[Review] Pain and Desire: Jennifer Anne Champion’s Caterwaul

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

Jennifer Anne Champion, Caterwaul, Math Paper Press, 2016. 71 pgs.

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In the back-cover blurb of this collection, Jennifer Anne Champion is described as mapping “pain and desire across middle-class suburbia, in a contest to be heard against the poetry of the heartlands.” I have never fully grasped what either “suburbia” or “middle-class” actually connote in a Singapore context. I’m also not sure if I’ve ever yet encountered in page or person an authentic Singapore heartland poet. After happily and unhappily living with Caterwaul these last few weeks, I get more of a sense of Champion as a sensitive, conservative-radical, sometimes socially conscious poet struggling to be heard, even perhaps survive in the midst of this often less than thoughtful, less than kind postcolonial city-state. And yet if Champion’s uniquely intriguing poems do map pain and desire, they do so in a hearteningly fresh and ultimately positive way.

Champion’s carefully arranged collection of thirty-one poems may contain challenging, momentarily obscure moments but much more often comes across as engaging, relatable, vital. Few Champion poems on a range of topics in a range of forms fail to give off signals intimating that they will be worth the effort. A sense of that warm democratising welcome is intimated perhaps less from the epigraph to section I taken from Rousseau (“One does not know where a man comes from until he has spoken.”) than from the passage from Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer’s “Romanesque Arches” beginning section III, where an angel whispers to the poet:

inside you one vault after another opens endlessly.
you’ll never be complete and that’s as it should be.

Later in Tranströmer’s poem there is a revealed sense of such vaults opening in everyone else, us, not just the poet. That sense of open inclusion and sharing of the inner seems to emanate from Champion to both aural and textual audience and back again. It is explored in the voices of “The Relationship Between Poet and Un-Poet”:

again and again and again
and again, I will not feel your pain without purpose

             […] and lets not deny it
Was the perverseness of prospect

that brought us all here
in the first place.

Champion’s eclectic, relatable but resonant allusions, perhaps come not quite so thick and fast or so explicit as in her first collection (A History of Clocks) of more overtly performance poems. Nevertheless, when they do occur, they are deftly handled as in the tellingly vintage Singapore phenomenon of Love Boat TV reruns in “A is for Epal,” a poem recalling a Filipina maid as her infant selves’ only friend and her encounter “the man reading newspapers at the community centre”:

And how he gives her kisses. Not the kind my parents give each other or me or even the ones of The Love Boat in the evenings where it looks like the people have been told to pretending [sic?] they’re drowning. The swoop and dive with the foot in the air. That look like they’ve gotten the sequencing all wrong.

Champion, in her comparatively freer-formed poems in a local age intent on form above all else, rarely shies from social justice or even a didactic message, though both are cleverly and teasingly delivered. Witness “A Bamboo Pole” “after” UK YouTube poet performer Suli Breaks, quickly followed by the witty excoriation of local business-politics, “Am I or Am I Not Interested”:

Politics? No sir.
I deliberately choose to read only the Life! section
and only when I want to feel jealous of people I know.

I have a direct connection to Yew.

…I am the first of my kind. Job-seeker of the lines that
Look for the new in the old man’s hat.

In our present beige, harrowed pedagogical context, Champion’s liberatingly perverse quip, “I am not the least concerned about spelling but telling” strokes the heart of one of a legion of developing problems in Singapore. Perhaps someone else can explain why a poet still by her own admission undergoing an apprenticeship is able to generate some of Singapore poetry’s most memorable lines. Something to do with education? Upbringing? Challenges? Lifestyle? Years of performance?

There are other potentially fertile tensions: a younger poet caught between an older world of afternoon tea and Radio 4 and that of the current, ground-breaking and experimental within a conservative, forbidding postcolonialism. Champion’s complex crafted but heartfelt wistful poetry of sensibility at times resembles Paul Muldoon’s poetry caught between a slow-release knowledgeable complexity and the immediacy of good pop rock songs. The order of these poems within the collection has clearly been carefully considered, adding to a sense of Caterwaul as concept album, poetry as “prog rock.”

Reading these particular poems, I get the unique sense of a writer possessing a sustained and consistent relationship to poetry, art if you like, as opposed to an intermittent hobby of a corporate employee or civil servant. Champion’s lines gesture toward an investment in suffering: her own, past and present, and perhaps everyone else’s. But Champion is no mere passive sympathiser nor suffering weeping bard. Caterwaul does repeatedly make a racket like a still spirited five-year-old, a performed contempt of and protest at a crassly imposing corporate mentality changing and ending beloved things even in her own sheltered and desirable neighbourhood (see “Serangoon Gardeners (an EP)”). Like Arthur Yap before her, she is ambiguous, doubts, and then takes things unprecedentedly and experimentally/foolishly further. Her often-exciting attractive poems attempt to take us disturbingly beyond limits, e.g. the oedipal, in “Revenant,” a welcome, astute poem on a recent film-poem of the same name dismissed with postcolonial piety by other local poets. Similarly, Champion seems to be similarly pushing the envelope with another key taboo in “Reading the Palms of a Wendigo.” Elsewhere, in “A Question for Georgette,” Champion takes us beyond still life, life itself:

Your paintbrush makes tiny, wet sounds

…sweet colours more coloured than life – life more still

than life.

