[Review] Alvin Pang’s What Happened

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

Alvin Pang, What Happened: Poems 1997–2017, Math Paper Press, 2018. 132 pgs.

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What Happened: Poems 1997–2017 is Alvin Pang’s first volume of selected poems to be published in Singapore, coming fifteen years after his last solo collection City of Rain (2003). What Happened is not Pang’s first foray into producing editions of selected (often accompanied by new) poems, having published When the Barbarians Arrive in the United Kingdom (2012), followed by a spate of independent translated editions: in Croatian (alongside English, in Other Things and Other Poems [Druge stvari i ostale pjesme], 2012), Slovene (Teorija strun, 2012), Swedish (När barbarerna kommer, 2015) and Macedonian (Собата во пламен, 2016).

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Basil Bunting ominously begins the preface to his Collected Poems: “A man who collects his poems screws together the boards of his coffin.” Yet, as Ruth Tang—editor of Alvin Pang’s newest volume of selected poems What Happened—contends, prefaces tend to begin with “vaguely poetic truism, measured praise, unfalsifiable statement.” The same is true for many reviewers of collected editions, who make far too many statements of this ilk, tilting the balance towards commenting on the poet’s achievements and neglecting the pieces themselves or the method in which they are presented. Much has already been said about Alvin Pang’s writing, mostly laudatory, and well-deserved. But there is more gold to be found in paying close attention to the poems of What Happened. After all, as Bunting continues, “those outside [the coffin] will have all the fun.”

As with most collected editions, Tang presents us Pang’s oeuvre chronologically, beginning with fifteen poems (in their original order of appearance) from Pang’s debut book Testing the Silence (1997): a work often overlooked in Pang’s own selections, contributing only one poem to Other Things, and four to Barbarians. Aptly, Tang describes Silence as exhibiting a Heaneyesque “self-sufficient lyricism.”

Seamus Heaney, in his Nobel Prize lecture, claimed that “in lyric poetry, truthfulness becomes recognisable as a ring of truth within the medium itself … it is this which keeps the poet’s ear straining to hear the totally persuasive voice behind all the other informing voices.” Indeed, the lyric operates by negotiating the gap between the artificiality of the poetic medium—its cadences, propositions and symbols—and the object reality represented through unmediated access to the lyric consciousness. The “I” of the lyric poem is thus elevated as the self-sufficient agent of truth, and a youthful Pang seems to have an intrinsic grasp on its declarative power. Demonstrating this, the opening poem of What Happened, “Fly-Fishing” implores the reader to “Immerse yourself and play by the rules“; the voice here is dereferentialised, absolute, sets the rules. Even in observing workmen mow the grass in “Grass Cutting”, the speaker declares with philosophic certainty that “the grass will resume / its intractable invasion / of the verges.”

But in early Pang there is already a growing self-awareness of the seemingly undisputed autonomy of the lyric ego. In “Tryptich,” its agency is briefly dissociated from the speaker and made object of metaphor (“The I tosses you like salad / with these other images”). Elsewhere, there are hints of lyric autonomy being undermined, particularly in memory. Remembered experience is articulated with clarity by the lyric ego in evocative pieces such as “Pictures Remembered” and “Raintree, Block 973.” Yet, at the start of “Fly-Fishing,” Pang invokes the simile “vague as memory,” foreshadowing the exposure of memory as imperfect. In “Friction,” the speaker begins his recount with the insistent “I remember,” but the second time this is uttered reveals that the experience is translated (“I remember—but this / is what grandmother would tell me / over and over”). Indeed, it is with the final poem of Silence that Pang admits his own inadequacy in the lyric ego’s pursuit of representational truth: that “there is a clear point / of divide, between what is / and what you have known.” While Tang senses hints of Pang retreating from “an absolute commitment to lyric,” rather, it is Pang beginning to recognise the inadequacy of the self-assured, monologic lyric voice, much concerned with hieratic subjects such as Gawain and Michelangelo, in capturing the moment (“So much time is spent / denying its presence, fending / it off with words,” “There is a Moment”). To capture the ring of truth within language—the essence of the lyric moment—Pang realises that one needs to embrace both the familiar and the foreign.

