Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé (b. 1971)
Written by Samuel Caleb Wee
Dated 20 Oct 2017
Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé studied at the National University of Singapore (NUS) as an undergraduate, receiving a bachelor’s in Sociology and Mass Communication in 1995.He subsequently wrote as an entertainment journalist for the Singaporean weekly 8 Days where he made the acquaintance of fellow writer and journalist Yeow Kai Chai, before opting to train in book publishing at Stanford University in 2001. This sparked an interest in American academia which would see the writer return to the States twice for a theology Masters in comparative religion at Harvard University (2006), and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Notre Dame (2009).
In many respects, Kon’s artistic journey has been affected by the geographic trajectory of his education. Though he studied at NUS, Kon did not interact with its English faculty, placing him outside the genealogy of literary transmission traceable from pioneering figures such as Edwin Thumboo and Lee Tzu Pheng to Boey Kim Cheng and Haresh Sharma, through to Gwee Li Sui and Cyril Wong. Instead, Kon credits his postgraduate education in America with shaping him as a writer, saying that he had to “school [himself] in the subject matter of [his] writing” at Harvard before “investing in the actual writing” at Notre Dame (“Desmond Kon: Of Pots and Poets,” The Urban Wire). To that extent, Kon has previously expressed a reluctance to claim terroir in his work:
I work so much in extended metaphor that by the time any of my language circles back to the local milieu, the whole atmosphere has shifted considerably, and looking for a centre might be a self-defeatist approach. I also like to work in postmodernist narratives, so any type of naming would seem ironic, which in turn would ironically seem very apt, if not astute. I guess I haven’t used enough Singapore tropes in my writing, but I’m increasingly starting to do so, and liking it very much. I’ve always been tentative about writing so quickly and intensely about what’s close and immediate because what’s expressed can seem so easy or pedantic [ . . . . ] If I’m going to write about home, I need it to be as filled with absence as for it to be telling about what’s present. That narrative ambiguity is what makes for a heightened rendering, at least in my sense of literary things.
(“Philosopher, hermit, journalist, historian, poet: Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé,” Kitaab).
Kon’s use of “postmodernist narratives” seems an acknowledgement of critical theory’s influence on his work. Elsewhere, he describes “the big, unwieldy cloak of postmodernism” as “a kind of cavern to house [his] personality” (“Poet of the Month: Desmond Kon Zhicheng Mingdé”). The temptation here might be to see the relationship between theory and art as one of form and content, with theory providing the intellectual mould that poetry then fills. Kon has stated, however, that his poems “will only establish their authority through a keen eye of an aesthetic that measures every image and every sound to further meaning and thereby meaningfulness” (“Pots and Poets”). The best way to navigate the relationship between theory and art, then, is to see poems as art objects, interrogating and experiencing them as such.
This dynamic plays out in the way a typical Kon text playfully eschews the mimetic representation of exterior realities, instead functioning as a prism that exposes the multiplicity of meanings inherent in the exercise of language. A Kon poem is characteristically highly allusive and hypertextual—a self-aware tissue of citations, hyperlinking back towards the centres of culture from which it draws. The collection I Didn’t Know Mani Was a Conceptualist, for instance, features an early recurring character: the ideal Da-Ren figure in Chinese philosophy. Mencius argues that the sage-like Da-Ren has the duty to not only “censure a ruler” or “criticise the policies of his government,” but also “correct what is wrong in a ruler’s mind”; the Da-Ren hence considers “compliance [ . . . ] to be the way of women” (Mencius 4A20, 3B2). This moral exhortation towards rebellious political defiance is deliberately juxtaposed against the Dadaic impulse towards catachresis—viz. categorical confusion—and meaninglessness, when Kon’s Da-Ren in Mani observes: “Dada makes gods of men / [ . . . ] then makes them men again” (“Effort of Surrealism”). An erudite Eliot-like figure, Da-Ren anachronistically flaunts his recognition of Western art, philosophy and theology, crowing at “Giorgio de Chirico [ . . . ] hiding in his own silhouette” (“Effort of Surrealism”), handing out Caravaggio paintings (“A Koan Catalogue”) and holding conversations about apocryphal gnostic scriptures (“Morning Star”). Zafar Anjum notes that the reader’s bewilderment is shared by the character of the archivist, who “simply nods and keeps quiet in the face of complexities, knowing that ‘keeping silence to such answers connotes understanding, or at least acknowledgement or, quietly, simply lack thereof’” (“Review: I Didn’t Know Mani Was A Conceptualist by Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé”).
