All Things Pass with Time, All Things Freeze with Time
Christine Chia marks her debut with a poignant, morally courageous collection
By Sam Ng
The Law of Second Marriages
Only eighty-two pages slim, The Law of Second Marriages is a compact collection of prose poems visited by such commonplace themes as the mother-daughter relationship, school life, friends, power and memory. And for a first book of poems, the accolades it has received so far from established writers, such as Cyril Wong, Alfian Sa'at, Koh Jee Leong and Suchen Christine Lim, is astounding. So, does Chia's collection live up to expectations? Let's take a closer look.
The story revolves around C (but it might be B, who also appears in the story; the fact of this deliberate ambiguity with regard to naming the main character is interesting in itself. I shall use the term 'persona' here generally to refer to the main character/voice in the poems), who has two mothers: the first is her real mother, a domineering and manipulative character, with whom she has an abusive relationship; the second is Mama, her nanny and second mother, a selfless woman who loves her and whom she loves desperately in return. The collection is loosely divided into three parts. The first parachutes the reader, unceremoniously but precisely, into the home of C and her dysfunctional family, where, instead of encountering what a home should be a laurel of love and safety one finds oneself transported swiftly and vertiginously, through alienating and bewildering landscapes skin on rock into nightmarish pits of separation and death, past twisted, thorny thickets of family intrigue, and then, finally, spat out onto a strange, invisible battlefield, with weapons and wounds visible only to perpetrator, victim and reader. There are two different qualities to the words and lines here. First, there is a rapidity of pace and rhythm, and with it a feeling of breathlessness and powerlessness, quite akin to the feeling one gets when one is just about to awake from a terrible dream. Second, the lines are geometrical and cuttingly taut, giving a sense of the poems being etched with conviction and deliberation, as when one speaks truth to power.
The second part takes us away from this strictly confrontational stance one in which the brutal power of adults is sharply juxtaposed with the voicelessness of children, and where the writer's condemnation of abuse is heard loudest and the depiction of pain clearest into a little inlet, where Chia's words, once exuberant and prosaic, once meditative and transcendental, bring us both soothing tranquillity and strange disquiet, sea-salt waves splashing lushly on thorn-scratched legs.
The third part moves more restlessly and adventurously, but purposefully and enchantingly (C's voice more clearly heard here, less disguised), like a kind of contrapuntal music, weaving disparate elements family, school, love, dream, philosophy together which culminate in a strangely dissonant resolution. One comes away from this experience oscillating between torment, relief and sheer horror (the shortness of the book makes sure the experience is undiluted and one's sentiments conflated), but ultimately glad to have been through it. There is a sense that the words, incidents, stories, and dreams that Chia have subjected us to bears the moral ballast and truthfulness of personal witness; and because the writer has invested this emotional weight in the work, the reader feels that she, too, must rise up to the task of reading it rigorously, as intensively as the writing has been solidly forged, as a kind of moral response/ibility, to do it justice. Now this is a book that really demands your full, unstinting attention.
Foremost, The Law of Second Marriages deals categorically with the notion of child abuse by one's own family (not by a stepfather or mother, in which case readers would not be less compelled to condemn the callousness and repugnance of the abuse), and how physical and mental pain in the aftermath of such experiences stitch themselves around one and one's family members. I shall start with the first poem that deals directly with physical abuse. It occurs slightly before the mid-way point of the collection.
As with many of Chia's abuse poems, there is little attempt to embellish; descriptive and action terms quite often simple, sometimes generic, and almost never ornamental. There are not many difficult words in the collection where one has to reach for a dictionary. This poem could read like an understatement why the use of a general word like 'hit'? if one is remiss in observing the careful layering of images, wherein Chia sets up a contrast between the mother's unreasonable, whimsical behaviour and the children's cluelessness. The first two lines establish the action/premise the mother's attempt to discipline her children, or so one thinks which is then eroded gradually by the anaphoric 'while'. Chia's meticulous structuring of the poem here, as in many of her abuse poems, is commendable. The comparatively long vowels 'dark', 'warm', 'cool', 'damp', 'fogged' produce a soporific effect, signalling to us the children's unawakened (both physically and mentally) nature, compared to the blunt, short sounds produced by 'hit' and 'woke', imitations of the mother's callous treatment of her children. From this angle, one sees that the word 'hit' is not therefore an understatement or a hazy, generic term that describes abuse, but a pointed, sharp object that spears the dreamy bubble the child is ensconced in. Second, Chia's poems often create what I would call a productive absence. By that I mean that the poem produces as many interesting questions as it does answers. For example, why the use of the conditional 'if' and not 'whenever', which might rouse a greater sense of moral repugnance towards the mother? Why is there a deliberate absence of the child's emotional response to their mother hitting them? Here, readers are required to be more sensitive to how her words are used and arranged, and to pay attention to the spaces and pregnant silences that hang between the words. A less careful reader, upon encountering this type of writing, might have two drastically different reactions, both of which will not be productive. Either she becomes wildly speculative, which draws her away from the essence of the text, or she takes the words and their meanings on a purely denotative level, in which case the meat of the poem is left substantially unchewed. Another poem:
In the first line, Chia cuts out a clear image of an extremely manipulative mother, one whose most maternal acts are based on whim and feeling, rather than duty and love. Within a few more lines, deftly, through the repetitive pronoun 'she', the reader is brought to conclusively reject the maternal figure 'she'; the violence in the last line underlines the closeness with which abuse can resemble concern. These sudden turns of situation or shift in ideas, often materialising in the closing line, are quite characteristic of Chia's poems, especially in the beginning of the collection, and the results are mostly quite interesting. Other poems bearing this technique are: 'what father kept in the safe', 'a real mercedes', 'things her aunt never knew II', 'seven', 'counting buses', 'a dream', 'wash', and 'couple'. A poem's full impact is often consolidated in Chia's last lines, acting somewhat like punchlines. In the beginning of the collection, the lines are refreshing, somewhat unexpected, and behave in accordance to the overall arc of the poems. But one may find that the repetition of this technique, especially in consideration of how the prose poems are used as part of a bigger, unitary story, tends to lose its refreshing quality, and thus its poetic force and originality. For example, when one reaches 'easier in the dark', there is a sense that Chia has lost momentum, with the last line sounding almost hackneyed, and the daughter's rejection of her mother quite expected. Likewise, in 'restless', the line "steal on you like love" does not quite have the same reinforcing power one has come to expect in the earlier poems.
Another of Chia's techniques that deserves highlighting is the meticulously cumulative effect the lines have, which often employ concrete images or actions. Chia is a precise architect and engineer, her lines built like scaffolding: each one a steel bar, erected robustly one on top of the other. Perhaps another way to put it, more in line with Chia's theme of abuse, is that the lines spurt out acid-like and freeze mid-air, sharp icicles which mark our tongues with the persona's wounds. Excerpts from two other poems:
When used in the depiction of physical (and psychological) violence and possibly sexual assault, the clipped, economical lines and the swift shift in action give a strange sense of breathlessness, as if we, too, were held at knife-point like the persona. One wonders if such things did happen to the writer and, indeed, if they did, whether the rapid rhythm of the lines and the concreteness of the images, represent a way of dealing with the brutal harshness of reality. Here, the reader, like Chia's description of herself in the introduction, might fail to tell the difference between fact and fiction.
There is a great sense of control and restraint in the abuse and family poems: sparing detail, non-explicit interior perspective, clipped tone, swift action. The result could be ambivalent. I am greatly impressed and moved by such emotional restraint, and it serves as a wonderful contrast to the appeal to hope and belief at the end of the work. And as far as the child's muted interior voice is concerned, its purpose is clear and effective: the writer is like a deft painter here, delineating carefully the shadows of the child's own powerlessness and creating a chiaroscuro effect when placed against the glaring, manipulative, psychopathic tendencies of the mother. But one wishes, if only to understand the child's perspective a little bit more, that the face of the child had been less darkened, or less blurred into the surroundings. There is definitely a consciousness emerging from the lines of the abuse poems, but which seems to be often filtered by an adult awareness, as evidenced from the droll humour that sometimes impinges upon the lines. To be sure, there are parts where we do get some hint of the persona's emotional struggles as a young child, as when she expresses the wish to be kicked out of school in 'the other direction' and her staying out late and the lack of desire to go home in 'counting buses'. But these voices sound once removed from the persona's own deep thoughts and feelings about the members of her family: her mother, her brother and her father. Will a few more abuse poems in the first person blunt the emotional edge of the other poems? To this I have no answer, except to say that it must surely depend on the writer's skill, which Chia has plenty of.
The family and abuse poems are clearly juxtaposed with the prose works centering on the persona's school life and her activities beyond the suffocating confines of her home. This distinction between family and school creates an almost schizophrenic effect. If the child is presented as restrained, voiceless and powerless in the abuse poems, this same child in her school environment is a completely different person. She is affectionate, empathetic, hilarious, fully enjoying the camaraderie of her compatriots in school and outside home. She is as present in school as she is absent at home. The spirit of the prose here is at once exuberant, tender and loving:
Many dualities are used in the collection, and I shall point out one here: the ironic use of prose for the persona's happy, joyful episodes. A binary between prose/school/happiness and verse/home/trauma is created. In the first excerpt, the casual, free-flowing style of the prose reveals many facets of the child that we do not see in the abuse poems. It also ironically inverts the image of the school as a place of punishment and fear versus the home as a comforting, safe haven. In the second excerpt there is a sense that the prose here representing supposedly prosaic, everyday experiences is equally powerful, or even transcends the poetic form (perhaps?) in capturing an exultant mood, a joie de vivre. Another wonderfully crafted technique that I would like to mention is the use of imagery counterpoint, which I think contributes to a great extent to the overall complexity of the work. Note the image of the photo used in different ways in poems like 'what father kept in the safe', 'let me take a photo' and 'couple'. Consider also the juxtaposition between the image of Mama carrying her, and never letting her down, in 'mama', and 'mother's day dinner', where her interior voice emerges (but not heard aloud) to say "Don't jump. I'll push you down". There are many more examples to be explored in the collection.