Indeed, Tang’s selection of poems does an excellent job in highlighting Pang’s developmental movement towards “the lyric nestled beside the demotic.” From Silence, she eschews allusion-laden “visit” pieces such as “University Lake” and “Leaving Dublin” in favour of pieces such as “Exchange” and “Crossings,” which in their reported dialogue cut through the artificiality of the monologic voice, grounding Pang’s lyrics in lived experience. This curatorial direction is extended towards Pang’s next collection City of Rain, of which twenty-five out of fifty-one poems are included in What Happened. In City, Pang turns his attention from the English landscape of his undergraduate years to the city-state of his birth. Sometimes celebrating, sometimes satirising, sometimes both, here his demotic impulse is accompanied by a reflective and normative awareness “of the world we must live in” (“Knowing”). Tang rightly points out that City begins to include “a wider range of forms and voices” and does well in presenting them. Her inclusion of realist pieces such as “Morning Shift” and “Made of Gold”—a dialogic poem which includes the voice of a marginalised migrant worker eking out a living in the city—over Pang’s more well-known pieces such as “Merlign” and “Incendium Amoris” (which at points lapse into a series of Latinate pronouncements on the city’s monuments), highlights the attentiveness with which Tang pursues her editorial argument.

But this does not mean Pang’s lyric voice loses its evocative power in favour of mere mimesis. Rather, it is simply more circumspect, less disposed to high allusion. In “The Memory of Your Taste,” the speaker declares that he will “eschew / known names like nectar, mead, ambrosia” in favour of creatively bathetic kennings such as “sweat mucus-honey and piss-wine.” Yet Pang’s pursuit of the lyric moment goes beyond harnessing “the raw power of feeling and language” (“Reading a Fragment of Poetry by A Younger Self,” recognising that the relationship between observed and observer is mutable and transformative. As “In the End” begins, “the things we love give back their names.” The representative power of language is all but transient. And at the end of City, it is “the fingers of rain,” rather than the lyric ego, that are “dying to tell me their stories”—the poet listens, relinquishes his autonomy to the moment itself. It is here that I find it appropriate to quote the gorgeous ending of Heaney’s “Song”: “And that moment when the bird sings very close / To the music of what happens.” It is Pang’s willingness to listen to the music of what happens that produces lines such as “I will uncage your body’s sadness with my own, and make the sound locks make / springing open” (“Homecoming”): tender, striking, unencumbered by elaborate description.

Forty-four of Pang’s newer poems, which are part taken from Barbarians, Other Things and various journals / anthologies over the past decade and a half, occupy the second half of What Happened. Freed from the internal logic that a standalone collection demands, it is here that the range and musicality of Pang’s lyric voice takes full flight, with growing maturity. Or as Tang puts it, “lyricism without delusion.” Where the younger poet would jump at the chance to wax lyrical about his lover in the rain, the older poet restrains his pen: “If there was any way / the rain could have made her more beautiful, I don’t know it” (“The Bridge”). Fans of Pang’s prose work What Gives Us Our Names (2011) will be interested in the inclusion of a series of koan-like prose pieces (“Our Houses,” Se7en,” “Taste,” “Earshot,” “Loaded”); their formal unity perhaps hinting at an abandoned manuscript concept. Despite the disparate nature of their narrative subjects: an artist who paints in blood, a dominicidal chef or a vulgar photograph of a tattooed penis (described as “a perfect marriage of form and content”), these pieces still retain Pang’s characteristic intimacy and wit, even as the lyric ego is absented. Pang continues to find new ways to put language under pressure. In “Oz Journal,” it transforms into Joycean portmanteau (“birrabirragal  dunbar  flowered foreveryoungjohnnyloved,” perhaps attempting to capture the cacophonous Bondi atmosphere. “Thirteen Ways of Looking at A Snowscape” is a stellar microcosm of the spectrum of styles Pang employs: metaphysical questions, list poems, lyric recounts, linguistic experimentation, prose pieces, lyric apostrophes—all of which make their presence known in What Happened.

