The Deep Restlessness of Alvin Pang

Written by Ow Yeong Wai Kit
Dated 14 Jul 2016

In an interview in 2012, Alvin Pang explains: “I’m terribly restless and easily distracted by novelty and variety” (Banana Writers). One might initially dismiss Pang’s apparently casual remarks as self-deprecating humour, but in the same interview, he reiterates: “I am deeply restless and want to write about everything that moves me to write—which tends to be subjects that intrigue, move, disturb or surprise me” (BW). It is this quality of the poet’s ‘restlessness’ that deserves particular scrutiny. Pang’s restlessness manifests itself as a poetic register that is characterised not by determinacy but polyphony, fluctuating between consolation and critique, celebration and condemnation. By adopting various poetic forms, assuming multiple personas and articulating diverse experiences, Pang lends a dynamic and authentic richness to the critical mass of post-1990s poetry in Singapore.

This sense of dynamism and restlessness has permeated Pang’s work throughout the course of a long poetic career stretching for over two decades, during which he has produced a variety of complex pieces ranging from satirical writing to love poems. At once perceptive and observant, Pang often exposes and negotiates the hidden tensions implicit in places, spaces, and people. His verse, described as “urban, cosmopolitan, yet intimate in nature” (SI), has been rightly praised by David Fedo as distinctive for its ‘freshness’ and ‘immediacy’ (QLRS 12.2). As an editor and self-acknowledged “literary activist” (QLRS 1.3), Pang has also actively collaborated with poets and writers from around the world, including the Philippines in Love Gathers All (2002), Australia in Over There (2008), Italy in Double Skin (2009), or the USA in UNION (2015). All these collaborations signal the passionate enthusiasm of a poet eager “to explore pluralities and polyphonies” (UNION 16).

In terms of influences, Pang has been inspired by a wide range of poets, including Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, Seamus Heaney and Wallace Stevens (SI). As for his subject matter, Pang’s oeuvre also seems to resist easy classification. His topics of interest run the gamut of human experience, including matters of faith and religion, family and relationships, as well as observations of sights, sounds and scents from both Singaporean and overseas landscapes. Explaining his choice of subjects, Pang insists on his autonomy and poetic licence:

I write from my own motivations [ . . . ] I’m very uncomfortable with this ‘obligation’ for social writing. Some writers naturally gravitate towards certain themes and approaches but not everyone has to do so. (QLRS 1.3)

One might draw a parallel between Pang’s stance as expressed in this proclamation and that of T.S. Eliot, who famously dismissed the “social function” of poetry, and for whom poetry “is not the inculcation of morals, or the direction of politics” (The Sacred Wood, ix).

Yet there is a crucial difference between a poet’s refusal to subscribe to external impositions of social obligations, and his recognition of the hazards of moral injustice. Such a recognition is perceptible even from Pang’s debut collection Testing the Silence (1997). Admittedly, it might not be so readily apparent if one were merely to focus on the sublime scenes depicting Pang’s memories of wintry stillness beside the lake in York, England (“University Lake”), Joycean meditations after visiting Ireland (“Leaving Dublin”), as well as—closer to home—observations of the HDB heartland of Yishun (“Raintree, Block 873”). But it is clear in “Passion,” in which the speaker is an Irish girl described tersely in the epigraph as “14, Raped, Pregnant and A Prisoner—The Irish Times, 28/2/92”. The polysemy of the title is self-evident, referring to the intensity of both the victim’s anguish and her tormentor’s lust:

Fed firm on bacon, oatbread and two
eggs a day. i was tense fullness, stretched
taut and tuneful across my fourteen years. i
said my graces at table, missed no mass,
shut my eyes and gasped my prayers
as he took me, broke me like bread
and ate me, soul, body, blood.

In his incorporation of Eucharistic imagery, Pang finds a creative mode of expression in his struggle to register and communicate the magnitude of the unspeakable evils perpetrated upon the innocent. In so doing, he avoids the danger described by Geoffrey Hill in a post-Holocaust context that “the horror might become that hideously outrageous thing, a cliché” (New Statesman). Instead, both speaker and reader partake in a chilling caricature of Holy Communion, breaking the silence of concealed misery through words of the Gospel now disturbingly invested with new meaning—“This is my body [ . . . ] This is my blood” (“Passion”).

