On Displacement and Nostalgia in the Poetry of Philip Larkin and Boey Kim Cheng’s ‘Clear Brightness’
Poetry can sometimes be harnessed in the spirit of nostalgia to begin the difficult task of capturing and shaping memory. In Shawn Hoo’s essay comparing Philip Larkin and Boey Kim Cheng, he traces how both poets engage in the act of memory in their poetry, using it as a starting point to “[negotiate] the distance between their initial positions […] and current ones”. In comparing how their respective nostalgias are projected, this essay shows how both poets begin “somewhere else” in time and place, moving through memory to locate themselves in an ever-changing present, one “perhaps only ever recoverable in art and in writing”.
A common preoccupation with displacement in both Philip Larkin and Boey Kim Cheng’s speakers invites us to read them in the vein of nostalgia. This nostalgia is always negotiating the distance between their initial positions – be it an English childhood (Larkin) or an immediate post-independent Singapore (Boey) – and their current ones, resisting the easy restoration of their past in the face of change and time. Yet their common dislocation varies in form: while Boey observed in Between Stations of a state “between memory and imagination, between forgetting and remembering, between home and home”, Larkin notes how living in Hull satisfies his “need to be on the periphery of things”. Thus, where Boey’s agency in emigration is read as liminal and transitional, it is set against Larkin’s Hull-bound fatalism, marked by his peripheral and outsider status.
Larkin’s speakers often employ the past rhetorically to comment on the present: free of rosy retrospection, they display a temperament of being “less deceived”. In ‘Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album,’ the past is conjured through the specific medium of photography, and is by extension a self-reflexive comment on the act of nostalgia as self-indulgent:
“Too much confectionery, too rich: I choke on such nutritious images.
My swivel eye hungers from pose to pose –”
While photographs can constantly feed us visuals, it cannot be said to satiate the eye. The speaker’s retrospective journey to a time with his former romantic interest is described first with an excess of gustatory images, only to culminate in the synaesthetic description of the hungry eye. From “pose to pose”, the eye registers the artificiality of the captured moment and the frame through which we perceive our past. Larkin’s ambivalence towards nostalgia hinges on his double meaning of “choke” as evoking both the idea of sensory overload and an emotional reaction of crying. This ambivalence is taken further as photography is declared as “Faithful and disappointing!” Photography, for Larkin, thus presents only what is “empirically true”: the unfulfilling past without opportunity for distortion or embellishment, a nostalgia of pure disillusionment.
Boey’s speakers more readily embrace the ambivalence of remembering, returning to the past not just to retrieve but also to receive new meanings. In similar gustatory terms found in ‘Soup,’ he finds “Memory boiled down to the rich stock/ of tender images.” Here, memory does not overwhelm but serves as both essence and a repository to evoke a past. In that evocation, people take the foreground and we find Grandmother “Bracing tonic, fortifying broth that gave the gleam/ to our eyes, the colour in our lips.” The act of making soup thus stands in for the act of remembering, where each return “[braces]” and “[fortifies]” the past to exert a stronger presence in the ‘here’. Boey accepts and understands the embellishing nature of memory that provides “the gleam” and “colour”. Such an act does not conjure the faithfulness of memory but the inevitable necessity of remembering that “[keeps] us/ coming back”.
If Larkin’s past lies “Smaller and clearer as the years go by”, in an image that reminds us of time as unsentimental, forward travel – Boey has his “clarity born/ of long brewing”, that continuous bubbling and dwelling that allows memory to sharpen in taste with time.
Thus, when Larkin’s train passes his birthplace, Coventry, he reminisces about his “unspent” childhood in a museum curator parody of nostalgia and its loquacity:
“By now I’ve got the whole place clearly charted.
Our garden, first: where I did not invent
Blinding theologies of flowers and fruits,
And wasn’t spoken to by an old hat.
And here we have that splendid family
I never ran to when I got depressed … ”
The nostalgia here as defined by its absences allows us to read the title ‘I Remember, I Remember’ as both ironic and mocking the speaker’s friend for being ignorant and deceived by the idea of one’s roots and origins. The Edenic image is undermined along with the concept of a beginning we can easily return to. Larkin’s birthplace is emptied of meaningful relationships and are reduced to caricatures of “an old hat”, “that splendid family”, etc.
