[Review] “your mouth/will be a constant negotiation: Hamid Roslan’s parsetreeforestfire” by Isabelle Lim

{Written by Isabelle Lim, this review is part of Issue 45 (September/October 2019) of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Hamid Roslan, parsetreeforestfire, Ethos Books, 2019. 100 pgs.

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In the introduction to her collection on language poetry and poetics, the American writer Lyn Hejinian declares, “Language is nothing but meanings, and meanings are nothing but a flow of contexts. Such contexts rarely coalesce into images, rarely come to terms. They are transitions, transmutations, the endless radiating of denotation in relation.” Reading Hamid Roslan’s debut poetry collection, parsetreeforestfire, is seeing this quote manifest. The slim volume, divided into four chapters (“parse,” “tree,” “forest” and “fire”), is best read aloud as a continuous flow and with a mind slanted toward radiating relation rather than precise conveyed meaning. Indeed, language and its failings lie at the heart of Roslan’s poetry, parse gesturing continuously, self-consciously toward its own construction and the myriad ways in which it comes short of conveying meaning. It is a poetry obsessed with the problem of language and languages. For with parse, Roslan exposes not simply the faultiness of language, but also its false universality—its sphere so often assumed to be anglophone. In this collection, translation presents then yet another complicating node in the already vexed relation between word and meaning. If meanings are nothing but a flow of contexts, then parse orchestrates a deft symphony of the contextual language-worlds of English, Singlish, Bahasa, Mandarin, Hokkien and more, to conjure an ever-shifting wordscape.

One of the deepest pleasures of reading Roslan’s collection is the sense that the central mode at work is play. What comes usefully to mind in parsing these poems is the Wittgensteinian notion of language-games, where meaning is seen less as affixed onto language than it is a result of contextual use. In Roslan’s collection, language-as-game is taken apart, its circuitry exposed in a systematic dismantling. In this wreckage, however, emerges a semantic playground that offers such potential fun to the attentive and inventive reader.

The collection begins innocuously enough. On its publisher’s website, parse is described as “a bilingual book of poetry in which poems in Singlish occupy one side of the book, and poems in English on the other.” The first chapter largely bears this out. The initial paired poems present themselves in the familiar conventional mode of translated works where the original is presented alongside the translation. In this case, the two languages are English and Singlish, though this is a gross bifurcation and simplification as the collection will reveal. Therein, however, lies the stage for the beginning of Roslan’s radical querying of language. For perhaps unlike other paired languages, the clarity of conversion between English and Singlish is less apparent, the latter being a creolised version of the former rather than an entirely separate language. The conventional understanding of translation then—where words or phrases are imagined as accurately converted from one language to another—falters quite apparently because any translation from English to Singlish and vice versa comprises far more than a syntactical surgical accuracy, but also a necessary peddling in tone, syntax, punctuation (or lack thereof) and an elusive “something else” that gives Singlish its heft.

It’s important to note the context of Singlish and its position in relation to standardised English in Singapore, for in placing these poetic versions on opposing pages, Roslan marshals the differing connotative worlds of prestige, refinement, education, class and race of both language and creole. Singlish emerged organically as a creolised form of English in Singapore, comprising a basic grammatical structure from English (though some would argue that it possesses its own unique syntax) with loan words from Malay, Hokkien, Teochew, Tamil, Mandarin and more. Initially, and perhaps still, demonised by the state—the launch of the Speak Good English movement in 2000, a government campaign that aims to “encourage Singaporeans to speak grammatically correct English that is universally understood,” to counter the prevalence of Singlish continues to the present day—the use of Singlish has nevertheless persisted. While always prevalently spoken and used, it has only been recently that Singlish has been brought into mainstream media, literature and advertising in any vaguely positive capacity.

Roslan’s use of Singlish in the collection, however, is far from a simplistic insistence on local identity or a blind linguistic patriotism. In recent times, where “localness” has exploded as a site for commodification and Singlish itself has been increasingly simplified and sinicised in its saleable form, Roslan’s use of Singlish returns the creole instead to its multiplicity. The Singlish that he presents is one that contains far more Malay words than the average Chinese-Singaporean, for instance, would be familiar with. It triggered, at least for this reviewer, a near rhythmic reliance on Google translate and consistent annotation while reading the collection. It is an intended effect. In works that bear multiple languages, some comprehensible for a reader and others not, one is forced to reckon with the limits of one’s comprehension, made aware of one’s identity. The opacity of incomprehensible languages, the experience of words not simply relinquishing their meaning to a reader, is jarring. One wishes for the poet to explain, to provide easy answers on the page, to make the process of reading less tedious. Roslan knows this of course and chastises the reader accordingly:

10 Speak no use. Ask & ask for footnote. Nowadays got so many way to know. Thought got Google? Last time no Google you know. Backside so fat cannot go computer & type? Got phone don’t want to use? Data all keep for Korean drama is it?

Clearly, parse requires readers to work for the meaning it contains, forcing a reading experience far more active than monolingual prose, for example, might elicit. More interestingly, in its marshalling of specific language-worlds, the collection necessarily simultaneously alienates readers who are shut out of immediate comprehension and embraces those already privy to its chosen languages. It implicitly rejects the false notion of the universal reader, exposing the assumptions inherent in such a figure: that we all speak one language, and that it is English, or even, sinicised-Singlish. In this case, the collection reverses the power dynamic of majority-minority language speakers in the country where it will be most widely distributed, Singapore. It is a reversal that will see a Singlish-speaking reader from the Chinese majority find themselves at times bewildered and left out in the linguistic cold, unable to fully understand the collection’s poetry unless they put in work to do so. It is a reading experience as much a political statement as it is an artistic effect.

