5 Poems

In these five poems, Ainne Frances dela Cruz expresses a sympathetic sensibility, drawing the reader from observation to affective spaces. In “Form”, the heart is a Heideggerean vessel in which we are invited to “listen to it / Beat”, and this rhythmic space finds metaphorical form with the young man’s heart in “Beating the Drums”. In “Stars”, the space of Being is transformed into a kaleidoscopic display, where things “make you stumble on broken springs”. Such imperfect movement is explored in “Parallel Lines”, where the observation of crabs transforms into existential, purposive reflection. The perspective is inverted in “If these walls could talk”, where her cat’s gaze alienates; her existence becomes mere object in her cat’s maze—”a 10-inch nail”. Yet, like her other poems, we are always brought to the same moment: the moment which “gives shape / To a space than can contain” these things.

Beating the Drums

1)   In an old house, a young man.
In his hands, rough skin beating beneath his palm.

2)   Picture the man’s hair, long.
Entwined in his fingers are the tresses he used to love.

3)   He used to cover his face with his hair.
Now he covers the drums.

4)   Music catches the longness of time
He holds it in his hands, finger by finger.

5)   Every sound is a beat, every beat an echo.
He strains to hear long dead words.

6)   Skin to skin, he and the drums become one.
Echo by echo every movement drums.

7)   Today the drums beat as soundly as before.
Today his heart is a drum.

***

Form

Form is only a function
Of air, to give shape

To a space that can contain
It. Even the heart knows

This reason, listen to it
Beat, confined to a wall

Of muscle and skin, taut
As nightmares and as real

***

If these walls could talk

There’s a cat that lives
in my house.
I don’t see it
I only hear
the meows and yelps
that mark its catness.

So much louder,
so imaginatively egotistical
when it sees a mouse.

I search for its cat-eyes,
its cat-paws
its nine lives.

Wanting a taste of fang and claw
of whiskered fur,
sheathed velvet.

Too fast, our times never meet
I am stuck to a wall.
The cat lives
in a maze

forever going in and out
in and out
of my life.

And I a 10-inch nail,
a hair in its path,
will go on loving
behind cracks
from screen to screen
hole to hole

until it looks
and ravishes me.

***

Parallel Lines

One can find crabs
In swamps, burrows
And other unusual places.

They dig deep
And stay under
For long periods of time.

Their aloofness turns off neighbors
They live and die
Alone.

But even they
Seek to wander
Even they
Seek to commune
To trick God himself
Who has made them
This way.

And so they walk
Trying to overtake
Their very nature
Trying to cover
Ground before
Reality
Catches up with them.

But one just can’t get
Too far
Walking sideways.
And though we always
Want to do what is good
We somehow never end up
Where our feet
Wanted to be

***

Stars

Fireworks slice my skull into colours. Green. Yellow. Silver. Gold. Purple. Unnamed variations of light striating their scions in my brain. I gulp this madness with my skin. Unnamed versions of desire. Stirring slowly and clogging my heart. My heart. That with a moving crane one can stir up and dredge. Mud and viscous things. The desire to move entrenched upon skin. The desire to live outweighed by the habit of keeping alive. And yes. Only that. Only that which feeds.

What feeds us keeps us alive. In one version of the story, the man ate his heart because it was bitter. (Bitter things taste better in afterthought). In another version of the story, the man ate his heart because it was his heart. That which nourishes us keeps us alive. So all the fireworks in my brain. So all the explosions that echo in our skin.

Feed me. Oh, I always wanted freedom from this horrible hunger. That depends upon body clocks and clockwork oranges to satiate. I sing this body, electric with all its desires, and all its mad hungers, its mad flavours, its whirling, indigestible afterthoughts, that in haste, in haste, we bury and consume.

Slowly upon wheatfields (that makes one sorrow with its colours), one realizes, that beauty is colorless. It steals our colors. Entrenches in us ideas of fear. (Is there beauty without fear?) What strikes chords in our skin is only images of ourselves whitewashed against that greater image of God. And god is a thing to fear. A thing that brings madness even to angels. The nothing that was nothing before. A wandering star.

Always, I find myself drawn to bright lights and falling objects. (and you were a thing that fell fathoms deep, that fell down to forever-ness.). And I? Oh bright lights are drawn to things that shine and gleam. And in the dark. They make you stumble on broken springs.


AINNE FRANCES DELA CRUZ’s first chapbook Tumbleweed was published by Tiny Press, USA. Her works have appeared in Philippines Graphic, ANI (the literary journal of the Cultural Center of the Philippines), Under the Storm: an anthology of Contemporary Philippine Poetry, and various international publicatons.

She received her Bachelor of Arts in English from St. Scholastica’s College, Manila and has completed some units for her Masters in Comparative Literature from the University of the Philippines. She was a fellow for the University of Santo Tomas’ National Writers Workshop and the Montaggio Writers Workshop. She now writes for Gulf Insider, one of the leading magazines in Bahrain.

At night, she edits the awesome little zine called Paper Monster Press.

Photo credit: Victoria Lee

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I think I understand Phaethon

What is a grieving man supposed to do? This story draws you into the fantastic world of Greek mythology at first glance but quickly weaves it into our real world without reprise. Heartbreaking yet riveting, it chronicles a man’s self-discovery in his musings and leaves a reader reeling from the final blow. As it was intentionally left unnamed, the author also invites you to think about why this is the case, and if it adds to the story’s narrative.

I think I understand Phaethon.

If I were given the chance I would step into that gold-gilded chariot, too.

I would be mesmerised by its glitter. I would run my fingers along the intricately carved surface, feel the dips and bends in every corner.

