Some Hidden Purpose

Following Thom Gunn’s The Sense of Movement in the Margins

Dominic Nah’s experimental treatise and commentary on Thom Gunn’s The Sense of Movement seeks to introduce unfamiliar readers to Gunn’s poetry in a single journey of reading that crosses Singapore. From motorcycle gangs to personified cities, saints and beggars to Peeping Toms, follow Dominic’s journey in his first reading of Gunn’s “poetics of movement” as he travels to his evening training session, in a bid to uncover “some hidden purpose” latent in the margins of this slim, pale turquoise volume of poetry. 

Opening the slim, pale turquoise volume of Thom Gunn’s The Sense of Movement with its distinctive Faber and Faber typeset cover, the instinctive feeling is that reading this poetry collection would be a quick read, a fast turnover, short enough for me to finish in my commute between Sengkang and U-Town in NUS to drop by a breakdance practice session. Inside the folded flap of the cover, I am greeted enthusiastically by Edwin Muir of New Statesman, who claims that Gunn “states afresh and with great force questions which have troubled poets and thinkers in all ages”. I am intrigued, and at the title page, I begin toying with the concept of ‘movement’ in my mind, turning it over: Movement from where? Movement towards…? Movement for what?

          “Man, you gotta Go.”

This sub-title of the first poem “On the Move” catches my attention. I arm myself with my uniball signo 0.37mm, board the bus and settle myself upstairs on the back row of the double-decker bus. I raise my knees against the empty seat before me, and meet the first image Gunn conjures. The first phrase I scribble alongside the following opening stanza reveals itself as ‘movement in the margins’:

          “The blue jay scuffling in the bushes follows
Some hidden purpose, and the gust of birds
That spurts across the field, the wheeling swallows,
Have nested in the trees and undergrowth.
Seeking their instinct, or their poise, or both,
One moves with an uncertain violence
Under the dust thrown by a baffled sense
Or the dull thunder of approximate words.”

I try approximating meaning to these images. I remember blue jays from To Kill A Mockingbird, and I remember them being somewhat disposable there because according to Atticus Finch, you could shoot as many of them as you wanted, so presumably they were rather ordinary. But the marginal space of the “bushes” and the “uncertain violence” of “scuffling” in them stuck with me. Not only is this a poetics of tentative movement, it is also one that Gunn literally and figuratively keeps down-to-earth. He begins close to the ground, in the bushes where blue jays wrestle and fields that swallows glide over, only for these natural spaces to reveal themselves as fringe sites to human activity, as Gunn later shifts the focus to an almost filmic scene of a motorcycle gang coasting, emerging into view:

          “On motorcycles, up the road, they come:
Small, black, as flies  hanging in heat, the Boys,
[…]
In goggles, donned impersonality,
In gleaming jackets trophied with the dust,
[…]
Exact conclusion of their hardiness
Has no shape yet, but from known whereabouts
They ride, direction where the tires press.
They scare a flight of birds across the field:
Much that is natural, to the will must yield.”

Gunn captures a sense of their restless movement in medias res, at once embracing (“gleaming jackets trophied with the dust”) and disrupting (“scare a flight of birds across the field”) the natural environment they are cruising through, emphasized by the closing rhyming couplet of ‘field/yield’, subordinating nature to the will of man. But this confident movement is marked primarily by its transience, the only certainty of their identity emerging from their nomadic roaming.

Moving along, the motorcycle gang of the opening poem will later find an echo in “The Unsettled Motorcyclist’s Vision of his Death”, where a solitary motorcyclist imagines a scene where this time instead, his “human will / cannot submit to nature” as he rides into a marsh, and gets caught in a sinking quagmire from which he cannot escape, only to “[accelerate] the waiting sleep”. What begins as a sense of invulnerability, of exalting and revelling in the freedom of movement that opens the collection, later detours into a disturbing encounter with death, suggesting that riding their chosen vehicle of freedom and movement necessitates an acute awareness and readiness for one’s mortality. However, Gunn does not allow this morbid vision to sink into despair, for the persona here appears to exceed the imagined moment beyond his control “where death and life in one combine, / Through the dark earth that is not mine” as he assimilates into the continuing cycle of life:

“[…]
Cell after cell the plants convert
My special richness in the dirt:
All that they get, they get by chance.

          And multiply in ignorance.”

Nature here, for this persona, seems to continue in a seamless movement of exchange and transfer, its hidden purpose one that ensures that cycles of life intersect and feed into each other, its apparent chaotic randomness working to circumvent any poetic significance attached to it about any transcendent meanings of life.

At this juncture, I alight into the bus interchange, its sliding doors welcome me into the air-conditioned space of the shopping mall. I walk through the weekend crowd, hordes of families, friends and individuals all on the way to somewhere. Riding down the escalator into the train station, I open to Gunn’s poem titled “In Praise of Cities” and first stanza indicates a shift in register in the collection:

                                       I

Indifferent to the indifference that conceived her,
Grown buxom in disorder now, she accepts
– Like dirt, strangers, or moss upon her churches –
Your tribute to the wharf of circumstance,
Rejected sidestreet, formal monument …
And, irresistible, the thoroughfare.

Here, the consciousness of the city is personified, and I am struck by the idea that firstly, a city could have its/her own consciousness, and secondly, it almost follows that her inhabitants may take that for granted, “[growing] buxom in disorder now”, while the city’s consciousness merely accepts whatever happens in her spaces. How fascinating then, to consider the city as a space that is at once everywhere, and also always at the margins of her inhabitants’ consciousness?

                                                 II
Only at dawn
You might escape, she sleeps then for an hour:
Watch where she hardly breathes, spread out and cool,
Her pavements desolate in the dim dry air.

Gunn writes of a daily tedium, a quiet breathlessness seeking respite, an uncomplaining, benign maternal presence of the all-encompassing city, calling to mind a parent who worries and watches over the children through the night and into the morning until they all leave for school, whereupon some rest can finally be sought. In this poem, Gunn seems to have in mind an amalgamation of the major cities he once lived and lives in, from the London that “wanders lewdly, whispering her given name, / Charing Cross Road”, to the “Forty-Second Street” of San Francisco, both whom appear at once “familiar and inexplicable”.

I am on the train now, standing with my back against the glass panel next to the reserved seat. “St Martin and the Beggar” comes up now, the relative simplicity of Gunn’s metre and rhythm almost reading like a nursery rhyme, loosely following the style of the plot-driven ballad with alternating rhymes that build a sense of emotional urgency, but here Gunn departs slightly from the form of the ballad with its generally stricter ABAB rhyme scheme, keeping only one set of alternating rhymes. The poem follows the well-known story of St. Martin of Tours who generously cut his cloak in two, giving half of it to a beggar who approached him while he was riding in the cold winter. Where this poem keeps faithful to the original story of St Martin and the beggar, what was most noteworthy was the somewhat bathetic ending to the poem.

