[Review] Preaching to the Queer: Ng Yi-Sheng’s A Book of Hims

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

Ng Yi-Sheng, A Book of Hims, Math Paper Press, 2017. 87 pgs.

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When 2008 Singapore Literature Prize winner Ng Yi-Sheng was trying to name his new book, he put up a poll on the Facebook group SingPoWriMo—Singapore Poetry Writing Month—and asked its more than four thousand members to vote between “Hims” and “All the Lovers,” the Kylie Minogue song.

“Hims” received the highest number of votes, but in the end he went with a suggestion in the comments: A Book of Hims.

While both title options unmistakably proclaim that this is a book of poetry inspired by men with whom its speaker has had romantic or sexual liaisons, it would be a mistake to overlook the political nature of the collection. This, after all, is a poetry collection written by one of the organisers of IndigNation, Singapore’s annual queer cultural and activist festival, which predates the Pink Dot movement and has always been its more radical and confrontational sister.

A Book of Hims is self-described as “a spiritual sequel” to Ng’s last boy, his debut poetry collection which won him the Singapore Literature Prize in 2008. Nearly a decade later, Ng has come out with a collection that is similar in many ways. Like last boy, A Book of Hims contains the poise of a poet confident enough in his craft to submit himself to the ravenous consumption of motifs and myths from an array of influences, queering cultural references in order to flesh out the queer experience without shying away from both the mundane, everyday realities of gay life, and the transcendental, ethereal depictions suggesting the ripeness of possibilities that queerness offers. For instance, in “The Incredulity of St Thomas,” he queers the story of Jesus inviting Thomas the Apostle to touch his wounds to be sure that he has been resurrected:

Nor can I remember precisely
who first I saw, perhaps a lover
or a ghost …
.              .           .           .           .
Put your finger inside me again, St Thomas.
The words grow hot and holy.

For Ng, this is nothing new. He is no stranger to borrowing from a multitude of cultures to create queer literature, and A Book of Hims contains references to the Bible, Buddhist accounts, contemporary Singaporean film, Tang poetry and even the children’s show Teletubbies. This idiosyncratic confluence of such wide-ranging influences is but emblematic of Ng’s queer sensibilities as a gay activist in a country defined in many ways by entrepot trade, which is queered through its “vexed yet highly contingent reciprocal dependency on … broader colonial frames of reference.” (Chiang and Wong 2016)

Where A Book of Hims shines is in its carving out a queer archive in a mechanism that is two-fold. First, hegemonic structures of power are co-opted in order to test the limits to which queerness can be tolerated. For instance, the poem “Like Making Love, It is Always Easier the Second Time” is a cento, made entirely up of quotes by Singapore’s late founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yes. Here, Ng takes on the hyper-macho aggressive quotes by Lee, and subverts them by positioning them such that they take on a homoerotic quality, as the persona corners the addressee into a “cul-de-sac” and eggs him on to try to “hurt me more than I can hurt you.” Despite the poem retaining the antagonistic quality of Lee’s original words, it ends with what appears to be an empowering slant, as the persona instigates the addressee to “decide what is right. / Never mind what people think.”

Second, Ng recovers the queer archive by excavating veteran Singaporean poet Arthur Yap’s works and imbibing them with an unmistakable gay aesthetic that Yap was unable to afford during his time. While Yap has become somewhat of an icon among younger queer poets today, he never explicitly came out as gay, nor made overt references to his sexuality in his poetry. In his essay “Homosexuality in Arthur Yap’s poetry,” Cyril Wong writes that reading Yap’s poem “your goodness” (addressed to “Keith”) for the first time was like

passing another gay man in the corridor of a darkened alleyway—the almost insignificant meeting of eyes during which a swift and tacit understanding is reached, a mutually-empowering acknowledgment that I-know-that-you-know-that-I-know born out of an unspoken complicity between gay men. (Wong 2013)

In the poem “Your Goodnesses,” Ng riffs off Yap’s “your goodness,” exploding Yap’s tacit “complicity” into a three-part poem, reclaiming the queerness of the eight-line original. Ng turns the shy, quiet vagueness of Yap’s ode to his “life-time friendship” with his lover into an unapologetic, bold proclamation of his lover’s “goodnesses”:

Call this friendship, as a man befriends
the candles of his heartbeat.

The poem was about you, long before
it even started.

Through Ng’s act of conjuring queer poetics out of the late Lee Kuan Yew’s hypermasculine machismo and Arthur Yap’s silent wink and nod to his lover—two sources of influence that cannot be more mutually contradictory—he adopts two dissonant cultural icons and asserts his own queer sensibility in a process that Jose Esteban Munoz calls “disidentification.” According to Munoz, disidentification is a process that “scrambles and reconstructs the encoded message of a cultural text” such that it reveals the “universalising and exclusionary machinations” of the encoded message, and “recircuits its workings” in order to “account for, include and empower minority identities and identifications.” (Muñoz 1999)

Indeed, Ng subverts Lee’s quotes not merely for the easy irony in its ending lines “You will go where the wind is blowing. / Follow that rainbow. / Go ride it,” but carves a homoerotics out of the embodiment of state paternalism. In “Snow White,” Ng opens with an epigraph containing one of Lee’s more well-known quotes: “even if you are going to lower me into the grave, and if I feel something is wrong, I will get up.” In the poem that follows, the speaker imagines an unnamed man, presumably a reimagined version of Lee, waking up from his grave, remembering “for the first time … what it is to be free.”

Given the multiple registers and tonal shifts found in A Book of Hims, ranging from the saccharine love sonnet “This I Fear Most” expressing the anxieties of a lover contemplating the possibility of his beloved’s interest in him starting to wane, to the boisterous “Seven Deadly Ghazals,” the book can come across to the hasty reader as lacking in focus. However, it is exactly this versatile, polyphonic eccentricity that makes Ng’s writing so delicious. Blurring the lines between art and activism, Ng interrogates the multiple “hims” that influence his queer poetics, doing so with the flourish of a well-seasoned quill of a poet who is unafraid to bring out the knuckle-dusters when the occasion calls for it.

Additional References

Chiang, Howard, and Alvin K. Wong. “Queering the Transnational Turn: Regionalism and Queer Asias.” Gender, Place & Culture, vol. 23, no. 11, Nov. 2016, pp. 1643–56. Taylor and Francis+NEJM, doi:10.1080/0966369X.2015.1136811.

Muñoz, José Esteban. Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. U of Minnesota Press, 1999.

Wong, Cyril. “Homosexuality in Arthur Yap’s Poetry.” Axon: Creative Explorations, vol. 3, no. 2, Oct. 2013, https://www.axonjournal.com.au/issue-5/homosexuality-arthur-yaps-poetry.

Yap, Arthur. The Collected Poems of Arthur Yap: With an Introduction by Irving Goh. NUS Press Pte Ltd, 2013. muse.jhu.edu, https://muse.jhu.edu/chapter/1306940.

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Paul Jerusalem is a final-year Literature major at Yale-NUS College. His works have been published by Vagabond Press, Likhaan Journal, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, and SingPoWriMo, Singapore’s annual poetry collective. He considers Singapore and the Philippines his homes.

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