It would feel hot to the touch. Not burning, but a comfortable kind of warmth that makes you think of summers on the beach. Mixed in the air would be the smell of sun lotion and the salty depth of sea filling every cell of your expanding lungs. I would lay my hands on the chariot and soak up its pulsing warmth forever. Close my eyes, will myself away. Take me to the beach again, back to her and the happiness and the sea and the warm sun.

When I open my eyes I see at the horses at the front of the chariot. Their bodies must be a creamy white, like vanilla ice-cream that you eat with your love during summertime. As the both of you laugh and race to finish the dripping cones, she flashes the most vivacious smile that stops you in your tracks. Beautiful. Then you start as an ice-cold sensation hits the tip of your nose and you realise she has smeared ice-cream on your face. You chortle and dip your finger into your own cone. Yes, the horses possess the exact same shade. They’re the colour of memories. Now they’re neighing at you gently.

I dip my toes slowly onto the dazzling, gold-polished surface of the chariot. Has anyone ridden this before? It is irradiant; it glitters. I bend on my knees and, on a whim, lay my cheek against the surface. I can see the horses gazing at me incuriously, tilted to the side. From this angle their manes look like rippling columns of majesty as the snow-white columns dance about in the breeze. Such elegance. It reminds you of the first time you actually noticed a girl in a way that makes your heart skip a beat. Maybe it’s the way her hair swung around as she turns, catching the sunlight in its beat. Maybe it’s how she placed her hand on your chest and made you feel instantly at home. Maybe it’s just her. But it’s time to go. A lump hitches in my throat.

I gather the thick ropes in my hands. They look tiny as they are harnessing the giant ropes tethering the horses. As I look at the ropes, the horses, then up into the azure wideness of the sky, a serene faith takes over me. I will be fine. I hesitate, then ripple the ropes in one swift motion. I observe as the rope obeys my command and waves up and down, travelling to the horses patiently awaiting. Then it happens: the rope solidly thuds against the horses and the fur on their bodies displaces. All of a sudden I am rising higher and higher. The ascension is so fast I feel dizzy, it reminds me of the time I went to a theme park as a child and tried a roller-coaster. But I threw up after that, and now I pray I don’t. I look around me and see nothing but whizzing chunks of white within the blue. Is this the sky?

I turn around and stare at the goal in front of me. It is blazing, intense, aglow with fire. It seems to be pulsing and beckoning at me. I feel myself getting warmer and warmer as I get closer to it. My heart is racing, this warmth is exactly like how it felt at the beach so many years ago. I almost smell the sea again. Now I feel fire. I think tears are streaming down my cheeks. Was this how she felt in her last moments, with the blaze surrounding her? Did she take the time to appreciate the vivid glare of the fire as it slowly consumed her, like I am? I squeeze my eyes shut as the pain takes over, searing every cell of my body. It feels like a renewal. I am delivered once more into a new, bright world. I can’t escape the glow now; it is bright and I think I am about to shatter. I faintly hear the horses screaming in the background. But mostly all I hear is her singing softly the night we first slept together.

I think perhaps I understand Orpheus better.


S is a soft-spoken girl who has acquired the love for writing at a young age – as a child, she often dreamt about fairytales, and now realises that she can write herself in the world of fantasy. Now as a final-year undergraduate in NUS, she finds herself increasingly in need of escaping into this world of fantasy. In her writings, S is especially intrigued with the motifs of Greek mythology and appreciates a good unexpected twist in stories every now and then. Her least favourite book is Pride and Prejudice – she once fell asleep reading it.

Photo Credit: Victoria Lee

The World Inside Our Pages

Lee Russell‘s simple but uplifting tale merges elements of fantasy with the too-real problems of Singapore’s education system. His story raises questions about the efficacy of our education system, what the point of studying is, and the beauty of literature – questions most, if not all, literature students have had to grapple with at some time.

Michael sat at the bus stop, watching the vehicles vroom past. His eyes were fixed on the hedge that divided the road between its coming and going lanes, such that the crisp forms of the cars, buses and taxis were reduced only to greyish blurs.

A bus cruised to a halt before him. With a groan, the doors opened and regurgitated a swarm of students in grey. They scurried towards the gate behind the bus stop, some slowing to offer Michael and his grey uniform odd looks. From the distance came a bell’s chime, muffled as if heard from within a pool of water.

Michael raised his watch. It was 8 o’clock.

I don’t even know why I come here anymore.

He boarded the next bus that arrived and picked a window seat so he could stare outside. It wasn’t long before a vibration in his pocket interrupted his ride.

He took out his phone. “Hello?”

“Michael?” A woman’s voice came from the receiver. “Hi, this is Mrs. Tan. Are you coming to school today?”

“No. I’m having a fever. Sorry for not telling you earlier.”

“Have you gone to see the doctor?” Concern coloured the woman’s voice.

“Not yet. When I woke up for school this morning I went back to bed straightaway because I had a very bad headache. I only just woke up again. I’m planning to go see the doctor after I eat breakfast.”

“Did you check your temperature?”

“It was 38. But my headache is better now so I think I’ll be okay after I take some medicine.”

“That’s quite high. Make sure you rest well today, okay?” Mrs. Tan adopted a firm tone. “And let me know in advance if you won’t be coming to school tomorrow.”

“Okay.

“Oh, I returned the class their mid-term papers already. Do you want to know your results?”

“Okay.”

“Maths, Chemistry, Physics, Literature, GP. All As.” Mrs. Tan’s voice rose both in pitch and tempo. “Well done.”

Michael’s lips hardened into a straight line. “Wow, I wasn’t expecting to do so well.”