The later poems in What Happened are imbued with a sense of farewell, with pieces such as “23.3.2015,” “Wet Orisons” and “Obituary” gesturing towards metaphorical endings. In the earlier piece “Aubade,” the speaker declares: “Grief will teach you new names.” Yet in “So Many Ways Our Fathers Mark Us,” the grieving speaker is rendered silent, exposing the inadequacy of language in capturing the moment of loss:

and later the heft and weight of language,
oar and rudder on the palate, finding our own
stained grammar in the wood-ash of their passing
heaving their smoking axes on our tongues

Grief is the axe that constantly silences. Later, in “Notes Towards an Aubade,” this axe is passed on to Pang himself, with morbid implications (“Here is the axe: you’ll find it sharp enough.”). Perhaps this is the death wish that Bunting gestures towards when a living poet releases a collected edition. But this is not about death so much as it is about moving on, and Pang coming to terms with his own role as a father—beautifully inscribed in “Reading Experience” and “Karang Guni Daughter.” These pieces on fatherhood are considered and self-aware, deserving of a place in their own collection. As Pang acknowledges in “Daughter,” “As if I’m even clear of what keeps / or what is worth keeping,” the philosophic certainty of early Pang is now displaced by a haunting sense of self-interrogation.

Indeed, Tang is incisive to point out that Pang’s increased self-reflexivity is of “considerable benefit to [his later] poetry.” Recall one of Pang’s earliest and most well-known poems, “Initiation” (Testing the Silence): a piece heavily reminiscent of Heaney’s early poem “Digging.” Heaney remarked that “Digging” “had for me the force of an initiation … that perhaps I could do this poetry thing too.” For him, as a young boy observing his father in the fields, digging is conceit for the impetus to write:

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

For Pang, fishing occupies this function, a sentiment clearly expressed in “Strange Fish” (Testing the Silence), in which the titular piscine subjects are hoisted “onto dry ground / with the rod of a pen.” Returning to “Initiation,” Pang recounts his father teaching his younger self to fish. Like Heaney, this is early Pang undergoing his poetic initiation, taking the lesson to “jostle / the men, find a place of mine,” assured of the nascent power of his lyric voice. Yet two decades on, in the titular and final piece of the collection “What Happened,” Pang paints a quieter portrait of his father—”Never did ask for leave / to stand still nor grumble at the waves”—and one detects a more than just a hint of self-reflexivity. In the end, it is the value of silence, and not the jostling to be heard, that is learnt, accepted. The speaker confesses: “We who come from earth must leave through air. I take the silence he taught me and swim in it.” It is this silence in which the lyric moment makes its home, rings true. Its presence is gracefully admitted in “Token Strings”:

I never broke – no, never broke the silence.
It is still here, the beautiful unspeaking
that we wove out of this air.

The silence has been tested and left alone. If What Happened is a coffin, it is a coffin with flowers blooming on the mound. Tang has done a good job as gardener, and anyone interested in the power of the lyric must pay a visit.

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Jerome Lim is currently reading for an MPhil in Modern & Contemporary Literature at Gonville & Caius College, University of Cambridge, where he works on the late poetry of the neo-Modernist J. H. Prynne. His writing has been published in various literary journals and anthologies such as the Quarterly Literary Review Singapore and Twin Cities: An Anthology of Twin Cinema from Singapore and Hong Kong (Landmark Books), and his poetic sequence Archipelago was recently awarded the Ursula Wadey Memorial Prize in the United Kingdom. He serves as an Associate Editor for poetry.sg.

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