It’s 2019. Suddenly, everything is new. Or least, our perceptions of things are.
It’s been a while, but I’m still here. These four poems are for you. Happy new year.
Through the fingerlings of gargantuan rain trees,
I finally found what I sought for in the pockets of light.
I peek through my own fingers and all is sharp
every colour, every line
the verticals stretching out into the sky like me.
I could almost touch the cloud linings.
Heavenly Father, you know me better than I know myself.
Sometimes it feels like I don’t even know me.
I only remember it was there
on that Swansea shore where I finally felt something, anything,
all in a ripple, all in a ribcage.
In the moment everything is so beautiful, so converse
to what you’ve known your whole life…
Man, this beauty, it could make a grown man cry.
You wouldn’t know unless you were standing at the precipice.
Anna was a Dancer
and he couldn’t help but love her
a silver stream to a fierce gushing torrent
she reigns back on anger that does not have a name
“You don’t know a thing,
you don’t know a thing.”
Still, her body is a melody that
seeps and weeps and traces cities for twenty leagues
Oft he dreams of the murmured syllables that
carry into trees and turn into night hisses…
Oh save your brothers, selfish lover
this pain that torments was never meant
to be your inheritance
Anna was a dancer
and wherever an echo can resonate
he hears her name
off on another sierra, off on another long ship
off the tips of leaves that flutter like errant tongues
Lord! On the brook
is where everything ended
push to enter
plastic electric music
soundtrack to our beating feet
down as we recede
cuffed up at the sleeve
eleven dollars and a cold coffee
fuel up and laugh
push to enter
up on the 13th floor
is where we belong
you lean in and tell me
you sleep on trains in the day
and can’t fall asleep in bed
are you lonely?
I can imagine
there’s no way you could love me like I love you
I know so much but I don’t know you (I want to)
I was just passing through
but you ruined me and you know it
now I’m looking so hard for Love
I might have missed it
done and dusted
so what’s the story?
maybe we can be
alone together now
New Year’s Eve
It is the hour
when the intangible thing between
what’s good and what’s great
slips away like an oyster
and yet I am recalcitrant
a person of evaporation
it’s fresh in my veins, the delay
and I’m still trying to find God in the detail
in my mind’s hills and dales and valleys and vales
only to dissolve in the nothingness
In this dream, I am a giant holding the shape of my city in the palm of my hand. Like a volcano, I must remain dormant, silent — lest the children of the land notice me. I don’t breathe, just watch with my twin vision of the macro and micro: a generation cross an intersection; a gardener cupping a red flower and bending down to inhale its sweet sickly fragrance; a sunrise as it blossoms from the ground up and reaches the top of things — a bank building, glowing metallic trees, the vault of the sky. Tenderness in the concrete.
When I wake I will wonder why I didn’t see such beauty all along. In a second I will forget and become minute again. Yes?
Once, I was a giant.
The past few weeks and all of today, I’ve been telling people how beautiful I find Singapore. I used to dislike it — detested everything, from the shiny Central Business District area to the HDB-riddled landscape, where the air was tense and greasy from one life forcibly rubbed against another and another and another.
Always inherently drawn to the romantic and the juvenile, skylines and spaces would form in my head as I read more and watched movies about foreign lands. I unwittingly started to create my own perfect city: beautiful gothic skyscrapers, the openness of the Santa Monica Pier, cobbled streets of some nameless European small town. In this frame I drew a ghost of a place, a bric-a-brac of stolen scenes, and when the time came for me to seek out this mystical city, I went. If I dreamt it, surely I could find it.
But of course I couldn’t. Not in Paris, not in Stockholm, not in Sydney or London or San Francisco or Athens or Rome. No matter where I went and how beautiful things were — from the monumental to the footsore particular — all I saw was semblance after semblance of my painted city. Where was this? Where was that? Where was home?
A deep sense of dissatisfaction grew with the world.
A strange thing started to happen. Each time I stepped off the plane at Changi Airport, a realisation grew steadily — that the shape of my city was never meant to be confined to the orderliness of a New York City grid or the curlicue of Parisian arrondissements; never the subject of a Commissioner’s Plan or Haussmann’s renovation.
