Grace Chia’s immersed her second poetry collection, Cordelia, into the hot-plate realm of gender and writing when she alleged gender bias in the judging of the Singapore Literature Prize of 2014, in which her collection was a runner-up. Handing the award to ‘two male narratives of poetic discourse… reeks of an engendered privilege that continues to plague this nation’s literary community’.
I mention this so as to rid my review of it. Gender remains a critical and complex issue for all writers. While inequality might be said to drive the passion and force of this work, it stifles in equal measure. However, the collection itself has boxing gloves aplenty. To put these comments aside, and step into the ring denuded, is to allow ourselves to be punched by the many sets of gloves Cordelia has at its disposal. To come at this work having already decided upon our corner in the ring is to miss the various thrilling, enthralling, bloody and grey-matter rattling ways in which it can floor us.
Brooks’ heresy of the paraphrase looms when I request of my mind a distillation of Cordelia into a digestible, pithy few lines. As soon as my irises scraped along the first poem, ‘Goya under the influence of a 1998 Shiraz: Saturn II’, I recognised the vitality and energy I had loved in Pooja Nansi’s Love is an Empty Barstool, and which refuses to be corralled and reduced into words other than its own. The collection is more abrasive than Nansi, though; it sears where Nansi provides respite, and is wilder and terrifically frantic. To say it leaps subject matter is not quite right – different subjects are merely different angles from which you are punched, while Cordelia circles and freakishly laughs round your bewildered mind. It is divided into sections, the theme held aloft in title, but whose poems remain deliriously unconstrained nevertheless: “I remember the things I want and forget the rest”, “the spit of strangers”, “a nail grows through my palm” and “of lullabies and sandmen”. To say this, and to tell you that the poems hold razors in their palms, is perhaps the best means I have to convey the collection as it is felt.
To that first poem, then: Goya under the influence of a 1998 Shiraz.
last night, furiously, I dunked a chalice
of my own blood and grew heathen, hulk-like
rampaging through the radioactive streets of
a mental spell under siege
I quote to entice you (if you like this, grab the book as soon as I put it back upon the library shelf – you won’t regret it), but also because snippets of ‘phrasal thoguhts’ will dissipate the energy of the fragmented, cavorting original. There are popular culture references mixed in with sidelong glances at mythicised figures. The ‘siege’ is relentless. Not only does Chia’s willingness to employ a variety of verse forms and line constructions (perfectly accompanied by her frolicking, violent and electrifying punctuation) allow an unrivalled assault upon the reader, but it also allows her to corral a writhing mass of ideas and backdrops. We move from private domesticity, whose walls could be those of your neighbours, of yours, or a thousand miles off, to cliff-edge liminal spaces in ‘The Last Headman of Ubin’, where the last vestiges of a nearly-extinct life seem to be told to us while a bludgeon lingers slightly out of shot, to ‘Father’s House’ and intimate, forceful questioning, to London and then to ‘iCordelia’ in Singapore, taunting the visceral figure of ‘lunacy’ all the while.
These verses won’t merely let you read. The unexpected pauses, frenetic line breaks, the startlingly bold presentation such as in ‘Don Lon’, they all unseat you in their awkward purposefulness. This isn’t only poetry as ‘emotion motioned’, as Chia writes in ‘To a Virgin Poet’, it is Shklovsky’s art as disorientating-technique. Every element pulls from under you a new layer of your floor, and as you teeter, words bite into the soft, fleshy parts of your reading self. Meaning is unstable. Words hang at edges, commas scatter meaning into different corners of thought and watch you hunt, arms outreaching. The scattering of domestic Singapore, myth, foreign landmarks amongst the internal, verbalised bruises found in poems such as ‘Lunacy’ only aids the creation of a non-space. This collection lacks anchors. It takes what it wants of Singapore, as it does of London, or of movies or Shakespeare, but wrenches them into a place with so much energy, it oscillates at frightening speed without touching land.
Only when picking the collection up in the library was I struck with its incongruity. ‘Cordelia’. A daughter whose love is unheard, and whose presence, while constituting the very centre around which King Lear revolves, is invisible for the vast proportion of the play. The cover is matt black, deathly with skulls in an intricate sculpture of metalwork which seems to have wrapped itself around Greek statues. The ornaments spike outwards, weaponised. Cordelia is combative. She isn’t Shakespeare’s demure daughter. She shouts, taking on a madness greater than her father’s, and revels in it. Her poetry disembowels her, and us, but we are only too happy to be butchered in this most enthralling of boxing-ring theatres.