Why Speak for Everyone?

The Law of Second Marriages, a chapbook of poems by Christine Chia, sold out its first printing. For the forthcoming second edition, Cyril Wong wrote a preface that is not only an acute evaluation of Chia’s poetry, but also a blistering attack on the forced and artificial attempt by some Singaporean poets to make their poetry socially relevant. Wong writes, “This is not to say one cannot write about the Merlion and issues of national identity with authenticity and sincerity, but this has seldom been the case here. If interiority has been considered a given in poetry elsewhere, the opposite is true in a country whose desire to be recognised as legit, politically and economically, has corrupted the island’s English language poets, facilitated and encouraged mostly by publishers, schools and the media that are more than eager to support or buy into the government’s agenda for global relevance and hysterical self-preservation.”

Cyril Wong’s Preface to the second edition of The Law of Second Marriages by Christine Chia (Math Paper Press 2014, Forthcoming)

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The colossal American poet Walt Whitman once claimed that he was “large” enough to “contain multitudes” in his writing. What is it about so many male poets since time immemorial that makes them convinced they can speak for everyone? Always be suspicious of anyone who aims to speak from an elevated position of far-reaching universality, as there will always be somebody left out from such a “grand vision”. When female poets strive to do the same thing, I wonder if this is because they want to steal some thunder for themselves, in the hope that they can stand on par with their male counterparts in terms of being recognised, respected and remembered. In the context of Singapore, women who do this only end up sounding as dishonest as the men in their attempts to “write” themselves into literary history. This is not to say one cannot write about the Merlion and issues of national identity with authenticity and sincerity, but this has seldom been the case here. If interiority has been considered a given in poetry elsewhere, the opposite is true in a country whose desire to be recognised as legit, politically and economically, has corrupted the island’s English language poets, facilitated and encouraged mostly by publishers, schools and the media that are more than eager to support or buy into the government’s agenda for global relevance and hysterical self-preservation.

The few Singaporean women who eschew the urge to fit themselves awkwardly into an ongoing, hegemonic, male-dominated discourse of poem-writing detached from any authentic connection to the self, have included poets like Leong Liew Geok, Grace Chia, and now Christine Chia. The Law of Second Marriages is quite possibly the finest example of the fiercely introspective and emotionally uncompromising female voice that is still rare in this country’s poetry scene. The poems in this book are about a highly fractured, individualised connection to family. As a fellow confessional poet myself, I have always believed that if you want to know who you truly are as a human being, you should begin at home. I also remember what the Australian poet, Terry Jaensch, once said in a reading here in Singapore about how the best poets tend to peer so far and deeply into themselves that they inevitably come out as other people. A far more resonant and believable sense of the universal, when achieved through a paradoxical process of self-excavation, becomes possible. For all of Christine Chia’s unflinching inwardness and directness in confronting the heartache and tragedies regarding her relationships with her brother, nanny (mama), father, his second wife (Chia’s mother) and her second husband (uncle), as well as how such connections shaped her external life, what emerges is a poignant grasping at hope and the courage to forgive the past, wrought through the tortured re-envisioning of private trauma, that touches on a deeper nerve of lasting universality than any poetry that strives only to write itself into nationalistic discourses and academic journals.

Although I have assumed that this book is about “Christine Chia”, the confessional author, I am also reminded of something Plato said about how all poets are liars. In a richly twisted way, this is especially true of confessional poets: on one hand, the poetic speaker and the author draw from each other to reflect on actual, lived experiences in garnering fresh and hardearned revelations; on the other hand, the writing of the experience changes the experience in ways seldom anticipated by the poet (details are heightened, altered or changed altogether in the name of poetic license or for the sake of mining for an unexpected epiphany). As Chia wrote in the first Introduction for her chapbook, “The best liars always tell a mixture of truth and lies, and the very best believe their own lies in the end.” This is not a simple matter of evasiveness or paranoia, but an honest admission about what it means to tell a truth through a poem; memory is always skewed and subjective, and the best confessionals are already conscious of such ambivalences in their careful recapturing of the past. Such ambivalences are even exploited for the sake of a renewed perspective of conflicted experiences that once left indelible marks on the psyche; a fresh look can transform any mark from being a mere wound to a source of insight and growth. Art can be therapeutic, but it can also still be art: a holistic process of aesthetic revisioning and healing that becomes both individualistic and potentially cathartic for the reader. Those who frown on the idea of “art as therapy” are often in denial of the fact that art can do so much more than provide an aesthetic-to-intellectual orgasm. The effects, or the affective states that art induces, can be complex and ineffable.

In Chia’s case, the poem translates personal experience into something quite different; the text provides distance while simultaneously inviting a fresh onslaught of past emotion, yet making sure that the full onslaught never quite comes; or if it comes, the emotion is then kept strategically and suddenly at bay, frozen for a moment in a state of deliberate re-contemplation. In “things her aunt never knew II”, for example, she writes about her brother:

When she refused to obey,
Brother would take a packet of clear,
hot soup…
and place it on her feet.
It wouldn’t leave a mark.

Or in “new year dress”, this time about the mother, a central source of the poet’s deepest psychological hurt:

A dress is not just a dress
when your mother gives it to you…
because she birthed you,
clothed you, owned you,
like the dress she gave you.

The memories are surely still traumatic for the speaker; but the trauma is caught in its tracks. Like many of such poems in the book, Chia continuously stops short of fully articulating anger, despair, painful shock or frustration, ensuring that absolute judgements about the past are willfully withheld. Each moment, often concisely captured in as few words as possible, is filled with ambivalence about real pain but also stricken with a desperate hope for a more illuminating outcome when replaying such trauma; even as such an outcome might ultimately elude the speaker. The poem is already prepared to fail. Yet one poem follows another in a persistent, serial format of ambivalent articulation and the effect is one of courageous forbearance and resilience. The speaker yearns to move on from painful memories, and the rewards of her efforts do come; slowly but surely.

But not before past hurt has encroached on present realities, such as during her poignant reflections on society (“our picture-perfect-loving government” from “couple”) or her sharply delineated observations of other people in public spaces (“he sprang up from his seat…homing in on the exit even though his eyes were also dazed by the darkness” from “the hanging garden”), etc. If read sensitively, this book is a challenging and even gruelling read. The overall picture of a mind struggling to heal itself should not only elicit sympathy or empathy, but also a newfound understanding of what it means to admit to how the past impedes ineluctably on the present, both for the better and for the worse. But then I am assuming that the willingness to enter such intense and realistic introspection in the hope of reaping its life-affirming rewards is a matter of universal appeal; I suspect that I am probably wrong.

First published on Cyril Wong’s website
Reprinted with the author’s permission.

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. Reblogged this on The Red Queen and commented:
    #word

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