“If only the rest of the class could be more like you.”

Drawing his gaze away from the window and to his feet, Michael fidgeted.

“Okay, sorry for interrupting your rest. Take care of yourself. I’ll see you in class when you’re feeling better.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Tan. See you.”

Beep.

Michael leaned back and stared at the ceiling.

Straight A’s again. But I don’t even remember anything I studied. What am I doing?

As if all the air in the bus suddenly amassed around Michael’s neck, his throat tightened and he clutched a hand over his mouth.

He disembarked at the next stop to a cluster of HDB flats he failed to recognise. Turning back, he caught a glimpse of the number of the bus as it departed: 77. The same bus he took to school and back every day. He tried to recall the window scenery of his daily morning trips but nothing came to mind.

I better check the bus numbers.

But he found no signs, no benches, not even the usual pole denoting the name of the bus stop. Michael scrunched his eyes.

Is this even a bus stop?

He took out his phone and tapped the icon labelled ‘Google Maps’. The next moment, his phone emitted a weak vibration and the screen went black. Michael sighed.

Shit.

Stuffing the device back into his pocket, he looked around. There were no road signs at the end junction and, on the grey paint faces of the HDB blocks, only numbers were placed. Across the road was a compound of white buildings from which the sounds of children rang out. Apart from that, the street was silent.

A distant rumbling turned Michael towards the HDB flats.

An MRT station?

He felt his throat with one hand and his stomach with the other. Once done, he strode off.

Like a palm with fingers all pointing skyward, a plaza was situated within the cluster of blocks. In it were grassy patches spotted with bright flowers, and a modest playground sat in the middle. It had monkey bars, a swing and a castle with a slide. A boy was sitting on a bench near the playground, eyes fixed on the castle walls.

“Excuse me.” The boy spoke the moment Michael crossed his line of vision.

“Yes?” Michael turned his head.

From his seat, the boy raised a pointed finger. “Can you help me take my ball, mister? It bounced somewhere around there.”

Michael followed the finger’s gaze and found a basketball hidden beneath the slide.

Retrieving it, he tossed it towards the boy. “Here.” But the boy’s arms remained still even as the ball flew through the air.

Bam!

The boy jerked to the left as the ball slammed into the bench right next to his head and ricocheted into the sky.

Bonk. Bonk. Bonk.

“Sorry.” Running to retrieve the ball a second time, Michael carried it over to the bench. “Here.”

Staring straight at Michael’s stomach, the boy spent several seconds groping for the ball.

When his fingers finally reached their mark, he smiled. “Thank you, mister.”

Michael took a step back and frowned. “Are you?”

The boy nodded as he bounced the ball on the ground. “Ya. I cannot see.”

“What are you doing at the playground all by yourself, then? Where are your parents?”

“At work. I’ve been blind for a few years already so I know how to come down and go up by myself. I always come here to play.”

A few years. “So you were not born blind?”

The ball bounced past the boy’s frozen fingers and fell underneath the bench.

“Sorry.” Michael’s voice softened as he retrieved the ball again. “I shouldn’t have asked that question.”

The boy shook his head as he bounced the ball. “It’s okay. I’m happy to have someone to talk to. Usually I play here alone the whole day until Mummy and Daddy reach home and bring me upstairs.”

“What time do they usually come back?”

“I don’t know. I cannot tell the time.” The boy caught the ball and stopped. “I got in an accident when I was crossing the road on the way back from school. That’s how I became blind.”

Taking a seat next to the boy, Michael sat in silence for a moment and asked, “Is there anything you miss?”

The boy laughed. “Everything.”

“Then what do you miss the most?”

The boy dropped his chin and spent a while rolling the ball in his hands. “Books.”

It was Michael’s turn to laugh.

Frowning, the boy turned. “What’s so funny?”

“Why would you miss books?” Michael’s voice was thick with condescension. “They’re just black and white only. So boring.”

“Have you read books before, mister?” The boy’s reply meandered with the lilt of curiosity.

“Of course. We have so many textbooks to study in school.”

“Not textbooks.” The boy sighed. “I mean storybooks. You know, like Hunger Games and Maze Runner.”

“Of course I’ve read storybooks also. I study Literature, you know.”

The boy’s frown grew wider and deeper. “You sure you read them properly?”

“Oi, I just got A for my Literature mid-term exam.”

“You must be colour blind.”

Michael’s smug grin faded as his eyelids snapped open. “How do you know?”

The boy’s frown vanished. “Really? You’re colour blind?”

Michael nodded.

A frown returned to the boy’s face as he turned away. “Sorry.”

“Don’t worry. I’m okay. I don’t really care about it anyway. I was born colour blind so I don’t know anything about what colours are like. I have nothing to miss.”

“Eye problem?”

Michael leaned back and stared at the clouds, white wisps on grey. “No. Actually I go for medical check-ups every year. But every time the doctor says there’s nothing wrong with my eyes.”

Pointing a finger, the boy aimed his face at Michael’s. “Maybe it’s not a problem in your eyes, but a problem in here.”

Michael looked down at his chest and chuckled. “What are you talking about?”

“What is it like to live without colours?”

“Like I said, I don’t even care-” Before he could finish, a snake circled itself around Michael’s throat.

He slapped both hands above his mouth as he broke into a coughing fit. Taking deep breaths through his nose as he gulped down the poison inside, two beads formed at the outermost corners of his eyes.

“It,” he tripped on the word. “It sucks. Everything is the same. Every day is the same. I go to school, listen to class, go home, do my homework, go to sleep. The same day every day. I don’t even know why I’m doing it. What’s the point? ”

A wave of heat rose from his feet and crashed into the top of his skull. The beads in his eyes shattered, spilling their liquid forth.