As a young nation, we’re only just deciding what we’re supposed to look like. It took me a while to come to terms with that. Singapore was never meant to be romantic or orderly — it is what it is. A jumble of things. The feeling of beginning.
“For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.”
Just like that, my eyes were open to the beauty of an ever-evolving landscape. Listen, structures and scenes change, but our call to the important things stays the same. The old bones of the city remain — prayer, worship, love, hope, wonder.
I’d like to think that God really was the giant in my dream, holding Singapore in the gentle crest of his open palm as it shifts. In the verses of Psalms 139, King David talks about God forming his inward parts, knitting him together in his mother’s womb, intricately weaving him into the depths of the earth. In the same way, God is shaping the city as surely as he is shaping you, me, us.
Wonderful are your works; my soul knows very well.
I feel it all now, the keen sense of home. I feel it when I am crossing the humble intersection between Hougang MRT station and my 5-room flat, and I feel it when I am in a cab hurtling down the East Coast Parkway and watching giant metallic flowers crown from the ground in a distance. Strange how this needle prick of a country can evoke mountains of emotion in a person.
It all comes down to this moment. Sitting in the backseat of my friend’s car as she cruises down St. Andrew’s Road, framed by the lights of the National Gallery on our left and the pitch blackness of the Padang on the right, I sigh and say one more time: Gosh, Singapore is so beautiful.
Silence. No reply from either of my friends.
Of course we know this; we knew it all along. We sit quietly, watch the silver cross tchotchke dangle above the car dashboard, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth…
To the bellows and the
hot electronic sound
to carry whole families on
two wheels and then some
politely tapping on metallic
beasts larger than life
the vision of the coming days elusive
tomorrow tomorrow tomorrow
what it’s like
those were tender times…
I love it; that perfect blend of first world and third world. The fact that you can sit on a tiny stool, elbows resting on knees, have a 90-cent noodle soup thickened with crayfish shells and pig blood on a table balanced precariously on a crooked, potholed pavement, then hop onto a GrabBike and streak across the district, inhaling the sweet petrichor emanating from the tarmac and holding onto the shirt of a stranger so as not to fall off as he makes that final turn only to arrive at a beautiful, refurbished warehouse cafe for Vietnamese coffee brewed in a chemex and order the most American thing – a plate of French fries with Heinz tomato ketchup – all of this in just half an hour is extremely confusing but in a way that makes sense somehow.
Talk about dual worlds, about a divided feeling.
Come to think of it, I know the feeling well because I straddle both worlds from minute to minute as a middle class citizen in my own home country Singapore, an affluent city state that grew up way too quickly and till today isn’t quite sure what to make of itself. I ride the 8:40am train to work from Monday to Friday with thousands of commuters, work myself to the bone in an air-conditioned office until I can stumble home when the sky has turned into an inky blue-black and eat a takeaway subway sandwich in front of my new MacBook Pro. I am divided in unrest day to day, switching roles so often that I’ve become tangled within, reduced to silent screams.
A friend of mine asked me recently if being in third-world countries like Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia and the like energised me or left me exhausted. I couldn’t give her a straight answer because it’s a little bit of both for me.
In every Singaporean lies a scission. Similarly, in a place like Ho Chi Minh City, the old and the new commingle in a shared space of the present and of the mind, which is why I feel that I carry tension wherever I travel to, especially when things seem too picture perfect or utterly dispiriting. But here, here in this city, tension finally meets tension and like a pair of old friends, they hug and link hands and cross the street into characteristic, Saigon traffic, the dusty motorbikes curling around them till they disappear.
Found these old photos of a city that everyone said that I would love but I didn’t. For five days, I felt the grime and grit and noise rub against my skin like a greasy animal, making me more uncomfortable than I’ve ever been in my life. Never again, never again.
I don’t regret it now though. Perhaps I just needed to know that one always has an option, that not all things have to be participatory. Now that I’m older, I realise that I get to choose the experiences I want to have and not just flow along other people’s paths. That means everything. Perhaps, one day I will go back and see the city through a different lens, under another light, in colour instead of black and white.
