Striving for Perfection
In every object there is inexhaustible meaning: the eye sees in it what the eye brings means of seeing.
Thomas Carlyle, The French Revolution
It is so much easier to read about poetry than to read it. In much the same way, it is harder to write about poetry than to read it. To do justice to both the poet and the poems, a critic must do a certain amount of soul-searching as well as engage in a critical review.
Felix Cheong, a Singaporean poet who was the recipient of the National Arts Council’s Young Artist of the Year for Literature Award in 2000, has matured as a poet. Broken by the Rain, illustrates a new level of sharpened sensibilities in his writing. The structural framework of the poems require reading some of the poems a few times over, something I, as both a reader and a critic, would not have cared to do with his earlier collection, I watch the stars go out . This has less to do with lack of clarity as to greater depth and finesse, executed by an ex-journeyman who has begun to find his niche. While showing a lot of promise, Cheong has not “arrived”, but this latest collection shows he is well on the road to getting there. Several poems show much verve and insight as well as a promise of greater things to come from this talented poet.
Whereas the idea of a Greater Being permeates through most of his earlier works, his current poetic themes are earthier and empathise with the “scums of society”. Some of his poems are clearly conversations of himself, as a poet, with God:
Father, my words kneel before you,
Having nowhere to go
When I pry the palms of my poems,
I do not recognise them ( meditations , 51)
Though written in the form (though not the style) of a couplet, the poem reads better as continuous sentences of a poet’s lamentations in his inability to achieve the perfection of God’s creation. However, he discovers an uneasy truce with his poetic self by echoing the voice of the Enlightenment philosophers and early Romantics like Wordsworth (in his Lyrical Ballads) when he decided in the poem of the collection’s title that
neither iron nor names
hewn to the bone,
but the losses I cut
when I know it’s due
to call a stone a stone. (page 46)
The echoes of the ideas of the Enlightenment philosophers like Locke within this poem are obeisance of the ones that resonate through the voices of modernists and postmodernist poets of the past generations. It is within this underlying theme that Cheong has weaved and wefted poems that range from raw emotions to more intricately crafted art. The final and longest poem summarises the idea of human vulnerability and the building of an emotional barrier, the subtext that has emanated from his earthy poems. In fact, two poems, one from the first person narrative of a stripper:
I have to get up
There, get on with the act
and not let my feelings show;
make a show of my body,
its bloom and laced sexuality,
and not let it characterise me.
This skin I wear as a job
has nothing you have not seen
before, but everything to hide-
my name, my mask,
severed nerves still throbbing
as I open my self up. (The stripper, page 30
While the opening of the stanza poem is somewhat hesitant, as if unsure of how to proceed, the succeeding stanzas portrays a stripper who begins to relax when relating the nuts and bolts of her (I assume this to be a woman) “shameful” profession. In this poem, the stripper is ashamed of her work, though she hides it behind a mask of nonchalance and by the maxim of “don’t think too hard.” Her shame has to do with how society at large views her work, even in the supposedly more “progressive” one. And now, looking at the next poem, that also speaks of the stripper and lap dancer, Cheong gives a third (or maybe second?) person account of a bystander (or client?) on the work of a stripper named Joanna:
She’ll be there tonight, at Showgirls. Joanna’s her name. A stripper with such abundance that only youth knows. The way she twists herself on the floor, flinging off clothes like cocoons. All of twenty years and everything a leap into the light. Oh, the madness of a human spectacle. ( dancer from the dance , page 65)
While the style is might be nondescript, when read against the formerly mentioned poem, it provides a kaleidoscope to the human psyche. The idea of shame is literally emblazoned across the poem the Prostitute . However, the feminist among the readers might question the legitimacy of such evocations.
There are a few poems that evoke a sort of metaphysical eroticism, slightly reminiscent of Donne and Marvell, with the one quoted here more potently crafted than the others. In this poem, eyes, we see the intersection between a poem, an auditory organ and the inevitable female-figure. Though it does not transcend into the realm of the metaphysical, bereft of the playful adroitness of Donne, it utilises the template that Donne might have claim as precedence to his earlier works.
Watching your eyes,
a man could lay down a life
and let his poem unfold-
how he must have laid
and unfolded the woman once,
like a poem he thought he knew (page 53)
Another good adjacency pairing of poems are from his treatment of the wife beater and the long-suffering wife. Here is the voice of the hardened and violent man in first person:
Nothing it has not tried
and tired of ties that knot
to the bitter end
children’s tantrums by day,
woman’s bark at night
that can’t be tempered
by booze of fuck- ( the wife-beater’s story , page 28)
and then there is the wife, driven to the edge of her sanity and forbearance, and Cheong gives her voice in first person:
come any nearer,
and I’ll make this knife talk,
swear it in your guts, cut you up
and make you dinner
for the dogs,
which is what you are
and where you belong ( I’ll make this knife talk , page 30)
While Cheong gives the husband the eloquence of a man who feels justified in his actions, he provided poetic justice to the wife by allowing her to speak her raw anger to both the audience and her tormenter. This is indeed one of his more sublime and emotive works.
A read through this collection brings you in contact with a poet who has done much to hone his craft and who is in the process of discovering multi-faceted voices, some polished with others leaving much room for improvement. Cheong brings to us the voice of a social and spiritual conscience, one that could be reckoned with.