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

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

Fictional Power: The Collapse of Feminism in Pale Horse, Pale Rider and Diary of a Madman

 

Fiction has long been marshalled by activists of various causes, ANG KIA YEE notes, but closer examination of texts can reveal its very undoing after having raised its politics.  “There cannot be collapse without something built”, she writes, tracing the feminist energetics in both Katherine Anne Porter’s ‘Pale Horse, Pale Rider’ and Lu Xun’s ‘Diary of a Madman’, before unravelling how the patriarchal associations of women with caretaking and madness respectively are defied and inverted, only for both narratives to violently “resume hegemonic gender conventions”. In comparing the infliction of psychological and physical violence, and the contrasting narrative focalizing strategies from Porter’s “intimate first-person approach” to Lu Xun’s distancing narration, Ang’s proposal that feminism in fiction can turn out to merely be “fictional feminisms” raises a careful warning of the failure of activism in fiction, with caution to the world outside our pages.

“Never confuse movement with action.”
― Ernest Hemingway

Fiction as a site for activism is a notion that has endured a long history; it drives new and developing critical fields such as ecocriticism and queer theory. Building on this premise, I will engage with Katherine Anne Porter’s “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” (“Pale Horse”) and Lu Xun’s “Diary of a Madman” (“Madman”) not merely as stories but experiences that can alter mindsets, and therefore to be examined for their embedded politics.

Both texts possess a feminist spark in which gender conventions are transformed and women are elevated to a space usually occupied by men: subject rather than object, central figure rather than secondary character. They also articulate resistance against patriarchal forces. However, these traces of feminism disintegrate and reveal themselves as mostly phantasm. Fiction manifests the power for change but in “Pale Horse” and “Madman”, this power largely remains fictional. However, though both texts present the collapse of feminism, they situate the feminist struggle in different places: one in the mind and spirit, the other on the physical body.

There cannot be collapse without something built; before I probe the disintegration of feminism in the texts, I must first address how feminist potential and subversion of gender norms are set up in them. At surface level, the narratives bear one key difference: while “Pale Horse” has a female protagonist, “Madman” has a male one. However, they ultimately both present the woman at the centre of the narrative. While “Pale Horse” has a female protagonist through whom we experience the story not just in first person but in the highly personal stream of consciousness mode, “Madman” positions madness, “a female malady” (Showalter 4), at its core. Jane Ussher, in referencing Showalter, defines the relationship: Science, the rising authority of the Victorian age which would govern mental institutions and public asylums, was dominated by “the gentleman doctor – the masculine scientist… [and] personified as male. Nature was female.” (68). Just as Science as a governing body in England became a tool by which “men could uncover and control nature, and, by extension, uncover and control women” (69), “brutal treatment of women in China over the centuries had its support, if not its origins, in Confucianism”, a “state-sponsored…patriarchy” (Nyitray 145, 143) which is explicitly criticized in “Madman”. Given that “madness” and its root word are inscribed as female and the “equation between femininity and insanity” (3) so interminable[1], to use the word is to corporealize the woman. As such the title “Diary of a Madman”, as well as its first-person narrative of the madman in opposition to patriarchal Confucianism, coalesce with these contextual and linguistic presences to centre the woman at the heart of the narrative. The female is thus ascribed individuality and narrative authority in both texts.

Furthermore, there are multiple ways of reading “Madman”, which altogether frame madness positively. Carlos Rojas notes three readings: we might take the diary literally as depicting “an infectious disease that…transforms its victims into cannibals,”, “a symptom of a delusional mental illness… that causes the madman to believe he is surrounded by cannibals,” (47) or “an allegorical critique of China’s “cannibalistic” illness” (48). I disagree with his segregation of the readings; they necessarily overlap, and it is reading the narrative as simultaneously embodying all interpretations that provokes deeper reflection. Nonetheless, it can be agreed that they are all manifestations of truth that each possess some authenticity or validity. Madness, and in turn, femininity, is presented positively as a mode of illuminating truth.

Feminist expectations are built upon further in “Pale Horse,” though not so much in “Madman”. In Porter’s story, the traditionally female function of caretaking is both challenged and transformed by Adam and the nurse respectively. Though his time with her is brief, Adam is proactive and loving as Miranda’s caretaker. He “wash[es] her face with a wet towel” (346), “leap[s] up with an alarmed face, and almost at once…holding a cup of hot coffee to her mouth” (349) when she sits up in a panic (350-1). From his alarm at her condition, Adam acts in “the gentlest sort of way” (351), colouring him with maternal, feminine energy. His embodiment of the feminine echoes the madman of Lu Xun’s story, and subverts the gendered expectations of women as carers and mothers.