The effect is deliberately fragmented and elusive; readers have to patiently tug upon the frayed threads of meaning and pick them out from the “mélange of miscegenations [and] the impossibility of conversations” (Collins qtd. in Anjum, “Philosopher, Hermit, Journalist”). This juxtaposition of cultures occurs without privileging any of them; no centre is achieved. The tissue of the text is a flattened rhizome of narratives. Nonetheless, at the conclusion of the poem “realpolitik :: politics of realism,” the artistic sovereignty of sculptures that defy interpretation (“Gigi couldn’t tell whether the eyes were open or shut, and liked it that she viewed the sculpture in both ways”) is threatened:
The indigenous tribes are completely self-sufficient, people say. They know little of the internet, cell phones, or even television. When foreign dignitaries mention bringing the market economy to these tribes, Gigi rolls her eyes at their naiveté, and makes her way through her meal. She abhors the idea of idealism turning into something gross and imperialistic, even though she ever scarcely vocalizes these opinions of her own.
The poem hinges upon the recognition that these hermetic tribes cannot survive what Frederic Jameson calls the cultural condition of late capitalism. Kon stops short of definitively calling the tribes “self-sufficient,” attributing the quote to a shadowy “people” instead whose credibility is never assured; the poem itself, after all, is constructed upon Gigi’s rupturing touristic gaze. The main problem remains the imposition of a market economy, the entry of a system that renders the value of all local perspectives contingent upon ‘the global’. In having Gigi “roll her eyes” at this notion, Kon acknowledges that postmodernism runs the real—if paradoxical—risk of installing relativism as the new universal truth. The utopian nature of “idealism” always contains the risk of becoming “gross” as well as “imperialistic”—that is to say, enforced from the outside in a manner that neglects the agency of the indigenous tribes and destroys their subjectivity. The contradiction here might be apt in the discourse of postmodernism, and the barest hint of a solution is offered in the “scarcely vocalize[d]” nature of these observations. By effacing her own subjecthood, Gigi preserves a space that has not yet been annexed or territorialised by discourse, and is therefore always ripe for multiple interpretations.
To the extent that Kon routinely references critical theory and writers from the Western canon, his work can often seen as intimidating and inaccessible to the casual reader. In an interview with The Urban Wire after winning the Singapore Literature Prize in 2016, Kon admitted: “My poetry is known to be opaque. Impenetrable is the word associated with my work…” (“Desmond Kon: In Love with Words”). This view of Kon’s work is amplified when one situates him among his literary peers and forebears. Writing at the turn of the millennium, Rajeev S. Patke asserts categorically that “the entire tradition of poetry in Singapore works within the conventions of the lyric poem” (Patke 297). Kon’s demurral of the reflexive first-person stance in his work, on the other hand, aligns him with another poetic tradition: that of impersonality, viz. T.S. Eliot’s declaration that the poet has to undertake
a continual surrender of himself [ . . . ] to something more valuable [ . . . ] a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality [ . . . ] poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.
(Eliot 958, 961)
More specifically, Kon’s relationship to the Singaporean canon resembles the dynamic Marjorie Perloff describes between Language poetry and the poetic mainstream in the 1980s, as a “serious challenge to the delicate lyric of self-expression and direct speech,” via his turn away from “transparency and straightforward referentiality in favor of ellipsis, indirection” (Perloff, “Poetry on the Brink”). It is this apparent denial of self that has led his work to be described as an eschewal of “lyrical narcissism for a communal dialectics” (Timothy Liu as qtd. in blurb of Phat Planet Cometh).
To view Kon as simply opposed towards lyric expression, however, would be a shallow reduction of his work. At first glance, it is true that Kon’s poetry bears little resemblance to the Romantic definition of the lyric: as an expressive “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings [ . . . ] recollected in tranquility” (Wordsworth 151). Nor can it be said that he engages in the brand of lyric poetry defined and subsequently rejected by Ron Silliman, as “simple ego psychology in which the poetic text represents not a person, but a persona, the human as unified object. And the reader likewise.” (Silliman qtd. in Perloff, “Language Poetry and the Lyric Subject”). At the same time, we are also hard-pressed to detect in him the same antagonistic approach towards the notion of “voice” that characterises the poetry of Silliman or Charles Bernstein. Rather, Kon makes space in his texts for a multitude of dialects and subjectivities, and the foci of his poems often shift from perspective to perspective without privileging a central consciousness. This process is explicitly foregrounded in “elephas maximas,” from Reading to Ted Hesburgh:
the way the first blind man feels the rawhide
thinking the asian elephant a wall of tapestry
and the second a sandalwood hand fan
and the third a low-lying blue branch from
a mangled tree and the fourth a large pillar
wrapped in yak skin and the fifth a bullwhip
the sumatran elephant’s grey tail all ready
taut as a bridge for the close-knit family of
snow buntings and white-winged crossbills
a neat collage the way rumi invokes lyric
Here, the actual elephant as a thing-in-itself is deliberately occluded from our gaze. While the rich language and tight control of rhythm here are all Kon trademarks, what truly distinguishes the poem from those of his influences are the reflexive, recursive loops traced by that “neat collage” (14) of metonymies and metaphors in the text, so that the analogies lead back to themselves, rather than to an exterior world. Instead of focussing on a central image that appears in a single, coherent narrative, the poem embeds multiple worlds within each other, with each image leading into the next, so that the ontological structure resembles a fractal. We begin with “christopher reid encountering / mermaids in reports by washed up seamen” (1), only for an attempt to pin down the specific sensory details of these “cerulean bellies buoyant as a dugong” (4) leading us, associatively, into the parable of the elephant, itself giving way to the “neat collage” of Rumi’s heteroglossic work, the Masnavi [i]. The loop is completed when the poem arcs back by imagining the body of the elephant as an instrument of authorship through the “tip of the tail as a calligrapher’s brush” (19).
