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Vol. 3 No. 3 Apr 2004

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Light As Ash
Contouring is a con-text of clichés

By Cyril Wong

Heng Siok Tian
Landmark Books (2004) / 48 pages / SGD 14.00

For a meagre collection of only eighteen poems, the publisher behind Contouring has invested a great amount of effort into justifying its existence on the shelf, with an eye-catching method of binding the book’s front and back covers with two clips, and by conjoining two pages together to form a single page. The poems limp around the themes of self-identity and technology. This collection would appeal to a public clueless about the ever-evolving state of contemporary verse, and who would surely be impressed by Heng’s use of poetic-sounding words and her painstaking efforts to etch a lyrical phrase. As there are less than twenty poems, it would be viable to touch on each one before concluding that the poems do not a substantial or significant collection make.

In the first piece, “Letter to Emily”, the poet writes, “At first I think it best to email you / Emily, as you wish no intrusion - / Respecting your reclusivity cue...” The poet writes elegantly enough, with perhaps even a sense of irony, but the clichés assail you like a bad smell:

we have busy lives to lead in these times;
there are wars to be made, strange satellites,
and e-commerce for mercantilian prime...

Her summary of our current existence is a few dated mentions about war, satellites and e-commerce? It might be excusable if this was written in the eighties. Heng is guilty of dated generalisations here and throughout her book. Her experience of entering Emily’s “Columbus country” (her attempt to rejuvenate America by calling it “Columbus country” is symptomatic of a possibly unconscious desire to put a spin on old subjects so as to compensate for the fact that nothing new, distinctively personal or emotionally resonant is being said here) consists simplistically of “mountains and plains” and “waltzing leaves of grass”. The latter is a nod to Whitman, no less. But intertextual references to past greats do little to improve the poem.

In the next poem, however, “My Route 66”, the poet’s need to dress her skinny ideas with the gaudy dress of ostensibly poetic language is suddenly absent. There is comparatively plangent subtlety in such lines as “I cut my finger / slicing fish on a chopping board... reality bites to tell me / my ego has gone too huge.” The gap between mother and child, past and present, is almost tenderly felt here, when the poet’s mother forgives her “for not holding joss-sticks”, or when the mother is unable to hand a symbolic “grid of black and white” to the poet, having not assimilated into “broadband, / cable vision, globalisation...” The plain language and the understated transitioning to imagery work demonstrate how, often, the best art is that which does not ostensibly present itself as art.

The next poem, “Mother’s Buddha” is a weak extension of the previous idea of that gulf between the ideologies of mother and child, with some religious anxiety thrown in for added poetic spice: “What will God say / if I confess / I scrutinise mother’s benevolent Buddha to whom she kneels...” This is followed by “Cloisonné Sky-scrapers”, in which the poet writes:

In your dragon boat
I sail on your Yangtze,
tread within your Forbidden City.
Your tombs, silk and pearl-culturing
are icons packaged for tourists.

The poets accuses these icons of being packaged for tourists, but in the lines that follow, she crudely puts “kapok pillows” and “home-sewn batik” together, inviting “pengulu and panchaayat” to hint at her supposedly more authentic, complex cultural inheritance. Indeed, she has re-packaged culture for her poem, her “self-styled pagoda”, where she longs to “sip air, / to gaze upon / cloisonné sky-scrapers / with ancient wisdom wafting through.” Instead of casting fresh discerning light upon historically entrenched cultural clichés, she merely juxtaposes them in her poem. “Empress in Paragon Gallery” is another poem with nothing much to say. It is nice to see that the poet has a sense of humour when she talks about Cixi’s “comic leer” as the latter sits in an art gallery, but the poet ends with these lines:

She reposes in her imperial chamber
facing Psyche
whose porcelain back is turned towards me.

What is the poet trying to say? Here’s a possibility. When Psyche turns around to discover that it is Eros that has been taking care of her, the latter must disappear from her sight due to a curse by Aphrodite. In this case, Psyche could be said to represent the truth about the poet’s superficial claim to cultural relevance in her poetry that, if Psyche were to turn around, the poet, like Eros, would lose purpose and have to “disappear”.