If Testing the Silence (1997) marks Pang’s initiation of the experimental process involved in creative utterance, City of Rain (2003) charts his continued efforts to trace the outlines of lived experience in the city-state. Pang himself describes it as “[his] attempt to map the psychological, emotional, and political contours of Singapore, and to find a new urban idiom relatively free of the Romantic pastoral nostalgia that was so common in verse up to that point” (WWB). This self-definition of the poet as geographer and urban architect, “mapping the humanity of [his] city,” relies on the conceptual metaphor of the map that undergirds the work of Italo Calvino, whose quote from Invisible Cities is used as an epigraph (“seek and learn to recognise who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space”) (City of Rain). Despite his disavowal of any “‘obligation’ for social writing,” Pang illustrates the social reality of Singapore’s urban spaces, as when foregrounding the circumstances of voiceless and marginalised migrant workers:

Walls that bleed money.
Dusty streets lined with gold.
Wave after wave, a babel sea
of dreamers on our shores. They build
our towers like cliffs, strong
against the sky. They build our homes
and our temples. In return
we lead them to our gods.

(“Made of Gold”)

The poet’s sinister descriptions of ATMs (“Walls that bleed money”) and the depiction of gold jewellers lining the streets of Little India (“Dusty streets lined with gold”) set the scene for the arrival of the hopeful multitudes in all their confusion of tongues (“a babel sea/of dreamers on our shores”), even as they are lured into the worship of Mammon (“we lead them to our gods”). Later the speaker assumes the voice of the exploited migrant sunk in debt:

I cannot go back they kill me I owe so much.
I cannot pay back enough. Agent take my passport
then dump me on streets of Tekka. I wash
dustbin I scrub dump I sleep sometimes I eat.

The awkward grammar and tone of desperation reinforce the heart-wrenching plight of the migrant, reduced to the level of a scavenger. Here the pathos evoked is not unlike that stirred by the case of the ten-year-old girl whose sudden and baffling suicide leads the speaker into a state of aporia, as he contemplates the apparent absence of warning signs in her room by featuring a still-life portrait:

Hello Kitty arranged on shelves painted eggshell-
white, a vase of pink gerberas by the mirror.
The bed, most likely, was well-made, seat
tucked neatly under the table, books piled on
books in unperturbable mounds. Our error
is confounding loss. As if the language of defeat
were an alien tongue. Or needs translation.

(“No Sign Before”)

In his attempt to express the nature of the void left in the wake of bereavement, the speaker reveals not only his struggle to grapple with the poignancy of loss, but also a confession—or indictment—of the linguistic difficulties involved in resisting the muteness of uneasy silence. In his essay “Language, Suffering, and Silence,” Geoffrey Hill recognises the challenges faced by the poet in contending with this muteness: “If we weep, it is to be in the right place; when we speak we are to speak advisedly; our taciturnity, or silence, must be able to moderate itself” (Hill 395). In the aftermath of tragedy and death, Pang demonstrates his awareness of the intrinsic value of timely speech, which, in its “memorialising of the dead”, has the power to provoke “the shock of semantic recognition” that is also “a shock of ethical recognition” (Hill 405).

The haunting spectre of death also lurks behind the scenes in some of Pang’s most notable poems. In “Psalm of Birds and Birthdays,” collected in Other Things and Other Poems (2006), the speaker presents a loving picture of cradling a tiny bird in one’s bosom, before shifting to a description of his memory of another “fallen nestling,” dead and surrounded by “ants come already to plunder” (“Psalm”). After covering the bird with leaves, the speaker turns towards his own daughter, engaging in a meditative contemplation of memento mori:

My daughter, 4, knows that goldfish
go to heaven when they go, but more to the point,
that they don’t come back. She leans on my arm, asks
me never to die, her small heart strong enough to love
and not tire. What do we do to earn our time on earth?

The quaintly peaceful picture of domestic tranquillity and parent-child bonding is shaken by the daughter’s unsettling and thought-provoking existential question. In part, the answer lies within the poem itself: we must be “strong enough to love/and not tire” (“Psalm”).