Time is relentless it casts long, tremulous shadows & we, we are always in transit fleeting & flitting between light & dark & translucence always fickle always whisked away by loftiness by that crumbling feeling or the lift away. We don’t study the minute details but we take in beauty in spoonfuls, gallons… What ephemeral creatures we are. We must tread lightly on this earth.
Time is indeed relentless. Each calendar year folds us in without our volition, without countdowns or resolutions, without eyes squeezed shut at a wish being prayed in the middle of a street glistening with rain, praying for better, for more, for an expanse of white happiness to spread into the hours & days & months that will trudge on. When do we stand still long enough to let our souls catch up with our bodies that are always going places? When do we repave?
Rely, rely, rely, rely Behave, behave, behave, behave (spent all of that time not wanting to…) Decide, decide, decide, decide Repave, repave, repave, repave (spent all of that time not wanting to…)
Alaskans – Volcano Choir
Now’s as good a time as any. Here are some highlights – with lots of pictures, because sometimes words just don’t do enough justice.
Swansea / Hay-on-Wye/ Cardiff / Paris / Berlin / London.
Six places in five weeks. A pilgrimage like none other.
Bible school & moody coastlines.
The world’s first national book town.
A harrowing experience.
Wordlessness in my soul city.
Contemplation in the concrete.
Lightheartedness & the going home.
& yet all of that didn’t mean I had any real answers to the biggest question… What next? It’s not easy picking up the pieces when what you thought you would be doing your own life suddenly grinds to a halt. Coming back home, I prayed hard & knuckled down, steeling myself for a lengthy, vigorous search.
Turns out I didn’t have to. I went for an interview for a job that I don’t think I was even qualified for, got an offer a few hours after, & started at a new workplace two weeks later. & while the first few months were incredibly tough (still is, most days), I cut my teeth at whatever task I was given & tried to positively impact the people I was surrounded with. Ministry in the marketplace. & while I’m still making mistakes & learning fast & furious on the job, I’m more convinced than ever that this is where God has placed me in this season.
Another huge curveball was ministry. What was supposed to be a year of rest turned into a year of shock, struggle, & anger. This came with the painful leaving of many lifelong friends as well – planned or unplanned.
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But finally, things came to a head & all the shock & struggle & anger turned into an acceptance of new responsibility, of new calling. Where did it come from? I suppose from the realisation that what mattered at the end of the day was the people & knowing how precious each of them were to God.
Break my heart for what breaks yours Everything I am for your kingdom’s cause
Even though I could walk away from a ministry, there was no way I could walk away from its people. I will serve the church – my church – with as much strength as I have & for however long God grants me the grace to.
Ministry is such a joy, anyway. Like when I got to see three new people from my lifenet get baptised:
The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.
Psalm 16:5 – 6 (ESV)
My Dinner with André.
For the longest time, I dreamt about eating food like this. I spent hours poring over Lucky Peach & Bon Appétit magazines, devouring the column inches & holding the glossy images close to my nose. People who know me know how much food means to me (somewhere between the extremes of gluttony & gastronomy, I hope). I read about restaurants like The French Laundry, Eleven Madison Park, Per Se, Noma, El Bulli, Fäviken, D.O.M., Osteria Francescana, Blue Hill, Alinea, Atelier Crenn & André. André. I never thought I would be able to eat at one of them. Last year, I finally did.
29 courses. 16 glasses of champagne & wine. 5 hours. A dizzy night full of curiosity & surprises. A night redolent with memory.
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… & speaking of good food.
In 2017, I ate…
& ate some more…
& so the pattern continues on, well into 2018.
Concerts / Festivals / Exhibitions
Totally blew my entertainment budget but loved every single minute spent at a gig or museum.
Singapore Writer’s Festival. Highlights included getting to meet my ex- creative writing professor Jennifer Crawford, the teacher who impacted me most in my university days & whose double-book release we celebrated together, attending a Simon Armitage poetry reading session & taking a picture with him after (sublime, & then not so much), & all-in-all, remembering how far Singapore has come in the literary world – how after decades, poetry is a luxury that we can finally afford.
