I saw this book and loved it at first sight. How could I not with its poems about Singapore?
It is called Words: Poems Singapore and Beyond and edited by Edwin Thumboo.
As luck would have it, the very first page I opened had a poem by him about the transformation of Singapore. The poem, Island, begins like a fairy tale:
There was a quiet island,
With a name.
You must believe me
When I say that sunlight,
Impure but beautiful,
Broke upon the bay, silvered
The unrepentant, burning noon,
There were persons in this place
Too young to know the sea;
Haroun, who followed crab and tide
To keep the spray out of his eyes.
Their father in his bid
To make a proper life,
Lived the way his father did.
Mangrove and palm,
Unfold in brittle shades of green,
Houses on stilts, boats drawn up
The sand, the makeshift pier, village shop,
Smoke from kitchen fires,
All frame a picture.
But images change…
The poem ends with a description of modern Singapore:
Aminah, Haroun now reside in flats,
Go to school while father
Learns a trade
Along Shipyard Road,
Not far from Bird Park,
A new song in the air:
Cranes and gantries rise;
Dynamo and diesel hum.
Men in overalls and helmets
Wield machines, consulting plans.
A welder's torch explodes
Into a rush of stars;
Rivets are hammered home till
Hulls of steel emerge…
It is a powerful poem, rich in imagery and social commentary.
Memorable, too, are some of the shorter poems. Here Wong May recalls the wonder of childhood in Only the Moon:
When I was a child I thought
The new moon was a cradle
The full moon was granny's round face
The new moon was a banana
The full moon was a big cake.
When I was a child
I never saw the moon.
I only saw what I wanted to see.
And now I see the moon
It's the moon,
Only the moon, and nothing but the moon.
You can feel the loss of wonder in the last line.
Another poet who blends powerful imagery with dry realism is Koh Buck Song. He soars to dizzy heights in High Rise. This is how the poem begins:
when night has fully drawn
its veil of darkness
across a livid sky,
when the stars have settled
into their turn
to take silent vigil,
to the top
and look there
where tiny cars
streaks of light,
across a canvas of quiet…
It is spectacular, but then comes the hard landing. The poet ends on a rueful note about comfort zones:
it's odd, isn't it?
the way perspective divides,
and the thought
of traversing gaps
is too much for the mind
so we return,
find our own level,
gravitate back towards
our allotted niches
some are not used to looking long:
it's something to be learned.
Kirpal Singh reflects on the power of words in My Tree:
Inside, these words conceal deep resonances
Outside they are but, simply, words.
The publisher, Eros Books, has done a great job bringing out this book. But will it please put some of the poems online? These are poems that really speak to us.
I was moved by the poem, Printing Money, by Toh Hsien Min, about his father and himself. He begins:
As my dad used to say whenever he
thought we were spending all his thrift,
do you think I print money? I didn't really
know at that time whether to take him seriously.
I mean, I was six, maybe seven. My concept of
money extended to what I got for wanton mee
at school recesss only, and everything else I
asked for knowing who would give it but not
what this person would do to give it to me…
And then he cuts to the insecurities of life in the modern world, which has little use for the old and where money is everything.
in the deserts of hard work, years and years
with the same employer, saving money by
fixing the blinds and electrical extensions himself,
Never quite recovered when his firm let him go,
Three years before his retirement age. Now that I've aged
also, and the difference between a good year
and a bad year is a greenback hedge, I know.
My dad doesn't print money, but someone out there
does. It all revolves on being on the right side
of that ocean-equation, whether you're holding Treasuries
and knowing how to deploy the funds you haven't got.
Someone's got to lose, just as somewhere in the world
the stratonimbus plan a margin-call, and elsewhere
beneath molten sky unwearied Namibians speak again
of the season of dry water, stretching endlessly
before them, shimmering like silver, one remove
from the hard-tack stop-loss of the ground,
that forgiving, undernourished, ageless ground.
It is a complex poem, referring to the world of business and commerce, childhood and the environment, but that is what makes it true to life. This is the world we live in.
I liked two other collections of poems about Singapore:
- Over There: Poems from Singapore and Australia, edited by Alvin Pang and John Kinsella
- Reflecting on the Merlion: An Anthology of Poems, edited by Edwin Thumboo and Yeow Kai Chai, and co-edited by Enoch Ng, Isa Kamari, and Seetha Lakshmi. It was published by Singapore's National Arts Council last year.