“I always get As for my exams because all I ever do in my free time is study, I don’t even know what else I can do. And I keep doing it because when I get As, Pa and Ma won’t disturb me and when they don’t disturb me I get more free time but what do I in my free time? I just study, I don’t even know if I’m really studying because I can’t even remember what I study.”

Panting, Michael hunched over his knees. His knuckles pressed over them were shivering even though there was lava slowly slithering down his back, dripping.

“So you don’t have fun?” the boy asked.

Michael laughed. “What is fun? I don’t know. I don’t even know what’s boring. They’re just words that people taught me.”

The boy stood and, basketball in hand, hobbled away into the HDB flats.

Covering his eyes, Michael rested his neck on the spine of the bench.

Shit. Why did I go and say all that stuff to a primary school kid? I’ve never talked to anyone like this before.

His skin was still burning with smouldering embers that chafed him when he moved so he remained there, quiet like a corpse. There was no time in the silence of the playground.

“Mister.”

Michael blinked, expecting to be blinded by the brilliance of the sun but the world was just as dull as he remembered.

Black, white and grey. Those are the only things I ever remember.

The boy stretched a paperback out to Michael. “This is my favourite book. You can have it.”

Michael glanced at the cover without looking at the title. “Why?”

“I want to teach you about colours. But I think a book can do a better job. Books are full of colours, you know.”

Michael stared at the boy’s smile and mistakenly placed gaze.

Whatever.

Grabbing the book, he stood and walked away.

**

The moment Michael reached home, he locked his room door, shut the curtains and settled in a corner with a lamp dangling above his head. There, he opened the book and began to read. Instead of blurring through the text like he usually did, he focused on each word, lingering, giving each the opportunity to simmer in the sea of his mind and dissolve before the next splashed in.

Ploop.

As he progressed, light streamed out from the pages. It was warm, unlike any he had ever experienced before. He read on and, as the light intensified, the words detached themselves from the paper and floated into the air, transforming into bubbles of coloured vistas that replaced the walls of his room. Rivulets spilled down his cheeks as he flipped the pages over and over.

**

Michael awoke in the corner of his room. The book was gone. Light streamed in from behind the fluttering curtains.  Rising, he pushed them aside and shoved the windows open.

That morning, the sky was blue.


LEE RUSSELL, not to be confused with local True Singapore Ghost Stories writer Russell Lee, is an aspiring novelist with a penchant for fantasy fiction. Easily entertained, his hobbies include doing basically anything. He currently runs the NUS Literary Society’s resident e-zine Symbal and hopes to expand it as a space for budding local writers to share their works, interact and be recognised for their creativity. You can check it out at nussymbal.wordpress.com.

Photo credit: Victoria Lee

Unheard Thoughts On An Unseen Essay

If you’ve never thought of essays as a creative genre of work, this essay might persuade you otherwise. The writer of this essay pushes the boundaries of what might be considered an academic essay by foregoing polished prose for a stream-of-consciousness thinking aloud juxtaposed alongside essay-worthy literary analysis. Part pastiche, part serious mulling over what it means to study literature, Ivan Sim‘s essay manages to convey a student’s struggle with the commonly-feared unseen poems. Pulling together social media references, essay-writing jargon and a good dose of self-deprecation, this writer reminds us all that the journey to understanding literature always begins with courage and an honest struggle to understand the world around us.

I remember how scary and confusing it used to be, facing these random poems picked by our teachers and the blank piece of foolscap paper next to them, my pen uncapped at the ready. What am I supposed to write about them? Why can’t I seem to find the hidden meaning? Why don’t I get it? No wonder so many friends of mine ditched literature after Secondary 2. I don’t get it, no point studying this poem stuff. Not for me, I’m not that kind of literature person.

I was thinking about all this after I saw the graphic promo on Facebook calling for responses to these unseen extracts. I read the three excerpts offered by the Unseen Team: Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley, Acropolis at Mid-Season by Lisabelle Tay, and Youth by J M Coetzee. I haven’t written one of these essays in over six years. I remember them from JC. I won’t say which one.

I’ll probably take much longer than an hour to finish it. I’m probably rusty by now. It’ll take longer. Now the first problem: deciding which one/s to respond to. I print the extracts out so I could annotate, just like how I was taught.

I start with Ozymandias. I circle “traveller from an antique land” and “This too is a kind of pilgrimage”, reckon there is something in the opening of both poems about journeys. This begs the question: what kind of journey? Travel so far, for what? At first glance, I can’t tell yet, but at least it seems that the persona in the extract from Coetzee is also searching for a better life in London from 1960s South Africa. I remember always choosing to write on unseen poetry, simply because there were fewer words to get through! I know some friends say unseen prose is easier to understand. But I’m a slow reader so with fewer words, it’s easier to focus my attention. Sorry Coetzee, I am dropping you in favour of the traditional comparative essay between two unseen poems.

(I am thinking of consulting Sparknotes, Cliffnotes, Shmoop for help. But I think the editors will know if I do that. It’s not fair anyway. It’s not true to the spirit of the hallowed ‘Unseen’ essay.)

I look at the paper I have printed. Ozymandias looks very compact, whereas Acropolis at Mid-Season appears looser in shape. What can I say about that? I count the lines and scan the last words of each line for patterns and rhymes. Ten-twelve-fourteen: aha! I can confidently declare Ozymandias is a sonnet and Tay’s poem is not. Okay, so what? Surely the different forms affect the meaning of both poems, but it’s not apparent to me at the start now what I can write about comparing a sonnet to free verse. Maybe I’ll check out the volta in Ozymandias, watch how it turns.

