Reviews and essays / March 2014 (Issue 23)

Three Young Books: The Invisible Manuscript, Chasing Curtained Suns and Transparent Strangers

by John Wall Barger

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Alfian Sa'at, The Invisible Manuscript, Math Paper Press, 2012. 113 pgs.
Jerrold Yam, Chasing Curtained Suns, Math Paper Press, 2012. 98 pgs.
Loh Guan Liang, Transparent Strangers, Math Paper Press, 2012. 77 pgs.

One of the great pleasures of knowing a book is first picking it up and asking, What are you? Even non-bibliophiles might peruse the cover, the flyleaves, the acknowledgments, the table of contents. We smell the pages, like animals. We look the author photo in the eye and ask, Will you lie to me?

The back cover of The Invisible Manuscript announces that this is a volume of poems about "homosexual longing" by a twenty-two year old Singaporean man, Alfian Sa'at. In the Preface, Cyril Wong explains that the book's thrust is political, that it uses "the gay male psyche" in order "to expose the haunted dimensions of a marginalised sexuality" in "contemporary Singapore." The first poems, "Invocation" and "Making Love in Army Beds is Wrong," seem to prove him right.

Then a quiet voice enters: "You were my first" ("The Bunk"). This speaker, addressing a male lover in the dark, is vulnerable, lonesome, curious: "Sometimes when I kissed you / I would open my eyes to find / that yours were already wide open." The other man is holding back. The speaker longs for him. Here is where the book begins—the personal, intimate book proper—and the political scaffolding falls away. The poems that follow are honest and raw, if sometimes unpolished and proselike (this was, after all, his first book). Alfian's preoccupation is finding love. Our pleasure in reading is observing his restless mind pore over each delicious, revelatory detail.

His dedication suggests that the entire book is about one lover:

For K— 

Because you could not bring
yourself to love me,
Because I could not bring

myself to hate you,

This book was born.

Subsequent poems frequently address an unnamed "You," implying that the love object is one particular man, K perhaps. But after reading Alfian's various descriptions of lovers (back of a bus, karaoke bar, disco toilet), we soon realise what he himself admits in the last poem: "in the rush to record down his own experiences he ended up mixing them with the gay histories of so many other people who testified to him" ("Evocation"). So "you" cumulates into something broader, a monumental longing, a quest to the heart by way of the loins.

In "The Wrestling Manoeuvre," a desperate schoolboy instigates a play fight with a classmate to create a bit of vital contact: "he thought that / love was the scent of another boy's collar." Throughout The Invisible Manuscript, Alfian's speaker tries on disguises: ingénue, soldier, old man, even "the bosom-less housewife" of a married man:

This is where your orgasm is your wife
shivering with repulsion, dropping plates.
Soapy cum splashing on your tummy.
This is where the body of your wife
is a dead log in that place in the woods— ("The Teenager to His Married Lover")

That swiftly, linking "dropping plates" with "Soapy cum," he enacts the "repulsion" between lover-husband and absent-wife, and her figurative death. "Sexbuddy," like many of the poems, enacts a quiet moment beside a lover, with an emotional chasm between them:

You hated my smoking.
Fanned the noxious clouds away.
A few times you took my lighter
and refused to give it back.

But yet later on in the night
we would kiss, and somehow
you wouldn't mind what my
breath tasted like.

I think about this sometimes.
You could have said no.
I think about that time
you fell asleep after sex
and I spilled the dandruff
from the end of my cigarette
onto the broken eggshell
of your ankle.

The delicious details—his own smoky breath and the cigarette "dandruff"—invite us deep within this intimate scene. We have all watched a beloved and wondered, What do I actually think of you? With such honest gestures, unclouded by rhetorical tropes, Alfian gives us the sense that he is revealing everything, as if he'd just written in a notebook and handed it over.

These are lyric poems concerned with self-realisation, not limited by categories of sexual orientation or political bias. In "Seven," the speaker screams at a lover, "Why can't you stop being gay for one second and just learn to love me?" The personal is political, of course, as Cyril Wong points out in the Preface. But The Invisible Manuscript speaks of a time when gestures of love will not be interpreted as political: "In broad daylight two men holding hands / will mean nothing, but a symptom of daylight" ("Anthem").

The presentation of Chasing Curtained Suns, like that of The Invisible Manuscript, is misleading. We read that Jerrold Yam is a Singaporean man in his early twenties whose poems combine "ruthless introspection with hard-won catharsis." Entering his poems, we see that Yam, like Alfian, is a young man with a sincere longing for experience. Yet unlike Alfian, he's not particularly concerned with concrete detail or self-revelation.

Yam has a talent for word play and for tracing the twists and turns of his sharp mind. But too often, just as he is developing a point with clear details, he interjects a Poetic abstraction which obfuscates, halting the momentum he has established. As a result, his poems can seem overwrought, elusive, lacking in urgency. "Mirage" is a case in point:

Beyond ditches betraying all the dirt we emptied from pavements,
so our camp may contradict its affinity to rust and other wounds
inflicted by time's suburban neglect, a line of chalk mediates
between the heroic and those who have to try again. Dawn—
dew collecting enough irony for perspiration. We sprint past this
pale crevice not knowing how to run towards by running away,
a stopwatch squandering days we will never again be as swift,
as unaccommodating. This is what my father meant of youth
humiliating its targets by firing at heads when the chest will suffice—
cruelty a more generous excuse for time. In the distance, roads
moulding to focus as sparrows flee from accelerating footsteps, only
to realise the horizon is but chalk stranded between two dead ends
like a smile.

