Reviews / December 2014 (Issue 26)

Songs of Experience: Jay Bernard's English Breakfast and Ami's The Desire to Sing After Sunset

by Carolyn Lau

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Jay Bernard, English Breakfast, Math Paper Press, 2014. 41 pgs.
Ami (author), Matt Bryden and Ingrid Fan (translators), The Desire to Sing After Sunset, Showwe Information Co., Ltd., 2013. 95 pgs.


Jay Bernard's English Breakfast will not be served on a Wedgewood tray. This collection of poems written and collected during Bernard's residency as an inaugural writer-in-residence at the Arts House and the National University of Singapore in 2012 are not quaint and dainty delicacies prepared by a hostess with a stiff upper lip. Her at-times crude, in-your-face witticisms, however, do detour into the nuanced wordplay that characterises English letters. Whether this counts as politeness or duplicity is entirely dependent on one's position on the see-saw of language politics. 

Bernard's poems ought to be read aloud and listened to squeamishly. "Crack Black," a militant chant with the inconspicuous charm of a nursery rhyme, taunts the identity of a "black crack," a derogatory term for blacks who identify culturally with the West (whites). The aggressive questioner in the poem goes as far as to doubt the "black crack's" status as a human being, directly objectifying the dehumanised racial and cultural hybrid: "black crack, black crack, are you really human too?" The jazz-funk infused rhythm and the poem's improvisational quality brings to mind the dynamism of Gil Scott Heron, who lifted the propaganda of social protest against racial prejudice and his identity crisis as a black person in a predominantly white America to a poetic level.

Bernard's "Coming from Ankhit" is a series of interrogations by a speaker who is not pleased with her unsatisfactory Britishness. As a queer African born in cosmopolitan London who later read English at Oxford, Bernard does not fit the conventional mode of the victimised African banished to the British cultural hinterlands. In fact, to some, she may even be considered as part of the establishment. Yet, her "witchery hair" and speeches resembling a "boring song" infused with a "nasal dumbfuckery" resist simplistic relegation to conventional and convenient categories. Bernard employs the crude and unpleasant imagery of a "skinned pig" to describe a white person and the threatening "earth-coloured beetle-black-crawling-in-the-sun-shine blue-black motherfucker" to represent blacks. This poem is an outspoken subversion of the established stereotype of Britishness. Instead, Bernard suggests that Africans like herself who received a quintessentially English literary education struggle with the incongruity of the racial and intellectual identities bestowed upon them.

The interrogator even mocks Bernard: "Do you Jay? Do you rub lotion on an otherwise bald white skin to make it blacker?" If racial identity can be put on like an ointment, it can perhaps be rubbed off with equal ease. Yet one of the marks of Bernard's identity is her fluency in literature. Through the deceptive Romanticism of "Babar was my lover from 15th century France," she compares her supposedly innocent childhood reception of Western literature, represented by the illustrated series featuring Babar the French elephant prince, to sexual awakening. The "erotics of a child," or the lust for book knowledge, leads to the incubation of a mind attuned to a Western way of seeing and narrating, which is comparable to the eroticised conception of a new mind. Interlocution becomes copulation—"fucking without symbols."

To adopt a new way of seeing can be disorienting, just like wearing a pair of glasses with reversed prescriptions. In "109," the speaker describes a nauseous hallucinatory experience of "a wet afternoon shrunk to a red bus slurring past a vast estate." At one point in this feverish dream, the speaker says that her eyes turn into "English spectacles and everywhere I see decay," and the mundane sights of a £1-shop morph into Ginsberg's grotesque supermarket visions. The images of "cheap shoes ... woman with fake hair" culminate in a muted, gory scene of manslaughter, revealing the schizophrenic emotions lurking beneath a black intellectual in a white society. 

In a rather different collection, The Desire To Sing After Sunset by Taiwanese poet and painter Ami, we are presented with the cartography of a schizophrenic's long road to recovery. Suffering from hallucinations, Ami was forced to lead a drugged existence until her therapist suggested poetry as an alternative form of medicine. Ami's writings and accompanying paintings reveal the power of art to transform physical and mental ailments into a rejuvenated identity.

The opening poem is an elegy to a poet friend and fellow mental patient who committed suicide in her early 30s. Ami persists and chooses life over the irreversible escape into a death because she is "willing to write one more line / because to live needs a little hope." The urge to create thus becomes more than the wish to draw satisfaction from the process of moulding a new work into existence—it becomes part of the desire to keep living.

Ami is modest on the progress of her recovery. The section "Death and Fire" chronicles the surge of artistic creativity that let in streaks of light into the darkest hours of her depression. Ami echoes Van Gogh—"Asks not antidote, sunrise therapy or pain / The star painter says"—whose own bouts of psychedelic, dizzying hallucinations ironically became the bedrock of his artistic innovation. This brings us to the entangled notions of madness, genius and creativity. In the preface to the collection, Chia-Hsin Pan raises the issue that some people have with writers like Ami: that their works are temporary gifts bestowed upon them by their mental illnesses, and thus once healed, their literary prowess will disappear. This is also why I have reservations about the notion that art can save souls. Demanding that all worthy art be spiritual is unreasonable. It perpetuates the distorted myth of the tormented genius and detracts from other fundamental reasons to see and to create. Worse still, it unjustly skews our evaluations of the significance of art. 

Only by adopting a new way of seeing will regeneration happen. In the poem under the last section "Jolly Singer," Ami calls out to the primitive mother who nurtures and breeds: "I long to breast feed, know I'm lacking something." At the same time, she blames her mother for her crippled personality. In the same vein, Jay Bernard's "Punishment" offers an unnerving vision of the origins of life. Rather than being a cruel but nourishing mother, Bernard's takes revenge on her daughter for defaming her as a "bitch." The sexually violent image of the speaker's mother shoving her back into the womb from where she can "see the inside of her knees through the tunnel of her thighs ... she grips me ... screams and pushes me out" is an agonising genesis.

Sheng Zheng De describes Ami's book as follows: "a high decibel rave, saturated colours / to approach its essence; and then the silence and darkness." The suffering of an individual who tries, fails but persists in her attempts to come to terms with herself is a cycle of apocalyptic visions. The will to salvage oneself amid waves of self-loathing fueled by racial and sexual contentions or mental landslides testifies to human strength and tenacity in a world of swirling oranges and murky greens from which no one can truly be excluded.

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