In both the original story and the poem, the beggar reappears at an inn where St Martin is resting, ostensibly well-kept and completely transformed from his beggar form. He lauds St Martin in omniscient fashion, claiming to know “never since that moment / Did you regret the loss”. But this commendation the poem ends almost abruptly with the latter’s second disappearance the moment St Martin generously
extends an offer for food to him:

          St Martin stretched his hand out
To offer from his plate,
But the beggar vanished, thinking food
Like cloaks is needless weight.
Pondering on the matter
St Martin bent and ate.

Despite the anti-climactic end, or precisely because of it, I enjoyed how St Martin’s generous treatment of the beggar was not overstated or celebrated. Gunn’s choice to vocalize praise of St Martin in dialogue through the beggar’s character allows for the narration of St Martin’s penultimate simple act of contemplation to appear even more charming in its absence of moral exultation, as he responds simply by continuing to eat. Here, Gunn returns the spiritual, noble ideal of generosity and selflessness to the material plane of realism with the final image of masticating, consuming food, as if casting these ideals to the margins and returning the oft-overlooked primacy of lived experience to the centre of focus. I look around the train carriage, but there was no coincidental scene of an elderly looking person needing a seat occupied by an ignorant, able-bodied young person snoozing away in a reserved seat. I imagine that would have made reading this poem presently rather apt.

Several poems later, including an absorbing one on the figure of Merlin musing in a cave, I alight on the outskirts of U-Town, walk through the Yale-NUS campus, reading the last couple of poems of the collection. This time, in the poem “The Corridor”, there is a sense of watchfulness, surveillance and enclosure that follows a voyeur peering through a keyhole in an empty hotel corridor, one especially brought about by the enclosing rhyme scheme of ABBA in the quatrain stanzas. But as this male persona kneels and “[squints] through the keyhole, and within / Surveyed and act of love”, later “[moving] himself to get a better look”, a surprising turn of events occur. Now the watcher becomes the watched, the margins of movement shift and blur, exemplified by the break in the ABBA rhyme scheme of the quatrains hitherto:

And then it was he noticed in the glass
Two strange eyes in a fascinated face
That watched him like a picture in a book.

The instant drove simplicity away –
The scene was altered, it depended on
His kneeling, when he rose they were clean gone
The couple in the keyhole; this would stay.

This brings to mind Jean-Paul Sartre’s concept of “The Look” in his mighty 1943 ontological treatise “Being and Nothingness”, where Sartre contends with the problem of how to define an Other as a subject without resorting to objectifying the Other when looking at them. What the persona seems to experience here is exactly the phenomenon of “The Look”, where precisely in the moment of the Other looking directly at him looking at them, he experiences a fissure, a disruption of the self, a moment that Sartre identifies as “Shame”, a shudder of violent recognition that another person has begun to size you up, with some hidden purpose and judgement unbeknownst to you. It is perhaps this moment of interrupted voyeurism that exemplifies Gunn’s apprehension of the arbitrary shifts and movements of both margins and marginal figures. In that split second through the keyhole the dynamics of power and surveillance are quietly, violently shaken:

          For if the watcher of the watcher shown
There in the distant glass, should be watched too,
Who can be master, free of others; who
Can look around and say he is alone?

Moreover, who can know that what he sees
Is not distorted, that he is not seen
Distorted by a pierglass, curved and lean?
Those curious eyes, through him, were linked to these –

As I wander through the corridors of U-Town towards the dance studio slightly paranoid if people are looking at me, I am amazed by the last poem of the collection “Vox Humana”, which suggests for me how perhaps the ‘hidden purpose’ of movement will remain a scuffle for meaning, much like the blue jays in the bushes at the start of the collection. Throughout the collection, Gunn reaches for the definitive conclusions of these scuffles, looking for a triumph of language to anchor meaning in movements that wander through the margins and almost elude capture in language, at best alluded to. A quick Google search on my phone tells me that ‘vox humana’ is “an organ stop with a tone supposedly resembling the human voice”. And in this final poem of the collection, Gunn draws his poetics of movement together with a poetics of notation, translation and focalization, offering an expression to all that is marginal and seeking definition:

          Being without quality
I appear to you at first
as an unkempt smudge, a blur,
an indefinite haze, mere-
ly pricking the eyes, almost
nothing. Yet you perceive me.

[…]

Aha, sooner or later
you will have to name me, and,
as you name, I shall focus,
I shall become more precise.
O Master (for you command
in naming me, you prefer)!

[…]

Or if you call me the blur
that in fact I am, you shall
yourself remain blurred, hanging
like smoke indoors. For you bring,
to what you define now, all
there is, ever, of future.

Standing outside the dance studio, ready for my own circuit of movement, I close the slim, pale turquoise volume. I pause on his final stanza, turning over in my mind the vague precision (or is it the ‘precise vagueness’?) of his call to mutual and reciprocal acknowledgement. A sense of possibility stirs within, some hidden purpose of movement whispers me along. I keep the volume in my bag, push open the studio doors and call to mind Gunn’s urging: Man, you gotta Go.


DOMINIC NAH is presently pursuing a Masters in World Literature at the University of Warwick. Currently, he is trying to experiment beyond the standard structure of the PEEL essay and this piece on Thom Gunn’s poetry is his modest attempt in exploring the parameters of what literary commentary in an essay can look like. So far, so good, he probably rewarded himself with roti prata after writing this.

Photo credit: Dominic Nah

Works Cited

Gunn, T. (1957) The Sense of Movement. London: Faber and Faber.

Sartre, J.-P. (2003) Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Trans. Hazel Estella Barnes. London: Routledge.

Advertisements

MCMXXV

Philip Larkin in his poem ‘MCMXIV’ wrote “never such innocence / never before or since”, reflecting on pre-WWI Britain, tainted by the beginning of the war. In her prose fiction piece, Rachel Eng responds to this poem. Set in 1925 in between the two World Wars and told from the perspective of a war veteran, MCMXXV provides a probable, poignant account of contemporary experience, while writing against the cynicism that our 21st century selves might bring to discussions of war.

I remember, once, a young woman coming up to me on the street. She was wearing a poppy badge in her lapel and had assumed the appropriate expression of mourning that came with November. You’ve probably seen the type; left-wing, sympathetic, anxious to rail on my behalf at the faceless men in moustaches who sent my mates to die. “I’m sorry,” she said, “that you had to fight a war that didn’t matter in the end.”

I gave her a smile and looked down at the row of badges I was wearing. I said, “it mattered to us.”

