Ruihe Zhang’s deeply evocative and personal letter to fellow Singaporean poet Boey Kim Cheng explores the intricacy of poetry as an art form in its own right vis-à-vis the need for its purposeful utility in modern day Singapore. Drawing breath from Boey’s inspiring poetry, the younger poet’s thoughtful rumination takes life and charts integral connections between Boey’s work and her growth as a person and poet. Zhang’s epistolary coalescence of their collective poetic journeys thus challenges us readers in turn to examine our own poetic narrative, while assuring us that the struggle in finding our place while being inextricably at odds with our landscape is an ongoing but necessary one.
Singapore, August 2013
Dear Guide and Mentor,
This letter is winging its way to you from your former hometown across the Indian Ocean – and I trust it finds you and your family well and thriving. It’s been a mild three weeks since my return to Singapore; the haze from more than a month ago has cleared and doesn’t look to come back; the newspaper headlines are safe, boring – blessings to be thankful for.
Perhaps it surprises you that I should call you ‘Guide’ and ‘Mentor’. We’ve corresponded a few times, met briefly in person twice – but those names seem to assume a familiarity that we do not possess. Perhaps you think me presumptuous. But I do not mean to presume, and I think you’d understand that as well. Because I know you’ve had guides and mentors, too, people you had no way of even getting to know in the flesh because they died years, sometimes centuries, before you were born. Keats, Eliot, Rilke, and lately, even Du Fu… These writers are the lodestars who have lit your path as a poet, and I suspect that every writer needs other writers like them, people who have walked the way we think we may be called to walk, people who share something of our spirit, our vision; or whose spirit and vision we recognise at some subconscious level, even if we have not yet articulated what our own may be.
Here, then, are your words, coming back to you from across all this distance of time and space:
This is the anniversary of my setting forth.
the day the dog slipped its leash,
the bird ran away on the long legs of the wind.
I have not felt homesick yet, except suffering
the occasional pangs of desire for the food
our island is justly famous for.
No thoughts of home for me here.
Has anything changed at all, since I first came upon these lines? Back then, they parsed for me the complex of feelings or non-feelings I’d held about Singapore during my undergrad years overseas, when every day I would give thanks for the light filtering through the plane trees that lined the streets outside my apartment, the cracked pavements that could so easily trip you up if you didn’t look where you were going, the deep cobalt blue of the evening skies just before sunset. I knew I was happy there – and surely that is what constitutes the truest joy: to be aware of one’s own happiness. Yet, sitting right next to that joy, like a homeless man smelling vaguely of sweat and stale beer sitting next to you on the bus, was a nagging guilt about never missing home. All my friends got homesick, made long phone calls home every weekend and even on weekdays, eagerly looked forward to going back in the summer. I just felt nothing. Your poem gave me the permission to see my lack of response as a valid response in itself — it undid the knot of guilt I’d been trying to ignore for so long.
But your writing didn’t just release me from the burden of conscience, didn’t just make me feel less alone. The greater gift was that your writing opened the door to a world I hadn’t known existed in Singapore – a world in which people thought about and wrote poetry, invested time and energy in that most arcane of the literary arts. And I loved your poetry, the voice I heard in it – its lilt, the way it curved, so sinuous and supple, around and under the things of the world and carried them, gave them shape, made them shimmer and sparkle with a quiet light, like the steady glow of a kerosene lamp suspended from the rafters of a kelong at sea, seen from the shore at twilight. I loved the way you wrote of your travels and wanderings, brought to my consciousness a whole world that pulsed and beckoned in its glimmering difference. Yeats wrote once of the ‘pilgrim soul’ that was Maud Gonne, his great love; and in many ways, my pilgrim soul found its first poetic home in the pages of your books. Poetry was my religion back then, and the poets I loved, its high priests: T.S. Eliot, G.M. Hopkins, Emily Dickinson – I’d never thought that a Singaporean would ever be among their midst. And then, one day, there you were.
