Review of “Giving Ground” by Theophilus Kwek

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Giving Ground by Theophilus Kwek
Singapore: Ethos Books, 2016

Review by Eric Norris

 

Giving Ground, Theophilus Kwek’s second book, begins with an epigraph from Horace and an introductory poem of 24 lines about a road. First, Horace:

“This was what I had prayed for: a small piece of land
with a garden, a fresh-flowing spring of water at hand
near the house, and, above and behind, a small forest stand…
It’s perfect. I ask nothing more.”

– Horace, Satires and Epistles, II.6.

Kwek echoes this desire from the start. His introductory poem “A417” is about the road running through the Cotswolds, a rural area of outstanding natural beauty near Oxford, England. This is the imaginative space the poet wishes to occupy, it seems: an area of pastoral repose in the hills and valleys of the mind. In the final stanza of “A417,” however, Kwek transforms Horatian space into time:

…This is a day to need and keep
within the heart’s hollow, one to allow for all others,
otherwise spent: between two cities, or discontent
in one you have always known. Perusing books in
known languages, a safe distance from the moving
crowd, where airports and platforms become one.
Look how each branch above makes space for one
more. See how they say: this is higher, this is not all.

The fractal forking of roads that follows in the book’s four sections begins here. Many of the poems in Giving Ground begin with epigraphs, like Horace’s, as points of departure for the reflections that follow. Not all. Some begin with a simple but precise survey of the precincts we are approaching, such as “Aston’s Eyot.” In this poem, the author enters Christ Church Meadow and Oxford University beyond. Here, he takes the natural route, like the course of the seasons, instead of the conventional course of studies:

What if, entering the city, this
had been our approach? Common ground,
a tipped triangle on the river’s palm,
divining sun in a sandstone arch
over its heart-line of moth and thorn?

The poem concludes with the observation of birds that nicely evokes actual birds and divination:

…Willing themselves into cold
the swallows have left their tended eaves,
sighted lands not seen from land.
We read in the leaves our means and ends.

I like those birds and those (tea?) leaves. The images of the countryside are pretty. And Giving Ground abounds in countryside, cityside, seaside, domestic interiors, churches, etc.. The scene painting is, however, frequently accompanied by painfully sincere, serious, and sober reflections on the nature of the place, or fate, such as here, in the poem “All Souls”:

Not unconvinced or lacking evidence, there is something
still in the order of thing—a sung hymn,
prayer the length of sorrow and of joy—that
firms faith. And then supplies, without wonder
or sign, truth more kind than an answered mind.
Quiet. It stays with us, even as we go…

Echoes, perhaps, of Larkin are audible. But here, as elsewhere, the poet goes too far and we wind up nowhere fast:

passing the tree outside, with its strewn leaves,
to separate doors and their lit windows.

With some careful editing, we might have found ourselves carrying something remarkable—quietness, peace of mind, perhaps even poetry—from the interior of All Souls into the exterior world. Not here. Not today. And for no good reason that I can see. Why deny the reader that reward? For the sake of a little more landscape? Frustratingly, this happens time after time.

Consider this impression of Poland:

…We stopped to take in all there was.
Air sharp as sea above the forest’s crown,

behind us dry pine, the old riverbed
of an ended year and its fastened course,

unalterable days now vanished in the scree,
loosed stones and leaves. Leaving instead

a blaze lifting the undergrowth
in strange unearthed sufficiency

wanting no route but the unmapped wood
and what we two could show

like rays ourselves, startling between trees.

All there was? Well, I wasn’t there, so I can’t say what all was there: but it does seem an extraordinary claim. We have some generalized conifers for backdrop, a generalized atmosphere, a generalized course of a generalized river, all assembled in the service of a poem whose sole intention is to establish a stone-cold moment on a hypothetical calendar when, apparently, two people became sunbeams. Or something. If I didn’t know better, in those obscure Polish woods, betwixt earth and sky, behind a bush, beside an equally handy and hygienic rill—possibly where a blaze lifts the undergrowth/in strange unearthed sufficiency—I might suspect something more than metaphorical hanky-panky took place. But I can’t quite tell. And, 2/3rds of the way through Giving Ground, as a reader, I was not sure I cared anymore.

