Hong Kong Poets Under 40 / November 2012 (Issue 19)


Eddie Tay
BIOGRAPHY

 Born in Singapore, Eddie Tay teaches courses on creative writing and poetry at the Department of English, Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is the author of three volumes of poetry. His first book of poetry, Remnants, consists of renditions of mythic and colonial history of Malaya as well as a homage to the Tang Dynasty poets Li Bai, Du Fu and Li He. His second volume of poetry, A Lover's Soliloquy, extends his interests in Tang Dynasty poetry through renditions of the erotic poetry of Li Shang-yin. It also explores the language of eroticism in the modern city life. His most recent collection is The Mental Life of Cities, a winner of the 2012 Singapore Literature Prize. In it, he experiments with bilingual (English-Chinese) poetry. He has also written a scholarly book entitled Colony, Nation, and Globalisation: Not at Home in Singaporean and Malaysian Literature. He is the Reviews Editor of Cha. His recent experiments with poetry alongside his own photography can be found at Asiatic. [Cha's profile]    


POETIC STATEMENT

To be interested in poetry (or any art form, for that matter) is to open up oneself to the world and to acknowledge the open-ended nature of experience. The world becomes a sourcebook of material waiting to be converted into meaning. For me, poetry is an art that works against everyday language. It is a decomposition of everyday language because we do not think in full sentences. We jump from thought to thought, fancy to fancy, image to image, sometimes without logic. The artist’s job is to somehow retrieve those half-understood impulses and thoughts and make them stand on their own.

At the same time, an artist has to know his place. Both Hong Kong, where I am currently based, and Singapore, where I grew up, are largely capitalist-oriented cities that require one to be adept at certain techniques of life and at making a living. I look for like-minded people, for fellow-artists who realise that a life built on externalities is not enough. I believe it is possible to pay attention to our own interiority without being naive about the external practicalities of life. After all, a life well-lived is both about art and technique.


POEMS

Self Portrait


[Rilke: You are asking whether your verses are good. You are asking me. You have asked others before me.]

At age twelve he sits by the sea: out of grit, ornament shells and weed, the boy builds a castle, mesmerised by debris from swelling foam.

He follows the call of nodding gulls at water’s edge, heeding the horizon of baying ships, while others hurl their shells; the sea frolics at his feet, accepting the creation.

He will fashion another and another, later to receive the strength of father’s wipe across his face, and mother’s abrasive handkerchief; he refutes, but his words are sand obscuring tides from where he speaks.

[Rilke: You are asking whether your verses are good. You are asking me. You have asked others before me.]

At eighteen he looks at pigeons: when he speaks, the feathery mass converges into a fluttering cacophony, a cooing grey on concrete; not doves, no easy metaphor, an unlikely conversation piece.

Though emerging incessantly at void decks, coffee shops, they cannot sing or sit pretty; yet often, in mid-sentence, they scurry and jabber in his mind.

Messages tied to feet are lost, yet he beholds every nod, shift, skirmish; stains that remain are enduring, like ink upon the page.

[Rilke: You are asking whether your verses are good. You are asking me. You have asked others before me.]

(First published in Hong Kong U Writing: An Anthology, the poem was also collected in The Mental Life of Cities.)


Routine


This is my kitchen sink, my desk,
my cereal breakfast.

I’m afraid of being measured
by the size of my flat.

Every day I walk across a bridge
to an adjoining mall.
 
I take the escalator down
and board a mini-bus to work.

I can’t find a new country,
can’t live another life –
this city pursues me
like a wolf.
 
My five-year-old son,
when playing Monopoly,
breaks the rules
because he does not know them.

My daughter kicks and kicks
from inside her mummy’s tummy
and we enjoy it.

Every night, I massage the aches away
from my wife’s shoulder and calves.

I can’t find a new country,
can’t live another life –
this city pursues me
like a wolf.

Now, I am beginning to think
that wherever I go, by ship or by plane
I will end up in this city.

It is not the wolf that pursues me:
there is no new country,
no other life.

I am the wolf turning grey,
pursuing myself.

(First published in The Mental Life of Cities.)


Giving Praise

I have gotten used to happiness, church
and property, to unthinking winters with no snow.

And what is happiness?
It is romance and a kitchen sink,

a stubborn shoulder, nails and scratches,
neat ankles and green scarves.

She asks me to remember Moses,
to forget my wolf and keep regular hours

and I listen. Boutique handbags, bazaars
with fake watches and days stretch easily

into a summer of Hong Kong. Happiness is money
in the bank and sound investments

while munching an apple.
I will compose lectures on John Donne;

I will learn to read joy in business pages of newspapers.
I will let this poem disappear with me –

it is difficult holding this pen
when you’re talking to God, happy as a husband.

(First published in The Mental Life of Cities.)


I don't want to romanticise, but

the Malay barber who was cutting my hair was talking and joking with his friend who was cutting someone else’s hair, and I thought, I don’t talk like this.

Referee kayu lah,[1] he looked at me. But I can’t see without my glasses and anyway, I don’t play soccer. I mumbled referee kayu, and the words slipped uneasily from my tongue. The barber was muscular, in jeans and watching a football match on the TV above me.

My wife says I should take him to the swimming pool. Kids should start young, she says. I don’t even own a pair of swimming trunks.

We are all serious, in our own offices with rising piles of paperwork. I don’t play soccer, I carry a briefcase. I worried about breaking my glasses and my perfect grades in secondary school. I don’t own a pair of swimming trunks. I’m now thirty-six, and whenever I walk pass a football field I hope the ball would not come rolling. Once it did, and I kicked and the ball missed the player, and I hoped the kids watching me did not expect too much.

My wife says I should take him to the swimming pool. Kids should start young, she says. I don’t even own a pair of swimming trunks.

I don’t want to romanticise about fatherhood, but Martin, who must be in his fifties, told me his father climbed a mountain with him when he was ten. It was one of those peaks not on the map. It was crazy, he said, because they could lose their way and no one would know where to look as they did not inform the ranger’s office. It was silly, he said, the kind of thing you’d expect boys to do but not his father. What would happen if his father had sprained his ankle?  His father’s son, Martin was born in Benghazi in Libya, grew up in Peru, Columbia, India and Argentina, lived in Hong Kong for the past seventeen years and is an English teacher at Island School. He knows a lot about wine, rides a Harley Davidson, and holds a British passport. I was born in Singapore, grew up in Singapore, educated in Singapore, am still living in Singapore. I hold a Singaporean passport. I don’t drink and drive. I like reading.

My wife says I should take him to the swimming pool. Kids should start young, she says. I don’t even own a pair of swimming trunks. I like reading. I don’t want to romanticise, but as I look at my son who is learning to walk, I wonder where he will go, and with or without me.

(First published in Over There: Poems from Singapore and Australia, the poem was also collected in The Mental Life of Cities.)



[1] The referee is lousy


Prologue to The Mental Life of Cities

No one sees the mental life of cities.

No one denies it is there.

It is darkness on the streets.

It is impulsive as pigeons.

I am a camera
hunting for metaphors.

我等待
您的到來。[2]

There are eyes from opposite buildings
peering at other windows.

There are eyes flickering with uniformity,
looking at different TV screens.

This poem must be logical like numbers above lift doors.

It must be urgent like rush-hour morning trains.

My pen traces impulses of buildings.

I am darkness on the streets.

(First published in The Mental Life of Cities.)



[2] I await / your arrival.

 
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