[Review] She Walks like a Free Country: Amanda Chong’s Professions and Jennifer Anne Champion’s Caterwaul

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

❀ Amanda Chong, Professions, Math Paper Press, 2016. 61 pgs.
❀ Jennifer Anne Champion, Caterwaul, Math Paper Press, 2016. 71 pgs.

Professions and Caterwaul.jpg

Singaporean writers Amanda Chong and Jennifer Anne Champion chart their own journeys of the heart in their respective chapbooks Professions and Caterwaul, both published in 2016. As part of the Ten Year Series by Math Paper Press, the two poets’ works draw upon a desire for the music of memory and the elegiac sense of its elusiveness. It has been high time that the poets produced their own publications. Chong, trained as a lawyer at both Harvard and Cambridge, has not only been a winner of the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award but also had her poetry engraved on the Marina Bay Helix Bridge and included in the Cambridge GCSE syllabus. Champion, a familiar name in the Singapore slam and performance poetry scene, co-founded the online archive project and educational resource poetry.sg, serving as an archivist and editor. Having honed their craft as members of the Singapore writing workshop group known as the Image-Symbol Department, both poets launched their works during the Singapore Writers Festival in 2016.

Chong’s debut collection Professions was shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize 2018. As the poet herself describes, the book “explores the gender power dynamic of how women were excluded from professional life,” but it also suggests the tensions evoked by the word “profession” itself. A profession can be a vocation, especially one demanding formal qualifications and often commanding respect (e.g. the legal profession). But it is not merely conventional professions like law that the poet contemplates; one finds poems entitled “The Astronomer,” “The Playwright,” “The Explorer,” “The Illusionist,” “The Botanist,” “The Physicist” and the ever-ubiquitous “Office Lady.” But a profession can also be an affirmation of belief, a declaration that can be open and earnest even while ringing hollow (e.g. a “profession” of love). Is the figure of the poet a professional then, in the former sense, or does a poet make professions—are these utterances of truth or fiction? These are the questions and possibilities that Chong ignites, as she places herself in the shoes of other women, but also speculates about how love, desire and intimacy might be experienced through the lenses of other selves and occupations.

In profuse ways, Professions serves as poetic Bildungsroman, as an earnest testament to cherished glimpses of childhood and youth, marking the poet’s emergence into a world that is strange and unfamiliar even as it brims with radiant possibilities. In “Visit to the Yakult Factory, 1995,” which opens the collection, the speaker addresses a childhood companion she meets during an excursion to a local manufacturer of probiotic dairy products. Never lapsing into the artless simplicity of the faux naïf, the poet recalls the idiosyncrasies of friendship (“Our names both began with “A,” so we had to hold hands”) while indulging in scatological humour (“You said the same bacteria / in our shit was found in Yakult. The way / you said “shit” made me giddy with laughter”). With reckless abandon, the speaker downs the cultured milk drink:

                                                              I imagined
our intestines lighting up with neon gardens

bouquets of cells watered by milky elixir
beginning an interminable dance, spinning into
trillions.

Chong’s language plays off the sublime against the quotidian, presenting a psychedelic, kaleidoscopic vision of frolicking cells illuminated by the speaker’s own imagination. The probiotic strain itself serves as a metaphysical conceit, evoking a sense of communion with the speaker’s playmate (“I could only think of / our bacteria swirling and dividing, yours becoming / mine”) that borders on transcendence.

If Chong activates the imagination by summoning the aesthetic curiosity of youth in Professions, Champion similarly mines her childhood for memories of middle-class suburbia in Caterwaul. Illustrated with sepia-tinged visual snapshots of the poet’s childhood in Serangoon Gardens, the collection is steeped in nostalgia and longing, but also suffused with anxieties about ruptured relationships and the pressures faced by the individual. On the back cover, the text describes itself variously as “memoir,” “scrapbook” and “a wall of sound”; throughout the book, both visual and auditory images coalesce and overlap, even while the meanings that they elicit remain contested. Serving as a “chronicle” of “the dramas of a poorly poet in circumstances beyond her control” (as the text comments), Caterwaul reveals the poet’s vulnerability and unflinching candour about life as an “othered” mixed-race girl growing up in 1990s Singapore. Champion’s mixed heritage is foregrounded in the collection’s first poem “nap time,” which invokes religious iconography in a depiction of the speaker’s thwarted desires for refuge during nap-time in kindergarten:

I pull my arms up with my feet into my face.
my grandma says,
this makes me a church when I need to be.
when I need to be quiet:
when everyone’s inside voices are all too loud.
my fingers stick out like hot steeples
transmitting to a god, any god, lightyears away:
“I want to be dead. I want to be dead. I want to be dead.”
my classmate strikes out a hand from our safe nest and tells Madam Tan:

Lao si! Ta yao si.”