Century of Light – An exhibition of impressionist works curated by the National Gallery. So happy to have gotten a taste of the Musée d’Orsay in the most beautiful museum in Singapore.
& last but not least… the little creative things I managed to accomplish last year.
Because I’ve already written so much about the importance of creating, I won’t go into another spiel. It’s been an incredible year with a few sparks of inspiration. All glory to God, my creator. Among all the little essays & poems & sketches, here are a few of the bigger milestones.
An accompanying photo exhibition – another fund-raising effort, made possible mostly because of my talented photographer friend Faith. Loved how much effort was put into this & how so many people supported this artistic endeavour. To think that our photos of doors & elephants & trees & all the other little things we found beautiful are having in people’s homes, right now.
Another fun photoshoot that I did for a client. Was pretty stressed about it, but thank God it turned out okay!
A second little gig – opening for Jean Tan, one of my favourite local songwriters & friend, who officially released her Hideaway EP that night. It was a three-song set but as usual, it’s daunting to be in the presence of such great talent. But this gig did force me to write a song that I ended up spontaneously singing with Jawn Chan that night. Such a magical moment to sing a line & hear a roomful of people chiming in after, singing back to me – I am a writer, I am gone / tell me your story, oh come to me…
Storytelling. That’s what 2017 was about. Come to think of it, it’s been a year spent repaving, a restoration of joy in the search of all things beautiful.
Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
(Gerald Manley Hopkins, 1884 – 1889)
Therein lies cities to be traveled. Lines waiting to be written. A hundred things to be made with one’s hands, conversations to be had, love to be lost & then won again. Newness in a page turning. Hello, hello.
Impressionism is the movement most closely identified with the emergence of the modern era. Its sparking scenes of everyday life – of Paris boulevards & smartly dressed bourgeoisie, of the new leisure class boating on the river or relaxing on the beach – have become part of the visual landscape for the late 19th century. However, Impressionism was also revolutionary; breaking with the established conventions of European painting, it proposed bold new approaches in colour, composition, technique & subject matter, changing painting forever.
Paris in the late 19th century was a modern city that embraced technological innovation, such as gas & then electric lighting, which dazzled its many visitors. (Juan) Luna, writing to a friend, said, ‘this is a century of light, of electric light’. Arts & culture also thrived in Paris, & artists from around the world flocked there to seek recognition & to learn the latest developments in art.
A Century of Light | In Between Worlds
Exhibition by National Gallery Singapore
“hold the page out like a work of art, see for yourself, comb through it twice, three times, look for your likeness in the lines but find someone else…”
At the Singapore Writers Festival a couple of weekends ago, I had the opportunity of attending Armitage’s poetry panel with Rae Armantrout on the role of poetry in society. I have been a big fan ever since I first encountered his work in The English Bookshop, back when I was studying in Sweden & was a stranger to its curious language with all its sharp turns & confusing vowel system. The English Bookshop in Uppsala was & still is an institution, an oasis for foreign students hungry for Norton Anthologies or English poetry translations.
Along with Mark Doty’s Atlantis, I picked up Simon Armitage’s Book of Matches without much of a thought. I’ve loved both poets ever since, but am drawn to the natural rhythms & jolting descriptions of the latter. Book of Matches consists primarily of short, untitled sonnets, each meant to be read in 20 seconds – the time it takes for a match to burn out completely from the time it is lit. Here’s one:
My party piece:
I strike, then from the moment when the matchstick
conjures up its light, to when the brightness moves
beyond its means, and dies, I say the story
of my life –
dates and places, torches I carried,
a cast of names and faces, those
who showed me love, or came close,
the changes I made, the lessons I learnt –
then somehow still find time to stall and blush
before I’m bitten by the flame, and burnt.
A warning, though, to anyone nursing
an ounce of sadness, anyone alone:
don’t try this on your own; it’s dangerous,
I like vivid, true-to-life love scenes
in a movie. No, that’s a lie,
that’s when I like love least;
it’s the turn of the head or a pale blue eye
that moves me.