We therefore see that although Kon’s work typically avoids confessions centred on a consistent first-person poetic persona, we may still perceive intense projections of interiority, refracted through the perspectives of other subjects—an exercise which has several spiritual implications, as I will discuss later. This splintering of his poetic self allows Kon to stage dialogues which investigate philosophical themes, such as in The Wrong/Wrung Side of Love, Kon’s attempt at writing and interrogating the love lyric tradition. Using the English alphabet as a structuring spine, the poems play out as associative impressions narrated by a main speaker, mixed in with conversations between disparate speakers. The general format of the collection is dialogic, almost playscript-like:
Me, me, me.
Love isn’t just about me, me, me.
Thanks, I knew that, Jeremiah said.
Now that you’re over being angry.
Yes? Jasmine asked.
Are you ready for a fuck? Jeremiah said.
I hate you, Jasmine said.
You can say that while we’re fucking.
Here, the speakers of the poem are characters borrowed from Kon’s novel, Singular Acts of Endearment. This, together with the third-person focalisation of the passage, renders the exchange palpably fictitious. The ontological status of the main first-person narrator, however, is much harder to define:
I get sentimental about the iamb.
You see it everywhere.
It’s almost natural to speak in iambs.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
This book is not written in iambs.
This book is for the non-reader of poems.
This book is for the reader who thinks this is prose
(“intimations” 4-6, 11-14)
Interestingly enough, Kon borrows several techniques from postmodern fiction authors here. By breaking the fourth wall and reminding the reader that they are reading a book of poetry, the first person lyric narrator appears to be revealing himself as the biographical, real-world figure of Desmond Kon. The temptation for readers is therefore to privilege this narrator as the author-God figure of the text, reading lines as autobiographical recollection structured into confessional lyric:
I do remember the times I was happy.
My mother helped me with my jigsaw puzzle.
Ten years later, she bought me my first drawing pens.
My dad bought me a box full of comics.
He also slipped me a hundred through the window.
He also drove me to the main road to catch a cab.
It was after dinner on a Sunday, and I had to book in.
My army camp was far away in Choa Chu Kang.
I booked in early because army made me happy.
This expectation, of course, is duly subverted. As Wrong/Wrung progresses, the first-person lyric narrator is revealed to be just another character within the text, one who is still subject to the authority of the author:
I brought my wheels today, Francis said.
You just used a synecdoche, I said.
A synec-what? Francis said.
You used wheels for your bike, I said.
Wish I had rented your body.
That was what the woman from Jericho said.
Francis and her started comparing chests.
Let’s pop the bubbly for coming this far.
That was what Jeremiah had to say.
How did you get here? I asked.
The author sent me, Jeremiah said.
What author? I asked.
The one who writes everything.
The one who writes in everything.
Several things are happening here. The first-person narrator recognises Jeremiah from earlier poems in the collection, but is baffled by Jeremiah’s ability to enter this “higher” level of reality, to which Jeremiah simply replies that he has been sent by “the author [ . . . ] who writes in everything” (13, 16). This passage thus complicates any assumption the reader might have that the first person narrator of Wrong/Wrung represents, unproblematically, the real-life Desmond Kon. Yet one last ontological twist occurs in the endnotes to the collection. Though both the Jasmine-Jeremiah and Gigi-Geronimo couples are revealed to be characters from Singular Acts of Endearment, the Francis figure whom the first-person narrator often speaks to is left unacknowledged, adding an extra layer of mystery to the whole text.
