Written by Tan Teck Heng
Dated 4 Nov 2015

Gilbert Koh’s definitive and only solo collection, Two Baby Hands, is not just a work that deals with personal musings, as its title may suggest. It is suffused with strident socio-political commentary on hot topics such as Singapore’s problematic construction of nationhood. Consider Koh’s “National Day Parade,” where mother and son watch a recording of the parade, and cannot differentiate a “tiny toy- / Soldier son from any of the rest”. Despite their acknowledgement of one’s negligible role in an overblown and perfunctory performance of nationhood, the pair celebrate gleefully, “Knowing that it was not / supposed to matter”. Simon Benjamin Obendorf writes that the poem is a deeply personal response to the enforced homogeneity of military and national identities as well as a comment on the ways nationalist propaganda serves the ends of social control in, and for, the modern state [ . . . ] the parade references idealized, state-endorsed visions of everyday life and gendered subjectivity. Yet it is also a space in which Singaporeans participate in and consume such identities and messages (43-4). Koh further ridicules the conformity demanded of citizens with a laundry list of exhortations in the enumerative “Avoiding Complications,” where the reader is told to avoid drinking, smoking, and promiscuity. Absurd moments such as the imperative “Don’t be gay,” or the contradictory statements, “The money is enough. The money will never be enough,” adds a satirical edge to his repertoire.

On a similar note, “In Our Schools” picks apart the euphemisms that Singapore’s Ministry of Education uses to categorise the academic aptitudes of students from a very young age: “Some are Special, / or Express. A few are / Gifted. The others / are merely Normal (a polite lie)”. He rounds off this poem with a provocative simile that likens students in the system to “lab specimens of / dead insects”. He further deplores the national obsession of optimising citizen productivity from a very young age in the self-explanatory poem, “The Schoolgirl Kills Herself After Failing an Exam”: “There must be others like her. There must be another way, / we suspect, for children to grow up in this country”. Here, tragedy and introspection is quickly forgotten, and the general populace seems to return to “a national urge to never stop excelling. ”

Koh’s perspective is not limited to that of the native population’s; Singapore’s reliance on (and exploitation of) foreign workers is dramatised in “Foreign Worker Cutting Trees”. The persona frets about the dangerous employment, and reflects that if the worker should fall, “he would surely break a limb / or back or otherwise kill himself on / this hot, forgettable afternoon / a thousand miles from home”. The dispensability of these workers, their economic excommunication from their homeland, and the trite but dangerous act of trimming branches which are “not permitted / to grow as they please,” all suggest a criticism of the perfectly manicured and spotless “Singapore brand” (as metonymised by the well-kept tree) and the nation’s oft-ignored treatment of foreign workers. That this poem was first published in 2000 (see No Other City: The Ethos Anthology of Urban Poetry, Ethos Books)—almost a decade before the controversy hits local or international headlines—suggests that Koh was, topically speaking, incredibly prescient.

The myriad social issues also include gendered topics, and it is in poems where women take centre-stage that Koh’s socio-political commentary falters—at least for some scholars. In “The Couple Next Door,” the persona is witness to the sounds of domestic violence next door, and offers only impotent acts of “small intrusions” and “vague useless gestures”:

[ . . . ] I blast my radio.
He will hear me. And know that I can hear him too.

He offers no further help; we are told that the abused wife avoids his eyes when they meet in the common corridor, and that they probably “both prefer it that way”. The knee-jerk reaction is perhaps to read the persona’s passivity as complicity with patriarchy. Critic and poet Nicholas Liu has charged Koh with nothing less; he cites other examples such as “The Widow” and “Mirror”—a retelling of the story of Snow White’s evil queen—both of which he finds “offensive in their condescension towards women” (“No Grand New Word”). In the former, the titular widow spends her final days pining for her lost love and “rewrit[ing] the / unhappy plots of / their marriage,” whereas in “Mirror,” the evil queen is, as Liu puts it, “not substantially different from the way she already is in the popular imagination (a ditzy, evil, jealous queen is not a giant leap from a composed, evil, jealous queen)” (ibid.). For Liu, these problematic portrayals “encourage just such [cis-privilege] stereotypes” (ibid.).

There is some truth to Liu’s castigation, but it is not just female figures that are flawed and self-delusional; Koh persistently employs passive personae, sometimes due to inertia, at times out of fear that they would worsen the situation, and at yet other times, out of respect for others’ private pain. The accompanying guilt that they face—stemming from a general feeling that one could always do more to help but would or could not—becomes part of Singapore’s high-rise landscape and cramped, close-quarters living. This is perhaps the appropriate conclusion to draw from “The Couple Next Door,” where the persona tries to imagine the inner thoughts of his neighbour, the abused wife—“Perhaps she lies beside him, counting the reasons / not to leave”. It is implied that unsolicited aid can feel like an ideological imposition, foisted onto a victim who is not ready to stand up for oneself and to sustain dramatic changes to his or her life.