Mum would take us out to Hyde Park on August Bank Holidays, Charlie and me. There’d be bunches of little kids with their scones and jam and clotted cream and there’d be fights over whether you ought to put the jam or the cream on first. A man was always at the entrance of the park selling hot cocoa and we’d get two glasses for two farthings each. Mum would wear her best dress, always the same sheer-patterned one, and a broadbrimmed hat that Charlie and I would laugh at. We’d sit on the grass and eat our sandwiches and feel like there could never be anything wrong with the world. I know it was London and we’d always expect it to be pouring, but somehow on those bank holidays the sky was always blue. I remember the birdsong the most, the gay chirping of sparrows, the sweetness of the lark.

The reason I remember it is because they had those same birds in France. They corkscrewed in the clear blue sky singing while I pulled the trigger of my machine gun. It makes a staccato-noise, if you’ve never heard one, a thud-thud-thud like a rapid drumbeat, as if the red flowers that bloomed on soldiers’ shirts were set to some bizarre sort of orchestra, the birds the melody. It was all very beautiful, the way war is, explosions like dust motes in the sun. Don’t believe the pictures of the Somme that’re all cold churned-up mud and barbed wire. The Somme looked exactly like Hyde Park in autumn, gentle curves of rolling green grass as neat as a military cemetery, and the Serpentine curving lazily through it all.

Charlie died on the fourth day, so they told me later. He’d gone up after the artillery had stopped and the German drums had tattooed their beat into his heart. He’s still there somewhere, under those wheat-specked fields. Almost as if in some way he’d made it home.

I didn’t pity the fatherless children after the war (and there had been so many of them, dark-clothed and restless as they tugged at their mothers’ fingers by the graves). They studied history, we studied history, but it wasn’t the same thing at all. We were reared on stories of clever Odysseus and brave King Richard and the tanned pith helmets of Rorke’s Drift. And we never had to question any of them because they were, in our mind, all true; we could strut around the schoolyard, as tall and proud as Nelson. Those children were taught that nineteen thousand two hundred and forty men died on the first of July, 1916. And that over a million men were lost for the glorious cause of a six mile stretch (twenty five rounds around the track, some cynical P. E. teacher might say). They would have grown up with the Cenotaph large and looming in their memory, unfamiliar roman numerals etching a reminder into their heads every year.

Charlie was married for a total of sixteen months and seven days. I still have the letter Captain Graves sent his wife that deeply regretted to inform her of Private Charles William Price being officially reported as killed in action fourth July sympathy from the Army Council at the soldier’s death in his Country’s service. There isn’t a full stop or any sort of pause. It reminds me of a delivery boy who just wants to finish his job and never think about this again. I got a letter as well, although mine was probably shot out of my hands at Amiens.

Charlie was a gardener and kept the little plot of land outside the house so tidy. He’d do little yellow flowers and trim the hedges every day after work. Then he’d sit by the window with a cup of tea and look up once or twice at his lovely little patch, smiling.

It is far worse, I think, to have something taken away from you than to have never had it at all.

The girl gave me a long hard look and then launched into a lecture about the failure of the League of Nations and Adolf Hitler and why there would never be peace in the world. She was one of the dark-clothed children. You all are. I listened politely and nodded until she walked away.

You see: it mattered to every young man waiting patiently in line, as if pledging their loyalty to football. It mattered in an age when one could say for king and country without irony or cynicism, and it mattered every day I carried Captain Graves’s letter in my jacket pocket. It has to. Maybe the world will never know such innocence again, but it is important to remember that they did. The only way I can understand it is if I believe that Charlie gave his life for something. Something that mattered to him, even though they decommissioned farthings a year after he died.

I go back to Hyde Park sometimes. Now there are eateries next to the Serpentine and the grass is trampled under tourists’ feet. There are benches and streetlamps and a quiet memorial to the boys of the Royal Regiment of Artillery, just next to Wellington’s triumphal arch. The birds are still there, though no more staccato beats haunt their song.  I look at them and think of scones. Cocoa. Broadbrimmed hats. A garden, still tidy, its yellow flowers dancing in the breeze.


For a final year history undergraduate at UCL, RACHEL ENG still makes the most atrocious puns. An enthusiastic collector of pop culture references, her hobbies include writing, graphic and web design, and watching more British panel shows than she would care to admit. Her achievements include memorising the periodic table and finishing the LOTR/Hobbit EE marathon twice (it’s like the London marathon, but cooler). She spends most of her time pretending that Manchester United can actually play football. 

Photo credit: Rachel Eng

Larkin in the Margins

Priya Ramesh’s essay on Philip Larkin’s poetry offers a helpful positioning of reading the acclaimed librarian poet as a watchful observer of society from the margins of both literary and general society. Navigating Larkin’s balancing act “between being too immersed in spaces and practices…and being too detached”, Priya successfully manages one of her own. In taking us through his speakers’ approaches to marriage, love and religion alongside biographical and critical perspectives, she reframes the typical negative connotation of the “margins” as a disempowering site of power, and instead casts it as the central vantage point from which the individual Larkin understands and critiques the society he inhabits.


“I’m somewhat withdrawn from what you call “the contemporary literary community,” for two reasons: in the first place, I don’t write for a living, and so don’t have to keep in touch with literary editors and publishers and television people in order to earn money; and in the second, I don’t live in London. Given that, my relations with it are quite amicable.” — Philip Larkin, 1982

Philip Larkin is no stranger to the margins; it could even be said he embraces them. In many of his ingenious creations of poetry, Larkin tends to assume the role of a speaker who is opposed to adhering to the normative ways of society and, instead, watches from the sides; he watches the way lives are shaped and moulded by conforming, and comments on them with acute insight.

Larkin uses the distance between the ‘centre’ of society and his own position on the fringes as a powerful device to provide a definitive outlook on ‘mundane’ things around us in daily life and their underlying motivations as inherent to human nature. He walks a thin line between being too immersed in it to provide a holistic view and being too detached to be unable to empathise; he straddles the thin line between compassion and condescension to provide us with a fresh perspective. As Alan Brownjohn put it, Larkin inspires the kind of hope which ‘exists in the humane precision with which hopeless things are observed’.

For example, in the poem “The Whitsun Weddings”, Larkin manages to inhabit the middle ground between being too attached and being too detached. He uses a tone that is both fascinated and yet conscious of absurdity. He thus portrays love and marriage in a more realistic way — a way that is more relatable to the average man than the flowery descriptions of Romantic Era poets — and yet does not fall into the trap of being glaringly cynical.

“I’ve remained single by choice, and shouldn’t have liked anything else, but of course most people do get married, and divorced too, and so I suppose I am an outsider in the sense you mean. Of course it worries me from time to time, but it would take too long to explain why. Samuel Butler said, Life is an affair of being spoilt in one way or another.” — Philip Larkin, The Paris Review, Summer 1982.

