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Beautiful Bruising from Bitter Punches

Beautiful Bruising from Bitter Punches

by Salome Choa

Loh Guan Liang, Bitter Punch, 2016, Ethos Books

Loh Guan Liang’s Bitter Punch is divided into five chapters or sections, starting with “Prologue”, then followed by “Like Chinese Ghosts”, “Blunt Trauma”, “Listening Alone” and “Point of Return”. A quick scan of the content page and my eye catches familiar words and phrases: “Ah Lian”, “Wayang Kulit”, “Yum Seng”, “BTO” segmented comfortably from poems titled “For The New Facebook User” and “Like and Share”, which are themselves separated from poems in the last section, with the poem “The Ghazal of Confusion” peeking out from the rest. I prepare myself for a local cultural whine.

I read “Prologue” – a single haiku entitled “Give and Take” – into my expectations, as it opens the book with the push and pull factors of interaction with our spaces, or perhaps more specifically, places. I get the sense that Loh wrote this while observing a pug take a piss on a turtle soup sign (the poem is about a pug taking a piss on a turtle soup sign), a brief moment immortalised. I feel that I am being pre-empted for personae in the subsequent poems that don’t “give a shit”.

The next poem, “Chinese Boxes”, is a series of three prose poems, and combined with “Afterlife”, these poems do not mourn the death of the people in the boxes, but the unhappy disturbance of space and traditional symbols as an unwilling revenant. I think I am right: it is a cultural whine – the second death of culture, the resurrection of culture as kitsch.

But then Loh starts including snapshots of the 'hes' and 'shes' that inhabit these spaces: “the Chinese uncle/ with his cart of burning sand” (“96”), the faceless-nameless construction worker (“Coolie”), “the.old.lady.who.reads.with.her.hands.” (“sleight.of.hand”). These visual flashes are not grumbles or half-disguised dissatisfied mutterings, but observations forming a composite image of the fractured city. From the streets, to the corridors, behind closed doors to the forgotten stores and shrinking sizes behind perceived walls, Loh attempts to account for the ghosts spiriting these spaces. The subjects of Loh’s descriptive poetry are outlines of the people in the city, unknown but for their actions – “a mother walking with her dog and son” (“Remote Control”), lovers throwing “hurried kisses thawing between dreams” (“The Night Before”) – and as the moment moves away from the scene, the people that make up the city disappear.

By the time Bitter Punch reaches its third section, “Blunt Trauma”, Loh steps away from the unknown men and women on familiar streets, pushing his way unblushingly into the small space between lovers. Poems that balance on the lips of love even out others that consummate the discourse boldly. While poems in “Like Chinese Ghosts” generally focus on people as part(s) of the city, the poems that make up “Blunt Trauma” zoom in on the small everyday found in the complexities and messiness of love – wedding toasts (“Yum Seng”), “prefabricated walls” (“BTO”), dining tables (“Buying Furniture”), “taut hips [that] softened/ into a woman” (“Rebonding”).

Although I am tempted to chart a loose chronology in this section, starting with a wedding and ending in the dull ache of separation, “Blunt Trauma” is too ruffled to allow that. Loh describes the emotional, physical, practical and even lexical nature of love and romancing. As the section’s title suggests, pain pervades the poems, and this ties them together almost haphazardly. Even “Listening to the Sea”, which savours the fleshly gratification of the body, persists in holding on to a sense of devastation, as tongues “tangle and crash/ and forget/ the shore”. Yet these love-wounds within the poems aren’t sharp cuts but bruises, leaving the blood beneath the skin.

I get the sense that emotional energy is spent in the previous section and a cooler take on interaction in “Listening Alone” is required. A number of poems are centred on social media, and read alone, “Listening Alone” seems to be focused on tiptoeing around the distance between relationships. But the poems that are based on works of art seem to suggest that it is the interaction with the things we see, read, and touch that Loh is concerned with. We may be listening – or reading, watching, and feeling – alone, not in the way of loneliness, but in a manner of self-reflection because the world seems to be “a delicate/ yearning floating on strings, where children/ show you pencil houses and crayon trees” (“On Reading Your Poems”).

This acknowledgement of our interaction with language – written, spoken and visual – then segues neatly into “Point of Return” and its attention to education and learning, of conversation and becoming. It seems that the title of the section is an ironic nomenclature, as the poems dabble more with the idea of departure than return; its focus on death and even schooling suggests a movement away from, rather than a motion back to. Loh’s poems here state rather than show how the departure is also the return: “we also finish each sentence/ with a dot, except that it winds back/ to itself, the point of departure/ almost touching the point of return。” (“追 (Pursuit)”).

Bitter Punch communicates through its play of language and form a sense of the incisive distance we have with each other in a city space. Footnotes explaining local terms at once reveal its foreign-ness while hinting at how it connects those who have a common understanding of them. The mostly page-long poems settle in the space of the page, stretching out each line or rearranging them with ample emptiness in-between. While I hesitate to point out notes of sweetness in Bitter Punch, the hardness of the poetry is tempered by the pliancy of its words, words that almost seem to revel in themselves as they look at the city. 

You can purchase Bitter Punch here or borrow a copy from local public libraries.