Despite manifesting a stereotype, the nurse also defies gender conventions. She is spirited, confident and persistent; she nurses back to health Miranda, “this patient [who becomes] visible proof of [her] theory” (360). The word “theory” is particularly powerful, for it attaches intelligence to the nurse – one who has a scientific edge. It is as though the nurse herself is a scientist; she conceives of a hypothesis and proves it. She is thus on par with men, the dominant demographic of science. Interestingly, the nurse’s efforts only amount to Miranda’s spiritual void in the wake of survival. This desolation can be read as a further subversion of the gendered stereotype surrounding nursing, for it retains the signifier – the persistence and strength of spirit – while removing the expected signified result. As her experiment successfully establishes theory; the nurse is thus more of a scientist than a caretaker.

Although both texts resume hegemonic gender conventions, “Pale Horse” depicts psychological oppression whereas “Madman” is returned to gender conventions in a physically brutal way. The feminism in “Pale Horse” diminishes early on, from the men pressurizing her to purchase Liberty Bonds to the caution exercised by Miranda and a female counterpart in speaking ill of the inherently patriarchal war. Miranda, a woman, is infantilized (“[t]he man wagged his finger at her…as if…prompting an obstinate child”). While they claim to be “just asking [Miranda] why [she hasn’t] bought” a Liberty Bond (318), their tone and physical cues indicate otherwise. They decide for Miranda that her poverty is “no excuse at all”, and that “[she] can pay for it five dollars a week” (318). In doing so they remove Miranda’s individual agency; they reject her knowledge of her own financial situation and attempt to rewrite her personal narrative. When speaking to the girl about her resentment of the “errand” of comforting men in cantonment hospitals, Miranda “turn[s] cautious also” when the girl replies to her “cautiously” (322-3). They seem to possess an internalized patriarchy, demonstrating the extent to which gender conventions have been seared into the very flesh of women’s social code so much that they come to silence themselves.

While women are very much present in “Pale Horse”, they are almost completely absent in “Madman”. Men dominate the narrative, evoking “cold fear” (22) in the madman just as the Liberty Bond agents evoke fear in Miranda. There is something decidedly animalistic, “fearful… [and] savage” (23) about their appearance and physicality in “Madman”, which suggests greater propensity for brutality than the men in “Pale Horse”. This persistent violence in “Madman” crystallizes most clearly in its almost complete absence of women, an invisibility with violent undertones. In his list of cannibalism’s accomplices, the madman mentions “fathers, sons, brothers, husbands, wives, friends, teachers, pupils, enemies, perfect strangers”. Male classifiers occur repeatedly, whereas female ones occur only once: “wives”. Mothers, daughters and sisters are conspicuously absent, highlighting the lack of women in the narrative and signalling the collapse of the reproductive function. Subsequently, humanity has no possibility of renewal and evolution. A feminist reading of this suggests an annihilation of femininity by the patriarchy, represented here by Confucianism, and subsequent hopelessness in the face of oppressive gender codes. While the undoing of feminism in “Pale Horse” rests more upon psychological and spiritual torment, in “Madman” the collapse rests more on brutality against the body.

The texts’ differing presentations of collapsed feminism is reflected in their dissimilar narrative frames. “Pale Horse” adopts an intimate first-person approach which situates readers inside Miranda’s psyche, whereas the framing of “Madman” distances readers and even objectifies the madman. In “Pale Horse”, distance between readers and Miranda is minimized by bringing the receiver of the narrative to its contextual inner source – Miranda’s mind. By doing so the narrative becomes a vessel for, or indeed, becomes the female voice itself, unfiltered and unedited by other characters or Miranda herself. This privilege of unfiltered speech is a feminist act, and becomes more sharply so when examined alongside “Madman”, whose narrative is reshaped and supervised through multiple frames. For one, the narrator’s prologue precedes the diary “entries” and recounts his acquisition of the diary, his “extract[ion] of occasional flashes of coherence” (21). The “entries” thus undergo multiple overlapping editorial processes of varying motives: for clarity, or for “medical research”. Even the title given to the collected “entries” is manipulation, firstly because the recovered individual conceiving the title is no longer the madman, secondly because the title is retrospectively constructed. As such, the original, “authentic” narrative is lost, buried beneath agendas outside of the madman. Also of note is that every frame is one constructed and applied by a man, corroborating my reading of them as manifestations of patriarchal oppression.

