David Leo (b. 1948)
Written by Ryan How
Dated 4 Nov 2015
In the introduction to his first poetry collection Somewhere a Tiny Voice (1993), David Leo recounts his experience teaching literature in a secondary school, where he “wanted the students to first of all enjoy the poems that [they] read together”. Similarly, his writing stems from “a compulsion to write and derive a certain pleasure from it”. Pleasure and enjoyment is at the root of his poetry, and this pleasure-seeking self is often expressed in the figure of a child in his poems. And yet it appears that Leo does not just seek pleasure in poetry; in the title poem of Somewhere, this child appears through “a tiny voice [that] cried out / in the middle of a void”. The persona is initially afraid to search for its source, eventually realising it is coming from “somewhere within” him. Titling the collection after this poem suggests Leo’s own desire to express his inner and most private thoughts through his poetry; he is himself a child with a tiny voice “reaching to be free”.
Leo’s experience as Assistant General Manager at the Singapore Airport Terminal Services has brought him to many locations around the world. In his travel poetry, Leo’s voice is highly vivid and impressionistic; this is seen most clearly in “A Traveller’s Palette,” a section of One Journey, Many Rivers (1997). In this section, Leo envisions foreign lands in different hues: the browns and greens of Scotland, the whites and blues of Greece, as well as the vibrantly-painted graffiti Leo spots on the streets of New York. In “English Hues,” the persona compares the colours of London (grey), Bath (red, yellow, purple, green, and black), and York (brown), creating a series of brush strokes that dramatise the persona’s journey through these different locations in England. As the reader reads the poems in “A Traveller’s Palette,” the world map that Leo conjures in the mind is gradually filled in with different colours, creating a vivid painting of the world.
Not content with mere description, Leo uses his impressionism to reflect on modernisation and the disappearance of history and culture. The persona in “Chinese Colours” laments the fading colours of modernised cities like Beijing, where “Very little is left / of red and green,” colours which can only be invoked in the mind when he witnesses the grandeur of ancient monuments such as the Great Wall. The map that Leo paints is, as real paintings are, subject to fading over time, and in his poetry Leo sees this as a direct result of modernisation, which has the homogenising effect of turning these cities a dull grey.
Leo’s poetry is also deeply personal, a trait seen most strikingly in his examination of old age and loss, which for him is filtered through the experience of his father’s death. In “My Father’s Journey,” another section of Journey, Leo presents vignettes and objects associated with his father. Together, these disparate pieces form the composite image of an old man on his final journey before death. Leo also gives voice to the varied and difficult emotions that arise from his father’s passing: “Perhaps the Doctors Killed My Father” describes the father’s loss of faith in doctors who are unable to heal him, while “Mother’s Words” is a surprising and heartbreaking account of the mother telling the father that
if you’ve to go,
nor tarry so;
your children love you, so suffer them not.
The persona of “Mother’s Words” says that these are “words I wished I hadn’t heard”; this evinces a mixture of sorrow, bravery, and resignation for the elderly couple, even as the persona appears unable to process some of these complex emotions himself.
In “Qing Ming,” the persona ruminates on his father’s attitudes towards the custom of tomb sweeping (“For my father / Qing Ming was an obligation”), as well as his own disconnect from this practice (“the crowded cemetery / offered no memory / of a past I’d never known”). A deep sense of irony emerges in this poem, as it is his father’s death that finally creates a connection for Leo’s persona and the Qing Ming Festival. However, Leo writes a sense of peace into the situation: in spite of grief, Qing Ming finally brings “a certain sense of meaning / to being related and not alone”. Indeed, its rituals are inextricably connected to the father figure. In iDENTiTY (2008), “Thoughts at Qing Ming” is a rumination on the feelings of grief over the father’s memory, which is
like an unending life story
buried beneath a mound of earth
the pages like blades of grass
in death are given new birth
all because in good times
the story was never told.
For Leo, it is the act of writing that transforms the untold story of the father’s life into the story of the persona’s own grief. By returning to the memory of his deceased father in poetry, Leo creates a personal connection to Qing Ming his persona lacked.
Leo seems to situate himself at the periphery of the Singapore literary scene, suggesting that he is a maverick figure in its poetry circles. This manifests most clearly in poems from the “Arvon-on-Ubin” section of Ubin Dreaming (2012), written during or shortly after the 2009 Arvon workshop held on the offshore island, where Leo came into close contact with other writers in the local literary scene.
In “Literary Circles,” Leo suggests that the local literary community is so “closely knit / so tight / it’s become incestuous”. He sees himself an outsider to it, finding it impenetrable and even hostile, especially when his persona hears someone ask, “Is he someone we know?” As an outsider, Leo is also able to observe the circle from a distance: the second section of the same poem is written in prose and describes the sycophantic behaviour some writers display towards a more senior, more decorated writer. When Leo’s persona offers a suggestion to her, he is shut down wordlessly; “The Queen Bee has spoken, the circle shall not be broken”. In the third and final section of “Literary Circles,” Leo’s persona appears to have gained access to the circle, but he has only done so by participating in their unhealthy games. The writers present at the workshop
have set up a shadow trial
of writers in absentia
undeserving winners of awards
when you or i could have won
In order to be included within the circle that has been formed at the workshop, Leo’s persona has to replicate their toxic behaviour, currying favour with the other writers present. In taking part in the trial, Leo’s persona and the writers present exclude the absent writers, forcibly closing the circle. Nonetheless, Leo’s persona recognises the toxic nature of the whole affair:
so convenient it is to find
a common foe
so easy to forge camaraderie
venom we spit our poison be
the circle must be broken
Having been on the outside of the circle, Leo’s persona recognises that the literary community in Singapore needs to be more inclusive and welcoming, so that all voices, not just his own, can be heard. To accomplish this, he concludes that “the circle must be broken”.
In “The Empty Chair,” another poem from “Arvon-upon-Ubin,” Leo’s persona insults and curses an unknown listener in a mixture of prose and stage directions, before finally revealing that these harsh words can only be written down, never spoken aloud: “I cannot even mutter that one word to an empty chair”. This empty chair appears to represent the hierarchical structure that Leo has described in “Literary Circles”; even without anyone sitting in the chair, the persona cannot express his feelings towards this unhealthy hierarchy. And yet it is in his writing that Leo is able to voice these feelings, even if he is unable to say them out loud. The use of prose and stage directions in a poem, which is uncharacteristic of Leo’s poetry, signifies his attempt to express his dissatisfaction against the hierarchy he sees in the local literary scene. At the end of the poem, Leo’s persona admits that he is “a rebel,” acknowledging the attempts of other writers such as “Cou[r]ttia [Newland] and Suchen [Christine Lim]” to “discipline a wayward writer”.
Leo’s poetic voice is clear and simple, making his poetry highly accessible to readers. However, this simple voice belies Leo’s ability to convey lucid impressions of his personal experiences, to express deeply nuanced and difficult emotions arising from loss, and even to discuss problematic issues such as the politics of the poetry scene in Singapore. Through the evolution of his poetry, it is clear that Leo’s tiny voice continues to grow and is constantly reaching to be free.
Leo, David iDENTiTY. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2008.
—. One Journey, Many Rivers. Singapore: Ethos Books, 1997.
—. Somewhere a Tiny Voice. Singapore: Pagesetters Services, 1993.
—. Ubin Dreaming (You’ve Been Dreaming). Singapore: Ethos Books, 2012.