I went to the Arts House on Friday night to attend the launch of Christine Chia’s new collection Separation: A History. This post isn’t so much about the event, at which Jerrold Yam’s Intruder was also launched, but about the poetry collection itself. Christine Chua is something of a new discovery for me. Her first collection, The Law of Second Marriages, was on my reading list when I was in Canada, where Singapore poetry’s very difficult to obtain. I head straight to NUS library when I returned, and read it. The Law of Second Marriages is a curious collection of poems in that it’s consciously autobiographical. One of the early things that you learn in studying poetry is that the persona, or voice that speaks in the poem, is not necessarily the poet’s, even when—as often happens in lyric poetry—you’re encouraged to believe this. One famous example is Wordsworth’s “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802,” a poem about Wordsworth viewing London from the bridge early in the morning. Despite the dramatic situation of the poem, it’s highly unlikely that Wordsworth wrote a beautifully constructed sonnet in a perfect form in real time while on the bridge: the voice and moment of the poem, even though it pretends to be immediate, is elaborately staged. In The Law of Second Marriages, there’s an interesting play with this sense of the poet’s voice and its relationship to autobiography. Chia first gives an account of her experiences growing up, her father’s death when she was ten, and her complex relationship to her mother and her nanny, who took care of her. There’s also a family tree, and a warning that “I’ve written a family psychodrama that would only be touching if you though that it was the unequivocal truth.” The poems that follow give tiny snippets or moments out of a life that are written in a stripped-down style, yet are heavy with emotional weight. In addition, there’s a Facebook page for the collection, in which Chia’s commented in greater detail on the poems, and their relationship to autobiography.
Separation: A History returns to the same life, and cast of characters, but it adds another layer: the separation within the family is consciously paralleled to Singapore’s separation from Malaysia in 1965. The collection begins with a meditation on three photographs. The first two are public photographs: one of Lee Kuan Yew and Tunku Abdul Rahman together when the formation of Malaysia was announced, with a single garland around both their necks. The second is a much more famous photograph; Lee Kuan Yew at the press conference where separation was announced in August, 1965, on the verge of tears. These two photographs are contrasted with a private photograph of parents, the woman pregnant with her first child, their gestures expressive of a “simple life” that didn’t last. The collection then continues through a series of sections that plot a story of both Singapore and Malaysia’s separation and the separation caused by the father’s untimely death, with titles such as “a short-lived union,” “tearful,” and “independence against will.” Individual poems often begin with a quote from a historical document regarding political separation that the poem then responds to by placing it within the context of the personal. Sometimes the connection seems strained: in “close the coffin” the connection to the father’s death is superficial, and simply touched on before the poem returns to Lee Kuan Yew and the “mausoleum” of Singapore society that he helped create. Yet when the parallel works, the effect deepens the emotional register both stories. An example is “dancing in the dark,” about the period spent in solitary confinement by Chia Thye Poh, the Barisan Socialis MP who would become Singapore’s and—after the release of Nelson Mandela—the world’s longest-serving political prisoner. Chia’s poem personifies the darkness of the solitary confinement cell, describing a resistance to the violence of solitary confinement in terms of a dialogue between lovers:
She breathed in my ear
that I must grow to love her
because she is all
I will ever have.
Why are you doing this
when your soft tongue
can unlock that door?
At this moment the personal attaches itself hauntingly, and disconcertingly, to the political. The best moments in the collection are like this, when the connection is neither superficial nor forced, but when the two stories are tangled together in poetry.
In this way, Separation: A History begins raising questions regarding the nature of metaphor, which brings together two different things, and transfers qualities from one to another. It’s possible, of course, that seeing Singapore’s separation from Malaysia in terms of familial or romantic relationships reduces politics to melodrama; it’s equally possible than insight may be gained through a different perspective on the past. If you want to decide for yourself, there’s still time. Christine and Jerrold will be reading again at Books Actually in Tiong Bahru at 7.30 on Friday 22 August.