The facticity of these poems is therefore left ambiguous through the text: memory and fiction blend into “language / and image and imagery,” as “language makes up metaphor” and “the muck, the nausea, is made new” (5-8, “nausea”). This technique therefore produces the typically postmodern effect of blurring categorical lines, but instead of nihilism, the text echoes Roland Barthes in celebrating the “exorbitant paradox of language”. For Barthes, the clichés of romantic expression (“I love you”) are examples of the inherent performativity of language, because they “proceed as if there were no theater of speech [ . . . ] no other referent than its utterance [ . . . ] extra-lexicographical; [“I-love-you”] is a figure whose definition cannot transcend the heading” (A Lover’s Discourse, 148). Reckoning with Wrong/Wrung as a whole, then, Kon appears to be inviting us towards a different perspective of the lyric. Instead of emphasising its referential relationship towards the biographical experiences of the poet, Kon suggests that the highest power of the lyric poem is its ability to seduce language away from its daily duties into a love affair with the reader, through the poet, thus elevating the mundane. This rapture of the banal into a heightened realm occurs towards the end of Wrong/Wrung, when the reader circles back around to a re-encounter with the usual clichés of romantic expression [ii], only to find them made strange and unfamiliar by the journey, so that the oldest of romantic utterances sing again with renewed, devastating pathos.
This dialogue of and with the lyric Kon undertakes in Wrong/Wrung frames and anticipates his ongoing artistic evolution over the past few years. To the extent that Hegel argues for the necessity of seeing the self as an object as a prerequisite for true self-knowledge [iii], we might perhaps understand Kon’s apparent avoidance of—and yet, paradoxical engagement with—the lyric as, in fact, part of a larger dialectical process towards self-understanding; a necessary detour on the pilgrimage path. Kon’s association of poetry with spirituality is a significant aspect of his personal philosophy—in a 2009 interview with The Urban Wire, he firmly associated his habitual use of the “poetic self [splintering into] multiple fragmentary selves” with the “notion of incarnation in religious ideas [ . . . ] from the Buddhist notion of Sunyata [ . . . ] to the divine incarnation of Jesus” (“Pots and Poets”). Seven years later, when interviewed by the same publication, Kon described his “art practice” as helping to “centre [him] spiritually, which is the real gravy” (“In Love With Words”). In that same interview, he also confessed:
My work is starting to ease up on the compression and density. I have many unpublished poems, which possess more of that transparent, liquid quality readers seem to like. I think I’m more prepared now to share some of this work, and they’re being pulled together for a new collection.
(“In Love With Words”)
By Kon’s own admission, then, a dialectical turn is happening in his work—a stylistic shift which will see his writing turn from “compression and density” to a more “transparent, liquid” language that embodies the personal glasnost [iv] he has experienced of late. Similarly, while Kon has previously avoided overt markers of Singaporean identity, preferring instead to follow Kuo Pao Kun’s exhortation to delve “deeply but also broadly into world mythology, world history, world literature and world art, looking for a figurative idiom, an image which can be meaningful to a wide, if not universal, audience” (Kuo qtd. in Wee 779), this too is changing. The forthcoming collection Jia Lat Lah sees Kon combining Wrong/Wrung’s dialogic, end-stopped format [v] with the rhythms of Singlish, swapping out the erudite intertextuality of his earlier work for a more intimate and colloquial sociolect. It remains to be seen where this new aesthetic enquiry will lead him, and what new magic Kon will eventually synthesise in the process.
Augustine. On Christian Teaching. Trans. RPH Green. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Lee, Aaron Soon Yong. A Visitation of Sunlight. Singapore: Ethos Books, 1997.
—. Coastlands. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2014.
—. Five Right Angles. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2007.
—. The Poetic Life. Talk. Aug 2015.
Lim, Daryl Wei Jie. “Safe Harbour.” Quarterly Literary Review Singapore 14.1. (2015). Web.
Yeow Kai Chai. “Proust Questionnaire: 17 questions with Aaron Lee.” Quarterly Literary Review Singapore 13.4. (2014). Web.
[i] Rumi’s epic work of Sufi poetry spirals through seven principal voices, shifting perspectives, styles, and literary modes as the poem progresses.
[ii] Jasmine, Jeremiah, Gigi, and Geronimo from Kon’s novel Singular Acts of Endearment pop up here as well, suggesting a shared ontology across Kon’s ouevre, in a fashion reminiscent of the Irish novelist John Banville.
[iii] From Phenomenology of Spirit: “Self-consciousness exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it so exists for another, it exists only in being acknowledged [ . . . ] self-consciousness is faced by another self-consciousness; it has comeout of itself [ . . . ] lost itself, for it finds itself as an other being [ . . . ] in the other [it] sees its own self.”
[iv] The endnotes to the 2017 collection Reading to Ted Hesburgh feature Kon speaking straightforwardly about his personal encounter with Ted Hesburgh, as well as his own experience of blindness in his youth. These passages are remarkable for being one of the rare few times he engages in autobiography, though in typical Kon fashion, the ellipses of these memories are emphasised.
[v] From Wrong/Wrung: “...single-lined clauses, phrases, fragments and interjections. The end-stopped line is a technique forced throughout, displacing the enjambment used in much [verse] poetry.”