- Daryl Lim Wei Jie, Anything but Human, Landmark Books, 2021. 96 pgs.
- Gwee Li Sui, This Floating World, Landmark Books, 2021. 232 pgs.
- Heng Siok Tian, Grandma’s Attic, Mom’s HDB, My Wallpaper, Landmark Books, 2021. 96 pgs.
Against the backdrop of ongoing wars and climate crisis, I found myself reading Daryl Lim Wei Jie’s Anything but Human, Gwee Li Sui’s This Floating World, and Heng Siok Tian’s Grandma’s Attic, Mom’s HDB, My Wallpaper, three Singaporean collections that play with the rich materials between languages and worlds in ways that readers could re-imagine them in new light.
Anything but Human
by Daryl Lim Wei Jie
Lim’s Anything but Human is a boundary-blurring odyssey in two parts, where poems, by turns nightmarish, humorous, and lyrical, splinter into each other. In the first half of the collection, titled “desert of the real”, Lim illustrates the dangers lurking in the nooks and crannies of the mundane with stark images. The opening poem “Expression of Contentment” encapsulates moments when reality no longer seems real:
and all morning the clouds
with knives and I said nothing
and the table is cleaner than ever—
there has been an utter genocide
it’s crazy I am so comfortable
my thighs have turned organic jam
and my tongue is purple
outside of a sundae
do you know what a strawberry
This is an apocalyptic landscape where it may rain “knives”. Its unfamiliarity is deftly confronted by allusions to familiar historical atrocities and neo-liberal idiosyncrasies. One’s standard of “clean[liness]” is “genocide” for another. One’s habit of consumption changes one’s human quality (“thighs […] turned organic jam”). Simulacrum of nature (the artificial flavour of a “sundae”) precedes nature in itself (the taste of “strawberry” “outside of a sundae”). One’s detached sensitivity could only be expressed as a wry question.
“Sundae” is one of the many food tropes in Anything but Human. The speaker in “A Phenomenological Cookbook” suggests that “when calling for pizza, / be authentic to your need. Demand things not on the menu. / Better starve than to eat what everyone else is eating”. The hunger for “authentic[ity]” lies in how choices are already written “on the menu” for us. In “Singapore Pastoral”, “[a]n old man drowns, feeding / the reeds, which we will use / to make our rice blue”. Lim evokes the colour of butterfly pea-infused rice, as well as that of bruises. Between his sonically pleasing lines, sustenance and violence permeate each other, forming a network that we call the food chain. There is a certain discomfort in being reminded that “[m]y ancestors are compost” (in “The Prophet’s Day Out”) and “[e]ating is a form / of recycling” (in “Prepared Two Ways Without Mercy”).
While anxiety runs through Lim’s poems, the sense of urgency is often met with nonchalance. In “Monster”, “[c]ontinents gnaw each other / with mild interest”. (Mis)recognitions happen, in a cacophony of languages, from the domestic realm to the national and global arenas. Imagery bursts forth to convey the strangeness in idioms and socio-economic conventions. In “Where the Birds Don’t Lay Their Eggs”, “some districts” use “bird droppings” as “currency”. Without being polemical, the speaker in “Sunday” makes explicit commentary:
“America thinks we’re Indonesia, Vietnam, North Korea.
Parliament is closed today, but so are
The KTV lounges. In Canto, we say we’ve waited
so long, even our necks are long.
The nation’s favourite sex position
is tax deductible.”
Anything but Human is brimming with queer moments. In “Feast Day”, “the street lamp / enrobes / the city god & his boyfriend / […] the us / smells / like sweet commerce”. Animated objects re-fit themselves into cityscapes and marketplaces. Everything is desperately something else and desires are seldom satiated. While some” “put on three kilos in propaganda” (in “The Prophet’s Last Warning”), “[t]he children, with lightbulbs for teeth, mistake / their dreams for money // Boiling garbage, they dream of foods / made from refined flour and white sugar” (in “Monster”).
Lim’s metaphors revel in the dissonances between seeming dichotomies. Culture as altered nature is inescapably absurd. In “Picnic at the Botanic Gardens”, “[t]he wind scored our complacency, / pelting us with brochures / on targeted government subsidies. / […] When at last we found a spot unburdened / with expectations—the monsoon”. Lim has proved himself a master of satirical re-definition: “[t]he omelette I made tastes heavily of cybersecurity. / […] The toilet was built not for the living, but the dead” (in “Legacy Retold in Luxury”). Hints of distrust for discourses on future developments are apparent: “the plausibility of total revolution” is “[a]bout our progress in breeding boneless chickens” (In “Fly Forgotten, as a Dream (VI)”).