Hang on, Ozymandias seems to read a little like a dramatic monologue. I need an authority on this to confirm, but by the laws of responding to unseen poetry I cannot call upon secondary material. Nonetheless, who is the persona speaking to? And then there’s the sign on the statue that the traveller and the persona are both looking at? Or is that a complete misinterpretation? I re-read the poem again. Ah, it seems like the traveller is telling the persona what he saw out there in the desert.

Now I find myself drawing lines out into the margins, scribbling fragments of my thoughts like “legacy”, “wants to be remembered”, “storytelling”, “control of one’s own story”, “(mis)representation” – loose concepts I have heard of before and which seem productive for my critique. Right now I am groping around the cage of words on the page. Right now I need to understand exactly what’s happening in both poems. It’s already been ten minutes and if I only have an hour in an examination, I would probably have to start writing by now! Do other people just get it faster than me, or am I just slow?

Perhaps Acropolis at Mid-Season will give me the clues I need to unlock Ozymandias. They don’t pair up poems at complete random. You can always count on them sharing at least a couple of thematic strands!

I read the poem twice over, because the first time the words just glaze over me and I don’t register anything concrete. Right, so I am thinking Acropolis is reaching across the times to compare how people in Ancient Greece and present day visit the Acropolis and what they did. And this is presented in the direct address reference in “The wine-God devotees who wore these stones down to bone, it is their work / You are continuing, you who have come / From Taiwan and Canada and Korea” –

OH WAIT I GET IT.

It’s about tourists who come to see the Acropolis! So they are the ones making the so-called ‘pilgrimage’. Mid-season: of course! That’s when the weather is good for travel! And the persona is observing them, just like the persona who is speaking to the traveller in ‘Ozymandias’. OH NOW BOTH POEMS MAKE SENSE! At least in the wordless spray of thought in my head it makes sense.

In the midst of my great epiphany, I reward myself with a Facebook break. Two scrolls down my wall and I see this appear on the side:

KAYAK
Sponsored ·

Keep your wanderlust alive ⚓

Isn’t that what Tay is writing about! The state of modern-day tourism, package tours and backpacking trips to all these ancient sites, taking pictures (that must be what ‘scrabbling for the right angle’ is referring!) to prove to other people (maybe on social media, to extended family and friends or someone who sieves through your stuff when you die) that you were there!

Creating a legacy for yourself and for it to be seen by others! Isn’t this similar to what Ozymandias yearned for? With his hired sculptor and the completed bust, he could proclaim “I was here! I was important!” People would “Look on [his] Works!” – and lo’ and behold – someone centuries later did! The persona who saw the statue and told another traveller about it and here we have a poem. There are two levels to this: the great individual men of history seeking to preserve their legacy in the grand sculptures and architecture, and the laymen looking to bask in reflected glory by association, by having been witness to these creations of grandeur! And so both poems are connected together by this – this – this sense of reaching for a kind of immortality! Yes, that’s it! Okay, so now let me try and cobble a thesis statement:

In both poems ‘Ozymandias’ and ‘Acropolis at Mid-Season’, Shelley and Tay explore the human compulsion to create lasting impressions of themselves, a sort of legacy for others to remember them by, which prompts at a human need for significance. Both poems show this by bearing witness to both the efforts of ‘Ozymandias’ and his time-worn statue, as well as the international tourists congregating at ‘Acropolis in Mid-Season’, all of whom seek to curate, capture and preserve the best possible sense of permanence of themselves, their experiences and identities. Although both poems foreground the importance of imagination in giving life to these historical traces, they also simultaneously reveal how future subjects can never fully grasp the significance and legacy of these historical claims, whether through casual neglect in passing or material decay.

Right, now I need to back up my points with literary devices and techniques. Back to that volta in Ozymandias. So this is a Petrarchan not Shakespearean sonnet, seeing as the turn comes only after the first octet into the final sestet after 8 lines. Also… there’s the alternating rhymes of ‘land/sand/command’ – but wait a minute – the other alternating rhymes are ‘stone/frown/read’… Maybe I won’t look at rhymes.

Instead, I’ll look at what the story is in the octet. Here, the traveller is describing his encounter with the statue of Ozymandias, and the word that leaps out at me is ‘abandoned’! Yes, so contrast the abandonment of the well-worn statue of Ozymandias and the reinvigorated Acropolis, which, while also well-worn, is given a new lease of life with throngs of ‘worshippers’ that try to piece together the history of this place. Tay’s line ‘Worship demands imagination’ is a useful counterpoint here. A concerted mental effort is needed at trying to reconstruct these histories, regardless of how many are up to the task. In ‘Ozymandias’ there is only a single traveller who seems to stand outside of time, and most of the poem really is filled with imaginative work of conceiving that seemingly unseen statue of Ozymandias in the desert. One could say the traveller’s recount, as an act of storytelling, almost recreates and reimagines Ozymandias into being. Whereas in Athens, I imagine there must be bus-loads of East Asian tourists, young groups and couples of backpackers braving the heat ‘jostling in the burning streets’.

But to what extent are they really ‘seekers of mystery’? Tay’s anaphoric “Here is what we think […] Here is where we think […] here is where there probably used” calls to mind a tour guide walking ahead of a camera-wielding, handkerchief-wiping group gesturing and reciting from either personal research or summary of travel guides. The lack of specificity in those lines and their quick succession suggests the treatment of these histories are brief and cursory, token nuggets of information that may prompt passages of imagination but are perhaps not dwelled upon for too long. But even with the closer attention to detail with which the traveller recounts the eroding facial features of Ozymandias’ statue, “whose frown, / And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command”, which is no less supported by his recital of the engraved words on the pedestal, both the traveller and the tour guide similarly demonstrate an awareness of the tension between trying to preserve one’s proof of existence in tangible form, and the vast indifference of the world that surrounds one.

