Amateur and student poetry – the two are not the same but have sufficient overlaps to often be considered inter-changeable – are often beheld with trepidation. What new insights can they bring to the themes of loss and love, the reader must often wonder. So it is with similar apprehension that this reviewer approached the present collection. Ostensibly a publishing project that stemmed from Nanyang Technological University’s creative writing programme and poetry workshops in Singapore, Kepulauan – more about the title shortly – has taken a life of its own, independent of its content’s guided, academic origins. The poems on show here are, mercifully, free of the trite classroom demands for that precise balance between technique, image-making and faux-profundity. It helps, certainly, that many of the featured poets are not new to the game; some of them have experienced relative degrees of publication success.
The title, Kepulauan, is perhaps the only thing about the collection that reveals the scholarly roots of these poems. The word, Malay for ‘archipelago,’ is derived from an in-joke about the remoteness of the NTU campus’s location. But it is also an extended trope for the simultaneous separateness and interdependence that lay at the heart of insularity itself – island-states, the poetic consciousness, human introspection. And this anchor is also what gives Kepulauan’s gathering of 79 poems and 27 poets a comfortable sense of coherence. With each poet given four to five pages to showcase their work, Kepulauan is surprisingly unencumbered by thematic disparity that might have been expected from a collection of its kind. Credit is due the editors for keeping the organisational principle simple – and arbitrary: the poets are organised alphabetically. Islands, we are reminded, remain affixed in position but their energies and the way they relate with each other can be as fluid and dynamic as their inherent reserves can muster.
And it is in the flux between poems and poets that Kepulauan really comes alive as a collection worth repeated reading. To be sure, those concerns about love and loss are there – as are the deep stores of youthful anxiety and sensual exploration that accompany a cast as we have here. Consider, for example, the opening of Cheryl Julia Lee’s “The Fire Came the Year Before But I am only Just Gathering Ashes” – a title which alone is worth the cover price:
— from the hearth which we
out of the bones of old lovers
and the things we stole from them. (50)
The poems bear no pretension of world-changing or path-making impulse, but they do hold together an alluring effect of compelling a change in our response to the lived world, of bright-eyed acceptance of a world still with much to offer to the imagination, if nothing else.
Here is a healthy indication that poetry in Singapore is capable of emptying itself of the easy comforts of the Confessional mode, or the predictable rage over authority, identity – and the poisonous aura of persecution complex. Here are poets daring to let go of the security of emotional projections, to take on matter more spiritual, even verging on the visionary: “So, glowing, you slide through the world. […] You who allow even pain to become prayer.” (Diana Rahim, “After the Healing”, 44) To be fair, these attempts to reach beyond the merely emotional are not without risks, but they are not undertaken uninhibited. And each poet is clearly aware of the trade-offs that the poetic experience necessitates:
Adam, Eve, and fifty other failed experiments.
To touch God is to lift a grain of soil.
Fill a well with a puddle of tears.
Groundsoaked. (Crispin Rodrigues, “Kilimanjaro”, 42)
Certainly, there is more to the poems in Kepulauan than these examples of addressing the various states of heightened awareness that the writing process brings along.
The quality of the writing being of a generally high level, the poems are able to enter the reading mind unintrusively, to set in motion a re-negotiation of our relationship with our own received experience. The poems may have their own preoccupations, but they are never too busy to forget that the reader is at the other end of the line, in many sense of the word: “What matters is a place to rest […] the street is a street, the lamppost a lamppost, the pigeons pigeons, and you leaving us a fact of matter.” (Zhang Jieqiang, “Showdown”, 145) We take comfort, even in these closing moments of the collection, that we – even we – are perfectly formed islands, never fully excluded from the archipelago of humanity, no matter the distance.
Kepulauan: A Collection of Poems. ed. Zhang Jieqiang, Hidhir Razak, and Marcus Tan Yi-hern. Ethos: Singapore, 2014.
Lim Lee Ching