[Review] Samuel Lee’s A Field Guide to Supermarkets in Singapore

{Written by Angus Whitehead, this review is part of Issue 41 (September 2018) of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Samuel Lee, A Field Guide to Supermarkets in Singapore, Math Paper Press, 2016. 61 pgs.

Field Guide

Recent Singapore poetry collections, invariably competent and often technically impressive, seldom make me smile, sit up, let alone fall off my chair. At numerous moments, Lee’s recent collection can come pretty close with poems, memorable in surprising imagery and not so easily explained mystery. This slim, spartan, “cool”-looking volume of thirty-four short poems, only four of which have been published hitherto, is one of six collections published in Math Paper press’s Ten Year series. As such, the poems in A Field Guide to Supermarkets in Singapore have undergone a “literary bootcamp” and other rigorous siftings, suggestive of quality control—like products in a supermarket. Lee’s collection is a perverse “guide” counterintuitively designed to be taken into the “field,” which in land-deprived, supposedly resource-lacking postcolonial Singapore is the “supermarket” and adjacent hinterland with its Californian oranges, exogamous waxed lemons, kamut and other produce. There is an unsettling sense of Singapore as no longer a sustainably fruitful garden of Eden but rather a shopping mall with a flag—as Sean Penn has it in his recent, maligned novel. Rarely do we venture outside in this collection: the malls, buses, classrooms and apartments are air-conditioned sanctuaries from beating heat: “the air in town ushers me into a basement.” Throughout the collection, Lee reveals a gift for mismarrying the mundane and/or the official with the near-numinous and thereby creating the “absurd” (a key word throughout) in the titles of his mock-guide poem-directives, such as, “Apartment Therapy in the Age of Discovery” or “Prophetic Vision of Next Week’s Grain Consumption Patterns.”

The collection’s epigraph, taken from Allen Ginsberg’s 1955 poem “A Supermarket in California,” seems, like the title of this collection, full of exciting, different, sellable promise. The passage taken from the beginning of Ginsberg’s final stanza invokes Ginsberg himself and Walt Whitman, itinerant gay free verse poets, liberally engaged with their respective national-local quotidian, and fulsomely, egotistically present in their poetry.  This is not Lee’s way.[i] Till now, Alfian Sa’at might be considered Ginsberg’s sole Singapore “Howl”-era inheritor in poems such as “Singapore you are not my Country,” explicitly thrashing the top-down sterile and suffocated status quo. Lee is also satirical but significantly more mediated, spectating and commenting rather than becoming wholly immersed in the stuff of his poetry. Nevertheless, something like Ginsberg’s questioning, and gobsmacking sense of the absurd is present. Like William Blake’s “Argument” in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Lee’s first poem (looking suspiciously like prose) not for the last time subverts the very form and definition of a word and literary form (“argument”), offering instead something very like an “absurd” elegy: “Outside, I watch absurdity pile up against absurdity and yet believe / in the materiality of the world.” The poem and thus the collection might begin with an impersonal but recognisably poignant question: “How does one put it?”, but even as elegy the poem cocks a subtle snook at modern-traditional liberal sentiments and poetics: “I am told / you are now everywhere.”

Perhaps “Still, Life” (the title almost a Lee poem in microcosm) offers a way in to how this poet does put it. Supermarket-displayed meats ignite, then sandwich, a memory-reverie of an art history class engaging with a projection of an old French painting of still-life featuring a freshly dead stingray. Thus a supermarket converts into a seminar. Or the Louvre? And vice versa?[ii] The female art professor’s raised arms gesturing to the projected ray represents the first of several captured moments in A Field Guide in which everyday life offers a kind of found art requiring little help, interference or contrivance from the poet other than to keenly notice, capture and record. This I suppose is what’s also happening in “Tanka for Found Fashion.” Also distinctive is the ending of “Still, Life”:

In any case, what surprises me is not the absence or presence
of flesh, but the indifference of glass blinking in the light,
and my own eyes glossing over the heart of the animal,\the sweetness of its body running, like water, over the metal.

A different, more Larkin-entranced poet might have ended with “water”; to finish on “metal” seems hard, satisfyingly “wrong,” appropriate, refreshing.

“Rupture of Fruit” with the tellingly named “Madam Lee” dropping her imported oranges from a rent plastic bag while riding an erratically jerky Serangoon bus, could be taken as an emblem of the collection, indeed current Singapore itself. The elements of this quotidian occurrence are patterned so finely, the poem exquisitely teeters just this side of abstraction. The first line in “First world grocery shopping” (“hail the marys of toa payoh”) might recall Ginsberg, Blake (if ironically?) but the absence of capitals recalls also Arthur Yap, the spacing Wong May. Questions are posed, “Supermarket in California”-fashion:

                                                  and what are you         doing
like the pieta                           holding a loaf of white bread
and weeping by the cake display?