Paradoxes punctuate Lim’s dream-like refrains. The historical and contemporary, the fictional and non-fictional, and the lost and found collide with one another in “The Futility of Lists”, which is ironically a list poem that contains more lists that span temporal-spatial confines. Some examples include “Baijiaxing”, a corpus of “Chinese surnames”, the names of “ships and armies” in Homer’s Iliad, and a news headline on Bukit Brown, a cemetery where gravestones are not unlike lists.
Wong May’s enigmatic quote “[t]he sun is hatching itself” opens the second part of Anything but Human, “the great reset”. Throughout Lim’s creative translations of Bai Juyi’s poetry, interspersed with a series of Lim’s very own narrative poems, the sense of endings and rebirth are at play. His use of caesura creates white spaces that allude to those in classical Chinese-ink paintings. Words and lines work like glimpses of something elusive across the page. In “Flower Yet Not (Bai Juyi)”
arrives midnight departs daybreak
like a spring dream how long can this
The dialogues between the translated Bai Juyi’s poems and Lim’s own lyricism are intriguing. If we are indeed, as Lim writes, “refugee[s] from the desert of the real // […] what will survive of us / are files” (in “Catechism”), renewing Bai Juyi could be viewed as a gesture towards poetry as a generative tool for recovery. In contrast with “desert of the real” (part one of Anything but Human), “the great reset” (part two) contains water imageries across different poems. It is as if a deluge has happened. Detritus from “the desert of the real” scatters during the “reset”. In “Narrative (VIII)”,
When I use words like undertow I imagine mercury
pearling on my tongue
This much talk has made me hungrier
than a tick on a teddy bear
Perhaps, it is by recognising the qualities inside us that cannot be considered “human”, we could begin to navigate the cataclysms we have created.
This Floating World
by Gwee Li Sui
The concerns in Gwee Li Sui’s This Floating World, a book of contemporary haiku, is similar to Lim’s work. The economy of words in a haiku renders the form a well-suited response to today’s information overload. Gwee’s collection consists of 392 haikus, mostly paired and centred with generous margins around them. The poems are numbered and their titles are listed only at the end of the collection. Readers will not know what comes next in these notes-like poems that are alternately idyllic, contemplative, whimsical, and allegorical. The reveal of the poem titles expands every haiku’s possible associations. Gwee’s arrangement of the haikus is not unlike the timelines on social media platforms:
An online post gets
Rebuked by a minister.
Cat photo follows.
—“Buak Gooyoo Haiku”
Gwee offers observations on ageing, politics, philosophy, the arts, multilingualism, among other topics, with his concise imagery. Some pages only have one poem to create a visual ellipsis and rhythmic disruption to complement the message of that poem. Some haiku are complete in form yet unfinished in content to illustrate silencing. For example,
I am a tenured
Professor. I have earned the
Right to say what I
—“Academic Freedom Haiku”
Global news and local happenings echo throughout the collection. Some of Gwee’s diction points to a straight-forward and dignified truth that institutions seem to complicate, if not overlook.
So we disagree;
Let’s talk it out. No one needs
to get sued or jailed.
—“Not Yet Haiku”
Why are you reading
fake news? Read our articles
behind a paywall!
—“Premium News Haiku”
Gwee’s sense of humour, often hinging on childishness, provides a much-needed antidote to the current state of affairs.
Save the world, but wear
outside. It calms us.
—“Haiku for Superman”
Folks of Hougang are
—“The People’s Haiku”
Indeed, what could possibly save us aside from paying attention to imperfect languages, and perhaps toy with them to re-claim them as our own? A haiku in simplified Chinese caught my attention. It experiments with Chinese quantifiers. The haiku’s structural rule enables the speaker’s lack of confidence in Chinese.
—“Speak Mandarin Haiku One”
Is it a piece of diced (一粒) apple (苹果), or a whole one (一个)? My Mandarin (我的华语) might be broken in pieces (一块一块) but in a haiku, the strange fruit of knowledge becomes so crisp and tangible as if one could hold and eat it. Gwee’s ability to renew meanings is dazzling. Maliciousness is often handled with a lightness of touch.
A stick is a stick
until it has a ribbon.
then it’s a present.
—“Soft Shell Haiku”
Gwee’s The Floating World is a feat in encompassing everything that makes up our daily lives. His consistent wit and precision bind the collection’s variety together. His measured lyricism grants softness and time for one to process existential dread.
Mid-life, I lost all
my wisdom. My mouth swells with
gibberish and blood.
—“Dental Inferno Haiku”
The banks are soft with
beginnings. Today we plant
both our feet in time.
—“The Arrivals Haiku”
Grandma’s Attic, Mom’s HDB, My Wallpaper
by Heng Siok Tian
Heng Siok Tian’s Grandma’s Attic, Mom’s HDB, My Wallpaper is a relentless account of the quotidian. Like Lim and Gwee, Heng combines her insightful observations of cultural lives from Asia to the world with her well-versed knowledge of the Anglophone canon. Common themes such as death, family, food, and travelling are treated in a non-stereotypical way. In the second section of “My Wallpaper”, insufficient, Heng interrogates the complexity of gazes with her multilingual prowess:
How different is a river view
from a view of a river?