In the tattletale’s mischievous utterance (revealing the poet’s ear for colloquial speech-patterns, given how the kindergarten teacher is addressed as the Singaporean-accented “Lao si” instead of the standard Mandarin ‘Lǎoshī‘), the accusation of “Ta yao si” (“she wants to die”) comes as an unwelcome blow to the quiet sanctuary of the speaker’s solitude. The speaker’s posture of fetal defensiveness and desperation (evident from the prayer-telegram sent heavenward “to a god, any god”) also exposes her insecurity and alienation. It is revealed later in the poem that she experienced problems in communicating with her Chinese kindergarten teacher: “I didn’t know how to say ‘toilet’ in Chinese. And I really needed to go.”

Such are the subtle microaggressions that haunt Champion, a non-Mandarin speaker who in later life would introduce herself to audiences during spoken word events as being “3/8ths Malay, 3/8ths Indian, 1/4th Chinese” (though she would qualify that this is for ease of understanding because she would also maintain that ethnic identity is not reducible to fractions). As a person who resists easy classification in the CMIO (Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others) matrix used in Singapore, Champion would well identify with the insight raised by academic Teo You Yenn in her study of inequality in Singapore This is What Inequality Looks Like (2018), which points out that lacking privilege in society means having to play by rules already unfavourable towards one’s own background. Nevertheless, Champion seems readily attuned to the intricacies of the ethnic majority’s language:

this is what someone once told me much later: sleeping inside the
ideogram of the chinese word si are the wriggly red lines that also
make up the word for daggers.

The speaker’s explanation of the relationship between the radical 匕 (bǐ, dagger) and the compound ideograph 死 (sǐ, death) highlights Champion’s fascination with language, also signalled by the opening section’s epigraph, a quotation from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “The Origins of Language” (“One does not know where a man comes from until he has spoken”). Champion’s musings and extrapolations are at once ominous and enigmatic:

so this is what I surmise: a chinese death is a vigorous death.

it is the dance steps of daggers in his veins,
that man in the comfy box.
it is envy of the great nap.

Death is transfigured here as both an intense Danse Macabre and a tranquil repose, of which the latter also serves as an extended metaphor echoed in Chong’s “Bukit Brown,” a meditation about the historic cemetery in Singapore (“Rest here awhile. Feel the ground thickening / with corpses. Consider how to spend your / little light.”). But where Chong issues imperatives in “Bukit Brown,” Champion issues wry observations in “nap time,” where the contest between various shades of meaning can be rewardingly staged, like images in a dream sequence.

Aside from language, what do the poets make of another key element of identity—gender? If the “woman poet,” as the Irish writer Eavan Boland once commented, is often caught in a “field of force,” she must avoid distorted and simplified ideas of womanhood. Surrounded by persuasive and powerful voices, she must forge a path of her own by finding the courage to acknowledge the reality of her own experience. Some poets today might well bristle at the thought of being pigeonholed or subjected to any simplistic labels like “woman poets,” and rightly so. Nevertheless, “woman poets” (or simply, poets) like Chong and Champion continue to navigate the fields of force that encircle them, resisting the pressures that limit them even as they redeem that struggle with a meaning of their own. Consider Chong’s focus on “woman” as a term of reference in “Endings”:

Anonymity was easiest: if our eyes met
(an inconvenient habit of old lovers),
you would turn to your new love, quick
as a breath, “some girl” (not even gifting
me with the fullness of woman). You let
my face slide into the lapping crowd.

The speaker indicts her ex-lover for his blithe fickleness and blatant dismissiveness in labelling her as “some girl,” an epithet reeking of youthful puerility. Like second-wave feminists, who would have emphasised the shortcomings of “girl” in suggesting a certain disempowering docility, the speaker regards the “fullness” of “woman” as a “gift,” entailing all the associations of maturity and self-respect that would be her birthright. Given her attentiveness to the powers and pitfalls of language in shaping what it means to identify as female, one speculates that Chong would have been a welcome addition to “She Walks Like A Free Country”—a spoken word event held in 2013 in Singapore, which brought Champion and six other female poets together to present a variety of pieces about topics as diverse as birth rates, migration and feminine identity. Champion herself has dwelt on feminine identity in poems like “A Question for Georgette,” in which the speaker directly addresses one of the most renowned pioneers of Singapore art, Georgette Chen (1906–1993), best known for establishing the Nanyang style of oil paintings. Georgette, who married Chinese Foreign Minister Eugene Chen in 1930, serves as a portrait of the artist as a young woman:

His body is an open bible on a rainy morning.
Did he also pray, because you are a woman, that you would also be a
Sunday painter? It only matters if yours was also a Sunday love.