Compared to Larkin’s recounting of absences, Boey prefers populating his poems with geographically-specific contexts. His generous sequence of poems in ‘To Markets’ and ‘Chinatowns’ are thoughtful meditations on family and country. In the former suite, the speaker’s westward travel from Glebe to Madrid takes him further from both Singapore and Australia, but only so as to make a return. The speaker observes in travel something “wired to a need/ that will pass you on to another want” (Glebe). What begins as a necessary undertaking to understand one’s dislocation continues as a compulsion driven by desire and deliberate attempts to see what displacement can achieve. Whilst the general direction of his travel is clear, the speaker still undertakes what we can call a ‘wandering away’, a sentiment echoed in the speaker’s “float/ on the river of bodies, from stall to stall” (Kuala Lumpur). Though each sonnet is located in the particularity of its place, the markets encountered are faintly reminiscent of each other: from the “bootleg cassettes unreeling” (Change Alley) to “the fake Guccis, the Rolexes, the brands/ an empire of signs unreeling” (Kuala Lumpur) to “repeating stalls peddling fake imperial coins,/ bronze Monkey and gods” (Xian), the markets are both recognised as distinct and reiterated as universal. They exist as “bootlegs”, “fake”, and “repeating” – a circulation of signs summarised in the rhyming couplet that closes Glebe – “you are holding your father’s hand,/ the world before you, and you don’t want it to end.” Boey’s use of the second-person creates an emotional distance while retelling a personal memory, conjuring his father’s presence in an altogether different place, encountering the memory as a different person.
This conjured spectre of lost people is also seen in ‘Ahead My Father Moves,’ as Boey resurrects the memory of the 1970s where Boey and his father “have not lost/ each other or the city.” The travel back to an old Singapore is imaginary, “each puff/ a genie’s breath materialising”, but it is only in this act of poetic recollection that he can re-create the past as real as it is transient. Where Boey’s speaker moves back, his father moves ahead – in the rhythmic limbo “past/ the end to the beginning, the beginning/ to end”, constantly revisiting the site of loss and possession.
Boey’s travel poems are therefore always alluding to the Singapore and the ties he leaves behind. Other worlds make sense to him only through Singapore as his reference point; simultaneously, Singapore is interpreted through the prism of foreign places. His poems claim an impulse for travel and new cities reminiscent of Marco Polo’s stories to Kublai Khan in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities:
“And Polo said: “Everytime I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.”
“To distinguish the other cities’ qualities, I must speak of a first city that remains implicit. For me it is Venice.”
By the end of the suite, Boey’s speaker becomes accustomed to the grammar of these global markets, “their touch no longer foreign/ but a language you have learned in another life”, as they materialise into “a lost poem that has wandered this far to find you” (Marrakesh). This inversion of the wandering poem finding the traveller frames Boey’s journey as one of self-discovery where the past – an irretrievable Singapore, his father – renders itself palpable in the present.
The wanderlust in Boey’s poems is matched up perhaps only at best by Larkin’s ‘The Importance of Elsewhere’, where “strangeness made sense”. This is not in the same way that foreignness provokes dissonance and encourages a sense of return in Boey, since Larkin conclusively asserts that “Lonely in Ireland, since it was not home/ … went/ to prove me separate, not unworkable.” If he felt a perpetual misfit in England, he revelled in his status as outsider in Ireland where he could at least justify his otherness as a fault of the place.
Buried under Larkin’s trained cynicism, we can still detect a desire for belonging. Beneath an awareness of his dislocation is an implicit knowledge of his accountability towards “my [his] customs and establishments” where a refusal would be a “serious” disavowal of his personal and cultural identity. The abstract epiphany reached at the end of the poem is typical of Larkin and is characterised by his ambivalent relation towards his country. “Here no elsewhere underwrites my existence”, the speaker pronounces, at once questioning the legitimacy of his existence within England yet showing an implicit understanding of having to work at securing his existence within his own country.