While parse is critically aware of the cultural and political furor that drawing lines between language-worlds can ignite, it ultimately moves on from simply pointing out the existence of insiders and outsiders in any language. What it does finally, is expose the instability of language, any language, by deftly manipulating the familiar presentation of translated work. It dances the reader through the instability of these language-worlds by setting up the expectation of accurate, or at least coherent, translatable form in placing the Singlish and English versions of poems on opposing pages. This, however, is where orthodoxy ends. For Roslan’s nimble use of the presentational form excites expectations only to quickly diffuse them, with assumptions of translatability quickly breaking down upon closer inspection of the poems. The first pair of poems hardly map onto each other in the conventional sense of a translation and its original. Both comprise differing numbers of lines, of which, their meanings bear little resemblance, with only a loose affiliation to the theme of speaking. The last three lines of each poem read:

Tthey always

tell you speak up boy speak up

now I speak up

 

criterion, or rule, or

plunging dictum to conversation…or dogma, diction, or to

stake into discursive form a welt: doublespeak.

It is apparent that parse has no intention to translate in a manner conventionally understood, nor, I would suggest, does it think the process possible. Instead, in beginning, Roslan introduces the central problem of the entire collection: the problem of language itself. On the left, we have Singlish staking its place in print, an attempt to capture an oral form on the petrified page. On the right, English’s perennial problem of semantic flourish, doublespeak. And in between, the gap, seemingly unbridgeable.

Yet, if this all paints parse as inaccessibly academic, even obtuse, this was not intended. For while language poetry—an avant-garde school or style originating in the United States in the late 1960s and centrally concerned with language’s construction—has often been accused of being high-falutin or unnecessarily abstract, and which Roslan’s poetry nevertheless seems to draw from, he punctures its potential affected tone with consistent humour. Take the entire third chapter of the collection, “forest,” an extended read-and-react interaction that goes on between a numbered main text and its footnotes. The main text is ostensibly a philosophical meditation on standard English spoken in Singapore, complete with references to René Descartes, statements and restatements in the style of logic arguments, and the repeated insistence on phrases like “this present speaker” and “this faulty language.” The footnotes to the main text in contrast presents a voice responding in Singlish. It’s predictably annoyed. The third statement and its corresponding footnote reads thus:

  1. It is impossible for this present speaker to articulate anything other. For this present speaker to say I am, is to say I am not; to say is, is to say is not; to say yes, is to say yes, but also but.3

3 English always luo suo. Want to talk always must grandmother story first.

The numbered text, so reminiscent of abstract academese, philosophical treatises or tired musings on language is cut down immediately in the series of footnotes that acts as running commentary. Over the course of eight-one numbered statements, the status and “faultiness” of the English language in Singapore is considered, but it’s an exercise that has its intense intellectualism consistently punctured by the at times acerbic, at times bored and always trenchant Singlish commentary. The differing voices mark the divide between English and Singlish, academese and pedestrian language, even coloniser and colonised, a back-and-forth that results in a poetic study of language that takes itself seriously even while it laughs at its mirrored image. It’s an exchange that one can imagine Roslan, a recent graduate of the first liberal arts college in Singapore, conjuring easily. He drops Easter eggs from postcolonial theory, analytic philosophy and legislative and constitutional history throughout the collection, namechecks Bhabha, Descartes, Said and Alatas, but in a manner that exposes a boredom at the pretentiousness that so often accompanies these disciplines, ideas and individuals:

depending on location of
culture: Bhabha blah blah
qua qua: MTA/MTR/MRT/

Roslan’s collection trades in the language of the academy only to turn it on its head, calling attention to its tired opacity and the way in which its convolutedness (one need only think of Bhabha’s writing style) says so much only to say the same thing or nothing at all—blah blah. One can imagine the poetic voice of the footnotes in parse reading the Hejinian quote that begins this review, agreeing with it perhaps, but then stating, “Sound like we all know also hor.”

So where does that leave us? For Roslan’s collection, while deeply self-aware, doesn’t offer any solutions to the problems it raises about language. It exposes the faultiness of language primarily through the English-speaking poetic voice, mocks it with the Singlish-speaking poetic voice, and leaves us at an impasse: aware that language is faulty, unable to correct its faultiness, and wary that extended meditation on its faultiness is pretention. The semantic snake eats its own tail endlessly. We find ourselves wary of language’s limitations, but unable to escape its chokehold.

The last chapter of parse, “fire,” is an extended sentence spanning six pages and ending with the word “finally.” The “-ly,” however, repeats for more than three lines thereafter, the poem descending into sonic non-sense when read out. Here, expecting an answer to the problems of language or some measure of finality, we find instead pure stuttering sound extended into seeming perpetuity (there is no period in the sentence). Meaning is revoked in favour of open, unreadable possibility. Perhaps this is what parse offers then, an opening. Beyond the strictures of language, beyond segregated language-worlds, beyond notions of readability, audience, profitability or popularity, Roslan crafts a collection that dares to be, as he puts it in one poem, “a constant negotiation.”

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Isabelle Lim is a graduate student with the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge working on postcolonial studies and ecocriticism. Her research involves the environmental imagination in Singaporean poetry. She is also an editor for Mynah Magazine, an annual longform publication that focuses on Singapore narratives.

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