I’ve stopped annotating by now, but I think I had better return to the titles of both poems which point me back to the physical presence of the decaying statue and the ruins of Acropolis, and focus on them for a moment. That they have lasted thousands of years and attracted the fervour of travellers suggests an exultation at the dogged persistence of their tangible forms of existence, perhaps there is a charm in witnessing their continuing on, at once invoking the presence of history, but not without opening up holes of absences to fill. Perhaps there is a relief that arises here, that there exists a real possibility “the earth will remember [them]”, but would that be enough?

 I think I have enough points to go off and write the essay in full now, but I wonder about the standalone prose extract of Coetzee’s. I don’t think I’ve ever had to compare a poem and a piece of prose extract before. I wouldn’t really know where to begin comparing across different forms. But I will say this: I, too, relate to the persona in that extract, in his hunt for a job which will not only pay the bills with a little extra “to go to poetry readings, meet writers and painters, have love affairs”, but also a job that my family and friends will not believe I could have scored. (I’m sure a humanities graduate can do that today.) Just like the persona, I too hope I “will be able to write to [my] mother giving her the good news she is waiting to hear, namely that her son is earning a good salary doing something respectable”. But the difference is I don’t have to write to my mother. She literally lives next door. Like I can hear her playing GOLD 90FM through my bedroom wall and it is Billy Joel singing of the piano man…


IVAN SIM is turning 25 this year. Ivan Sim is struggling. Ivan Sim is single and struggling. Back in JC, the running theme of writing feedback from his teachers was that he was too convoluted, always going in circles and he should just be clear and direct and get to the point. Nothing much has changed, it seems.

What Makes Me Who I Am

Delphie Yap‘s “What Makes Me Who I Am” is a heartfelt reflection on personal identity. Throughout the essay, Yap interweaves ruminations on teenage desires and materiality into a deeply personal narrative on growing up and finding a place “in this big, complicated world”. The capriciousness of life is reflected in Yap’s lucid style, and her words are underpinned by the conceit that life is a story in which we give meaning to. As Yap writes, “We all want to tell a story of our own”. Indeed, this essay tells a powerful one, speaking to our own youthful affections.

This essay won the All In! Young Writers Festival 2017 YOUTHSpeak Essay Competition.

Life.

It is something all of us have. Twenty-six letters are all we are given to make that empty book ours. We all want to tell a story of our own, but we don’t start out knowing how, because finding the right words is like finding a place in this big, complicated world. Living in the age where technology has annihilated all the barriers existing between us, we have come together despite our differences, making instantaneous connections over the ways we are alike. There are so many fandoms, movements and communities out there to belong to, that ironically, it makes fitting in and finding individuality an especially arduous journey.

Finding an identity is an even bigger crisis for us teenagers, old enough to want to tell stories of our own, yet still too young to know what they are. Doing things we are not supposed to do makes us feel alive. The glamorous fairytales exhibited on our idols’ Instagram feeds are so attractive. What about the stereotypes society put us into, the personality tests we take, or even the testimonials our teachers write about us? Do they reflect who we are?

Who am I?

The question hounds our minds, like the panic that rises when we stare at those blank pages for too long. We start out in imitation of our favourite stories. Wincing at the bitter taste of alcohol, our hearts thump louder than the bass reverberating around us. We sign our first petition and rally for the Pink Dot movement. We pore through thesauri, using bombastic words we don’t know the meaning of. Flowery metaphors seem sophisticated enough, even if they don’t necessarily convey our message, even if writing a word feels like bleeding one out.

And then we stop writing long enough to read what we’ve written – we cringe at the convoluted paragraphs that go nowhere. They evoke nothing within us… except disappointment. Our writers’ block is as persistent as the glaring whiteness of the paper in front of us, another page we cannot fill. Surely, telling stories, carving lives of our own shouldn’t be this hard?

I like to think that my life is a book, and my story spills over the pages until the inevitable ending. When I was fourteen, my cousin drowned to death. She was only ten, and when I saw her body in the coffin, it struck me like the rip current that pulled her under – the dreams that were too big for her little body, the way her eyes had been full of life just a week before. It made me think about life, death, and everything else in between. When I die, what can I look back on? My life was reading the same paragraph over and over again; a never-ending cycle of tests, extra classes and trying to fit into the mould of success. I went through the motions, did what others told me to – but there is more to life than this. I want to die brave, bold and beautiful – a story that transcends centuries, one everyone talks about and wants to live.

So I filled the pages with thrilling adventures and gripping plot twists I’d like to live. I tried everything I wouldn’t have tried until I die. Dying my hair purple, I piled make-up on my face like I was trying to forget who I was. I went on late night trips to arcades, movie theatres and bowling alleys, because everything comes alive at night, just like how we only start living when death breathes down on us. It was amazing: I looked like an Instagram model, and my life felt like a movie. But it is exactly that, that made it feel like I was living vicariously, reciting someone else’s story. It was like coming home to a house full of strangers. If this is the place I belong, I don’t want to go home.