Hence, the intrusive presence of others in one’s proximity is ironically marked by “faces familiar / and forgotten, / each story brief and incomplete” (“Strangers”). The routines and anonymity of such alienating, urban existence closes each day “like a / hanging / conclusion” (ibid.), much like Koh’s own implicit and inconclusive criticisms, which cleaves with questions rather than answer them. As Moira Moody puts it in her analysis of “The Couple Next Door,” “The final sentence [ . . . ] says nothing about what is at stake, what should be done, what the truth is of that moment” (“Country of Origin”). This attention to daily acts of complicity, our inertia, and our refusal or inability to confront our unease and discontent is perhaps best exemplified by the metaphor of a dead guppy, left festering in a tank by an owner too exhausted by the daily grind to deal with it: “Bad things linger / in our lives / because we don’t / have the energy / to deal with them, / to fish them out” (“Poison”). Perhaps, it is not that Koh’s “message of skepticism and resistance [is] timid” (Liu, “No Grand New Word”), but that Koh is not writing a poetry of activism—rather, he captures our despondence and paralysis in the face of overwhelming social responsibility. And even when action is taken, as in the case of the fat man opining on his soapbox in “Hong Lim Park” (the only legal site for public demonstrations in Singapore), fervour is met with indifference; the retirees who “wish / they had their / park back” is accompanied by the pathetic fallacy, “the trees yawn and / almost sigh”.

Koh’s frequent deployment of everyday, fully-formed scenes means that his work often rehashes well-worn tropes and scenes from modern living and Singaporean literature. This could be attributed to what reviewer Moody calls “Koh’s conceit of the photographer”: “Koh lingers on small moments, understanding when to render minutely, and when to pull away” (Moody). While Liu sees this tendency as a weakness, arguing that it is part of an “overreliance on the pre-fabricated and his joy in stating the obvious” (“No Grand New Word”), Koh’s style also has the charm of a vibrant, impressionistic still life. They are earthy enough to be relatable across a large cross-section of society, yet faintly disturbing or even revelatory if one lingers long enough. Consider for instance “Apples,” a poem which Liu refers to as a formulaic “sub rosa poem-about-poetry” with a “sub-Saussurean meditation on representation and the phenomenal world” (“No Grand New Word”): a child reinvigorates the word “Apple” with a “fresh sweetness,” and we are treated to the delicious (mis)pronunciation and repetition of “Arr-pul,” which Koh describes as a “word curling / like a strange / new taste / in his mouth” (“Apples”). Koh’s commonplace enjambment and prosaic writing works with the sibilant and rhotic consonants to draw the reader into the experience. And this is not merely a textbook recapitulation of the arbitrary connection between referent and signifier, but also an endearing scene of paternal love, where a father relives the sensory pleasures of words attaching themselves to meaning, and its consummation with the phenomenal, all through his own child’s virginal discovery. Koh eschews over-experimentation on form, and condemns poets who are “Technically correct, occasionally even technically excellent. But also inauthentic, pretentious and quite lacking any genuine insight” (ibid.). As the writer declares in a blog post, “Good poetry is all about that connection—it’s all about real people, real events, real life” (“Poetry and Politics and PhDs”).

Works cited

Koh Buck Song and Umej Bhatia, eds. From Boys to Men: A Literary Anthology of National Service in Singapore. Singapore: Landmark Books, 2002.

Koh, Gilbert. Little Stories: Notes from Mr Wang’s Daily Existence. Blogger, 2005. Web.

—. “Poetry Politics and PhDs.” Little Stories: Notes from Mr Wang’s Daily Existence. Blogger, 2 Nov. 2009. Web.

—. Two Baby Hands. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2009.

Lee, Aaron, and Alvin Pang, eds. No Other City: The Ethos Anthology of Urban Poetry. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2000.

Lee, Aaron, Alvin Pang, Ramón C. Sunico, and Alfred A. Yuson, eds. Love Gathers All: The Philippines-Singapore Anthology of Love Poems. Manila and Singapore: Anvil Publishing and Ethos Books, 2002.

Liu, Nicholas. “No Grand New Word: Originality, depth, and other missing things.” Rev. of Two Baby Hands, by Gilbert Koh. Quarterly Literary Review Singapore 8.4. (2009). Web.

Loh Chin Ee, Angelia Poon, and Esther Vincent, eds. Little Things: An Anthology of Poetry. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2013.

Moody, Moira. “Country of Origin / Point of Departure: Gilbert Koh’s and Jee Leong Koh’s Poetry.” Rev. of Two Baby Hands, by Gilbert Koh, and Equal to the Earth, by Jee Leong Koh. Cha: An Asian Literary Journal 9 (2009). Web.

Obendorf, Simon Benjamin. Sexing up the International. Diss. The University of Melbourne, 2006. Web.

Thumboo, Edwin, ed. &words: Poems Singapore and Beyond. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2010.