Theophilus Kwek’s 2011 debut, They Speak Only Our Mother Tongue, had announced the arrival of a unique and authentic voice who wrote beyond the usual tropes that have come to be identified with Singaporean writing: identity, memory, nostalgia, victimhood, and so on. Here was a poet, all of the ripe old age of 18, writing with the assured voice of an ancient laureate. Circle Line (2014) built on the artistic achievements by picking up the themes that Kwek had laid before his readers.
They Speak Only Our Mother Tongue had largely been about the anchors that make possible the intellectual, emotional and poetic construction of the poet, embodied by such familiar presences as family, personal relationships, and self-awareness about youthful naïvety. Circle Line extends from this by exploring the tentative flirtations with adulthood in the face of change – both personal and circumstantial – with the energy emerging from the tensions between location and re-location, with arrivals rather than departures. And it did so successfully, if in an unfussed manner that seems to also characterise the writing, much to the relief of the readership.
At a quick glance, the concerns that Kwek deals with should suggest a poetry that is marked by narrowness of scope, limited by perspectives, settings and experience. Yet, poem after poem tells us otherwise. The poems suggest an underlying, and deep, familiarity with a poetic tradition that ranges from the classical to the globally contemporary. There is an avoidance – conscious or otherwise – of being bound by the neatness of socio-political frames. Kwek’s poems have a way of revealing an internationalist impulse (although, an explorer’s spirit might come closer as a description) despite the geographical specifics that allow him to situate, and chart, his poetic vision.
It is in this context, and along the trajectory of Kwek’s development as a poet, that we approach his third collection, Giving Ground. Here, any hint of anxiety we could point to in the earlier collections, are no longer present. Perhaps it is the extended period of being away from family and Singapore. Perhaps it is the intellectual refinements of university education. Perhaps it is even the hallowed halls of Oxford that are resonating within and between the poems. What is certain is that the poems here have gained an additional spiritual – not necessarily religious – dimension that has made the writing into something approximating the timeless, despite the poet’s best efforts to ground the pieces in specificity.
He sees no incongruity, for example, in juxtaposing the “Here He is, still. God of the distance / and river’s overflow” of “Psalm 19” (67) with the universal complexities of sibling rivalry – its non-zero-sum consequences; its simultaneously inclusive and exclusive tendencies – of “Foreign Relations” (68-69). The latter poem, in particular, is a good example of the bravery of taking on a familiar subject for Singaporeans, and turning it into a larger meditation that does not pretend to serve any purpose (or solve anything) other than as a reflection on mutuality. Where others would have seized on the moment to locate the political in day-to-day drama, Kwek turns things around by seizing art and poetry from the political.
And he is not beyond extending the echoes of returning to where it matters most: with the psalmist’s vulnerability and certitude, he wills “the water in the wall / crackling through our landline like the sea // to call us home again” – if only for a weekend. (69)
Reading Giving Ground is like opening the pages of a well-used passport, with each page telling a continuing story, and yet with each containing also an autonomous experience that stands up on its own. There they all are: the British heartlands and North, Shanghai, Beijing, Jerusalem, the Vatican, Dublin, Singapore. While it may be easy for the reader to resort to envious dismissal of a young man’s wanderlust, the poet himself is several steps ahead of us, acknowledging the deep-seated complications that must accompany the experience:
we must do more than peer, put maps away,
better to make some stumbling through
squares which take as many minutes as years,
long gardens filled with unfallen leaves, to sit
in churches, or dance with statues, and all the
other things we do in cities we love. If only
to sign ourselves towards knowing that here,
wrapped, in this abridged place is a core that
others have settled in or for. (“Amsterdam”, 30)
This sensitivity to the obligations that are necessitated by opportunities speaks to a larger sensibility that informs Giving Ground, as well as reminds us of a continuity that we can trace back to his first collection. Here, we are reminded of the sense of place with which the best poets are constantly occupied and grappling. Giving Ground affirms Theophilus Kwek’s early promise, and signals that he is well on his way. That passport is going to need more pages.
Theophilus Kwek. Giving Ground. Singapore: Ethos, 2016.
Lim Lee Ching