Looking back, these are the pages I wish can be ripped off my book, because these are not the moments I’m proudest of. Like ink on paper, these are parts of us that we can never erase, but these experiences also shape who we are. The “rebellious” phase of my life made me realize that life can end anytime, but instead of rushing through life, perhaps I should slow it down, savouring every little thing worth living for. Appreciation is very important. We are always in the pursuit of something – happiness, belonging – but sometimes it is a matter of realizing something we already have. I begin to consciously find beauty and passion in everything I do, seeing the extravagance in the simple joys of life. I find pieces of myself in places I’ve never been in, in strangers I talk to, in songs that reverberate deep into my heart. If my life is a story, then the things I appreciate are the words that truly bring it to life.

I used to go the extra mile establishing a firm identity for myself, until I realize that every page and every letter add up to who I am today. Twenty-six letters are all we are given to make that ending a happy one, but the words don’t have to be bombastic to tell a good story. As Jack Kerouac said, “One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.” When we string the letters together, and put the simplest words next to each other, they jump off the page and fill every inch of our bodies – like happiness. Like truth, the words seep straight into our bones, defined not just by dictionary and thesaurus, but the meaning we give them. My simple gratitude, the good or bad life experiences, and even my little quirks and habits all build up the character I am. Finding an identity is finding the right words. It’s realizing something we already have and finding a place in this big, complicated world.

It would feel like coming home.


This essay was the Judges Choice Winner the All In! Young Writers Festival 2017 YOUTHSpeak Essay Competition. As one of All In!’s selected media platforms, we are delighted to publish Delphie’s essay here. For more information about All In! visit http://all-in.bookcouncil.sg/.  

DELPHIE YAP YU QI is a Secondary 4 student in Cedar Girls’ Secondary School. She is in the Integrated Programme and is also the president of ELDDS (Debate and Advocacy). Delphie won the bronze award in the Queen’s Commonwealth Essay Writing Competition in 2015, and is a past participant of the Creative Arts Programme. On very rare occasions when she is not catching up on school or sleep, Delphie likes to read, write and play the piano.

Photo credit: Leonard Yip

For I Will Consider Miss Rachel Cat

The author and cat-lover Ellen Perry Berkeley famously quipped: “As every cat owner knows, nobody owns a cat”. Indeed, Ann Ang’s “For I Will Consider Miss Rachel Cat”—her personal response to Christopher Smart’s well-known litany ‘For I will consider my cat Jeoffrey‘ in Jubilate Agno—is an endearing poem that seems to begin with such a premise. Yet, Ang’s metalyric beautifully moves from quirky description to intellectual contemplation, leaving us to reflect upon our own assumptions of agency, and the emotional transactions that occur between our pets and us.

For I will consider my meow, Miss Rachel Cat.
At first sight, she is a dirty mottled question,
a curvature of space in the corner.
She doesn’t care about your assumptions
that she is a cat which is a cat who is cat.
The world is an imbecile until it leaves her alone
or submits a humble tribute of fried fish
from sufficient distance so as to make her a queen.
Her small mew is factual acceptance
of how a cat is never just an object.
For a cat is a fling with a non-compliant thing;
for Miss Rachel Cat cannot be bought or sold;
for she will scratch the nose of Capitalist Ownership;
for her dominion is as vast as where she prowls
or distilled darkly as a Tiger’s Shadow;
for there is no lie about Miss Rachel Cat.
In stretching, she is essence;
in annoyance, she brooks no negotiation;
in hunger, she is supplicant and kitten.
For there is no ethics in the tribe of Cat,
no theorising, no bargaining;
no choice, for her snarl is Fate.
All responsibility lies with the onlooker
who in admiration is subjected
and subverted, thwarted
in death and life, seven times seven.
For she can suffer a stroke;
for she can sleep.


ANN ANG’s poetry, fiction and non-fiction have appeared in various publications and journals. The second edition of her Singlish-English collection of short stories, Bang My Car, was recently published and is available from http://www.booksactuallyshop.com/. Ann also has a slightly eclectic taste for modernist writing and counts William Faulkner as one of her old flames. On good days, she reads Bulgakov; on bad days, she writes.

Photo credit: Victoria Lee

Sleep No More

Termed by some critics as “the world’s most interactive play”,  Sleep No More is an Off-Broadway immersive experience of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Created by British company Punchdrunk, Sleep No More is site-specific to the fictional ‘McKittrick Hotel’,  a block of warehouses transformed into a performance space. In this review-essay, Sim Wee Ong shares her experiences of the play, and comments on its relationship to the original text of MacbethSleep No More is still being performed today in New York.

Upon arrival, the McKittrick Hotel seems like the least inviting accommodation that New York City has to offer. The façade of the building is nondescript, there are no revolving doors or friendly porters, and I had to blindly stumble down a pitch-black corridor to reach the lobby-cum-bar. Drenched in red lights and smooth jazz, the Manderley Bar resembles a 1930’s speakeasy. I can’t comment on the quality of the cocktails as I’m under the legal American drinking age of 21, but I doubt any amount of liquid courage could have steeled me for my stay there. Instead of a hotel key card, I was issued a playing card and beaked half-mask that I had to don before I was allowed to explore the McKittrick’s extensive facilities: a ballroom, a dining hall, bedrooms, a hospital ward, a candy shop, a forest, a cemetery, an asylum, etc.

Of course, the McKittrick Hotel isn’t a regular hotel. Originally a warehouse space, it now contains the universe of the theatrical experience “Sleep No More”. If the title stirs the back of your mind, you’re probably familiar with “Macbeth”, widely regarded as one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. Macbeth, a Scottish general, is consumed by his ambition to seize the throne, committing a string of murders to forestall a prophecy that he’ll be usurped. “Macbeth shall sleep no more,” he laments, tormented after slaying the slumbering King Duncan, the first of many casualties of his political agenda (2.2.701-703). “Sleep No More” incorporates the three words encapsulating his guilt into its title and adapts his tragedy into its production.

