Maps In Motion


By Ruth Tang, 4 May 2016

Ethos Books (2015)

George Szirtes, Singapore Notebook & Blessed Isle  
Grace Chia, The Cuckoo Conundrum  
Jean Tay, Saint  
Timothy O'Grady, Belfast  
Yong Shu Hoong, Right of the Soil   

Two of the five NTU-NAC residency chapbooks are extracts from works in progress; the other three, perhaps because of the form, presume completeness but seem also to beg expansion, or incorporation into some larger pattern that remains latent. In this sense, therefore – and not only because of their chapbook form or their presentation as a set – I consider all of them (as) excerpts, and only one in detail, in order to do justice to one rather than none within the word limit. Tay's Saint is, rather cruelly, "the second act of a two-act play" set in a detention centre on Saint John's Island; O'Grady's Belfast is a chapter from a novel in progress. The other three are short story, poetry collection and journal entry respectively, all concerned with various questions of belonging and assimilation: Chia's Cuckoo Conundrum, Yong's Right of the Soil, and Szirtes' Singapore Notebook.

Of these, the last is perhaps the most interesting and the most finely constructed in terms of its ability to shift from moment to moment, anticipating but never merely meeting expectation and reader response. The journal-entry format and the meticulous footnotes – which at the beginning seem to note quite unnecessary detail – slowly changes shape. At the start it strikes one as indulgent, possibly even grating on a local (Singaporean) reader who may be entirely justified in some irritation at the typical familiar-not-familiar rendering of the Singapore landscape, accompanied by the usual observations about weather, food, and authoritarianism. I count up my irritations. The quiet politeness too aware it is masquerading as private voice while playing a completely public function ('I don't want to disparage anything'; 'it is good to be here'). The oddly condescending tone that passes judgment without discernment (of the winning poems in a competition for migrant workers, '[s]ome are particularly moving but all are moving'; of young poets here: 'Clever, almost anxiously so sometimes, but more. More what? We shall see.'). The constant rendering-through-another comparisons that remake Bugis into 'a kampong version of Covent Garden'.

But I prove to be the fool in having made that list: these very aspects of the journal turn on itself as novelty passes into experience. Szirtes wonders 'whether I am writing about Singapore itself… or indeed about some UK analogy with Singapore', and perhaps it is also true that Singapore is after all itself an analogy hastily cobbled together. A street name from here, a lie from there, and a district materializes. It could be anywhere at all. The footnotes disappear; Szirtes: 'it's probably best to read me rather than hear me… Got that? Those are my best footnotes, right there.' For all that it says both too little and too much – we see 'X, poet and old friend', but if it were important the text would have shown it, and even what is shown is insufficient. 'Poet and old friend', but what else? Szirtes' 'best footnote' must contain information about himself in order to achieve that status, rather than the glancing, superfluous observation that the actual footnotes do. The politeness, too, finds a point in its own artificiality where everything runs over: 'More profusion. Stall after stall offering variations on a profusion of dishes. A profusion of people of a profusion of cultures sitting at a profusion of tables by the profuse yet single, quietly thrumming sea.'

Elsewhere in the set the landscape is similarly various, if not as self-aware: in Yong's Right of the Soil, the question is one of belonging and (SG50 looming inescapably) nationhood, and the answer always deferred as something that cannot be conveyed, or at least not in this chosen mode: 'Did I not also advise/ my students that the beauty/ of poetry is not what's there, /but what's not there?' ('Tracing'). What poetry can do, Yong suggests, is make hidden violence visible, as the recurring image of the surfacing corpse makes clear: a 'boutique hotel… built over a killing field' ('Obsidian'); the 'corpses/ of missing persons reappearing' ('Dry Spells'); the 'missing body of… [a] hawker… encrusted 13/ storeys below' ('Right of the Soil').

In O'Grady's Belfast, set in 1970s Northern Ireland, violence is text and its reworking into narrative the subtext. The brutal assault of a man crossing the road is rendered in terms of the 'forty-nine minutes' it had taken him to cross the road. Like the cat the narrator imagines different each time, the imperfectly rendered drawing, the pipe-playing old man in the night, the organizing principle is the approximation of language in the non-linguistic, the tune that is 'more like speech than music.'

In Chia's Cuckoo Conundrum, the stable, hidden core of the self, existing in the in-between position – 'outsiders and insiders of two countries' – is expressible only in the structure of reversal and non-belonging, and not in the actual words used in its construction. And the convict's letter twice-concealed in Tay's Saint stands for the uselessness of the language that is spoken.

As with much of literature, therefore, the set concerns itself with the need to move beyond language – either of what it hides or reveals or falls short of addressing. Szirtes, again: 'As time passes we impose the maps we prefer on what which we think we know… But what if the map itself is in motion?' Therefore – the world is always more than what we think of it. More what? We shall see.

The residency chapbooks are available online and in leading bookstores.