The quote above goes some way in lending Larkin the ability to curate a speaker that can look at both sides of a paradigm.The archetypal group type-casting of not only the families (‘The fathers with broad belts under their suits…mothers loud and fat; An uncle shouting smut..’, etc) but the couples themselves in the ‘dozen marriages’ plays to the effect of suggesting the role of weddings as reinforcing a sense of community despite the class-related undertones. This is achieved through Larkin’s speaker being in the margin, or the grey area, wherein he is an active participant in neither these weddings nor the larger, social ritual of marriage, and yet their ‘frail, travelling coincidence’ makes him privy to the blossoming of an intimate relationship.

The movement of the train has a significant role; or, rather, it is the movement of the poem which mimics the stop-start galloping of a train through various stations. The placing of the dimeter in the second line of each stanza stops the flow of the poem temporarily before it wells up and heads on, full steam ahead. It also mirrors the speaker’s movement as an observer pushed into the margins, in a transient moment, involved in the hopeful purview of the couples. The closing lines of the poem read: “A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower /  Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.” This memorable final metaphor of the arrow-shower has a certain ambivalence about it, but Larkin seems to consciously make it so: the image of an arrow-shower is foreboding and ominous in the context of an arrow as a weapon. However,  the arrow-shower is  ‘sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain’. That it is removed from our view allows the freedom for the readers (and/or the couples) to draw their own conclusions to their marriages. The reference to rain, a timeless symbol of fertility and hope, tints it in positive light and the fact that Larkin ends on this note suggests he actively tried not to be overtly disdainful of it. As an outsider to the custom of marriage, he is without a very strong inherent personal bias in his opinion of it. He neither ordains it harshly, nor praises it to be the essence of life itself; he uses his position to succinctly show us the possibilities of all that marriage can be.

The perspective of being in the margins is also seen in the meditation on religion in “Church Going”, which takes the form of a monologue where the speaker ponders over the significance of liturgy and religious superstructure. The speaker is an outsider and does not seem a fervent follower of customs, but neither is he entirely uninitiated, since he is able to identify various paraphernalia within the church and follow some of the behaviour that is expected, such as taking his cycle-clips off in ‘awkward reverence’.

The speaker is not a detached observer, and resides in a grey area between outright agnostic dissent and an inclination to want to understand religion. He tries to follow some facets of the expected behaviour inside a church but the tension is all too palpable, as he speaks too loudly and drops a worthless coin inside the box. As he ponders further over the possible ‘death’ or ‘extinction’ of religion, he seems to suggest that religion is far beyond mere liturgy. He seems to recognise that even if the glow of sanctity diminishes in churches, their function as a storage vault of humans’ most significant milestones in life, will persist because the human desire to continue seeking validation for these moments will continue. In this context, the lines “For, though I’ve no idea / What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth, / It pleases me to stand in silence here” hold special significance. The choice of the word ‘accoutred’ reinforces this as the speaker puts forth the point that we ‘clothe’ and ‘shroud’ the insignificant happenings of our reality in religion — and the church as a proponent of religion — to make them seem extraordinary: birth, marriage, death, etc.

Larkin’s position here is one that does not entirely reject religion, but also one that is not fanatical or blind in following it. He refers to the church as a ‘barn’, which removes the grandeur from the facade of the church, and looks at it perhaps in the Nativity context wherein a significant event such as the Virgin birth of Christ can take place in a simple barn –  of something that houses our hopes and thus, will persist in one form or the other. The allure of the church may no longer be reflected in the architecture resplendent cathedrals with sprawling frescoes, but the role will remain same in its essence. There is a suggestion that the church, as an institution, may be taken to be as elusive and precious as the Holy Grail. Larkin suggests that the church has ‘held unspilt’, which serves as an allusion to the church as a vessel that holds the hopes of our civilisation.

There may be confirmation bias in as much as people wanting to subjectively make what they will of the church and the significance it takes in their lives, but the human longing for the supernatural is not a passing moment in our evolution. It is all but an ephemerality, as Larkin posits in the lines: ’Since someone will forever be surprising / A hunger in himself to be more serious, / And gravitating with it to this ground”.

The speaker subtly transitions from first person singular to plural as Larkin shifts towards a more universal and inclusive statement on religion. He seems to recognise that while religious customs and liturgy may be pretence, there is a deeper psychological yearning in humanity for transcendence, hence the ‘blent air (where) all our compulsions meet’. While the average person may not be able to articulate such a profound spiritual hunger, he may still gravitate to and look for the ‘serious house on serious earth’, subscribing to the prescribed practices of organised religion. This may be why the speaker feels ‘pleased to stand there in silence’, despite not knowing why.  Larkin recognises this and thus adopts the singularly remarkable position of compassion-without-condescension. This was brilliantly summarised by Alan Brownjohn in his 1975 study of Larkin too: “Larkin’s own position is that of a different kind of observer, one standing a little distance away from the happiness of others, unable to feel affinity with them, yet cautiously assuming such joy as they may be able to find.”

The word margin is of course, primarily defined as ‘the edge or border of something’. It refers to the periphery, and does not always come with positive connotations. It is closely associated with being ‘marginalised’ and being in a liminal space, neither inside a circle nor outside of it, but merely on the verge. However, Larkin’s poetry shows how this position of perceived vulnerability, teetering between the one and the other, can be transformed to a position of power. The power of being able to look at something with a holistic perspective and acquire a more rounded knowledge of people, society and what drives them. Larkin thus shows us that, perhaps, there is a profit margin to be gained from standing in the margins.


PRIYA RAMESH is a first-year undergraduate pursuing Medicine at the University of Birmingham, whose life has been immeasurably illuminated by Literature. When she isn’t nursing her existential despair by playing at being intellectual, she writes about football for FourFourTwo and The Guardian. She enjoys works of dystopian fiction, is prone to telling bad jokes, and might be an insect.

Photo credit: Rachel Eng

Works cited:

Booth, J. (2014) Philip Larkin: life, art and love. New York: Bloomsbury Press.

Brownjohn, A. (1975) Philip Larkin. Harlow: Longman Group.

Larkin, P. (2004) Collected poems. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Motion, A., and B. C. Bloomfield. (1993) Philip Larkin : a writer’s life. London: Faber and Faber.

Ricks, C. (1965) Philip Larkin: A True Poet. New York Review of Books, 10-11.

Philips, R. (1982) Interview: Philip Larkin, The Art of Poetry. The Paris Review 30.

After The Tea

A short play

In Unseen’s first dramatic writing submission, Edward Eng’s adaptation updates Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby to the late 90s, centering on a quiet, intimate scene between cousins Nick and Daisy and unveiling parallel threads of romanticism between the Roaring Twenties and the Millennial Generation. Written in response to recent stage and film adaptations that incline towards a strong visual portrayal of the jazz age, one that seemingly sidesteps the finer currents of social divides in the novel, “After The Tea” strips away the bright lights and pizzazz, focusing instead on the cousins’ conflicting aspirations and desires, revealing the persistence of everyday ideologies and markers of class, social status and romantic love almost a century after Gatsby’s parties lit up West Egg.


