Reviews / March 2015 (Issue 27)

Lines of Poise and Balance: Jame's Shea's The Lost Novel and Joshua Ip's Sonnets from the Singlish

by Chloe Li


James Shea, The Lost Novel, Fence Books, 2014. 88 pgs.
Joshua Ip, Sonnets from the Singlish, Math Paper Press, 2014. 53 pgs.


James Shea's second collection of poetry, The Lost Novel, features familiar subjects as well as down-to-earth imagery. It does not pretend to be complicated, but it also refuses to settle with convenient platitudes. There are beautiful poems that allow one to leisurely scroll down the page as one would stroll on a country road. The words fill one's mind with simple yet crisp and fresh images—rain, sky and trees—which set a delightful but quiet backdrop for the mind's deep talk with itself. Each poem is disciplined enough to leave room for an afterthought.

The whole book is divided into four sections with the minimalist titles: A., B., C. and D. At first, one wonders if the author has just been indolent in coming up with titles, but the significance of the letters is soon revealed when we get to the Multiple Choices poems—each poem comprises four lines preceded by the four letters. The lines are either very similar with only minor semantic or syntactic variations within the same sentence pattern, or so different that it is an intriguing task for the reader to try to infer connections between them.

The most interesting thing about this collection is how it achieves complexity through remarkable simplicity. Take "Birthmark'd Face" in Section A. for instance. The poem is made up of three short stanzas that can be read as three haikus:

One monsoon ends,
its after-water rains
from the winded leaves.

One accident runs
deep inside me, carries
my organs in a sack.

One street owes itself
to another street,
one tree owes another.

The words are elementary, yet the simple images culminate in a compelling idea—the circularity of things. In the last stanza, not only is "One street" cleverly juxtaposed with "one tree" to reflect the physical proximity of the two things in the real world, but the words are also aptly chosen because one ("tree") is embedded in the other ("street"). The result is multiple layers of interconnectedness.

The Lost Novel appears to be fragmented in places where things are entrancingly connected. The words on the page may be scarce, but the space left by them has the tantalizing effect of inciting one's imagination and cleverness, thus satisfying the reader more by giving less.

Joshua Ip's Sonnet from the Singlish (first published in 2012) showcases a completely different kind of down-to-earth poetry, one that is rooted in the poet's consciousness of the nuances and mundanities of everyday life in Singapore, instead of the deeply personal yet less culturally specific subjectivity that we encounter in The Lost Novel.

The collection Sonnets from the Singlish sings in two ways. Its fluid and brisk rhythm, permitted by the iambic pentameter of the sonnet form, imitates the candour of everyday Singaporean conversations, thereby celebrating the hearty culture of the city-state. The casual blend of English, Singlish (Singapore's English dialect) and direct transliteration of Mandarin, along with a lack of capitalisation throughout the collection, reinforces the "unbeatable" belief the book seems to proclaim: "it's no big deal." This is the first way the sonnets sing. They trivialise as a way to strive and survive.

On the other hand, some of the sonnets can be read as solemn songs of lamentation. Words on the page, capturing moments of a hurry-scurry existence, refuse to let go of each spotted stigma in life, be it a mishap on the road, as in "traffic advisory," or the imagined wedding of an ex-girlfriend, as in "those were the years, and she the girl we chased" (a title taken from a recent Taiwanese blockbuster). At one point, the poet offers the grim view that existence is "shit" and should be given "a miss." At another point, he wryly observes, "when all of civilisation's burned to ash: / he keeps his faith, by taking out the trash."

This book's uniqueness lies with the poet's choice of framing frivolously real and realistically frivolous Sinaporean cultural experiences in a traditional poetic form. This is probably motivated by his dual role as an ordinary man of pop culture and as a writer whose acute sense is partly shaped by the high culture of art. The need to strike a balance is revealed in the poem aptly entitled "the writer's choice." The speaker starts by explaining his preference for what seems to be a most petty object:

the pilot v5 is the writer's choice
of pen. Its tungsten carbide rollerball
inks a trail with confidence and poise,
unlike a gtec0c4's scrawny scrawl.

The ballpoint pen, like the sonnet form, has two roles to play. There is the "serious" task of writing the pen is supposed to perform, but it can also be twirled for fun. The poem goes on to describe how a perfect twirl of the ball pen can be made. The poem then arrives at a turning point in the last couplet just as a traditional sonnet would: "My v5 clatters to the floor. I never / learned to twirl, so I write, to look clever."

Twirling is not the "learned" trade of the poet, but it is a cool thing to do nonetheless. Perhaps that's why the poet has to write in the sonnet form, which like "the pilot v5," is the more "professional" tool for him, and the whole collection shows how he balances this tool in his hand while twirling it for the fun-loving Singaporean culture.

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