Champion may not yet be the most showily technically accomplished local poet (heaven forbid), but she often seems one of the most frank, human/e. At the same time, it seems quite an achievement to retain a polite and gracious sensibility, sense of beauty and tone in those few poems that contain in passing the words “fuck,” ”Shit,” “balls,” “tit” and “piss.”

A number of details evident in A History of Clocks continue in Caterwaul: mouths and throats appear repeatedly and not merely for the purposes of speaking and eating. The Chinese language marginalises but also illuminates in its polysemousness, the Chinese character for “ice” being the same as “mouth,” that for “death” being the same as “sword” are surely not so randomly alluded to. Cinema, film, fine art are occasions and conduits for poems. In “The God of Love and Fabulous,” there is a simultaneous engagement with an early twentieth century Scottish painting, a Scottish gallery and Celtic mythology via which the nature of the poet’s own art and sexuality are explored. Characteristically, there are frequent, fluid shifts in identity of speaker and addressee, generating satisfying ambiguity and mystery for readers to relish and chew over. Even more so than in the earlier collection, sorority, female friendship, hetero-bi-lesbian sexuality are privileged; men as we’ve seen don’t always come off so well. (At least two poems that initially seem to engage with dominant penetrative male companions may end up talking about female lovers.) Elsewhere, “Orchid Hunting”—a dramatic monologue of sorts, gesturing back to performance poetry?—perhaps offers a censor defying satire of local overcompensating masculinity-shaped progress in which surreally uber-men (or vegetation or stones?) will imminently become seahorse-like sacrificial mothers. There’s the possibility of imagining a gender-fluidity even amidst the institutional patriarchal mainstream. But for the most part I wonder if in Caterwaul gender is blurred or rather atypically de-emphasised as elsewhere in the collection race is—the lack of harping upon these issues in discourse seems to defamiliarise things on this often too predictable little red dot.

Towards the latter half of the Caterwaul, there is a series of explorations, imagined conversations with a range of imagined and recollected older/unreliable/cannibalistic men—a subjectifying (if there can be such a word) of males. I wonder if this could make for one of many potential dissertation titles on this poet’s work: Champion’s dark engagements with, scrutiny of the male? A glaring/glowing exception is “Breadcrumbs in Muswell Hill, 2014,” in which a hospitable, almost certainly male artist seems celebrated amidst orphaned wood sculptures, small children and cats:

And I say you are kindness itself, not a man chewed up from the inside,
shelving selves between sidewalk cracks.

This emphasis, privileging of kindness, just might make Champion at moments more authentically Larkinesque than many of his local professed admirers amongst the literati.

Champion’s cunning quickfire wordplay less crowd-pleasingly corny, is now more arrestingly satisfactory, for example the riffing off Shakespeare’s sonnet 18 in “A Bamboo Pole”:

I also want to capture the sea.
the way lallang grass bows its head in worship
and the bird unseen shakes the darling buds of flame-
of-forest suds where I live.

This seems quite an assertion, stance in an island so developed local, island, jungle seem almost to have lost any real meaning. Champion’s onto something here, a richer seam I would argue than the clever but somehow unsatisfactory semantic/meta black holes that tenuously still link her to her peers. Earlier in the poem, Champion seems to catch something of the blunt assurance, hospitable didactic urgency of Suli Breaks, as she engages for herself and educatively for other Singaporeans in the issue of “authenticity” (belonging?) for people who are the descendants of migrants.

He says

“my parents are second generation immigrants.”
and I wonder where the immigration stops.
where I stop
remembering migrancy.
this is the only authenticity I know.

“A Bamboo Pole” concludes by making a simultaneous shift from photographic to the rare loca”

constant of drying washing on a bamboo pole seems very accomplished.
this is the only authenticity I have.
the soap.
the clean-washed, developed images.
the film clinging to witness
off a bamboo pole.

Perhaps it’s the pain and (unsatisfactorily requited?) desire alluded to in that blurb that contribute to Champion’s simultaneously complex-accessible poems escaping pitfalls of aridity and elitism. Her issues publicly wrestled with, her life determinedly individually informed, certainly help shape her unique, characteristic voice. As she still seeks identity, her poetic voice sounds clearer, more sure. Her freshness and energy come across in a way reminiscent of her regular poetry and prose posts on social media. Caterwaul contains staying power enough to keep urbane, vigilant, equally honestly ambivalent readers gainfully employed. There is a quirkiness, a sense of windows and doors being at last opened. But you wonder …where will these refreshingly, deceptively transparent, unashamedly questioning, ambiguous, both here and there poems find hospitable homes in Singapore?

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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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