It wasn’t that I thought Singaporeans were incapable of writing well. Far from it – I have many friends who, then and now, are far better writers than I am. It’s just that they never used their talents for literary purposes – at best, their creative streaks find expression in entertaining emails and snarky puns and banter that they toss around with such joy and freedom that I cannot help but wonder: what if? But the fact remains: they don’t make art. Is there something about this country that doesn’t love an artist? Things have changed now; this nation has discovered that it needs a soul, or that it needs writers to render that soul in words, and to our leaders’ eternal credit, they are doing something. We now have an annual Writers’ Festival that features some of the biggest literary names both locally and overseas, widely-publicised grants, established indie publishing companies, workshops, and even creative writing modules being taught in the universities. Still, back then, not all of these things were in place, and before the growth of the internet, it was hard for someone outside the system to get wind of what was going on. Discovering your poetry was a godsend: proof that this place was not a cultural desert, proof that my own soul need not die of thirst here. It was that first encounter with your work that prompted me to start seeking out writing by other poets in Singapore – it was your poetry that led me to Alvin Pang, Toh Hsien Min, Aaron Lee, Cyril Wong, Yong Shu Hoong…
It takes an extraordinary amount of faith to believe that the poetic enterprise can be of value and use. And in Singapore, where ‘use’ is so often calibrated in such narrow, limited terms, where every few years a fresh debate erupts over the old issue of whether it matters if Literature is taught in schools, the doubt can become so overwhelming that the temptation is to stop writing altogether. We all need to believe that our work matters; and when most of society does not give us that affirmation, it can feel as if our very identities, our very selves, have suffered some kind of rejection. We are such a mercantile society that it often seems as if the intangible things of the spirit have little chance of survival here. When everything is measured in dollars and cents, when even the value of a work of art seems to be pegged solely to its contribution to the GDP, it’s hard not to feel like too much of an oddity if one thinks differently. It seems that this was part of your spiritual quarrel with Singapore, one of the things that drove you away. I wonder if things have changed in the years since you left.
You still come back here periodically. It makes me glad to know you’ve kept your ties with this place, even now that you’re a migrant writer in Australia. Do you ever miss Singapore? Singapore as she is now, not as she was when you were growing up. I know you love and miss the Singapore of the 60s and 70s – but that is one of the sadnesses of living here: there is no space for the past. Literally – old places get bulldozed because there is simply not enough room. Other cities expand outwards, develop suburbs and satellite cities simply because they can; we have to tear things down. I’m starting to think that this lack of physical space is what leads to the lack of psychological space as well. Living in such close proximity with 5.1 million other people, one feels constantly watched and judged, as if one’s behaviour and choices are always subject to the scrutiny of The Herd – and many people end up succumbing to that pressure to conform. And then there’s the competition, the way people have to fight tooth and nail for what is literally their personal piece of turf, the fear, anxiety, and distrust that such competition engenders. People are never relaxed here in Singapore; and in recent years, as our population has ballooned in size, so has that anxiety – and the selfishness, the rancor — it breeds. It’s everywhere now, oppressive and suffocating. Add to that the fact that so much physical space is given over to the necessary work of bolstering our economy. One can’t help but wonder: what space is there left for other things to grow?
I first lighted upon this theory about Singapore’s space issues, oddly enough, when reading Canadian writer Alice Munro last year. I like her writing, and admire it very much. But there was always something about it, a certain je nais se quoi that I found alien to my experience, and that prevented me from identifying with her work. After thinking about it, I finally pinned it down – it was a spaciousness in her short stories, a sense of almost limitless possibility that found its metaphorical equivalent in the wide open spaces of the Canadian wilderness, the long train journeys that her characters took from one small town to the next. It was the sense that an individual could literally just walk out of her house, and disappear. Things just happened in her stories: anything was possible. There’s something frightening about it, I feel, yet at the same time, it’s also very liberating. It struck me then that we don’t have that luxurious freedom in Singapore – and that this lack is entirely tied to our limitations of space. I think it was around that time that I finally stopped kicking against the goads of what this island is and can be, when I finally accepted that I could either take it on its terms, or move to another place elsewhere whose terms I find more congenial.
Still, this city can be beautiful, even poetic, in its way. And it has always fascinated me, how our best writers are mostly poets. Perhaps it’s because lyric poetry doesn’t require a grand, time-consuming narrative arc the way long fiction does – sure, a poetry collection may be years in the making, but I doubt it requires the same kind of concentrated attention over the same span of time as would be required by a novel. And time is at a premium here in Singapore. Easier to work in short bursts of energy on individual poems, than to set aside the time needed to finish crafting a piece of long fiction. And perhaps a city where so much is always in flux – where time moves and coalesces in a series of tableaux that shifts always from moment to moment – can really be best seen as an evolving collection of poems, or even many collections, or just many poems, collected or not, written in a myriad different voices set in polyphonic counterpoint, one against another.
I wish I could end this letter on a poetic note, not to show off, but simply as a way of affirming and naming what your writing has meant to me. I wish I could write you a poem about Singapore. But this letter has gone on for long enough, and I’m sure there are other things calling for your attention. It’s winter now in Australia. I don’t know if there’s snow where you live – in that place of many winds you’ve written about so evocatively – but I do know that many Singaporeans love the winter, simply because it’s so different from our own hot and humid equatorial climate. I hope you and your family are enjoying the cold. I know I would, if I were there.
Thank you so much for your gift of words.
ZHANG RUIHE works in education, and has been involved in the Singapore literary scene for over a decade as a writer and editor. She served as Essays editor for the Quarterly Literary Review Singapore from 2005 to 2009, and received the Golden Point Award for English poetry in 2013.
photo credit: d-maps