Perhaps the most damaging edit lies in the intent of “medical research”, which determines which “entries” are included in the first place. Furthermore, such a framing undermines the text’s emotional weight, instead objectifying the madman by reducing him and his terror to a case study. This dehumanization of the subject mirrors the objectification of women as mentally inferior and prone to madness by scientists in the Victorian age, and signals a regression into misogyny. Whatever power the madman possessed by being positioned as the protagonist is extinguished. Madness is distanced yet again, and the madwoman is returned to the attic.

In the texts’ depiction of recovery, “Madman” once again emerges with more physically brutal misogyny. In “Pale Horse”, Miranda, a survivor, takes on the emotional labour typically assigned to women. As Arlie Hochschild noted, women are expected to carry out more emotional labour than men both at work and at home; “the world turns to women for mothering, and this fact silently attaches itself to many job requirements” (182). In Miranda’s case, she is trapped by the emotional labour of memory, of remembering the devastation of the pandemic. As David A. Davis articulates,

Miranda’s memory of Adam, a memory she cherishes, is entangled with her memory of the pandemic, a memory she abhors, and they are connected by the fact that Adam died from the virus. […] [S]he cannot allow herself to forget…without abdicating her love for [Adam]. (69) Emotional labour becomes mandatory for Miranda, a permanent weight on her heart. Miranda’s fate here is foreshadowed earlier in the text, in which “a little drab man” (333) confronts her about a bad review. The man employs a warped feminism in the process of imposing emotional labour upon Miranda (“I wanta know what you think is wrong with me”) (334). He takes her criticism seriously despite her rhetoric, “What does it matter what I think?” (334) and oppressively demands for her to justify them. The “female” function of emotional labour is thus explicitly forced upon Miranda. Furthermore, she is unable to fend him off until Chuck, her male colleague, steps in. Her timid responses reflect more broadly the helplessness of women against men, against demands for emotional labour, and offset the feminist efficacy of the strong, confident nurse. Ultimately, “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” concludes with a collapsed feminism which subjects women to spiritual melancholy.

On a metanarrative level, however, Porter’s act of writing “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” is itself a feminist act of emotional labour, for it is one of the few narratives available that centres on the 1918 influenza pandemic. In fact, Davis argues that “Pale Horse” as a literary narrative “serves as the primary means of recovery (of the influenza pandemic), allowing survivors to recover their identity and allowing listeners to experience the trauma empathetically” (62). It is an act of emotional labour on behalf of survivors which facilitates their recovery process. This is unlike the emotional labour thrust upon Miranda, where the former is a feminist act because it works against the collective, oppressive suppression of memories. As such, while the narrative of “Pale Horse” does deviate into misogyny, the story as a whole retains a feminist edge.

In contrast to Miranda, the madman ends up “wait[ing] for an appropriate official post to fall vacant” (21) after his recovery, subsumed back into status quo. Specifically, he seeks to join the government, the gatekeeper and enforcer of state ideology which is implicitly blamed for the “cannibalism” in China. By attempting to join the government, the recovered man not only gives in to oppression but also becomes its perpetuator. Just as the women in “Madman” have been wiped out, the tormented madman is erased. As such, comparing the texts, it can be concluded that for “Pale Horse” the collapse of feminism occurs in the mind, whereas that of “Madman” rests in its brutal and abrupt disappearance of the tangible body. “Pale Horse” concludes with an outline of the woman still standing, her spirit emptied, whereas “Madman” subsumes and dissolves the feminine body.

In conclusion, while both texts attempt to surmount misogyny, they ultimately both resume hegemonic concepts of gender, one by dissolving the spirit, the other by dissolving the body. Through these fictional feminisms, they present contrasting philosophies as to the site of failure in feminism. They sustain memories of past violence against women, and also remind us that misogyny is not always public and visible in its brutality but manifests also in more insidious, spirit-breaking forms. Looking forward, I hope this comparison might inform a deeper understanding of feminism in reality, and contribute to existing discourse.

Notes
(1) Ussher writes, “[T]o be woman is often to be mad. […]We are all in danger of being positioned as mad.” (6)

Works Cited

Davis, David A. “The Forgotten Apocalypse: Katherine Anne Porter’s “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” Traumatic Memory, and the Influenza Pandemic of 1918.” The Southern Literary Journal, vol. 43, no. 2, Spring 2011, pp. 55-74.

Hochschild, Arlie, and Anne Machung. The Second Shift. Viking Penguin, 1989.