But I soldiered on. Because the saving grace is that some poems in Giving Ground avoid these tourist traps in favor of an original, even magical, view of a place, a time in life, and a turn of mind. Consider this picture of Oslo, in its entirety:

North

“And there we all were, as invisible as you could wish to see.”
– C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Out on the jetty, with cloud closing in
we watched Oslo flicker, then resolve
under a skene of night, more visibly:

skies’ black cliffs like a cast of mind,
gulls vectoring out in hurried sleight
above cruise-ships, cold in harbour’s

thrall. Traffic’s bright skirl laid distal
to the fjord, and time itself an island,
at bay. In another city that we loved,

snow fell as rain. Windows with their
Christmas lights marked the occasion;
pedestrians, huddling through doors,

birled leaves into tiny storms. There
no mountains made the skyline small,
and we—who were lucky—grew up

with stories from other places, far
in the fog-filled north, where willows
wept, winds whirled, and life seemed

larger for all its kennings. Having come
late in the falling dark we sat, children
again, arriving at what had always been.

The uncertainty and excitement here is palpable: the shimmering aurora of the city on the horizon, the vague city left behind, and the travellers seated on an uncertain world whirling toward night—you can almost picture them on the jetty swinging their feet over the sea; and the exotic quasi-mystical tongue of the enchanter—skene, skirl, distal, thrall, birled—all of these things create an otherworldly atmosphere of wonder that even a completely predictable conclusion cannot rob of its poetry.

Where Giving Ground is most successful—the sonnet sequences that return us from Europe to Asia, “Notes From Beijing” and “Sonnets for Singapore”—we hear a human being and not a poet.

Notes from Beijing
Marco Polo, late 2014

i.

I have not told the half of what I saw:
Their metal horses do not sleep, but fly.
Lights pierce the sky. Even their dragons fall
in line, and leave by the hour for Shanghai.

Roads are wide as fields. Their fields do not end,
but reach like baize to where their mountains squat
to smoke in neat rows, like painted blocks. When
I ask, they say these are towns, of a sort.

I prefer it here. The city prospers,
and all they need is brought by men on wheels
who ride with bags swinging from the handles.
I have been served the best Italian meals

warm, as if made this morning in Venice,
with a familiar crease. Clove and anise.

Rich in imagery, inventive, funny: after Europe, with its antique postcard carousels, the eye-wateringly acrid smog and fogs of Beijing (dragon fumes?) come as a breath of fresh air. Or take this timeless treat, where you can feel the author’s exasperation with his granny and barely concealed disgust for home.

Sonnets for Singapore
upon homecoming: “ee-oh. you’ve lost weight. again!” (grandma)

i.

and more besides. a heart for maisonettes
in the post, with maps of amenities,
walking distance. strays fed by night. cassettes.
an eye for lizard’s eggs, shrines set in trees

or rollaway coins lost in monsoon drains.
linen like flags left out to dry. a taste
for boutique shophouses on one-way lanes
with overwrought windows. stomach for haste,

storms the lengths of strides. short confidences,
briefer tempers. the nerve to navigate
wedding dinners and new names of places.
an ear for dialect, sung or sworn. but weight?

felt, not seen. that which sets one gently down,
sometimes called gravity. more often: ground.

A canny and observant granny can be such a pain, can’t she?

It is in the last section of Giving Ground that Kwek really shines. We find the hidden story of a sequence of watercolors executed at the behest of colonial Singapore’s first resident, Major William Farquhar: his name is remembered, but the names of the artists are tragically lost. We find a meditation on Psalm 19. We find a trio of sonnets on foreign relations in 1965. We find fantastic speculations about what future archaeologists will unearth of Singapore in 3015. We find so much that was missing in the first 2/3rds of the book that we can almost forgive the time we wasted perusing postcards.

Almost.

 

Author

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eric Norris‘s poems and short stories have appeared in SoftblowAssaracus, E-Verse RadioJonathanNew Walk, Glitterwolf, The Nervous Breakdown, and The Raintown Review. He lives in Portlandia, USA.

 

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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