Each time I am asked to write a poetry review, I wonder again how and why we judge books of poetry. Which leads me to the fundamental question: why do people read poetry to begin with? What do they expect of a book of poetry? This has an even more fundamental question at its root: what is the function of art in our lives and society at large? This, however, is a rabbit hole for another time. For myself, I read poetry to enjoy language being used to its full potential and I hope to find concise, insightful lines that can be recalled at any time to help me better make sense of poignant moments. To be sure, this is a lot to ask, but that is both the burden and promise of poetry: to entertain and enlighten.
It is also possible and perhaps easier to measure a book of poetry by its stated aims. Ho Chee Lick and Anne Lee Tzu Pheng’s Common Life: Drawings and Poems (2018) explicitly sets out to record ordinary modern life in the city of Singapore. Both Ho and Lee are highly accomplished. Lee has won awards for poetry, has published several books and worked in the Department of English Language and Literature at National University of Singapore (NUS), while Ho has studied linguistics and art and teaches at NUS in the Department of Chinese Studies. The inspiration for the book emerged out of Ho’s drawings, which he creates during his frequent walks around Singapore. He seeks out and tries to distil those quiet, seemingly ordinary moments that we all partake in but perhaps do not see the beauty of because of their mundaneness.
The collection is in part to demonstrate that there is more to everyday life than is ordinarily thought and that it can inspire artists just as much as lofty ideas and extraordinary moments do. Lee looked at each drawing and created a poem to encapsulate what she thought the drawing represented. The drawings themselves are hazy-looking and seem hastily drawn in crayon on stained crumpled paper. The choice of medium seems to be a kind of statement in itself, perhaps, to emphasise the idea that what he is sketching are rough impressions of life in Singapore seen through the at times blemished lens of another person’s life. The consistent writing style means the persona in each poem remains fairly constant throughout the book. This is a little odd perhaps given that the characters and objects represented are different. They seem to incorporate many elements that are common to Singapore and the region: void decks, roast suckling pig, elderly women collecting cardboard, students studying, people sleeping on trains, abandoned chairs, etc. It is a colourful collection that gives an impression of what it must be like to stroll around Singapore’s neighbourhoods. However, diversity is something I associate with Singapore, and I would like to see more of it represented in this volume. Overall, this book portrays a certain kind of common life in Singapore expressed in ordinary if perhaps understated language and is pleasant enough to read; however, I do not think this has proved that the ordinary and everyday can be as inspiring as the extraordinary. I felt myself longing for more depth and intensity. The poem “Roast Meat” provides a perfect, concise example of the writing style: “If we / are what we eat, / is this to be / our fate?” The accompanying image is that of a roast suckling pig, a chicken and a goose plated and waiting to be eaten. The experience of reading this feels like being on a tour bus and looking through smudged windows at the local inhabitants and imagining their lives. It is a pleasant enough way to spend an hour or two.
Elaine Woo’s Put Your Hand in Mine is very hard to digest. This is perhaps reflected by the cover image of dangling mannequin hands that could not physically clasp one other even if they tried due to their rigid plastic composition. In short, I found the writing very difficult to read; it seems unfocused as if written in a stream-of-consciousness style that is chaotic—yet in a controlled way. It is full of powerful lines and intense imagery, but, on my first reading, it made me think of how a computer algorithm might write poetry. The words often seem randomly generated, along with the spacing, typography and use (or not) of articles. It defies interpretation and is difficult to know what to do with.
I tried hard to find meaning in the poems, but felt more frustrated than rewarded from spending time with the volume. I do think however, this could be very interesting if set to music or film. There is a cinematic feel to the writing, which made me think this is perhaps the kind of poetry that washes over you and is not necessarily something one should try to find an obvious narrative in. One poem, “Styrofoam Dross”, gives some insight into this style. At its most basic, it seems to be about debris that washes up on the shore; we get lovely phrases like “a hem of your sand” and “slide towards shore’s consciousness”, however, there is a sudden turn and the poem shifts, giving us: “a plane guzzles phlegm / rap music tangent pounds at the frame— / invade our sphere, threat or laissez-faire? / worn calendar of a man in red leans on his wheeled assistant/ roll-shuffles into bird sanctuary envelope / frowns grey soot”. Each line writhes in a different direction in defiance of being confined to a single narrative, leaving us to wonder about the relationship between the lines and of course, between reader and text. Perhaps this is the feeling of washing up on a shoreline, others having lost interest in your use.
It is almost a poetry of walls; every time I think I have found meaning in a poem, I find myself standing at another wall and having to turn and follow the labyrinthine trail again. This is perhaps what Susan Sontag envisioned when she talked about antagonism as a writing style. It is obvious that a lot of care and thought has gone into the poetry. It has been carefully carved up, divided and spaced. This book has no stated raison d’être, so we must consider it along the reasons for art: pleasure, entertainment, enlightenment, etc. I’m afraid I did not find much here; however, it is worth acknowledging that some poetry serves a different purpose known only to itself. It is a poetry of defiance. I’m not sure how many readers there are for such poems, but this volume will serve you well—or not, as defiant poetry goes.
How to cite: Studzinski, Stephanie. “In Search of the Extraordinary in the Ordinary: A Review of Ho Chee Lick and Anne Lee Tzu Pheng’s Common Life and Elaine Woo’s Put Your Hand in Mine.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 05 Sept. 2021, chajournal.blog/2021/09/05/extraordinary/.
Stephanie Studzinski specialises in speculative fiction and econarratology, specifically the ways in which identity (deconstructed through conceptions of speciesism, gender, ableism and/or the nonhuman) is problematised and radically (re)narrativised through imaginative engagement with contemporary culture, technology and philosophy. Stephanie is currently completing a book chapter detailing the ways in which the speculative ecofeminist texts of Sheri S. Tepper renarrativise who or what is human through the framework of American Literary Naturalism as part of the forthcoming edited volume The Nonhuman in American Literary Naturalism (Lexington Books). Reflecting Stephanie’s protean interests, she has pursued an international education, most recently completing her doctoral thesis Unearthing Otherwise: Sheri S. Tepper’s Quest to Rewrite the Story of Homo Sapiens at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Previously, she completed an MSc at the University of Edinburgh and a BA at Youngstown State University (USA) with a minor in Creative Writing. Stephanie now resides in Canada and pursues radical narratives and imaginings across genres through a fusion of her academic and creative endeavours, which include creative writing, pop-surrealist painting, and eco-carpentry. Visit her website to learn more about her scholarly and creative endeavours.