A cosy New York apartment in the bright heat of noontime. NICK is having a quiet smoke by the door, on a bench fashioned from a sideways-laid bookshelf. DAISY admires the living room. Its chairs, tables and wall decor are woody, a slightly confused mix of things that could have been on discount at an upmarket furniture shop.  

NICK: ‘I certainly am awfully glad to see you again.’ Some words just don’t go well together. Certainly, awfully. But the silence after said more than anything else. Whether or not she had intended its effect or if it was just another flippant gesture of hers, Gatsby had been well won over.

(He leaves the unfinished cigarette in an ashtray and enters the living room.)

DAISY: Oh Nick, you didn’t tell me your house was this lovely! (A slender finger across the tabletop.) The hues! Even the grain of this teak is just wonderful.

NICK: It’s nothing. Most of these things are hand-me-downs. That’s why we chose the country club for yesterday’s tea. Not that I’m not proud of this… (He realises how striking DAISY looks in his relatively modest home.)

DAISY: I’m sorry?

NICK: I mean my favourite thing is still my music collection.

DAISY: Oh. You do sound like the kind of man who owns a nice record player.

NICK: No, it’s actually a CD collection.

DAISY: CDs? My cousin, I can’t have you living impoverished here in New York. Without a record player? What next, digital music?

NICK: Well, I’ve managed fine.

DAISY: It’s not just about how it sounds, you know. Don’t you think it’s more… stately? It’d fit in well with your apartment. (Pause. DAISY grins.) You know what? I’ll get you one tomorrow! You pick the records.

NICK: Please. It’s not necessary.

DAISY: You’re right. Nothing is. It’s always a want… but with no wants then what is there?

NICK: Daisy, I can’t let you buy it for me. It’s 1997. CDs are just as good as records these days.

DAISY: All the more since it’s ‘97! No recession in sight! Not that it matters. But the sky is luminous, and awaits all that jazz!

NICK: I’m serious. But if I change my mind I promise to let you know.

DAISY: Fine, you win. (Pause.) How’s that job you just started?

NICK: I’m not really… comfortable here. I think I moved to New York at the wrong time.

DAISY: Oh I’m so sorry to hear that. Maybe you haven’t spent enough time here. Look, how about you come over to my place for lunch one of these days. Whenever you feel tired.

NICK: I can’t. I can’t just walk out of work like that.

DAISY: It’s not far isn’t it? What use is your Yale degree if you can’t go for an extra hour of lunch?!

NICK: Yale… is about some lofty old ideal, I guess. The seven liberal arts. But absolutely useless when it comes to the paycheck.

DAISY: Oh, come on. Don’t be so miserable! You were the smart kid weren’t you?

NICK: Perhaps if memorising quotes from smart people makes me smart…

DAISY: I like a nice quote. Come on, give me one.

NICK: You can’t be serious.

DAISY: I’m not teasing you.

NICK: Don’t we have other things to talk about?

DAISY: Please, Nick. Don’t be a spoilsport.

NICK: (Exhales.) If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to-

DAISY: Stop. (Unanticipated pause.) That makes me feel…

NICK: Makes you feel?

DAISY: I don’t quite know what it is.

NICK: Do you have anyone in mind?

DAISY: Nick, you are ever so eloquent.

NICK: I’m sure Tom’s got nice words too.

(DAISY remains silent. NICK rises to get some water.)

NICK: Or Jay?

DAISY: He is lovely.

NICK: Is he? What do you think of him?

DAISY: He went to Oxford.

NICK: Harris Manchester, wasn’t it?

DAISY: Yes.

NICK: Do you know what that means?

DAISY: What what means?

(NICK returns to the table. With each lunge he becomes more cynical.)

NICK: I mean his college.

DAISY: Nick, you’re being ridiculous. He’s a perfectly good man and that’s all that counts-

NICK: It was only named Harris Manchester in 1996. That’s last year.

(Ugly pause. Nick finishes his glass of water.)

DAISY: I like him a lot.

NICK: Why wouldn’t you? (Pause.) But what makes you think he’s a good man?

DAISY: Stop it, Nick. You know I’m not going to answer.

NICK: And when you say that do you really mean ‘love’?

DAISY: That’s a strong word.

NICK: Love?

DAISY: Stop it.

NICK: Why?

DAISY: Why I am careful around that word is because I know what it wants from me. But I don’t know what it means.

NICK: Reminds me of that clock he knocked over yesterday. He tried to put it back together. Even if he could, its hands would still be late.

DAISY: Love’s a loaded word.

NICK: And you avoid using it.

(Tired pause. NICK stands and walks to the far end of the table. He picks up an exquisitely wrapped gift box.)

NICK: Do you believe in predestination?

DAISY: You mean, like fate?

NICK: Like you’ve sailed for weeks on the Santa María. The journey has been empty and stretches for eons and eons. The sea beneath you, is just black enough such that when New York City shines on the horizon, it turns whatever vague destiny you’ve imagined for yourself, into something concrete, something you can hold.

(He returns to DAISY’s side with the open box.)

DAISY: Would that make me Columbus?

NICK: In an idealistic way. Minus the transatlantic slave trade. (NICK offers her a chocolate.) Ballotin? There’s a bit of brandy in it.

DAISY: (Pause.) No. I cannot believe in fate. It’s not led anyone to anything good.

NICK: I see.

DAISY: You see?

NICK: Well, he believes in it.

DAISY: That’s his problem, isn’t it?

NICK: I should tell you this. It was at night when he reminded me to ask you out for tea. Late at night, and his house was lit like it was Christmas. Well… Christmas isn’t as ostentatious. Every inch of that house. But there was no party that night, and it was quiet. A bit surreal, all these lights shining like modern day smoke signals.

DAISY: Did you go in?

NICK: He was waiting outside. You know he has these walls he’s built for himself. All his ‘old acquaintances’ and ‘appointments’. When I mention your name they come down in a second, and all you’re left with is a kind of a relentless idealist. Fresh out of wherever it is he’s from.

(Troubled pause. DAISY paces in the apartment and as she reaches the nearby window, her voice returns to its former clarity.)

DAISY: Why are you telling me this?

NICK: Well. I don’t want you, either of you, to hurt yourselves in this… thing.

DAISY: I don’t think we should talk about it.

NICK: About Jay?

DAISY: Him. I don’t think it’s right that you make him sound… delusional. Tom and I will all be okay as we are, as we always have been. As you said, Jay does have a gorgeous personality. Isn’t that enough for him to live with?

(NICK gets up and brings her glass of water to the window. He holds it out for her. She looks past the glass.)

NICK: Will you tell him yourself?

DAISY: (Pause.) No.

NICK: I am genuinely worried.