This begins with a clear enough sketch of the "dirt we emptied from pavements" and "suburban neglect" of a military camp, so we have a mental picture. We sympathise with this young man, grappling with the hard adult lessons of male force and stifling social structure. But then a wispy abstraction kicks us out of the poem: "dew collecting enough irony for perspiration." A few lines later he follows a great phrase—"This is what my father meant of youth / humiliating its targets by firing at heads when the chest will suffice"—with another abstraction: "cruelty a more generous excuse for time." Then, after the wonderful "sparrows flee from accelerating footsteps," he ends the poem with a thud: "only / to realise the horizon is but chalk stranded between two dead ends / like a smile." These lines try much too hard, as if the poet hoped to rewrite Eliot's opening to "Prufrock" rather than just to finish the poem he started.

Similarly, "The Liable Age" ends with these perplexing lines:

If only footsteps would inherit this land
like matches struck on parcelled wounds,

the sky a testimony of vaulted histories
for dawn to set on fire, inchoate years

between us made combustible by
the debris of someone else's war.

One would be hard pressed to pack in more rhetorical conceits into six lines. A far cry indeed from "ruthless introspection." Yam would like, I think, to evoke the alienating force of the military, the absurdity of fighting for an ideology you don't believe in, but he chooses empty Poetic diction ("land," "matches," "wounds," "sky," "histories," "dawn," "fire," "years," "debris," "war") and overwrought phrases ("parcelled wounds," "vaulted histories," "inchoate years") rather than "hard-won" detail.

Yam's many allusions to Narcissus might come closest to revealing his heart. Could this be his admission that, despite himself, he is more interested in his own reflection—his swirling thoughts and penchant for abstractions—than in observations about the world and the people in it? We readers, in order to trust him, must believe that he knows our hurt and that he cares. He will have to put down his mirror and look hard at the suffering around him if he wants us to feel catharsis.

Of these three texts, the packaging of Transparent Strangers comes closest to disclosing what is inside the book itself. The back cover declares that Loh Guan Liang's motif is the city: "more than steel and glass: it is also a landscape" of "emotion." His first poem, "To(a)pology," describes a cold everycity, probably Singapore, where "we have almost forgotten / there's soil under tarmac." Rain revives the streets and allows human warmth back in: "its denizens // becoming tourists again, apologising / to passing strangers before asking / for directions to their own hearts." The book repeats, in various ways, this empathetic renewal within a megalopolis.

In contrast to Yam, Loh is all detail. While describing the many sides of the city, he stays focused on disenfranchised citizens, the lonely and forgotten: a waiter, a barber, a young girl, a student, a dancer, a woman on a train, a man suffering dementia, and many others. His subjects are disconnected, sad:

In lifts we nod but never speak,
push-button strangers separated
by stranger oceans. We hurry home,
lock the door, tune our television sets
to chatter about
the new neighbours next door ("Like Any Other Poem").

“Thumb’s Length” depicts a world of estranged people texting one another: “Victory in forming / shapes forming words forming faces bound in space / so real it makes them cry.” “Bukit Batok Central” mourns “the old neighbourhood,” an area obliterated by gentrification, “made foreign by bubble tea and bread.” Money is at the centre of the hurt: “Why don’t you toss a coin and tell me what you (want to) mean by the face / value of that which you hold in your palm?” (“Currency”)

This pain will not abate, proposes Loh, unless people make an effort to connect. In "Talking," a boy says to his mother, "Will you come back and talk with me?" Sex also works: "After I'm too far gone, / I still hold on to your shoulders, / suddenly seized by a fear of falling" ("Weakness"). The best solution is empathy. In "Beanstalk," Jack's generosity causes the giant to face his fear, shrink into a boy and see his familial connection with Jack: an apt, if impractical, allegory for bridging the chasm between "corporate giants" and "little guys" in our capitalist world.

In the title poem, Loh again uses rain—like the snow at the end of Joyce's most famous story, "faintly falling ... upon all the living and the dead"—as a way to unite and purge the city:

A gentle rain falls
like snow, dusting the
lazy sunday curiosities,

filtering from the leaves'
heart-pressed isolation.

It falls like an apology
in the incomplete spaces
between these lines. Hands
open with the practised brevity
of strangers passing
each other to receive
the thunder thawing after


Oddly, Loh's speaker keeps a god-like distance from the citizens he observes in such minute detail. As a result, a visceral component is missing from Transparent Strangers. There is nothing here to equal the orgasmic revelations of Alfian's book. The reader asks, Where is Loh? He sometimes enters as a shadowy "I," but perhaps for this book to transcend ideas, he would have to lower himself down to the city and the people he so clearly respects.

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