The religious metaphors (the man’s body as “open bible,” his face as “the hymn under your paint”) indicate a world of bodily experience and sensory particulars charged with sacred significance. It is a measure of the poem’s ambition that its images of faith recall the visions of Wallace Stevens’ “Sunday Morning” (describing “passions of rain” as a couple stays home during the Sabbath, with art as a proxy for divinity and salvation). An oblique sense of irreverent self-questioning about faith, gender and identity seems to permeate poems like Champion’s, in whose works we may find examples of what Stevens called “the poem of the mind in the act of finding / What will suffice.”

There is much for the reader in both Professions and Caterwaul that will suffice. In both works is a serving of social critique, as in Chong’s “Notes from A Colonialist, 2065,” which sketches the Singapore cityscape a century after independence to lampoon the nation’s “arteries clogged with consumerism” (exemplified by an apocalyptic vision of Marina Bay Sands as “a godless ark held / aloft by three cenotaphs”). But the works are also spiced with comic moments, such as in Champion’s snide reference to an old joke in “Breadcrumbs in Muswell Hill, 2014” (“No matter how kind you are, German children are kinder.”). Neither poet shies away from more disturbing and alarming subjects as well. Some of Chong’s most memorable poems include “Accident,” a disconcertingly serene account of a horrific car crash, and “No. 436,” a prisoner on death row, reduced to a statistic, as seen through the eyes of his executioner. One is likewise repulsed but morbidly captivated by Champion’s “Reading the Palms of a Wendigo,” addressed to the murderer and cannibal Issei Sagawa.

Even what at first glance may appear to be glitches (like the clichéd extended metaphor in Chong’s “How is it that we were magnetised?”, or clunking full rhymes that undermine any appeal to transcendence in Champion’s “if you want blood, commit with grace / if you want redemption, show your face”) are vindicated by the poets’ self-reflexive recognition of “lost innocence,” as Umberto Eco would have it. As Chong’s speaker points out, “What did I ever say to you that hadn’t yet / been said in the history of love?” Ours is a post-post-modern age in which every metaphor for love feels depleted, and love itself seems like a cliché. Champion’s speaker observes not Shakespeare’s “darling buds of May” but rather “the darling buds of flame- / of-forest suds”; as she declares, “this is the only authenticity I have”.

By adopting various poetic forms, assuming multiple personas and articulating diverse experiences, both Chong and Champion lend a dynamic and authentic richness to the critical mass of modern Singapore poetry. Both poets manage to walk a fine tightrope, between the hazards of excessive sentiment, which could be viewed as soppy over-romanticising, and the dangers of undue self-distancing, which may be perceived as jarring frigidity. One is touched by Champion’s numerous gems, including: “Grandparents,” which heartbreakingly entwines Princess Diana’s divorce with her own grandparents’ separation; “A is for Epal,” an ingenuous recount of her Aunty P and her clandestine meetings with a boyfriend at the local community centre and “Cats of Sister Hill,” in which she and her two sisters become zoomorphic representations of feline in-group solidarity (“we three kittens, with our reservations / they will never understand our language”). Given that a “caterwaul” refers to the shrill howling or wailing noise of a cat, what Champion offers is not just what Seamus Heaney has termed “a hint of self-portraiture” but an outright assertion of it. Like Champion, some of Chong’s most remarkable poems feature love not as romance or eros but as an unshakable affection for family and friends: “Yearbook” presents a tender and deeply moving account of the poet’s mother who sacrificed her dreams of career success, while “Monsoon Girls” memorialises the poet’s relationship with a deceased friend. We are led, like the speaker, to a vivid apprehension of the raw power of emotion when faced with elemental forces:

the memory of our faces lashed with rain
staring defiant into newborn sun
till it is mirrored in our swimming eyes.

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mr ow yeong wai kit - 2017

Ow Yeong Wai Kit has edited poetry anthologies such as From Walden to Woodlands (2015) and Love at the Gallery (2017). His essays, poems, and writings have appeared in the Interfaith ObserverEastern HorizonThink PiecesStraits TimesTODAYMalay MailQuarterly Literary Review Singapore, and elsewhere. Currently a teacher and writer, he has an MA in English Literature from University College London, where he was awarded the John Oliver Hobbes Memorial Scholarship. He is also an interfaith harmony advocate in the Holland-Bukit Timah Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circle. Visit his website for more information.

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