But what does love itself mean to Pang? A clue lies in “Salt,” which dramatises the biblical narrative of Lot’s wife, who—as famously recounted in Genesis 19:26—turned into a pillar of salt after disobeying the angels by looking back at the fiery judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah. The speaker appears to be one of Lot’s daughters. Resentful that her father was “[r]eady to offer his daughters/as a bribe for peace,” she speculates that her mother’s act of looking back at the destruction could have been a deliberate act of self-sacrifice: “It would have been her breed of love: / to be the one left behind, clearing space / for nations to come” (“Salt”). Yet Pang refuses to give any easy answers about what love entails, as evidenced by the end of the poem, which concludes despairingly: “None of us / will ever be clean again, she knew, the night / her back turned towards us as we climbed”. As Fedo comments about the ending, “Darkness rules, and not just from the spiralling cinders of the tumultuous conflagration” (QLRS 12.2). Even destruction of biblical proportions is experienced intimately in terms of personal loss.

In Pang’s work, the personal and the public occasionally converge, combine, and coalesce. The poet has commented in interview about his family’s response to his poetry: “I think they were rather more wary of me writing about family or personal things in public—but at the same time, these are the things that I most need to get out of my system” (BW). Quite a few of the poems collected in When the Barbarians Arrive (2012) provide just this outlet. In “Thirteen Ways of Looking at A Snowscape” (a clear nod to Wallace Stevens), the speaker shares about his grandfather’s fortitude amidst wartime adversities, “outliv[ing] the Japs”. Likewise, in “To Go to S’pore,” the speaker also celebrates a cornucopia of sights and scents, not only raising broader questions of national identity when asking

if S’pore exists, if it is to be
found within the bounds
of this island and not just
in the colour of my passport, of my smart card:
if the smell of raintrees after thunderstorm,
of angsana, of frangipani, still lingers
like fresh smoke

but also weaving family narratives into this historical chronicle:

An uncle slaved himself blind
reading by candlelight, while my father was out
catching fireflies. The health inspector came
and my grandfather bought him a drink
and covered the cockroaches with his sole, and
got away with it.

The stories of his uncle “reading by candlelight” and his grandfather hoodwinking the health inspector are echoed in another popular poem, “Candles,” which, as Pang himself notes, was inspired by his father’s childhood in post-war Singapore (WWB). Although such “a milieu [may be] far removed from our present affluent reality,” Pang acknowledges that for him “it carries the heft of familial intimacy and the force of a good story,” deserving “retelling [ . . . ], before his [father’s] world is forgotten” (WWB). Here is the poet as bard, passing on personal narratives down the generations, stories which often elude notice in the triumphal march of history that constitutes the metanarrative of national progress.

By no means is all of this to suggest that Pang is delimited by merely domestic, familial concerns. In fact his works can sometimes feature material deeply charged with socio-political resonance. The title poem of Barbarians, for instance, comprises a series of seventeen imperatives directed by an unknown narrator to fellow citizens about how to respond to the impending arrival of the ‘barbarians’ (who remain unidentified). The poem, which has been described as “unusually opaque” (QLRS 12.2), is steeped in irony:

lay out the dead, but do not mourn them overmuch.

a mild sentimentality is proper. nostalgia will be expected on demand.

cremate: conserve land, regret no secrets. prepare ashes for those
with cameras [ . . . ]

These commands appear to be aimed at misleading and puzzling the captors, but also the reader. The ending is no less perplexing than it is ominous:

dress your children like their long-dead elders. marry your daughters to them.
soon you will attend the same funerals.

“Who is the conquered, and who are the barbarians?” asks Fedo (QLRS 12.2). Yet Pang’s abstruse, terse statements offer no easy responses. As in Cavafy’s “Waiting for the Barbarians,” the ultimate identities of the barbarians remain a mystery. Pang has truly reached the apogee of the “jaded, ironic detachment” he describes self-reflexively in “Reading a fragment of poetry by a much younger self” (City of Rain).