Chia's use of words, placement of lines, structuring of poems, and structuring of her collection are confident, technically secure and poetically complex, and this is especially astonishing to see in a newcomer. There are very few things to disagree with, and to do so would be to nitpick. But two things I will touch on very briefly, and one is the use of melodrama. While the exaggerated behaviour of the mother is in line with her overall presentation, such as when the mother "spilled from the taxi" in 'paper house', the image in comic resonance to the "licking up" of the father's paper house, the same cannot be said for the exaggerated insistence of the persona in suggesting her mother's sense of entitlement in 'new year dress'. While the sentiment is not forced, there is over-emphasis here, as seen in the last few lines, "because she birthed you, /clothed you, / owned you, / like the dress she gave you".
I feel Chia is weakest when she draws away from her deepest concerns, her core material. The foray into gender issues, like in the ladyboy poems, lacks the kind of the conviction that one sees in her abuse and school poems. 'any less a woman', for example, makes an argument that seems interesting at first glance in pointing out the kind of 'manly' courage that a male transsexual needs to change into a woman, but is quite stale when inspected more closely.
The Law of Second Marriages is, for me at least, an attempt to formulate a belief of self and an outlook on life, in stoic defiance of chaos, meaninglessness and personal misfortunes. To be sure, the text does not end in joyous triumph and hope for the persona. There are also many ambiguities at the end of the text that the reader needs to contend with. I shall not give away the ending here, except to say that Chia's formulation is morally complex, and that it would be sheer folly to view the mother as a total villain. In a way, this is expected. For The Law of Second Marriages to present a simplistic position of forgiveness and total healing is unrealistic, unreasonable, and ultimately not artful. The only convincing route to take is moral complexity indeed, the route set up painstakingly by Chia. The persona's moral position, like all moral positions, is based on an intricate network of relationships between her cultural and ideological influences, her religious belief, her present emotional state and so forth, imbricated with the traumatic events in her life. There is a sense that if she does not forget (or even forgive) her mother for the abuse, she does try, as she grows up, to understand the parent's actions and impulses. For example, in a poem like 'in a good daughter', the persona deliberately expands the canvas of her childhood to reach into her mother's childhood, aspirations, and importantly, her relationship with her father, the persona's grandfather. This is an act of empathy. Here, we become less inclined to see the mother as the villain; instead, perhaps, what we do feel is that one generation's filial piety has come at the expense of love for the next. (There are a few other poems that could be read in conjunction with this, for example, 'unguarded', 'a good friend', and 'tip'.) The moral position taken is complex and often unfixed, and indeed, when we see how the text is organised in the latter half the restless shifting of topics from Mama to mother, to brother, to love, and then back to mother we come to understand a little better the complex interweavings involved here.
Does time erase the deep emotional scars inflicted on us? If one, as a child, suffers relentless abuse, both physical and psychological, from one's own family, how does one recover, if ever, from that? What is the nature of pain and trauma, and what coping mechanisms are available? What is the relationship between character and environment? The first two verses of Noah Gundersen's beautifully poignant song, 'Winter' (incidentally introduced to me by this book's author), which open this review, strike me as important in elucidating the text's portrayal of memory and trauma. Memory does not fade away so easily with time despite one's best efforts, and by writing this book, Chia, as it were, freezes the memories of her childhood. In 'New Year Apologies', placed towards the end of the text, the persona finds herself awakened easily to the frightening memories of her childhood, which are supposed to be "buried five fathoms deep".
Even as memory is hard to erase, what one chooses to 'freeze', and what does 'pass', is a reflection of one's philosophy of life and, perhaps, still a matter of conscious choice, and there is a sense that the persona in Chia's book recognises this more keenly towards the end. If one finds it painful to read of the onslaught of physical and mental attacks in the first part of the book, the latter half, where the speaker attentively lavishes love on her Mama her second mother certainly acts as a kind of counterweight, a soothing balm, to the emotional burden.
I have consciously tried to discuss the first half of the text in more detail, so that readers do not feel unnecessarily hemmed in by my constructs. However, there is really much more to be dug out and savoured in the collection, especially the latter parts that I have not discussed. It is no surprise that quite a few reputable Singaporean poets of our generation, born in the 1970s and 1980s, have reached out to Chia to thank her for this remarkable short collection. If Chia digs deeper into her personal life to add to her arsenal for her future works, we may yet have another important poet of our generation who is morally courageous enough to probe our social and cultural taboos. One awaits with bated breath.QLRS Vol. 11 No. 4 Oct 2012