Special Focus on Leong Liew Geok – “A Walk in the Japanese Garden, Jurong”

This is Part Three of SP’s first “Special Focus” series, looking at the extraordinary gardening poems of Leong Liew Geok. Born in Penang, Malaysia, Leong moved to Singapore in 1981. Thereafter, she published two important collections of poems, Love Is Not Enough (1991) and Women without Men (2000). The gardening poems in her second book represent a signal achievement in Singapore poetry. Alternating between lyrics and dramatic monologues, they are a sustained engagement with the cultivation of both self and environment. Appearing every Thursday, the series will end with the publication of a new gardening poem by Leong. Photographs taken by the poet provide intimate glimpses of her garden and, by extension, Singapore, the Garden City.

 

A Walk in the Japanese Garden, Jurong
by Leong Liew Geok

 

Kenshunmon, the Gate, promises paradise in spring:
Thirty-two acres unfurled in landscape with few flowers
Where rocks, trees and water move you to lose the world.

Think of the labour of design:
Five hundred tons of Japanese stone brought,
One thousand eight-hundred tons of local rock,
That they might mingle on land or in water;
The ponds dug, islands shaped, vegetation planted,
Shibusa placed. Casuarinas screen coconut trees
And multistorey flats across the Lake;
Here cicadas call, to distant bulldozers,
And four kinds of bamboo, knobbly to smooth,
Gold to green, grow too thick to ply the breeze.
Pines stand guard near Pong-Pong groves;
A flank of angsanas, across rain trees on the knoll,
Arch airy branches to lead believers on.
In the forest where sages are supposed to flock,
Guava, lime and jackfruit grow! An afterthought,
That native fruit should root surprises too.
Into water-lily depths, a terrapin splash-dives;
Dragonflies skim; dart to hover to dart.
A catfish wriggle stirs clouds of sediment —
The ponds need cleaning after nineteen years —
And bagworm cases cling to lantern rims.
The cascades too are dry, and the waterfall,
Since when has it stopped tumbling from the sacred
Mountain enveloped in swirling purple cloud?

No entourage descends for nuptial shots,
But couples stroll to arbours, to share
Most secret thoughts. In the Arbour of Purity
Which bilingual graffiti inscribes, I catch the distant
Swathe of water-lilies in sunlight; find Cycad Island
Jade intact, as seem islands where heavenly gods reside.
Gardens here work overtime. All things grow,
Shed without a break; no winter pause
For spring’s outburst. Litters of Pong-Pong fruit
like black stone spheres, or thrusting weeds,
Or fallen branches, or leaves unswept,
Point to natures less than perfect.
Where medieval Kyoto settles in Jurong
And kingfishers’ screams could pierce glass,
Should celestial beings, whooping cranes
And moon-summoning bridges be passed with salt?
To bend with paths or circle with the breeze,
Chart ripples of an ochre lake,
Follow stones on a dried stream bed;
To trace vermillion-splotched nishiki-goi,
Watch drizzling water stipple water’s glass —
Is but to feel the pulses of enclaves
In such paradise as this, whose natures
Blend to give the human pause.

Leaving as I came, I walk the Zen Garden of Seiwaen,
Its clipped ixora mounds a still green backdrop
For mountains, valleys, plateaux risen from dry
Stream of gravel on the ground. By silent
Silent self-sufficing rocks, striated in harmonious hues
I pass, clean gravel crunching under shoes.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX— August 1992

 

Shibusa: Japanese word for refinement, elegance and simplicity
nishiki-goi: Japanese carp. Also, “koi”.
Seiwaen: the name given to the Japanese Garden; in Chinese, literally, “Star and Garden”.

 

Reprinted with the kind permissions of author and Marshall Cavendish International (Asia) Pte Ltd, the poem “A Walk in the Japanese Garden, Jurong” first appeared in Women without Men (Times Books International, 2000).

 

Leong Liew Geok

Born in Penang, Malaysia, Leong Liew Geok has lived in Singapore since 1981. She is the author of Love is Not Enough (1991) and Women without Men (2000). She edited More than Half the Sky: Creative Writings by Thirty Singaporean Women (1998; repr. 2009 ) and Literary Singapore: A directory of contemporary writing in Singapore (2011) for the National Arts Council. She taught at the Department of English Language and Literature, National University of Singapore from 1981-2002. More recently, her poems have appeared online in Softblow Poetry Journal and Blue Lyra Review. She is (still!) working on her third collection of poems, envisaged for publication in 2016.

 

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Photo by Leong Liew Geok. Varieties of the Firecracker Plant (Russelia equisetiformis) in front of a row of Happiness Trees (Garcinia subelliptica).

*

The intent of Singapore Poetry’s “Special Focus” series is to highlight an important aspect of the work of an established poet of Singapore. This aspect may be a thematic thread or a formal preoccupation; it will provide a vital way into the poet’s writings. By making available a substantial selection of poems, SP hopes to encourage both readerly and critical immersion in the poet’s body of work. We begin to see connections, reiterations and reformulations that are missed in reading just one poem.

 

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.

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