DAISY: Well, do you think you might be fussing a bit too much about him? He’s a grown man now. I’m sure he’s… practical. Besides, how long have you known him for? A couple of months?

NICK: I don’t know if I can watch his heart break.

DAISY: He’s got so many friends to care about. You’ve seen how dazzling the parties are here. You can’t help but watch and let the wide, blue lawns draw you in. Surely he didn’t move here for a woman he met so long ago?

NICK: Five years, wasn’t it.

DAISY: Yes, Nick. My dear, I think you’ve been having too much water and too little drink. (She takes the glass from his hand.) Is your bar stocked, at least?

NICK: It is.

DAISY: Let’s swap this for two nice martinis, shall we?

NICK: Okay.

DAISY: Isn’t it better to concern yourself with things of the ‘now’? With things that you can touch and hold. That’s what is important, isn’t it.

NICK: And not reclaiming the past.

DAISY: That’s quite the silly thing to do.

(Daisy exits. Nick returns to the table. He runs his knuckles against the grain and sighs.)

NICK: Daisy, oh, Daisy. But Gatsby thinks the past is all there is to do.

(Lights fade out.)


Having recently given up his corporate career plans, EDWARD ENG is an aspiring playwright-filmmaker currently excited by ideas of hypocritical hedonism, funky metaphysics and moral ambiguity. Edward currently reads Philosophy, Politics and Economics at the University of Warwick, where his upcoming adaptation of The Merchant of Venice set in a local prison is being staged. Will write for food.

Photo credit: Chloe Lim

Poems

Al Lim’s poems for this issue reinterpret Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s celebrated poem ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ through a distinctly Singaporean lens. In ‘Charge of the Eighth Brigade’, Al recasts Tennyson’s gallant cavalry into the role of NS conscripts, prompting us to revisit the question of morality and military obedience in a distinctly local manner. In ‘wonder’, Al reworks Tennyson’s narrative within the contemporary local form of the unified twin cinema, highlighting the ethical dichotomy central to Tennyson’s poem—is the sacrifice of life ever justified by its outcome?

Charge of the Eighth Brigade

Plug mine in, wait no batt
iNo phone dying.
Sun so hot, buay tahan
infanteer training.

OC shoot, PC cease,
both give me extra.
Act damn blur, live longer—
still kena tekan.

Fall in now, last parade
rush to wait and zuo bo.
Balonglong get delayed
scrub carbon, crabs go home.

Tracer flash, thunder flash,
they say all by handbook.
Heat injured, fall longkang
sign seven, suck thumb.

Dig shellscrape, sleep in rain,
still water get dengue.
Go MO, rifle stun,
tio DB, negligence.

Eh Sirs ah, Wayang done?
Charge your men, rabak sia.
We wonder: rank big ah
but actually, not at all.

 

won

charging

through the brimstone rain

to lead the lighted path

reaping honor and glory

eternal

der

2.778km

is enough

for becoming cannon fodder

and expending 600

beings.


Al’s meditative response to Othello draws from Salih’s assertion of rootedness in Season of Migration to the North as well as the Moor’s insistence on his individuality, mapping these avowals onto a Singaporean persona to explore the plight of a dominant individual’s vulnerable claim to power, one hinged upon tentative relations with authorities, trusted aides and memories, where one must remain on guard, primed to defend his claim.

Pointed

“I felt not like a storm-swept feather but like that palm tree,
a being with a background, with roots, with a purpose.”
Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North

Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice. Then must you speak”
Othello 5.2.402-403

I am the black ram probed by men behind riot shields. Wary
eyes watch my hands. Staying: no sudden movements

from this general, Barbary horse with eyes steamed white as
char siew paus from my childhood. Here lies no Desdemona

but only construction sands clawing at my eyes, halting
my tracks. Invisible Iago pulls the puppet strings, that tie

and fasten me to stocks. I wait for the obligatory open
palm pointed towards my sword.


AL LIM is a rising sophomore at Yale-NUS College. Part-Thai and Singaporean, he studied in Sydney and South Carolina before serving National Service as a Military Police instructor. He is president of the Southeast Asian Society and INK: Literary Collective in Yale-NUS.

photo credit: cliparts

The Tragedy of Anakin, The Chosen One

“The Tragedy of Anakin, the Chosen One” traces the fall of Star Wars’ eponymous Anakin Skywalker – from an adolescent youngling, saddled with the weight of destiny and an intense dislike for sand, to a murderous lord of war feared across galaxies. Priya Ramesh’s essay examines the elements of Anakin’s journey through the archetypical framework of Aristotelian Tragedy, pitting them against those seen in William Shakespeare’s iconic “Othello” and “Hamlet”. Features and themes of tragedy are explored throughout all three works in this essay – light versus dark, rise and fall; reckoning and redemption.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

When reading for A Levels, a genre I particularly loved analysing and exploring was tragedy. Tragedy is often complex and involves characters with complex and layered personalities, as humans are in real life. The presentation of characters with understandable flaws and misgivings allows each reader to connect with a tragedy, and facilitates the portrayal of the human condition at its barest, replete with scars and overwhelming imperfections.

Tracing Tragedy

Tragedies are driven by the presence of a central ‘protagonist’ — a tragic hero. In some cases, the essence of a tragedy is that it shows the disintegration of the tragic hero’s world, compounded by his own actions. The hero is made to suffer and faces inner turmoil; his circumstances may sometimes cloud his judgment, leading him to make pernicious choices and find himself further mired in distress and misery, offering us a striking view of human frailty in the face of suffering.

The Aristotelian tragic hero is a widely-used skeleton for a tragic hero, and the Greek mythical character of Oedipus serves as a popular example. However, there is a character closer to our time, and to the pop culture sensibilities of our generation, who also exhibits the characteristics of an Aristotelian tragic hero – Anakin Skywalker, more popularly known as legendary über-villain Darth Vader.  If one views the entirety of the first two Star Wars trilogies (Episodes I-VI), the story could easily be described as ‘The Tragedy of Anakin, The Chosen One’.

We can establish the following as some of the crucial components of a tragic hero:

  • Noble in birth and character
  • Possesses a fatal/tragic flaw (hamartia)
  • Commits a terrible mistake, therefore suffering a fall from grace (peripeteia)
  • Pays a terrible price for it, gaining knowledge and insight (anagnorisis)
  • Accepts responsibility for actions
  • Dies with dignity but is ultimately redeemed

James Earl Jones, who provided the iconic booming voice of Darth Vader in the original trilogy, acted as Claudius in Hamlet and, more notably, the titular role in Othello. His comments on Othello in an essay, entitled ‘The Sun God’, could apply to Anakin too: “Hes more endowed with humanity than anyone elseand possessed of the desire to be better than anyone else: to be kinder, to be more just, to be more responsible than anybody else.It can thus be seen that Anakin Skywalker actually exhibits many parallels with characters such as Othello and Hamlet and may conform to the type of a tragic hero.