There is again the gesturing to a surreal-ness in “Honda civics rush[ing] out of the PA system,” as we are caught between Los Angeles and Book of Job-speak: “for their / numbered asses are parked in the wrong places.” The poem ends uncharacteristically in near-direct local social critique:

yes the meek shall inherit the earth
and we will celebrate with bespoke cocktails

Later, in “Ideology”:

                                                          a balloon animal explodes
in a child’s rose-blossom face. Its petals withdraw
into a tight bud of fear and profound longing.

the child-flower’s reversion perhaps gesturing to a current wider sense of regression. Conversely “the sky becomes caul,” one of two upcyclings of other poets’ work, offers a bleak vision of national-psychological (still?)birth. What is commendably striking are the tantalisingly unrepetitive connections made between poem and poem via key words, themes and ideas, whether they be bog, flower, fish, cereal, bread, sky, mops, bone, architecture, solid air, self-portraits, handwritten recipes, birthdays, leafy heads of cabbage or lettuce, dinner parties, radishes, babies, plastic bags, humming fridges, sand/dust storms or the colour blue. For instance, the above-mentioned rose-baby foreshadows the speaker’s rosy cheeks in “Self-Portrait on the Eve of My Birthday” whose title in turn echoes the preceding “Self Portrait with Swiss Chard” in which an Australian city is conceivably an elegantly dressed woman. The land-deprived sleeping uncles of “Logistics for a Garden Show” can take the indefinite advice for growing roses offered in “Advice.” The lyrical quality of passages in some of these poems makes it little surprise to hear some have been set to music, even if the only musical allusions present are to Minnie Ripperton and “My Way.” The ending to “Breakfast at the Materials Recovery Centre” I find particularly arresting, accomplished, moving:

There is already so little
of you in the clouds,
it cannot afford to rain.

In A Field Guide, we encounter perhaps the most innovative, consummate, satisfyingly difficult and distinctive voice to date in the Ten Year series. This collection in its fresh arresting imagery reveals a new poet assured, deftly doing poetry. Lee’s quirky poems of considerable depth at times recalls the edgy, difficult fun of Paul Muldoon; there’s certainly the “pressure per square inch” Muldoon demands of good poetry. But Lee’s collection also bears hallmarks of a first collection, a poet finding his voice. Some poems seem slight, over-obscure, affected; the language at moments a trifle strained. Sometimes one wonders, do these ingeniously crafted, faintly elite poems (a grounding in art history, poetry of Heaney, Terrance Hayes, and the Frankfurt school seems expected) merit the readers’ labours of unpacking, when not always evoking the “immediate effect” Ted Hughes asserted should accompany even the most difficult poetry.

[i] Note for instance the abstracted plural speakers in “First World Grocery Shopping.”
[ii] Similar cleverly repetitive-patterned juxtapositions occur in “Penang ’98.”

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Angus Whitehead.png

Angus Whitehead is a lecturer in English Literature at Singapore’s National Institute of Education. His teaching and research interests include archival recovery of the immediate social and historical contexts within which William and Catherine Blake lived and worked, early nineteenth century labouring class poetry, lyrics in current dissenting rock music (especially Bob Dylan, Alice Cooper, Peaches Nisker, Julian Cope & Mark E Smith) and roads less/hitherto never travelled in Singapore literary studies (notably poet Wong May & local migrant worker writings). Whitehead recently co-edited a collection of essays on Anglophone Singapore literature, Singapore Literature and Culture; Current Directions in Local and Global Contexts (Routledge, 2017). Most recently he has completed essays on Peaches Nisker (“stick it to the pimp”: Peaches’ Penetration of American Popular Culture’, Tristanne Connolly and Tomyki Iino, eds Canadian Music and American Culture; Get Away From Me (Palgrave, 2017)) and William Blake’s letters (‘The Uncollected Letters of William Blake’, Huntington Library Quarterly, 2017). He is currently researching comically politically satirical strategies in the works of Kelantan writer Che Husna Azhari, bi/sexualities in contemporary millennial Singapore poetry and homosocial metaphor, wit and allusion in the song lyrics and other writings of Bob Dylan, Alice Cooper, Julian Cope and Mark E Smith.

 

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