metaphors drawn from visual art. In 'abstract', he writes:
I also liked the images in 'no triangle':
However, Nair's most striking poems are a series of eight or nine consecutive poems inspired by the landscape of Pakistan (where he lived and worked for several years). Here, Nair repeatedly paints his pictures of the harsh Karachi deserts while simultaneously weaving in metaphors of love, sex and passion. The poems here are challenging and intriguing, and definitely worth rereading. From 'you cannot learn a desert's contours':
And from the same series, an excerpt from 'reaching for stones':
Overall, I would say that Nair's book is worth its price tag. It is by no means a captivating book from start to finish, but the unevenness is perhaps inevitable in a volume that comprises more than 100 poems written over several decades. However, throughout its many pages, there are enough gems in this collection to reward the diligent reader for his efforts.QLRS Vol. 10 No. 1 Jan 2011