Nobility in Tragic Characters

Nobility in birth and character is one box to check in the Aristotelian framework for a tragic hero. In Star Wars, Anakin is not only of noble birth, he is immaculately conceived. In almost Christ-like fashion, born to a slave mother on the desert planet of Tatooine, Anakin had no father and was conceived from the ‘Force’ itself, making him the ‘Chosen One’ who will bring balance to the Force. Through the first meeting of Anakin with the travelling Jedi party of Qui-Gon Jinn, we also see that even as a child, he has a naturally good-natured character about him and even imparts ideal wisdom, as he reminds his mother that “the biggest problem in the universe is no one helps each other”.

This is similar to both Othello and Hamlet, since they are both considered to be of royal lineage. In the first few scenes of Act I of the respective plays, they show through their eloquent speech and wise behaviour that they are indeed noble characters. Hamlet is the Prince of Denmark and matriculates at the renowned Wittenberg University as a scholar. As Ophelia summarises, Hamlet possessed, “The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword, / Th’ expectancy and rose of the fair state, / The glass of fashion and the mould of form, / Th’ observed of all observers, quite, quite down!” (3.1.151-155) which suggests that beyond his royal lineage, Hamlet was a well-rounded character who was the nation’s darling and acted as such.

Similarly, Othello’s actions in Act 1 assert that he is a man worthy of respect, especially as a black man rising through the ranks of a white city-state to be one of the most important members of its society. His confidence is charming, as he declares his noble background – “…I fetch my life and being / From men of royal siege” (1.2.21-22) – and orders his men to refrain from drawing their swords when encountering Brabantio and his entourage (1.2.59). The construction of this scene puts Othello on a pedestal akin to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus tells his disciples to stow away their swords, when Judas, the back-stabbing disciple, arrives with Roman Legionaries to arrest him. Othello’s insistence that “(his) parts, (his) title and (his) perfect soul / Shall manifest (him) rightly” (1.2.31-32) suggest that even in the face of allegations, his reputation in Venetian society as a noble man precedes him. This is further dramatically shown by Shakespeare, since as they enter the Duke’s court in the following scene, the Duke notices Othello first and Brabantio is an afterthought — despite Othello being a Moor and Brabantio being a Venetian and senator. All in all, Othello shows himself to be ‘more fair than black’ (1.3.291), as put by the Duke.

Nobility is a crucial aspect as it shows that these heroes are of a higher nature than a common man and thus would generally be taken to be less susceptible to flaws. This, of course, is what amplifies the impact and magnitude of the impending downfall.

Hamartia – Analysing the Fear of Loss

For all there is to admire about these characters, each of them has one crucial character flaw — or hamartia — that amplifies the magnitude of their suffering and paves the way for their undoing.  In Episode I, Yoda already foreshadows a dark future for Anakin, when he says to him, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering. I sense much fear in you.” The fear of loss, and his abject failure to cope with it, is arguably Anakin’s greatest flaw. After his mother is kidnapped and tortured by a species known as the Sandpeople, Anakin has recurrent premonitions about her death. And yet, he is too late to rescue her and can only watch as she dies. In a fit of cold-blooded rage, he slays the Sandpeople. Jedi work on principles of pacifism – never kill, and if one must, never do so without a just, society-serving cause. Anakin’s loss of cognizant decision-making in the face of loss and his choice to murder the Sandpeople serves as the first sign of his hamartia manifesting itself in action, leading to his fall from grace as a respected Jedi. Another aspect of Anakin’s fatal combination of flaws — his hubris — is seen with the imagined loss of his wife, Padmé. He screams, “One day, I will become the greatest Jedi ever. I will even learn how to stop people from dying.” When turned down for a promotion to be a Jedi Master, Anakin starts to believe that he is more powerful than the Jedi can imagine and that they are holding him back in achieving his full potential. He over-indulges in the notion of being the Chosen One and sets himself up to be the harbinger of justice and fairness to the galaxy.

Anakin’s inability to truly control his actions in the face of fear and/or loss is mirrored in Othello. Othello, despite his attempts as identifying as a Venetian or Christian, is still very much an outlier in his society and this may translate to fearing for his reputation upon hearing of Desdemona’s alleged infidelity. Othello’s inability to objectively think through this and separate facts from conjecture rises from his inability to make sense of a situation where he is to lose his reputation as a man for being cuckolded. This plunges the Moor into mental torment as Iago begins with a mere suggestion of an affair between Cassio and Desdemona. Othello’s inability to manoeuvre past nuanced fabrication means that he stakes everything on his ancient’s words. His reaction is at once extreme and exaggerated, as seen in “Farewell the tranquil mind, farewell content!” (3.3.351) and “Farewell: Othello’s occupation’s gone” (3.3.360).

Moreover, just as Anakin literally struggles between the light and the dark, Hamlet and Othello figuratively face the same conflict. For example, when Othello arrives to kill Desdemona, he does ‘with a light’ in the darkened bedroom, which dramatically poses him to be a self-perceived minister of justice. His complex gives rise to his declaration that “she must die, else she’ll betray more men” (5.2.6) as he eggs himself on to extinguish the ‘light’ of Desdemona’s life, which has inherent dramatic irony in contrasting how the symbolic light of justice is used to create an empty dark void where there was a life. This perhaps leads to the consideration of Othello’s self-indulgent delusion of his own role.

On the other hand, Hamlet’s tragic flaw is perhaps his very ability to analyse, at length, what happens around him, which gives rise to entertaining hesitation and ceaseless brooding over morality and mortality. A pensive young man who frequently indulges in lengthy soliloquies, Hamlet undergoes internal strife as he debates himself on the veracity of the Ghost, the ‘righteous’ act of punishing Claudius for murder and the fact that he himself would be deemed a sinner were he to commit the ultimate revenge in killing Claudius. Ultimately, despite taking up the responsibility of setting wrongs right in Denmark and protecting his father’s legacy, Hamlet weakens his nation’s position through his endless deliberation between rather unrestrained outbursts of violence.

Antagonists – Activating Hamartia

At the same time, the collapse of these three tragic protagonists is not completely unaided. There is an antagonist – a character in place to amplify the effects of their tragic flaw.

