Special Focus on Leong Liew Geok – “Backyard Azaleas”

This is Part Five 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.

 

Backyard Azaleas
by Leong Liew Geok

 

The azaleas in my backyard,
Imports from China and Holland,
Grow sparing of stem and foliage
And abstemious with blooms.

I think of digging them out
For natives to flower in their shade;
I’ve tried bone-meal, fish, dung,
Pellets for acid-lovers,
Sawdust for water retention
To bring them round to warmer
Ways of giving. They’re unmoved,

Unlike the South American Tabebuia
And the azalea-pink and lavender
Blooms the trees shed by the ton season
By season, along North Buona Vista Road.

I’ll not cop out before I’m through
Turning icy sprays on leathery leaves
At dawn, and packing ice cubes at night
Around, and above roots: I want
A cold shaking of their status quo,
A snapping of recalcitrance
To show and tell — a Singapore spring
Into summer is blooming overdue.

 

Reprinted with the kind permissions of author and Marshall Cavendish International (Asia) Pte Ltd, the poem “Backyard Azaleas” 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 of Anthuriums by Leong Liew Geok

 

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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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