Singapore’s Favorite Poem

Cyril Wong, poet, nominates as his favorite Singapore poem Leong Liew Geok’s “The Gardener’s Had Enough.” He writes:

Leong Liew Geok’s poetry collection, Women Without Men (Times, 2000), features a monologue that stretches over several poems. It succeeds in conveying not only a plausible inner life but also a layered reflection on the environment the persona struggles to find happiness in. The gardener (whom I assume is male) laments that nobody in Singapore cares anymore about gardening. He exclaims, at one point, that the city has stolen nature’s ability to bloom. The speaker speaks to himself about what he has achieved, a reflection that segues into a touching meditation on his own dwindling mortality. A weariness tinged with possible resentment creeps into this memorable line: “Either you, or your plants expire, /Though you don’t feel like watering.”

Leong is a poet who stands apart from a generation of poets and writers caught up in building superficially upon the ethos of nation-building prevalent in their time; a generation that has spawned later generations of imitators eager to write themselves into an imagined literary history. Leong has no such political pretensions or overweening aspirations. Hers is a poetry of introspective insight and poignant observations of smaller but no less meaningful worlds of individual experience. In this poem from her monologue-sequence, my personal favourite in the series, Leong has created a persona that is not only believable—a persona that could very well be a projection of the poet’s private anxieties about growing old—but also serves as a symbolic figure for Singaporeans who have been, or will be, left behind by a social system that cares more about its young than its old.


The Gardener’s Had Enough

The watering heads leak,
The sprayer won’t work
And dirt under your nails
Continues to lurk.

Mould on the soil spreads
A smothering grey slime
Waiting to be scraped off;
It won’t be lost in time.

The bonsai needs repotting
So clear are the signs
Of malnutrition—
For fresh soil it pines.

My orchids are clogged
With seeds of palms overhead
While weeds root and overrun
Lawn and flower bed.

No plant respects me
Enough to behave,
My shrubs blindly branching,
Pursuing a shave.

You’ll understand why
After the pots are counted,
They encroach upon me
And make me disgusted.

If you do not stoop,
A torchlight in action,
To kill off the snails,
Morning is destruction.

Cease giving chances,
You’ve nothing to lose—
Throw the unblooming out,
They simply must choose.

That gardening’s a business
Is matter of fact;
No plant’s irreplaceable,
There’s nothing to regret.

There’s no meeting point
Between the living and dying:
Either you, or your plants expire,
Though you don’t feel like watering.

So be it if dead:
There are fewer to mind
And less work around
Of the backbreaking kind.

No more orchids; no more shrubs.
No more snails or other bugs.
No more jasmine-scented air,
No cacti to stab or dare.

No cause left to grumble,
Mutter about or berate.
Life would be deadly, dire,
With zero to recreate.

by Leong Liew Geok, from Women Without Men, Times Books International (2000)


About Jee Leong Koh

My book of poems Steep Tea (Carcanet) was named a Best Book of 2015 by UK's Financial Times, and a Finalist by Lambda Literary. I also wrote three other books of poems and a book of zuihitsu. My work has been shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize, and translated into Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian and Latvian. Originally from Singapore, I live in New York City, where I edit the arts blog Singapore Poetry, and run the Second Saturdays Reading Series and the Singapore Literature Festival in NYC.

One comment

  1. Pingback: Leong Liew Geok | Singaporean Poetry

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