Anakin is constantly egged on by Palpatine, also known as Sith Lord Darth Sidious, who manipulates and activates  Anakin’s fear of loss:

Palpatine: You have much wisdom, Anakin. But if I were to die, all the knowledge you seek about the true nature of the Force will be lost with me. Learn the power of the Dark Side, Anakin. The power to save Padmé[Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith]

He thus manages to convince the Chosen One into leading the Jedi Purge — a genocide of all young children identified to have the potential to be Jedi — and helping to establish a neo-fascist rule of the Empire in the Galaxy. Palpatine’s influence is particularly seen in the confrontation between Anakin and (the second of two) Sith Lord Count Dooku in Episode III. In the previous episode, Dooku had chopped off Anakin’s hand in battle and here, Anakin overpowers him and holds him at lightsaber-point. Anakin hesitates as Jedi are not supposed to kill, as previously detailed, and yet, Sidious entices Anakin into acting on his rage and personal vendetta. Palpatine notes, “It is only natural. He cut off your arm, and you wanted revenge. It wasn’t the first time, Anakin. Remember what you told me about your mother and the Sand People” [Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith]. Palpatine’s role is reprised by the Ghost in Hamlet, who emotionally traps Hamlet by setting him expectations of his duty as a son and even a human, as seen in “If thou didst ever thy dear father love—…Revenge his foul and most unnatural mer” (1.5.23, 25) as well as “If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not” (1.5.81).

More similarities with Palpatine are to be drawn with Iago, who capitalises on his knowledge of Othello’s fears to drive him into destructive darkness and kill his love, as seen when he remarks that “the Moor already changes with my poison” (3.3.337). The effect of this is seen in the transformation of Othello’s language, especially in Act 4 and 5 when it breaks down into incoherent exclamations, such as in “Death and damnation! O!” (3.3.399) and “O blood, blood, blood!” (3.3.454). Furthermore, his speech begins to extensively mirror the vile nature-replete imagery of Iago’s soliloquies, such as “or keep it as a cistern for foul toads / To knot and gender in!” (4.2.61-62) which enhances the dramatic irony and tragedy of how Othello has fallen for Iago’s manipulation, just as Anakin’s delusions of grandeur in Episode III demonstrate how Palpatine has successfully entered his mind.

Peripeteia – Embodying the Evil They Despise

Eventually, through their own poor choices, as well as the presence of a key malignant influence, our heroes fall and this culminates in one defining moment of peripeteia.

Anakin’s ultimate moment of downfall is when he nearly chokes his wife Padmé to death, when she whimpers that she does not recognise him anymore (“Anakin, you are breaking my heart!”). Anakin’s peripeteia is heightened here as he becomes the very thing he swore to destroy and fatally chokes the very person he swore to save by learning the ways of the Dark Side.

As captured in his final monologue where he recognises himself as the ‘malignant Turk’ (5.2.351) – the dangerous enemy of the Venetian state – in defiance of his role as a protector of Venice, Othello too ends up becoming the enemy he has been sworn to defeat.

Similarly, Hamlet, who despises Claudius for committing murder, despises his own destiny for having to resort to murder (“The time is out of joint: O cursed spite / That ever I was born to set it right!” (1.5.189–190)). Ultimately, after his overly-pensive tendencies yields nothing but a negative spiral, his mind gives into the violence and resigns to the fact that ruthlessness may be the only way to go, as seen in “Oh, from this time forth, / My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!” (4.4.65-66)

The harrowing element in the peripeteia is that the tragic heroes, once of noble intent and respectable stature, fall prey to their own flaws as well as circumstances and end up becoming the very evil they sought to destroy.

Anagnorisis – Final Moments of Reckoning

The presence of a moment of anagnorisis is also a common thread across all three tragic heroes’ stories, and one that contributes to deriving sympathy from the audience for the characters.

Devoid of any other acquaintances and indebted to Darth Sidious for saving him and enabling him to live on through his now-famous suit, Anakin becomes Darth Vader and resigns himself to serving the Empire. However, Vader’s moment of anagnorisis or awareness arrives at the end of Episode VI (Return of the Jedi), when he is wounded in a duel with his son, Luke, who will not flinch towards the Dark Side, despite Vader’s attempts to appeal to him. Vader sees his son — the last trained Jedi — be brutally electrocuted by Sidious and, in that moment, recognises that ‘there is still good in him(self)’, to borrow Luke’s words. Vader moves to do his part to redeem himself and kills Sidious, even though it injures him fatally, and he dies with dignity, re-becoming Anakin rather than remaining the machine that was Vader.

Othello’s final act of killing himself is comparable to this, as he attains awareness of the gravity of his actions and his violent rashness and decisively kills himself, wishing to be remembered as one who did ‘the state some service’ (5.2.351) and ‘one that loved not wisely, but too well’ (5.2.356). He seeks to do what he can to set things right and, in his view, what is ‘right’ is to uphold his state-sanctioned duty of removing anyone who threatens the order of Venice — in this case, himself. Just as Vader removes his mask to become Anakin again, Othello becomes eloquent and gifted in speech once again, reminiscent of what he was before the tragedy.

Hamlet’s anagnorisis occurs before the climatic sword-fighting scene, where he too is restored to his earlier self of calm after the tempestuous shifts in his mental state, as seen in his acknowledgement that “his madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy”. (5.2.226) At the end, he says, “if it (death) be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now… the readiness is all.” (5.2.234-37) in which he finally relinquishes his incessant contemplation to free himself and act to kill Claudius, while embracing death himself, such that it allows Denmark under Fortinbras to start afresh.

Tragic Narrators – Remembering the Tragedy

Ultimately, just like how Horatio and Lodovico were on scene to record and relay the truth of Hamlet and Othello’s tragedies, Luke Skywalker’s presence ensures that Anakin’s final acts are not forgotten and facilitates catharsis, cementing his position as a tragic hero.

As one of the defining science-fiction franchises of the last century, Star Wars stands prominently in many of our memories. To understand now that there is a literary aspect to it perhaps sheds light on how literature, beyond the constraints of a syllabus and set texts, can be found in numerous realms of our lives and society. The Star Wars saga was a well-constructed tragedy sheathed in the action-packed TIE fighter chases and the incandescent glow of lightsabers, and, much like Shakesperean tragedies, serves to expose the harsh reality that even the most brave and most skilled of us are susceptible to unsettling downfall; their catharsis thus reminding us to take a good look at ourselves and assess our own fallibility.

 

Works cited:

Ashmore, J. (2006) Othello and Anakin. Lone Star College-North Harris English Department. Available from: http://www.lonestar.edu/18163.htm

Reeves, C.H. (1952) The Aristotelian Concept of the Tragic Hero. The American Journal of Philology, 73 (2), 172-188

Shakespeare, W., and E. A. J. Honigmann. (2001) Othello. London: Arden Shakespeare.

Shakespeare, W., Bate, J. and E. Rasmussen. (2008) Hamlet. New York: Modern Library.


Waiting to start university in fall, PRIYA RAMESH only first studied Literature while she was at Victoria Junior College but grew to treat her texts as gospel. When she isn’t nursing her existential despair by playing at being intellectual, she writes about football for FourFourTwo and The Guardian. She particularly enjoys works of dystopian fiction, is often prone to telling bad jokes, and could be an insect.

photo credit: vecteezy, Filipe de Carvalho

Letter From A Young Poet

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.

Ruihe Zhang


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