Keep love in the mind
and out of the blood, beds
are for sleep, for dreams, for good.
I can see what it takes
to keep a friendship in the heart,
the chest. That’s
when I like love best – not locked away
but left unsung, unsaid.
And then the rest.
And another one, that is perhaps my favourite.
Mother, any distance greater than a single span
requires a second pair of hands.
You come to help me measure windows, pelmets, doors,
the acres of the walls, the prairies of the floors.
You at the zero end, me with the spool of tape, recording
length, reporting metres, centimetres back to base, then leaving
up the stairs, the line still feeding out, unreeling
years between us. Anchor. Kite.
I space-walk through the empty bedrooms, climb
the ladder to the loft, to breaking point, where something
has to give;
two floors below your fingertips still pinch
the last one-hundredth of an inch . . . I reach
towards a hatch that opens on an endless sky
to fall or fly.
What is it? What is it about these poems that makes Armitage both a popular & critically-acclaimed poet? It’s all because of style, a quality sorely lacking in this digital age, which Armitage emphasises time & time again is the essence of poetry. I have never read or written a poem which contained content that I couldn’t Google, he said, and I have to agree, which is why I am not surprised at the fact that Instagram poets like Rupi Kaur are receiving so much backlash lately. Unfortunately, social media has given confessional poetry a bad name – a genre once carried by the likes of Plath and Lowell, who valued language craftsmanship & prosody at the highest level – building it around a cult personality rather than the art form.
There is no point being outraged by Kaur even though one might be tempted to. She is famous in her own right & is at the very least lucrative, if not talented. But like Armitage & Armantrout addressed at that panel, the good that poetry does is found in the form it serves, not in the subject matter. While topics can & should be compelling, poetry is not composed of statements or personal opinions broken up on a page, but of form, & sound, & syntax. Style is integral for poetry as plot is to prose, or setting is to plays.
Is this thinking old-fashioned? I don’t know. I just know that like Armitage & Armantrout, a poet like Rupi Kaur cannot give me what I want from poetry. A poem can be simple but it cannot be simplistic. One cannot simplify what is meant to be complex. In 14 lines, selected words in the right order translates into an effervescent feeling. In 14 lines, a creature becomes a world unto itself.
It is why I love Armitage so much, because he upholds the integrity of the art form without being unreachable by the masses. His poems exist at the fringe of popular culture, dipping toes, dialoguing, touching on socio-political & even environmental issues without losing its characteristic style. In the poem In Praise of Air, the good in poetry manifests itself in a very tangible way.
“In May 2014 the University of Sheffield unveiled the world’s first catalytic poem. 20 metres in height, the poem is mounted on the wall of the Alfred Denny building on Western Bank. It is an original work by Sheffield University’s Professor of Poetry, Simon Armitage, and the result of a collaboration with Pro-Vice Chancellor for Science, Professor Tony Ryan. The giant banner on which the poem is printed has been manufactured using revolutionary nano-technology. It is coated with a photocatalyst which eats pollution, enabling the poem to clean the air around it as it sits in place, overlooking the busy A57.”
In Praise of Air was the first poem that Armitage read that afternoon. In a small chamber room at The Arts House, we listened as he read the 16-line poem in his slight, Yorkshire accent, enraptured at the way the words washed over all of us, knowing perfectly well what needed to be said & was said, & at the same time, being delightfully surprised by the warm, half-familiar feeling it gave anyway.
In Praise of Air
I write in praise of air. I was six or five
when a conjurer opened my knotted fist
and I held in my palm the whole of the sky.
I’ve carried it with me ever since.
Let air be a major god, its being
and touch, its breast-milk always tilted
to the lips. Both dragonfly and Boeing
dangle in its see-through nothingness…
Among the jumbled bric-a-brac I keep
a padlocked treasure-chest of empty space,
and on days when thoughts are fuddled with smog
or civilization crosses the street
with a white handkerchief over its mouth
and cars blow kisses to our lips from theirs
I turn the key, throw back the lid, breathe deep.
My first word, everyone’s first word, was air.