Spirit of prayer anchors a quiet rumination on life
By Miriam Lo Wei Wei
closing my eyes to listen
This is a book that begins with disarming simplicity:
Who can resist an invitation to take tea? Yap draws us in with her opening sequence of four poems. We take the path, and walk into the meditative serenity of the Japanese tea ceremony: "the sound of running water is a call to contemplation" ('roji'). This is not haiku, but approaches it with its skilful deployment of natural imagery. The fifth poem has the effect of a door slamming in the silence, or perhaps that of an iPhone ringing in a monastery:
If one of the aims of poetry is to achieve a moment of recognition in its readers, Yap has me here. I laugh out loud. I have two hours of relative peace to write before my husband returns with the children. Already the phone has rung five times (why, oh why did I answer it?) and the washing machine is beeping insistently in the laundry. One of the great achievements of this book is its representation of dilemma — life dilemmas, in the sense of having to choose between competing options (what or who to give attention to), and writing dilemmas, in the sense that what produces writing (i.e. living) is the very thing that can take writing away (by leaving no time for it). To choose to write, and to write poetry, in particular, is to choose a difficult thing. As another female of the species, I can say with this poet:
Yap's answer to her dilemma is the poetry of prayer:
Yap's Christian faith is central both to the vision and to the cognition (in poetry critic Harold Bloom's sense) of her work. Another cleverness in her opening sequence becomes apparent here — she approaches Christianity by way of Zen Buddhism. Emily Dickinson comes to mind: "Tell all the Truth but tell it slant– /Success in Circuit lies". Yap's skilful circuitry is not only aesthetically effective, but also strategically necessary. Her problem, as a post-colonial poet who also identifies as Christian, is one of establishing the authenticity of her voice and, through that, the authenticity of her faith. This problem is not unlike the linguistic problem faced by many other post-imperial writers who choose to write in English (instead of in the language associated with their ethnicity).
One way of countering the accusation of collaboration (or betrayal — linguistic, cultural, religious) is to provide proof of indigenisation. To indigenise something is to make it one's own. To this end, some of the strategies Yap deploys are not unlike the linguistic strategies used by writers to indigenise English. Yap's use of Chinese characters, most noticeably the large character for 'listen' (ting) in traditional script on the front cover of the book, as well has her use of Japanese and Malay, not only alerts readers to some broad kind of Asian identity, but also functions as an entry point into explorations of specifically Singaporean, or at least Southeast Asian, culture. Her extended poem sequence 'Lesong' exemplifies this. The lesong or tumbok, as it is also known, is Malay for mortar and pestle. The lesong, in Yap's hands, accomplishes all kinds of figurative work: teaching patience, expressing anger, and achieving "the rhythm of peace" ('Lesong', p.28). Yap adds three Chinese characters to the mix: 小 (xiao) [small], 安 (an) [peace], and 水 (shui) [water], and extends her exploration of quietude through their pictorial meaning:
The Christian understanding of peace is extended, rather than reduced, by Yap's effective indigenising strategies (both linguistic and cultural).
There is another, arguably more powerful, strategy for overcoming the post-colonial dichotomy of oppression, or any other dichotomy that creates enmity between people. It is the mutual recognition of a shared humanity. This is an assumption that undergirds Yap's work, and her expression of it is deeply Christian. At this point, it is worth pausing to consider Bloom's distinction between the 'predictable' and the 'inevitable' in poetry. I am not an unqualified supporter of Bloom (for rather obvious post-colonial reasons), but I do appreciate the astuteness of his aesthetic judgement. Bloom identifies inevitability or "unavoidable phrasing" as "a crucial attribute of great poetry" ('The Art of Reading Poetry' in The Best Poems of the English Language, p. 21). I understand this to mean that when I read a good poem, the words and form feel right (or 'inevitable'), to the extent that no other words or form could have been used to express what is expressed. This is opposed to predictability, which I understand to mean a kind of descent into banality, a failure of the poem to surprise and keep surprising. There is a foil to Yap's poetry — an invisible something she pits herself against (I have to be careful of dichotomies here!). This invisible something is the tradition of sentimental Christian verse that is epitomised by 20th-century American poet Helen Steiner Rice. In all fairness, Rice at her best approaches Christina Rossetti's lyric simplicity, but at her worst, she descends repeatedly into terrible cliché. The great irony of this is Rice's enormous popularity (she still features on Christmas cards). As a Christian, when I read Rice (and any number of the poems produced by her many imitators) I find myself agreeing with the sentiment, but wishing desperately that she could find some more interesting way to say what she says. I long for an antidote to predictability (and to middle-class WASP-ish 'niceness'). Here it is:
This is where Yap takes us. We have walked through the Zen beauty of the tea ceremony, through the dilemmas of writing and motherhood, through the meditative contemplation of silence and birdsong, art and prayer, through the rhythm of the lesong, to this, the apotheosis of her book. There is nothing nice about this poem, but, in my judgement, it does have the inevitability of great poetry. It also achieves a very Christian expression of that mutual recognition of shared humanity by its extended meditation on what it means to be a sinner. Yap uses the 'I' of the poem to bridge the graphic dichotomies between victims and perpatrators of violence, identifying herself (I will not fudge by saying 'the narrator of the poem') as both sinner and sinned against.
Not all of Yap's poems have this inevitable quality of greatness. There are a couple of poems that fall rather lamentably into the realm of the predictable rather than the inevitable. 'After 'Schindler's List'' fails in places and 'emerald' should not have been included in the book. I will leave Yap's use of synaesthesia and her explorations of the more concrete aspects of form to other commentators (though I will say she bears comparison to Alvin Pang, especially in his second book, City of Rain). I am not qualified to comment extensively on her place in the Singaporean pantheon, though Cyril Wong does identify her with some other Singaporean poets as writers that "are producing a far more urgent and vital poetry that draws equally and indispensably from both the poet's surroundings as well as from an individual subjectivity" (Nationalism and Interiority: Reflections on Singaporean Poetry from the 1980s to 1990s).
Yap does cast me, in her acknowledgements, as some kind of disciple-turned-master. The reality is that I am only a fellow acolyte and closing my eyes to listen reminds me of this. This book is an invitation to listen, and I hope you will gain as much pleasure and instruction as I have from reading it.QLRS Vol. 11 No. 1 Jan 2012