“En-route” follows. The poet has been to Lhasa and Tibet. She sees a poor person and is humbled by her own “sham wealth”. End of part one. She sees a poor girl in part two and “could not invent English words / to blues / her Tibetan charm.” Why is there a need to do so, in any case? Moreover, “Tibetan charm” is a tad too condescending a manner to end the section. In part three, the poet asks a man who backpacked in search of wisdom, “Is being away from mother, father, sister, brother, occupation, / certificates, city-trappings // being?” The separation of the final word “being” from the rest of the poem implies the solitude of such a state, separate from family, the accoutrements of official documents, employment and urban comforts. It is a demanding question that is also a thinly-veiled accusation of those who believe that to escape is to come closer to an authentic notion of selfhood.

“Good Morning, Breakfast” is a frivolous poem about having a stomach upset from eating American food, followed by a speculation about what Emily Dickinson eats for breakfast. Up till this point, the reader will begin to wonder if the poet will ever get to the point of this writing of letters to Emily. If the poet feels a similar sense of isolation as Emily, it is unconvincing if that isolation does not evolve from being only couched in terms of cultural difference, or that tension between the traditions of the past and present ideology.

“Watch Winds, Chicago, 2000”, “GUESS Jeans”, “A Piece,” “Mural Dance”, “Millennium Romance” read like they could be throwaway fillers between the juicier, longer pieces in a poetry collection, except there are so few poems in this collection one would have at least hoped every poem would match one another in terms of substance. “Watch Winds, Chicago, 2000” is a lightweight whimsical piece in which the poet half-wishes to be framed as a “luscious leaf” by Georgia O’Keefe. Renowned Filipino poet, Merlie Alunan, once said in a poetry workshop that the most crucial element of the poem is the voice of the speaker. As a fault, “Watch Winds, Chicago, 2000” does not explain very much about where the speaker, albeit an “island lass”, is coming from when she talks about “winds” and “tall towers” and how they “whisper” and “sear” into her respectively.

“GUESS Jeans” is another example how the poetry in Contouring seems designed only to seriously impress general lovers of the English language. Only a poet in love with her own capacity for word-play and smatterings of formalistic devices would compose a stanza like this:

Next to GUESS classic jeans, bottom clinging cool-ly, Tommy girl sits at home as american fact
besides granny’s sarongs, my gift saris,
quintessential cheongsam, black thing for cocktail act.

A pleasurable read, but sadly, there is nothing else. A discreet nod to Coleridge here, a clever linking of disparate ideas there, a little rhyme, a nice play with rhythm, and a poem akin to many by Leong Liew Geok is born. The speaker reveals herself to be a somewhat complacent, intellectually undemanding yuppie-type of poet disinterested in deconstructing or questioning anything, being more in love with stringing words into a pretty line. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this, of course, if you are only into that kind of poetry.

“A Piece” starts with a gripping first stanza to a potentially explosive political poem:

I am learning
an alphabet of a different
a is for anguish
b for blood
c for crumb.

Disappointment sets in when the reader realizes it is no such thing. The poem continues about how despite “racial crusades” and “leftist threats” in the poet’s own country, flowers too grew in her mother’s garden. Aside from the fact that we are told that Motti Lerner was a factor, in what specific kind of context did the poet learn about this “alphabet”, when she was not even born during the crusades, threats and “Maria Hertogh”, or when the “city” in her poem suffered no great poverty or holocaust to justify the drama of her first stanza? The poem provides no satisfactory answer.

“Mural Dance” is a joke considering how the poet tries to use verbs ending with ‘–ing’, to make a certain point with regards to Pollack. Once again, the tugging on the hem of a big-named individual’s reputation – not a poet this time, but an artist – so as to lend credibility to one’s own work is embarrassingly evident here. Here’s an example (note the melodramatic ending to the stanza):

arching, bending, curving, training,
aching, bruising, crying, straining,
retching, reaching,
forever panting, forever fair,
ribcage ripping.

The lack of anything moving or startlingly new to say is manifested in the way the same ideas are repeated to lamely justify having the same number of verbs in two of the lines. Melodrama is used to do this too.

“Millennium Romance” fails to impress upon the hackneyed and adolescent-minded tone of the first line, “Musing, I once slayed dragons, princesses.”