Lu Xun. “Diary of a Madman.” The Real Story of Ah-Q and Other Tales of China: The Complete Fiction of Lu Xun. Translated by Julia Lovell, Penguin Classics, 2009, pp. 21-31.

Nyitray, Vivian-Lee. “Confusion, Elision, and Erasure: Feminism, Religion, and Chinese Confucian Traditions.” Editorial. Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, vol. 26, no. 1, Spring 2010, pp. 143-160.

Porter, Katherine Anne. Pale Horse, Pale Rider: The Selected Short Stories. Penguin Classics, 2011.

Rojas, Carlos. “Of Canons and Cannibalism: A Psycho-Immunological Reading of “Diary of a Madman”.” Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, special issue on Discourses of Disease, vol. 23, no. 1, Spring 2011, pp. 47-76.

Showalter, Elaine. The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980. Virago, 1987.

Ussher, Jane. Women’s Madness: Misogyny or Mental Illness? Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991.


ANG KIA YEE is a writer and artist studying at the University of Warwick. She can be found at ofsunflowers.wordpress.com.

Photo Credit: Joanne Loo

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

Exploring the Fringes of Familiarity

There is a difference between what it means to go and what it means to leave, and Liren Fu‘s essay this issue takes on the weighty task of exploring the deep gulfs in between the two. In examining how when ‘the anchor [is] lost, the anchor must also necessarily be lost sight of’, Liren considers the subtle nuance of the expatriate condition and what becomes forsaken in the void between home and abroad.

An “Ugly” “Expatriate Dream” implies the personal; it calls on the subjectivity of the “Dream”, of an experience tied to the dreamer, and yet is the process of expatriation ever a solitary experience? Shire and Mukul certainly do not seem to think so. In both poems, families and familiarity are placed as key parts of the narrative, foregrounding the “Ugly Expatriate Dream” as one that must be understood in relation to others; yet, ironically, family plays a role as only a prop in both poems, being understood only as much as is useful in advancing the personal narrative surrounding expatriation. This suggests that the ugliness of the “Expatriate Dream” is twofold; in both the experience overseas, and in the reduction of what was once familiar and fully fleshed to one-dimensional representations, becoming called upon only when one’s new narrative wants to.

In both “Ugly” and “Expatriate Dream”, maternal figures are front and center from the first verse; either directly called upon, as in “mother”, or indirectly so, as in “Your daughter”. Yet these maternal figures are also fundamentally sidelined; neither maternal figure is described or given a voice, merely described in relation to their children. Mukul’s mother figure exists to make “a cup of tea…Stirred to behold the redness of fresh tea leaves”, to let the speaker figure eat “happily/Payasa prepared by you”; maternity exists only to comfort the child, to “laugh[ed] at me in my black shirt/At my frizzy hair” and to give “a 20-taka note” to “fix it”.  While the spotlight is always on maternal actions, it is never on the maternal figure; everything is relational, in provision to the speaker figure, with no suggestion of individuality or personal motivations.

Shire’s maternal figure is perhaps even more reduced than Mukul’s; while Mukul’s is described affectionately, with the speaker figure pleading that “I remember you too much, mother”, Shire’s is invoked as inadequate. “You are her mother./Why did you not warn her,/hold her like a rotting boat/and tell her that men will not love her”? And while Mukul’s produces “A cup of hot tea”, “Payasa”, and “a 20-taka note” which are then received by the speaker figure, Shire’s produces nothing but her daughter, “taught her/how to tie her hair like rope”. Shire’s “made her gargle rosewater…said macaanto girls like you shouldn’t smell/of lonely or empty”; all actions relative to the child, and even when “voiced” describing nothing about the self.

Contrast that to what is evoked of the expatriate self: “Expatriate means dream-drenched agony/To exist without happiness/Everything a dream”, and “What man wants to lay down/and watch the world burn/in his bedroom?” While nothing is said of the maternal experience, of their emotional landscapes, Mukul’s expatriate is evoked in shadow and “dream-drenched agony” with “Everything a dream”; the two phrases feed into each other, the expatriate dream revealed to be both sheer pain, all-encompassing, and unescapable, being the essence of the new lived condition. Shire’s expatriate self is both richer and more tortured; her expatriate shows “the world burn”, being able to reflect a global condition when the maternal figures can’t even reveal a subjective condition.

