[Review] A Tame Paradise: Dans Quel Sens Tombent Les Feuilles and From Walden to Woodlands

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

❀ Toh Hsien Min (author) and Jacques Rancourt (translator), Dans Quel Sens Tombent Les Feuilles, Editions Caracteres, 2016. 134 pgs.
Ow Yeong Wai Kit and Muzakkir Samat (editors), From Walden to Woodlands: An Anthology of Nature Poems, Ethos Books, 2015. 120 pgs.

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The two poetry books considered in this review share an interest in the natural world. Dans Quel Sens Tombent Les Feuilles (Which Way the Leaves Fall) and From Walden to Woodlands: An Anthology of Nature Poems have been inspired by encounters with nature, albeit most often, nature which has been carefully curated. Singapore is known for its planned urban landscape and ultra modern architecture, yet it is often called the Garden City. The Singapore Botanic Gardens is a UNESCO World Heritage site with towering two-hundred-year-old trees, orchid houses and colourful flowers from all over peninsular Malaysia and Singapore. Wild birds are drawn to the gardens and flowering trees. Nevertheless, Singapore’s gardens are tame and contained. Toh Hsien Min’s Dans Quel Sens Tombent Les Feuilles is a selected and new collection of his poetry where nature references are frequent, but incidental. From Walden to Woodlands is an anthology of nature poetry chosen by a Singapore inter-faith initiative which references Thoreau’s retreat to the woods in search of transcendence for its framework. Both collections express a spiritual response to nature and both romanticise the natural world to some extent.

Toh Hsien Min is a sophisticated, well travelled formalist educated at Oxford University. His collection sets the bar high in this review. The nature metaphor in Toh’s title Dans Quel Sens Tombent Les Feuilles (Which Way the Leaves Fall) expresses his default response to awe or yearning with nature imagery. (Many of the poems collected here are about lost love. This review will not consider them.) Some of most impressive poems in the collection respond to nature directly.  “Quince,” “Sleeping with the Fishes” and “Nautilus” are all in the Twin Cinema form developed by fellow Singaporean Yeow Kai Chai. Toh’s “Quince” is the best of them, playful and most readable—lyrical and engaging both in vertical columns and horizontal across the page. It also explores a spiritual/religious dimension of life, as do the poems in From Walden to Woodlands:

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In Toh’s “Birth of the Modern City-State,” nature hums in the background of his childhood. He reminds the reader, “When we drink water we should remember the source. “In the sonnet “Gardenia,” the poet’s garden of innocence includes: low bushes fat / with waxy leaves, thin bamboo arched above / them, and a patch of coleus. You would douse /the lot with rice-milk from the lunch to share /you cooked whenever I came by to chat … One day as I walked past I saw a flower, / a lightly layered thing: a white gardenia. / If it had effloresced within the hour / before it came it could not have been teenier. / But there it trembled, welcoming as cream.”

In Toh’s poems nature is carefully tended and managed, as in Singapore gardens. In “Home Improvement,” nature encroaches in the form of fungus on housing estate walls, and must be restricted by “Rattan blinds to filter out the light of the tropical sun.” His family home is recalled as a “gaping-hulled boat / beached in a desert, the water snatched from beneath its keel.”

Toh’s command of form and language are impressive and draw the reader into his reveries.

The premise of the anthology From Walden to Woodlands: An Anthology of Nature Poems is that Singaporeans can enjoy nature as Thoreau did at Walden Pond, seeking spiritual sustenance in its peaceful environment. (Woodlands refers to a suburb of Singapore which consists mostly of high-rise housing estates, although there are some parks in the area too.) Yet in his Foreword to the anthology, the President of the Inter-Religious Organisation of Singapore, Foo Check Woo states, “Today living a life in Singapore’s wilderness is neither possible nor desired.” In a statement in conflict with the previous observation, he goes on to say, “For the wilderness is for the soul as the city is for the body.” In the persona poem “Jose Rizal at the Singapore Botanic Gardens,” Rodrigo V. Dela Pena Jr. has the nineteenth century Filipino hero Rizal describe Singapore: “all this wilderness, tamed and shaped, each species / labelled with its name and origin […] the heat inspires / not indolence but the work of industry.”

In their introduction, the editors go on to state that, “Our specific focus on the theme of nature stems from our support for biodiversity and conservation efforts.” In spite of the anthology’s contradictions, there is some strong nature poetry there.

Among the most evocative natural encounters expressed in the anthology’s poems are with wild birds. A strong example is Tse Hao Guang’s “All the sounds of mynahs” in which a series of natural images cascades through the poem: “Final crow proclaims its insolence alone, / is shot. Little boy, lost, decides to browse / unmarked back shelves of Sheng Siong, / finds a little nest. Mimosa grows and grows / vulnerable to breath … When too early morning sun drags/me out of bed, the koel calls; I wonder / what new crime it’s telling me to commit // … All night, all the trees in town come alive / with all the sounds of mynahs. Each tried/their best to preach to me.”