“Downloading” has such bad moments:

Tonight I read
a poet whose titleless titles
tell me
life is.

The last section of this poem, however, is most successful and evocative:

Everyday is a line
when I’d rather it be a curve
clouds chameleon curls
to cup words from rainbow ends.

Page undone.

The next poem, “I Begin to Tire from Tossing” may actually have something important to say about writing. In it, the poet describes how her poems “threw themselves onto the hard concrete / left as scraggly skeleton / I too was flung into mid-air / because gravity pulls, / I remain on tarmac, my own fossil.” Aside from the clichéd idea suggested here that writing takes much out of the writer, there is also the sense of being quickly rendered obsolete over time, which is the universal fear of any writer, poet or artist.

Now we have come to the three-parter: “Webscape v 1.1,” Webscape v 2.2”, “Webscape v 3.3”. In these three poems you will encounter Keats, Homer, Blake, Eliot and, of course, Miss Dickinson. There are references to F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jonathan Swift. Two of the poems are dedicated to Edwin Thumboo and Arthur Yap. Not only does the poet know her classic poets, she has also made space in her poetic heart for our own literary forefathers, implying perhaps that eventually she too will be in the same league as them. What each poem is about is well demonstrated by quoting a stanza from each (one wonders—idly—why Heng does not number them as 1.1, 1.2 and 1.3 instead, which seems more appropriate, given that the poems flow thematically from one to another):

Miles away from home, worldly I travel
between Gulliver’s dream, Web’s miracle.

           (Webscape v 1.1)

Miles away from home, there’s more to travel.
Imperial Internet makes me toggle
between Gatsby’s dream, home-made miracle.

           (Webscape v 2.2)

Keyboarding blurs into information;
where, Eliot asks, is wisdom in knowledge?

           (Webscape v 3.3)

These poems must have been intended to form the heart of this collection. One can imagine many readers being impressed by the play with words in such examples as “en-net”, “Mouse-ing”, hypertext-ing”, “-isms icon-ing”, such juxtapositions as “oases technological” (there is a clever rhyme here with “obstacles” in the previous line) and such self-consciously “profound” statements as “Juggling fiction and fact assumes a brand / new world with dynamic interfaces.” The more one re-reads such poems, the more one realises nothing new or memorable is being said here. If the poems were meant to be taken in the spirit of fun, it is severely undermined by such awful lines as “Xerox meets new kid on the block named scanner...”

The final poem, “I’ve Got Mail”, is another “note” to Emily, bearing such lines as

...sandwiched between my Confucian bedspread
waking up to a continental gothic
which I landscape with island gaze...

Better poets stake their claim to big themes convincingly by drawing upon rich details of anecdotal accounts persuasively conveyed. Nothing of the latter is evident here, nor is it prominent anywhere else in the book. “Confucian bedspread” and “continental gothic” sound really good on paper but ideas in a poem should ideally have a greater impact upon a reader beyond the initial pleasure of encountering wordplay.

Allen Ginsberg is referenced in the poem when the poet describes her “unquenched throat” as “Howling”, and yes, with a capital “H” to further drive home the reference; her last outcry for poetic relevance. What is the poet howling about – the lack of a definite socio-cultural identity? So what, one might ask, when nothing in her poems (“light as ash”, to quote the last words of the poem) suggests that this is really something terribly important.

QLRS Vol. 3 No. 3 Apr 2004


Ong or Wong - who's read Contouring right? Discuss this in the Forum!

About Cyril Wong
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Return to Vol. 3 No. 3 Apr 2004

  Other Criticism in this Issue

Death Is A Ceremony
Robert Yeo reviews Cyril Wong's unmarked treasure.

A Wilting Bloom
Paul Tan reviews Eunice Chew's The Sea In Blossom.

Sky In A Hundred Puddles
Toh Hsien Min reviews W.B. Keckler's Sanskrit of the Body.

Related Links

Short Story by Heng Siok Tian
Vol. 2 No. 2 Jan 2003

Heng Siok Tian profile
External link to the NBDCS.

Poems by Heng Siok Tian
External link to Slope.

Interview with Heng Siok Tian
External link to Thinkquest.

Heng Siok Tian's previous book Crossing The Chopsticks
External link to Select Books.


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