From Walden To Woodlands: An Anthology of Nature Poems, 2015, Ethos Books. Edited by Ow Yeong Wai Kit and Muzakkir Samat.
Initiated by two passionate young gentlemen—one a Muslim and the other a Buddhist—From Walden to Woodlands aims “to remedy the lack of an anthology of poems inspired by the diversity of faiths in Singapore” while “rais[ing] awareness about environmental issues, which often relate to deeper concerns in Singapore about vanished histories, memories, and ways of life.” Featuring entries from evergreen and budding poets alike, the anthology presents a latticework of interfaith perspectives on the Singaporean landscape. As a whole, the anthology boldly seeks to locate spiritual solace in natural surroundings: a philosophy made all the more impressive—and essential—given the recent debates over issues such as the Cross Island Line.
Even with this openly spiritual thrust, those looking for the heavy-handed thumping of any religious text will invariably be disappointed. Instead, the reader is enveloped by worlds that are deeply personal and never preachy, gardens both literal and figurative where the sacred is to be found in things as fundamental as “the perfect light angle” (“Walk to work”). The works range from the sumptuously lyrical and imagistic, to snapshots rich in both brevity and levity. To best illustrate the quality of the poems, here is a more detailed glimpse into a few selections from a collection that really should be enjoyed in its syncretic wholeness.
Nurul Wahidah’s “Rain ropes” is as much an act of embracing our ubiquitous tropical showers as it is a controlled exercise in linguistic play and enjambment. Indeed, the poem is far more intelligently self-reflexive than it seems to let on: the “t/inkling” rain is also a writerly “inkling” that percolates the page through Wahidah’s carefully partitioned verse. Never distastefully blatant, the poem’s form freely guides the reader without telling them what to read. For example, as she masterfully demonstrates by splitting her words diagonally across lines, “rain drops” can also be re-visioned as “rain ropes” that nourish (or “tend”) but also “ex/tend to the sky.” These same ropes subsequently tie the “steady tears” that “rain” in the poet’s eyes to the weeping clouds, coalescing into a singular utterance that may be reread in several ways: “steady tears rain/drope/yes.”
Where Wahidah turns to the sky, Grace Lim cites the Upper Thompson Road of her childhood as a major source of inspiration: “Within this scene, I felt like there were always these two paths which intersect. We have the boardwalk within the forest itself, and the other was a busy road (which used to be a racetrack) marching along the edges of the forest.” Formally, “Lower Pierce Reservoir” enacts the same tenuous crossings to map the relationship between humanity and nature. As the poet points out, the poem can be read from top to bottom, but also in a loose left-to-right manner that connects its first two sections—titled “Nature” and “Man”—which are located on opposite pages in a clever gesture of typographical play. The poem thus gives the reader the literal space to either forge or dismantle the links between the two entities. I also found Lim’s images richly ambiguous, allowing for the same tentative interplay between the faces of nature and humanity. For instance, she describes “Mothers cradling babies in soft, furred hands/as fists wave from strollers.” The polyvalent line evokes both “the brown and white-faced monkeys” and human passersby (“strollers” pushing baby strollers), the latter of whom may not always react favourably to their primate cousins despite common narratives of motherhood and other “needs we still share.” As the poem so aptly states, it rethinks—and perhaps unravels—“the tenuous connections that stretch between Us and It.”
Like so many other poems in this anthology, Zhang Jieqiang’s haiku cycle “Tenors” is alluringly elusive in its brevity. Complementing the crisp economy of the haiku form, Zhang efficiently presents his subjects in a sporadic manner that birdwatchers are undoubtedly all too familiar with. The birds are never present in their entirety, manifesting only as fleeting traces: “a skylark warbles,” “a sleeping oriole’s wingtip, “a shadow,” “A blue jay’s feather.” To me, Zhang’s economical language thus acknowledges the shortsightedness of a human persona whose limited perspectives can never apprehend nature completely. Complementing this, the cycle teases out the residual echo of a full rhyme scheme that gradually intensifies into being as the haiku unfold. For example, the tentative “s” consonance in “fence” and “warbles” evolves into the recurrent “dow” that binds “shadow” to “window.” Subsequently, these faint glimpses of a rhyme scheme reify themselves into complete reconciliation and security, as the poem resolves into a kind of omnipresent sight/site with masculine rhymes in the final haiku (“say,” “jay,” “way”). Indeed, the staccato snapshots of birds are not rendered as disparate fragments in their palpable flight from the text. Rather, they stand as counterpoints merging into a concordant harmony: as Zhang writes, it soon becomes clear that all are “Tenors of God’s way.”
From neatly-tilled haiku to the freest of verse, the contributors collectively irrigate a discursive landscape that is both polymorphous and provocative. That said, the book’s greatest strength—its syncretic diversity—is perhaps also its weakness as not all poems in the anthology are equal. For example, though most of the works evoke poignant imagery, I feel as if some would benefit from more consideration with regards to lineation and rhyme. Others feature lines in both Singlish and standard English, but unfortunately some of the works which do make use of local vernacular come across as mechanically stiff in print. Still, as poetry and as social commentary that taps into its Singaporean roots, From Walden to Woodlands undoubtedly (un)covers new ground, and will hopefully catalyse further growth and development in the local writing scene.
From Walden to Woodlands is available online from Ethos Books.