There is “The salt rebuff of speech./ Insisting so on difference” that makes Larkin feel “welcome” in a place where he does not desire to be understood or even to communicate. On the other hand, there is Boey’s speaker who in ‘Lost Time’ says he “wanted more than a cheap hostel bed/ to know the words falling like leaves and kissing the page/ of the worn notebook.” In a place apart from home, Boey seeks the homeliness that Larkin seeks to escape. Boey’s speaker attempts to move past the transient and liminal space of hostel beds and suspended leaves, into a kind of settling down that had eluded him in his birthplace. His speaker can only hope to reclaim that sense of home in a “worn notebook”, in the act of writing compared to a tender kiss, familiar and familial. The articulation of his dislocation therefore serves as a mobile home in which Boey’s speaker resides and indeed wears as he traverses different spaces.
The act of going elsewhere – back in time and away from home – informs Larkin’s and Boey’s poetics and their understanding of their displacement. Their travels are, however, energised by their desire to occupy their respective ‘heres’. Larkin’s ‘Here’ exemplifies that semantic and physical journey through the English landscape back to Hull, where his first sentence meanders three whole stanzas to arrive after the first full-stop at “Here” in the final stanza, where:
“Loneliness clarifies. Here silence stands
Like heat. Here leaves unnoticed thicken,
Hidden weeds flower, neglected waters quicken,
Luminously-peopled air ascends;
And past the poppies bluish neutral distance
Ends the land suddenly beyond a beach
Of shapes and shingle. Here is unfenced existence:
Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach.”
The reclusiveness of Hull “clarifies” for Larkin’s speaker, and it is the unnoticed everyday and commonplace which gives rise, unexpectedly, to the primal energy of flowering weeds and quickening waters. It provides the geographical background against which the romantic epiphany rises above the claustrophobic urbanity of “rich industrial shadows/ And traffic all night north”, indicating an ultimate arrival. “Here”, as the temporal and physical immediacy of the final stanza occurs, the speaker finally arrives at a kind of homecoming.
For Boey, however, homecoming concerns the notion of return as much as it does departure. The final poem in Boey’s collection is an anaphoric prayer, which serves as an elegiac counterpoint to the earlier poems that resurrect his past and celebrates his travels:
“ … No more
retching and lunging toilet runs. No more
nights in the airport lounge. No more camera-clicking,
wandering with or without maps.”
Boey understands the act of travelling and emigration as both a means and an end; but this understanding cannot answer his desire to settle down that will always remain his point of departure. As if to dismiss the entire collection which addresses the liminal and the foreign, Boey’s ‘No More’ wishes away the thrill and tediousness of travelling and asks for “the fresh slate” with the finality of an “epitaph”. At times, it seems like the wandering never stops, and that belonging is always defined by an opposite – for Larkin, what is “unfenced” and “untalkative”, for Boey his poignant last line:
“No more leaving after this leaving.”
We are taken on Boey’s sensory trail as he meanders through lost Chinatowns, past wares from Glebe to Madrid, across the archipelagos of memory to arrive at that final, unembellished end-stopped line: clear and bright. There is a faith that lifts and takes off at the end of Boey’s collection that allows us to read memory not as burden but as benediction. We receive the same numinous lift from a Larkin poem that rises above the banal and is transformed into epiphany and understanding. Beyond agency and fatalism, we witness a common struggle to transcend their desire for a lost time and place – one perhaps only ever recoverable in art and in writing; one sought for somewhere and elsewhere, but always found here.
Boey, K. C (2012) Clear Brightness. Singapore: Epigram Books.
Boey, K. C. (2009) Between Stations. Artarmon: Giramondo.
Calvino, I. (1997) Invisible Cities. London: Vintage.
Larkin, P. (1983) Required Writing. London: Faber and Faber.
Larkin, P. (2004) Collected Poems. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
SHAWN HOO finds his twin passions in literature and choral music. He intends to read English Literature at the undergraduate level, and is particularly interested in fiction and theory that are afflicted by the absurd, queer and postmodern. He also writes poetry, some of which have been published in anthologies like A Luxury We Cannot Afford and SingPoWriMo ’15. He was awarded a Merit Prize at the Singapore National Poetry Competition in 2015.
Photo credit: Chloe Lim