“Sleep No More” isn’t an ordinary play though. It’s an immersive theatrical performance in which the fourth wall conventionally dividing audiences and actors doesn’t exist. The show allows guests to follow Macbeth by literally following the tragic hero, chasing after him around the McKittrick as he seeks out soothsaying witches, consults his wife and doles out murders. A few lucky audience members each night receive coveted one-on-one scenes where they privately interact with (minor) characters. Guests can also wander from room to room; free to sit on beds, rummage through drawers, riffle through books, and even wear coats left on hooks. They cannot sit back and relax into their seats to enjoy the show; they’ll have to walk, sometimes sprint, to do so.

“Sleep No More” isn’t a typical interpretation of “Macbeth” either. Unlike Shakespearean scripts analysed in classrooms, this adaptation is bereft of confounding “thee”s and “thy”s. In fact, barely any words are uttered; the language of “Sleep No More” is dance. Just as you ruminate the word choice of your Literature texts, so too must the audience members stay cerebrally engaged to understand the dialogue between the Macbeths as they dance silently across their bedroom.

The creators of “Sleep No More” omitted Shakespeare’s line and included scenes that the Bard left off pages and stages, making the production more akin to fanfiction than a faithful adaptation of “Macbeth”. It’s one thing to listen to Macbeth confessing how he’s “done the deed” and quite another to witness him smothering King Duncan, twisting in his sheets as if ensnared in a nightmare, from the foot of the royal deathbed (2.2.665). Here, the soon-to-be-king’s weapon is choice is a pillow instead of a dagger, like in the original play (likely due to the difficulty of feigning stabbing someone before a watchful audience). Though his modus operandi is spotless, the scene turns bloody as soon the murderer washes his hands in a basin set beside the bed, attempting to rinse himself clean off his sin. I watch, horrified, as he scrubs them violently at the realization that his hands are becoming darker instead, splattering the pristine murder scene. Under the dim lights, the blood looked like ink, black and permanent.

At this point, I faced a choice – stalk the killer as he continues on his rampage, or stay behind with the victim and watch him resurrect as a ghost. With barely enough time to mourn Duncan, I let myself be swept away by the crowd scurrying in the wake of blood trails. The lack of stage boundaries in immersive theatre means that the narrative is not divided up into neat scenes. “Sleep No More” presents fresh storylines that unfurl as Macbeth’s does, and affords the audience a chance to explore more character arcs by repeating the one-hour routine twice before Macbeth meets his end. Even the painstakingly curated sets, lavished with details of invented histories, enrich the characterization of peripheral figures. By imagining their lives outside of what’s already been written, “Sleep No More” enlarges the already expansive tapestry that Shakespeare wove. It’s up to the audience member to choose which strands to tug at.

This choice-making component of “Sleep No More” is perhaps the most striking departure from traditional theatre. In the latter, the audience lacks control over what they get to see; in the former, each audience member is granted agency to decide which narratives to unravel. The caveat though, is that these experiences are both governed by choice and chance. Instead of pondering the theme of fate vs. free will (a staple in literary analyses of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”), I constantly asked myself: Which characters should I follow? Will they pick me for one-on-one scenes? Which rooms should I venture into? Will I have encounter characters or discover new information inside?

I could have returned for Duncan’s spirit in the next hour, but that would mean touring less of the world of “Sleep No More”. I would have missed out on one of the witches’ rituals I chanced upon after crawling through a concealed hole in a closet into what I can best characterize as an igloo constructed with rolled up towels. Even so, I had no inkling of that witches’ story, or that of his colleagues, or the Macduffs, or Banquo, or the detective, or the taxidermist, or the nurses… There’s still so much I left unexplored when I checked out of the McKittrick Hotel.

Although neither the first nor the only example in the genre of immersive theatre, “Sleep No More” gestures towards what theatre and literature can be. It distils the story, emotion and suspense of an Elizabethan tragedy and reimagines it as a Hitchcock-esque film noir. It is an open defiance of tradition, yet honours art forms from which it draws inspiration. The sleepwalking Lady Macbeth proclaims, “What’s done cannot be undone” (5.1.47-48). But “Sleep No More” claims the converse sentiment – what’s undone can be done.

“Sleep No More” violates so many theatrical conventions – space, time, plot, audience participation – it’s tricky to classify it as theatre. The word “theatre” can be traced back to the ancient Greek theasthai or “to behold”[1], accommodating a looser interpretation of theatre as performances that are observed. The guests at “Sleep No More”, however, don’t merely “behold” the action of the play; they grip the pen, authoring their experiences of the show. Given the freedom to make choices, they interact with, investigate and interpret the performance beyond the fringes of the stage. The experience of “Sleep No More” is akin to the work of reading literature. Like the audience members, the reader partakes in the painstaking art of decoding authors’ words, of researching historical and cultural contexts in which the text is rooted in, of selecting which scene to lavish attention upon.

The vastness of “Sleep No More” reflects the immensity of a single piece of literature and the attendant impossibility of grappling with it in a fleeting three hours. Its inclusion of the audience, though, demonstrates to readers the possibility of traversing the limits of the page.


SIM WEE ONG is a former student at Victoria Junior College and a current Sophomore at New York University. She spends most nights on the eighth floor of NYU’s library pursuing her dream of graduating with a major in English and American Lit and a minor Philosophy (a.k.a. studying). As a practised scaredy-cat, she wants to assure everyone that the most terrifying part in “Sleep No More” is the initial walk down the pitch-black passageway.

Photo credit: Rachel Eng

[1] “Theatre.”, Online Etymology Dictionary, http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=theater