And how do I say all of this in Teochew?
Should I compare me to a monsoon rain?
Dare I borrow Dante’s mezzo del cammin?
Are fairies ‘xian nu’?
What’s the word in Malay for it?
A persistent, inquisitive, and bold voice constructs the worlds in Heng’s poetry. The honesty in “Grandma’s Attic, Mom’s HDB” makes it a moving piece on generational grief through the construction of traditions. There is no excess sentimentality but an affirming acknowledgement to new beginnings.
I did eat, sleep, shit (homely) enough in mom’s HDB.
I did go to school,
picked up literacy, gained employability.
I prayed to gods, first my grandma’s, then my mother’s
drank the water with ashes burnt from triangular yellow-paper amulets.
Then I pray to my own.
Heng also captures how the past lingers with tactility: “[a]fter my mother’s death / I found all her / tenderness folded between clothes” (in “Aftermath”). The tension between estrangement and closeness are at play in carefully crafted resonance. In “Still Life”, “grandmother asks” at “Yakun Coffee Shop”: “‘Mei Mei, you want cake?’” The speaker proceeds to question if “[the grandmother] wonder[s] how many years are left for her grandbaby-sitting responsibilities for her working child’s sake”.
Women’s historical roles often resurface poly-vocally in Heng’s poetry. In part two of “Pottering With Words”, Words Are Wafers,
I hear Virginia’s screams
see Sylvia’s genius buried with Ted’s letters,
little know of Vivienne’s incarceration.
Her wasteland untreated by Eliot,
as she proffered him his fame,
he stood safe, she stays insane.
There seems to be a call for more just interpretations of women’s fate. Spoken-word elements in “What a Silkworm Heard” render it a powerful rewriting of the silk princess legend as retold by BBC based on “a wood-panel painting from the 7th and 8th century”:
to be beautiful
to be beautiful
to be beautiful
to be beautiful
to be beautiful
all beautiful to be needed
all of soft silk
Figures in Heng’s poetry, “aflame in black ecstasy”, morph into “a young carp”, “a fishmonger’s daughter”, “a black swan”, or a “body of lost confessions”, in order to “come home” (in “Day 11”, one of the instalments of “Simple Days”). Confluences are the only constant. “Sun-Skink Lizard’s Blues” zooms in from “sky” to “ants” through the eyes of a lizard, who “grows as another”. One is and is not another in nature’s endless cycles.
I glide up further into main canopy to receive sky,
my body falls like rain that falls and falls
to seep deep and deep into primordial soil,
relive a little in rainforest heart
to grow as another lizard
as ants walk by,
to live a little.
Languages, too, shapeshift. “[A]mong all” takes inspirations from Arthur Yap to William Wordsworth and Seamus Heaney to explore the instinct to transcend oneself, and the intervening structures that change one’s course.
it was different at colonial office
of a time and clime where dialogue dialects
were not antilanguage politics,
where houses were nests, and birds connect
wander among all as a spirit I do.
would our numbers, if tracked, have been untrue?
Heng’s attempts to “track” are thoughtful. In “Your Teochew Proverbs”, interlocking images enrich the dialect’s potentialities: “[p]aper cannot wrap fire. / […] A tiger’s legacy: its skin. / A man’s: his name”. The three lines create an interesting power dynamic. While the first is an allegory of how truth cannot be hidden, the second and the third seem to hint at the fable of “the hunter becoming the hunted”. The leap between “paper” and “tiger” also brings to mind a Cantonese proverb, that is, “paper tiger” (a power-thirsty though ineffectual authority).
From Santorini to Tibet (in “Travelling Lines”), Heng’s speakers watch tourists “sit sunsetly to sigh at hues”, and the double “encircling” of lovers hugging near monks pacing around prayer-wheels. Such a devotion to perceiving the world’s resonances makes Heng’s poetry collection an endearing and generous one.
How to cite: Cheng, Tim Tim. “Toying With Lost Time: A Review of Three Poetry Collections from Landmark Books.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 20 Oct. 2022, chajournal.blog/2022/10/20/landmark-books/.
Tim Tim Cheng is a poet and teacher from Hong Kong, currently based between Edinburgh and London. Her pamphlet Tapping at Glass, which explores Hong Kong’s landscapes, language interzones, femininities, and family histories, is forthcoming in 2023. She is also writing poems on rituals and desires through the lens of tattooing. Her poems are published or anthologised in POETRY, The Rialto, Ambit, Cicada, Our Time is a Garden, among other places. Her latest appearances include the Hidden Door festival, and Loop, BBC Scotland. She writes lyrics, translates from Chinese to English, edits, and dabbles in graphic design and typesetting. Visit her website for more information.