Thus, while the maternal figures are in introduction the focal point of both poems, they exist only in relation to this evocative, layered expatriate self; “Now nothing waits for me/To receive it every dawn and dusk”, and “She was splintered wood and sea water…reminded them of the war.” Mukul’s maternal figure “waits”, observing, while his expatriate “receive[s] it every dawn and dusk”, actively engaged in a larger pattern. Shire’s only serve to be “reminded…of the war”, which is itself symbolic of her expatriate self that is “a small riot”, “a civil war”. Ironically, the conceit of focusing on maternal figures only serves to reduce and diminish them, twisting their memory to fit the narrative desired of the expatriate self.

The exploration of the expatriate condition then, while describing what was left behind, does anything but; in navigating the spatial and metaphorical voids in the expatriate condition, identities are reduced at convenience. Home and the maternal condition become one-dimensional portrayals, from Mukul’s “heaven” to Shire’s “war”; but why? In advancing the joint argument of the “Ugly Expatriate Dream”, that the self is broken “To exist without happiness”, “the world burn[ing]/in his bedroom”, impetus and priority must necessarily be given to the argument; the expatriate self must be shown “To exist without happiness”, to be “the world burn[ing]/in his bedroom”, and thus expanded and expounded on. However, in describing exactly how the expatriate self has become broken, the gap between the present and the past must be shown as unbridgeable; in losing the anchor of home, the expatriate condition is painted as lost at sea.

It is thus in the repurposing of home to fit the advanced narrative that another form of ugliness is revealed; the “Ugly Expatriate Dream” is ugly not only because the expatriate condition is destructive, but because home becomes reduced into a one-note statement in trying to explicate, and emphasize, exactly why the expatriate self is so horribly broken. In portraying the anchor as lost, the anchor must also necessarily be lost sight of; the expatriate dream becomes more evocative as the expatriates themselves are unable to flesh out home, with our focus pulled towards their experience, though the ugliness of the reduction is also revealed. The dreamer thus becomes both experiencer and source of ugliness, pulled taut and tense between realities and desires; stuck doing no justice to what was left behind in trying to explain the present, all the dreamer can do is navigate the voids that remain.


LIREN FU is a junior at Tufts University, pursuing a double major in English and Biology with a minor in Linguistics. In his spare time, he writes poetry, thinks about teaching and education policy, and rock climbs while ignoring a severe fear of heights.

Photo credit: Victoria Lee

Unseen Poetry

In their response to this issue’s selected poems, Kavya and Natalie navigate the unique pain of the sojourner. Their analysis shifts between the expositions of ‘Expatriate Dream’ and ‘Ugly’ – from Md Mukul’s ghost echoes of home to Warsan Shire’s geography of displacement, the essay elucidates all the agony and burgeoning, defiant hope of life lived in a foreign land.

This essay explores the poems ‘Expatriate Dream’ by  Md Mukul and ‘Ugly’ by Warsan Shire. One of the key themes in ‘Expatriate Dream’ is the hardship that the persona goes through as he thinks back about his homeland where he is loved by his Mother. Similarly, in ‘Ugly’ the persona laments to her Mother the hardships she has gone through because of her appearance which differs from the norm in either of her homelands. These poems are similar in depicting the alienation faced by both personas.

Both poems display the disillusionment of living in a different land from their homeland. Since these personas stay in a land that is different from where they were born, their differences lead to alienation from their host countries. In ‘Expatriate Dream’, this is seen through the persona’s homesickness, characterised by the stark difference between his life back home with his mother and the hard life he has in his host country. Meanwhile, in ‘Ugly’, the conflict is in the way the persona is treated by the people for being ‘different’. This can be seen through both poems’ strong usage of visual imagery. In ‘Expatriate Dream’, there is a strong image conjured of the persona’s wish to return to his mother by the imagery, especially in “Lying in (her) lap, / (he) saw the constellations, mother”. The brilliance and expansiveness of the constellations seen while lying in his mother’s lap is used as a visual and tactile image of comfort.  The visual imagery also creates a juxtaposition with the hard, comfortable “shelf bed” he sleeps on in his host country, hence demonstrating the stark change in his circumstances and his disillusionment. This amplifies the sympathy the readers feel for the persona, as he had been so badly treated by his host country that he so emphatically and clearly dreams of his home, where he had been doted on by his mother.