If Barbarians is any indication, Pang’s ‘restlessness’ has only heightened and intensified with each successive publication. Underlying his poetic endeavours is his steadfast readiness to “incite meaning” (UNION 16), his undiminished fervour to find “a fresh canvas” (“Thirteen Ways of Looking at A Snowscape”). Indeed, there is something admirable about the unremitting persistence and fruitfulness of Pang’s creative restlessness. The sheer depth and range of his output can be traced in his New and Selected Poems (2016), an anthology that includes early pieces like “University Lake” as well as familiar poems from earlier publications like “Rain” and “To Go to S’pore”. Some of his newer poems reveal Pang’s alertness to the monumental events that have become cornerstones of the nation’s history. In “Wet Orisons,” a poem about the death of Mr Lee Kuan Yew in 2015, the speaker alludes to the literal and metaphorical downpour that marked the statesman’s passing:

we will dance there, the red and white
of our unspoken shining; we will harden
into truth without the weight of knowing;
build beauty crime by braver crime
until the sky decodes its rebus, unvexed, we
come in from the countdown. petition
a name that means to an endto spore.

The speaker’s imperative (to “petition / a name”) reminds us of the ways in which the trope of names has recurred continuously throughout Pang’s work, as discernible in “Aubade” (“Grief will teach you new names”), “Merlign” (“Take what names / we have to give”), and “In the End” (“the things we love give back / our names”). The poet’s fascination with naming and labelling finds its apotheosis in What Gives Us Our Names (2011), a book described by Jason Lundberg as “a wonderful collection of Calvino-esque apotheotic short pieces which follow the personifications of various character traits (Success, Passion, Freedom, Failure, etc.),” with each piece infused with “timeless universality” (Goodreads). Kenny Leck even goes so far as to state that “if there was only one book that can survive after an apocalypse, if there was only one book that mankind will re-begin civilisation with, this is the one that [he would be] voting for, not any religious text” (Enl*ght 4.1). Whether or not What Gives Us Our Names will be regarded in due time as Pang’s ultimate masterpiece, it could be argued that in some ways the poet is not dissimilar to the personification of Patience in the book—the character’s painstaking efforts seem remarkably similar to that in Pang’s own craft, observable only sub specie aeternitatis:

Years after his death at the age of 110, someone recognised his true magnum opus: a carefully pruned pattern of ash, dew, footsteps and flowering trees in the shape of a single haiku, imprinted on the land where he used to live, visible only from the heavens.

Works cited

Ahmad, Nureza. “Alvin Pang.” Singapore Infopedia. National Library Board, 2004. Web. 

Cheong, Edward. “In Conversation.” Enl*ght 4.1 (2015): 33-40. Web. 

Eliot, T.S. “Preface to the 1928 Edition”, The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism, 7th edn. London: Methuen, 1950. 

Fedo, David. “Full On, Close Up.” Quarterly Literary Review Singapore 12.2. (2013). Web.

Handal, Nathalie. “The City and the Writer: In Singapore with Alvin Pang.” Words Without Borders. 2015. Web.

Hill, Geoffrey. “Language, Suffering, and Silence”, Collected Critical Writings, ed. Kenneth Haynes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. 394-406. 

Lundberg, Jason. "Jason Lundberg’s Reviews: What Gives Us Our Names." Goodreads. Goodreads Inc. 24 Jul. 2013. Web.

Morrison, Blake. "Under Judgment," New Statesman, 8 Feb. 1980. 212-4.

Pang, Alvin. Testing the Silence. Singapore: Ethos Books, 1997. 

—. City of Rain. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2003. 

—. Other Things and Other Poems (Druge stvari i ostale pjesme.) Singapore: Ethos Books, 2006.

—. What Gives Us Our Names. Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2011.

—. When the Barbarians Arrive. UK: Arc Publications, 2012.

—, and Ravi Shankar. Eds. UNION: 15 Years of Drunken Boat, 50 Years of Writing From Singapore. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2015. 

Tay, Eddie. “On Writing Poetry in Singapore.” Quarterly Literary Review Singapore 1.3. (2002). Web.

Wong, PP. “Alvin Pang Interview.” Banana Writers. 2012. Web.