Reaching For Light


By Theophilus Kwek, 20 April 2016

TEN YEAR SERIES by Math Paper Press:
Tse Hao Guang, Deeds of Light (2015)
David Wong, For the End Comes Reaching (2015)

Launched at the Singapore Writers’ Festival in 2015, Ten Year Series (a new imprint of Math Paper Press) claims to usher in a new way of ‘making poetry and prose, Singapore-style’. By its own brief, the Series hopes to ‘apply Singapore-style structural discipline / madness’ to the making of literature, chiefly through a ‘bootcamp’ where selected manuscripts are subjected to no-holds-barred critique from publishers, academics, and editors. Having survived the intensive workshops, writers then whittle away at their books for several months and present them for publication. 

If all this seems to borrow from our city-state’s worst, homogenizing, habits, it is to the imprint’s credit that its first two titles are so tastefully distinct. Tse’s best pieces are erudite and generous, and fill the bounds of a well-chosen formal palette; Wong’s, conversely, are honest but well-cut, a delicate balance of abandon and restraint. On these merits, both demand – and reward – closer consideration.

Deeds of Light can be read as a series of musings on the urban landscape, but its virtues lie in being much more than social commentary done well. Its opening poem, ‘glass elevator’, experiments boldly with parentheses to explore the layers of contact between two city-dwellers. The transparent elevator, itself a metaphor for the unavoidable intimacy of a rush-hour commute, seems to bare all, but there is more to each individual’s routine that meets the eye:

(once I missed

my stop wondering about fri’s 

agenda (I saw you had 10 files & 

no Vogue)).

Tse’s boldness in personalizing what may seem strange or voyeuristic, and the unwavering clarity of his voice, are his strongest suits in tackling more difficult subjects. Whether he is discussing estrangement (‘Stance and Distance’), history (‘Unlike Bukit Ho Swee’), or liminality (‘East Coast Park’), these qualities allow him to describe, without demeaning, the contradictions of urban life.

‘All the Sounds of Mynahs’ is an exceptional piece where each line confronts what George Szirtes calls the ‘rich melancholy’ of life in Singapore. A ‘little boy, lost, decides to browse / unmarked back shelves of Sheng Siong’, and ‘finds a little nest’; while later, ‘at night, all the trees in town come alive / with all the sounds of mynahs’. Tse’s city is sensual, inventive within the strict form of its streets and laws, and full of alliterative music. But the finest moments of this collection occur in ‘Seven Thousand’, a sequence that leaves Singapore for the Philippines and takes the perspective of a man forced to dive for a living. Each section contains twelve lines, rearranged each time into a different configuration of rhyme and stanza, like a body finding ways to fit into a chair. This creates a current of discomfort that joins his opening prayer (‘For a dry December. For strength / for the pull up.’) with his final, posthumous blessing (‘Instead / of a dry December, I will send you strength.’)

For the End Comes Reaching is quite a different creation. If Tse looks outward to the city and beyond, Wong delves into the minutiae of experience, with an eye for finding meaning in the mundane. In ‘Shower Floor’, for example, the sight of an ‘upturned beetle, electrocuted fly’ is deftly unpacked to cast the poet, also a ‘metronome of blood and nerve endings’, as another ‘body struggling against what it has understood’. Another poem, ‘Hand-washed’, is less a study in laundry than in love: a man’s washed shirt has its ‘stains washed / but dirt only pushed to the edges’. Even in his treatments of seasons or places (such as ‘New Brunswick, New Jersey’), pithy lines like ‘you collected my hands like tinder, / tucked them in your coat pocket // and kissed me into a fire’ prove that Wong is a devil with the detail.  

Part III is, by far, the volume’s technical peak and emotional heart. Here, Wong addresses the death of his father in deeply personal poems such as ‘Chemo’, ‘Fever Pitch’, and ‘To Take Care of Your Mother’. Images like ‘It is night on your skin / where the needles swam’, or ‘go back into yourself / pretend your unbirth’ are more telling, and much less glib, than some of the intellectual excursions earlier in the book. The closing sequence, ‘Letters to Bone’, has a surpassing, hard-won beauty. From the control of the first section (‘Red Tulips’), where he tenderly sketches the ‘cells like red tulips / along his spine’, to the wrestling of the fifth (‘Your Father in Heaven’), where he begs God – ‘tell me, son to son: / is anything divine / to a waiting mind?’ – Wong brings us carefully towards the centre of his grief. A cathartic final section (‘Now I see the Sender of All Bones’) then releases the long-held tension as praise: ‘So I say wreak joy to my wreck when she asks is it today … it is today, it is today, / it is today’. It is impossible not to realize that we are in the presence of both a formidable poet and a courageous mind.

In terms of selection, guidance, and critique, an ecumenical approach has allowed both poets to hone their respective strengths, without producing the stylistic and thematic confluences that are often the result of sharing mentors and communities. It remains to be seen how the Series’ subsequent titles will balance the need for diversity against the centripetal forces of its editorial model. Its first volumes suggest there is much to hope for.