On the other hand, visual imagery in ‘Ugly’ creates a sense of self-hatred by the persona which stems from the treatment by the people around her. The persona seems to bemoan to her mother, “why did you not warn her…that men will not love her / if she’s covered in continents, / if her teeth are small colonies, if her stomach is an island, / if her thighs are borders”, hence creating a heightened sense of pity for the persona as she questions her physical image due to the comments made by the people around her regarding the differences in their looks.  Not only is she deemed as unattractive, the speaker becomes synonymous with a geopolitical region, an ‘other’ space. Her enlarged stature repels, even as it creates an ironic sense of her being larger than life. She becomes weighed down by the impressions others place on her, including that of imposing their expectation of what she is, rather than who, hence making her less of a person and more a representation of her community’s history. Thus this shows that she has suffered the living in the new country, even if unlike the persona in ‘Expatriate Dream’, she does not wish for the return to her homeland.

Both poems effectively convey the social exclusion that both the personas of the poems experience. This can be clearly seen in ‘Expatriate Dream’, where the persona longs for the little quirks of his home that he was able to experience when he was back in his own country. This is portrayed through the juxtaposition in his description of how life was back at home and how life is in his expatriate life. The differences between both experiences depicted in this poem shows how the persona feels when he is out of his country, trapped and stripped off his happiness and freedom. In this poem, visual imagery is effectively used to convey the longing that the persona has for his mother’s love and the warmth of the familiar surroundings back at home. The persona clearly felt the loss of love and affection when he wrote that it was “so long since (she) made (him) a cup of tea” and asks “if the jar of rice is still there”. Through the vivid use of visual imagery, the poet successfully made the readers visualise the delightful memories that the persona had with his mother and how he enjoyed every single moment of it. This is clearly juxtaposed when the persona said that he was “now nothing waits for (him) here”, which makes the readers think of a very unwelcoming experience and possibly empathise with him. Hence, through visual imagery, the debarment of the persona and how he feels alienated when he is out of his home country is portrayed in this poem.

As for ‘Ugly’, the poem not only portrays social exclusion but also the reactions that the persona faces from her own family. In the poem, we see that “As a child, relatives wouldn’t hold her. / …They said she reminded them of the war”. The persona is also described as “ugly. She…carries whole cities in her belly”. This serves as a visual image, an inflated version of how society perceives the persona’s looks even as she is metaphorically bloated with the history of several ‘whole cities’. This causes the reader to feel sympathetic for the persona, and emphasises the discrimination faced when being in a new country, from various sources, and this is effectively conveyed through usage of visual imagery.

However, both poems are different in the changes of reactions to the discrimination faced in their respective host countries. The persona in ‘Expatriate Dream’ remains stagnant in his longing for his home country, deciding to relish in the memories of his childhood. We see him in a personal state of stasis, at rest and introspective, stagnating in his longing for home. This can be seen through the tone in “Expatriate means dream-drenched agony”, which is an emphatic, superlative exaggerated and opinionated response to the environment he experiences in the host country. This showcases the depth of his melancholy in this new country in comparison to life at home and with his mother. He remains in this state, with the poem ending with the emphatic “I remember you too much, mother”. This then creates a sense of sympathy among the readers as through desperate and longing tone used, it evokes a lot of emotions and further highlights the close-knit relationship that the persona and his mother share. Hence, in this poem, the persona’s reaction to discrimination was that he was constantly reliving his childhood memories and forget about the reason he is in a foreign country, making him static in his own beliefs.

On the other, the persona for “Ugly” shows growth in her self confidence through the repeated use of short, impactful sentences at the beginning and the end of the poem. The usage of the full stop in “Your daughter is ugly” shows how much the persona believes in her own unattractiveness through the fact that it was structured as a statement, using the host country’s standards to dictate her beauty. However, this changes by the end of the poem, when the persona’s mother is told “but God, doesn’t she wear the world well.” The use of a full stop instead of a question mark in “doesn’t she wear / the world well” shows that she found beauty in her imperfections, which is indicative of her growth as a person and her self confidence, hence indicating that she no longer was bothered by the discrimination and jibes at her physical attributes from those in her host country. This causes the readers to feel relieved at her development as a character, which emphasises her strength, triumph and resilience. Hence, the poems are different in terms of the development of the personas when facing discrimination by their host country.

In conclusion, both poems effectively convey the discrimination faced by the individuals by the society and this is conveyed through the use of visual imagery in both the poems.


As a child, NATALIE was surrounded by Literature books since her mother has an Honours degree in English Literature. Her love for this subject has grown due to her mother’s influence on her. It was this influence that made her take Pure Literature in Secondary 3, which was the driving force behind her passion for Literature till today.

Even though both KAVYA’s parents have Science based backgrounds, she really had the drive to pursue Literature. The interest sparked from her need to be different. Hence, she adopted viewing of language and literature from different perspectives, even up till now.

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