In Yolanda Yu’s “Birds in the Stadium,” “A flock of squeaky little black wheels / glide across the sky … Pigeons in their Buddhist robes, / eyes half-closed, were / startled into flying away one after another, / like a row of prayer wheels.”

In “Tenors,” Zhang Jieqiang’s narrator considers a skylark, “Perched upon a fence / beside a slushy graveyard, /… a dew drop on a /sleeping oriole’s wingtip.”

Nature more than survives its Singaporean containment in the best of the anthology’s poems—it thrives—even in “The culvert.” In his poem of that name, Leonard Ng describes how “a pair of merboks / strip seeds from the grass at my feet, / tiny and trusting, unconcerned. / I climb a bridge— / almost at eye level / a kingfisher, / clad in his livery of sky and water, / is watching me watching him … A few suds are flowing down from somebody’s washing / but the stream is alive— / insects a plenty … / some three dozen dragonflies swarming. /… A shrike is watching them / hiding low in the grass.”

The anthology includes some playful, well crafted poetry which observes the resilience of nature in Singapore and the gift of surprise encounters with it. Grace Chia’s “Before Paradise Is Lost” is one example. Her narrator watches her “son chase butterflies / nectaring on ixoras, / he shoots water guns at / red soldier ants refusing / to drown … Cousins/of Godzilla slithering their tails /… a majestic monitor lizard, / tongue long as a whip.”

In “Pantun as haiku,” Alfian Sa’at plays with the two poetic forms in an interesting way using the pembayang (image) from the traditional Malay form:

Small four-pillared hut: / somebody rises early / to boil rice dumplings. (Haiku)

Source: Rumah kecil tiangnya empat / bangkit pagimerebus ketupat; / pecah tempurang katak melompat, / barulah tahu timur dan barat. (Pantun in Malay)

A small house with four pillars /rise early to boil rice dumplings; / break the coconut shell and free the frog, / so it will know which is east and which is west. (Pantun in English)

However, a number of poems included in From Walden to Woodlands favour explanation over lyricism and resort to clichés. In “Written,” Charlene Sheperdson states, “It is written that we are all made / of stardust … Our connections are brief but electric.” “Our connections are brief” could be evoked rather than explained.

Sheperdson goes on to describe stardust in a derivative way: “Nomads in hearts and souls of travellers, just / molecules vibrating to beats of universe … every sweat and tear we draw / drops of water condensing into building blocks of life … You are fire. / You are spark. / You are light, … so write and set hearts aflame.”

This poem appears to draw from the refrain of the 1970 Joni Mitchell hit “Woodstock“:

We are stardust, we are golden
We are billion year old carbon
And we got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

Other poems in the collection explain more than evoke as well. In “A monk walks along Orchard Road,” Rodrigo V. Dela Pena Jr. reflects on how a graveyard is transformed “into a teeming bastion / of commerce: blocks upon blocks // of shopping malls, each a buzzing / hive of stores and restaurants // catering to the world’s every / whim, its infinite cravings.” Dela Pena Jr.’s aforementioned poem in the voice of Filipino hero Jose Rizal also explains more than evokes with image and metaphor: “all this wilderness, tamed and shaped, each species / labelled with its name and origin […] the heat inspires / not indolence but the work of industry.”

And in “Teachers’ Estate,” Patricia Maria De Souza tells readers about the place rather than showing it: “Snugly fitted in a valley / lies a little-known estate / protectively shaded by / tall, flowering trees. / Home to varied species of birds / from the humble pigeon / to the elusive nightjar … // Here projected voices of teachers / diffuse into soft murmurings / of tired voices.”

Several of the poets included in From Walden to Woodlands do not set their words free to wander in search of epiphany. Instead, their images and metaphors follow a concrete path at the end of a leash.

Both Dans Quel Sens Tombent Les Feuilles (Which Way the Leaves Fall) and From Walden to Woodlands are worthwhile reading, but there are more poems to engage poetry purists in the former collection.

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Kate Rogers‘ poetry is forthcoming in Elsewhere: a Journal of Place and Catherines, the Great (Oolichan). She was shortlisted for the 2017 Montreal International Poetry Prize. Her poems have appeared in Twin Cities: An Anthology of Twin Cinema from Singapore and Hong Kong; Juniper; OfZoos; The Guardian; Asia Literary Review; Morel; The Goose: A journal of Arts, Environment and Culture; Kyoto Journal and ASIATIC: International Islamic University of Malaysia. Kate’s poetry collection, Out of Place (Aeolus House –Quattro Books) debuted in Toronto, Hong Kong and at the Singapore Writers Festival between July and November 2017. 

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