Reviews / June 2013 (Issue 21)

Tracing the Journey of a Reluctant Confucian Scholar: The Selected Works of Yeng Pway Ngon

by Carolyn Lau


Yeng Pway Ngon (with Alvin Pang and Goh Beng Choo as transcreators),
    Poems 1 (Rebellion), The Literary Centre, 2010. 37 pgs.
    Poems 2 (Personal Notes), The Literary Centre, 2012. 53 pgs.
    Poems 3 (Self-exile), The Literary Centre, 2012. 47 pgs.
    Poems 4 (Resurgence), The Literary Centre, 2012. 35 pgs.
    Poems 5 (Other Thoughts), The Literary Centre, 2012. 45 pgs.

This series of five chapbooks featuring new English translations of selected works written by Singaporean poet Yeng Pway Ngon provides a long overdue retrospective of the ever-confrontational, often sardonic, but always sincere and inventive craftsman of words and images. Tracing Yeng's literary career from his early twenties in the 1960s to the present, the series offers a panoramic view of the poet's range of emotions expressed in the changing tone of his work and in his acute social criticism offered from the lofty perspective of an intellectual steeped in both Western and Chinese artistic traditions and sidelined by the decadence and moral decline of Singapore's quickly evolving capitalist society.

In the first chapbook titled "Rebellion," the youthful Yeng Pway Ngon speaks of the frustration and cynicism confronting a budding artist in the era of fast growing urban modernity, in which the unthinking worship of consumerism results in the breakdown of thoughtful communication and meaningful human relationships. "On the Operating Table" was written in May, 1968 and can be read against the historical backdrop of the student-led rebellion against the conservative establishment in France and the blooming hedonistic flower power movement in San Francisco. The rhapsodic meandering of the poem and the evocation and subsequent subversion of the Christian imagery of the crucifixion and the quest for the holy land of Jerusalem gives this poem a sermon-like quality. The once hopeful youth now preaches resignation and desperation when every individual is turned into "televisions, and bus stops, and steel beams and concrete," mechanised by routine labour and commoditised as their personalities are subsumed into the products they purchased. Romantic bonding is now impossible as "love is like a nickel," a currency to be bought and sold on the marketplace where people "add up our net worth on computers." The poet's rallying cry against the uncanny homogeneity of the faces and places in the mushrooming metropolises is comparable to Allen Ginsberg's manifesto "Howl," in which the beatnik deity laments the destruction of individuality by the cultural and social degradation of materialistic post-war America. The poet's biting commentaries, sharp-eyed observations and expressive disillusionment bridge the cultural gap between 1960s Singaporean society and the legacy of beatnik subculture.

The impossibility of progeny and succession in this environment is mirrored by the barren landscape of "a sterile earth" and "dead trees" in an "endless desert." The land's unforeseeable rejuvenation is mired by pervasive sickness plaguing even the blooming flowers as "each sumptuous petal simmers its own syphilis," feeding on decay and rot. The degradation of man reduces him to a cheapened Faustus, trading "a grain of wheat for a pound of soul" amid "the wasteland," with no hope of spiritual consolation as "someone will have betrayed judas for a drop of water." The complete moral annihilation of this environment is a direct descendent of the "dead land" of "stony rubbish" and "broken images" immortalised in T.S. Eliot's seminal modernist elegy for the downfall of civilization "The Waste Land," published in 1922 after the unprecedented devastation of the First World War. Yeng's modernist connections are further suggested by references to a "furtive...sick cat" and the central imagery of a resigned patient "on the operating table and wait[ing] for death," which offers an interesting cross-cultural parallel to Eliot's poem, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," and its equally grim image of "a patient etherized upon a table" in a haze-shrouded city with "yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes" like a disheveled alley cat.

In the 80s, Yeng's trademark disgruntled verse was temporarily tamed by the poet's search for a spring of intellectual sustenance in nature, moving from the "dazzling neon...[of] the bustling city" to the comfort of the "cool shade" depicted in "Tree" published in 1984. Here, the poet who has become "a child of the city" yearns to return to the embrace of the nurturing tree which prepared the "luscious fruit" of artistic inspiration and shared with the poet "each poem each story...each recorded in...tree rings." The agitation, self-doubt and insecurity of artistic creation is soothed by the "strength" and unshakable resilience of the tree, even when it is confronted by the woodsman coming "to land the chopping axe" on its trunk. The poet learns to resist the public's indifference and cool reception to the his work by "smiling serenely" and by transforming himself into "a book, a poem" and becoming an embodiment of his creation even as he falls out of favour among the jaded majority.

The outsider status of the artist is reflected upon by Yeng in "Journey of the Confucian Scholar," a two-part poem inspired by the form and sentiments of classical Chinese poetry. Written in 1974 and 1977 respectively, Yeng addresses the timeless dilemma of the Chinese intellectual in downtrodden times, torn between withdrawal, disillusionment and exile and the resistance of a pragmatic society devoid of ideals and imagination. In this poem, Yeng addresses the Confucian scholar from the present day, employing the literary device of criticising the present by mirroring it with lessons learnt from history, a form of writing favoured by ancient scholars to advise princes and emperors obliquely. The scholar is banished from court and journeys back to a hometown in "dusty desolation" and ravished by the brutality of war. The scholar with a code of honour is dismayed by the sight of his former "compatriots...peddling swords...nursing hangover[s] in brothels," their spirits crushed and aspirations gone. The once venerated "poetry in the Book of Songs...become useless, obsolete" as the literati no longer find relevance in works of art or the teachings of virtue and compassion, and instead bow down to the temptations of quick money. At this point, it is apparent that the poet himself is also a Confucian scholar disheartened by the pessimism of his own kind. He "embarked on [a] lonely deep frost," bracing against the hostility of unforgiving nature and staying loyal to himself by refusing to sell out his soul to a new master. In the second part of the poem, the speaker begrudges the Confucian scholar for leading him on to this journey of suffering, as they have now "lost [them]selves" in the heavy fog. The speaker is discouraged by his bleak and unknown prospects and, when all odds are against him, confesses that "sometimes we sell our spines to stave off hunger." In the end, the shabby scholar displays audacious perseverance, insisting on carrying on his shoulders the "ancient scholarly junk" and the burden of a literary tradition that demands the poet be an unyielding bearer of integrity—the lasting image of a lone warrior in the cold of the night discreetly keeping the "burning flames" aglow symbolically representing artistic lineage, inheritance and succession. Yeng Pway Ngon is one of such bold and valourous soldiers, piercing the impenetrable and blinding fog with his sharp wit, graceful fortitude and brimming confidence in the redeeming power of art.

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