"Morning in a Bowl of Night": Remembering Goh Poh Seng

Written by Hidhir Razak
Dated 12 May 2018

Later that night, unable to sleep, I crept up deck to watch the coming of dawn, and the immortal lines of Fitzgerald’s translation of Omar Khayyam, haunted and enchanted me:

Awake! For Morning in a Bowl of Night
Has flung the Stone that put the Stars to Flight.
And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught
The Sultan’s Turret in a Noose of Light.

I felt intense joy. I imagined myself coming upon Ozymandias in the vast desert sands, and the words of Shelly:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

These poems best depict how I felt that magical night, even before I knew I would write poetry.

(Goh 13-14)

This extract, from Goh Poh Seng’s autobiographical short story collection Tall Tales and Misadventures of a Young Westernised Oriental Gentlemen (2015), recounts a sleepless moment in which the young writer creeps up onto the open deck of the Dutch Liner, M.V. Oranje, to witness the coming of dawn. Goh was only sixteen when he departed for Dublin to further his studies at Black Rock College and, later on, to pursue medicine at University College, Dublin. The year was 1953. Europe was still recovering from the devastation of the Second World War and all the subsequent uncertainties that followed. Kuala Lumpur, where Goh was born in 1937, was the capital of the Federation of Malaya, which was still under British administration. Malaysia, as a political entity, did not yet exist. Singapore, which he would later relocate to during the turbulent 1960s, was still a Crown Colony—slum-ridden and politically fertile with anti-colonial resentment.

It was a world far removed from modern-day cosmopolitan Singapore of today, where Goh is remembered for his contributions to Singaporean literature. He authored five collections of poetry: Eyewitness (1976), Lines From Batu Feringghi (1978), Bird With One Wing (1982), The Girl From Ermitta and Selected Poems (1998), and As Though The Gods Love Us (2000). His four novels, If We Dream Too Long (1972), The Immolation (1977), A Dance of Moths (1995), and Dance With White Clouds: A Fable for Grown Ups (2000), were welcome deviations in a nascent publishing scene where poetry collections and short stories dominated. His three plays, The Moon is Less Bright (1964), When Smiles Are Done (1966), and The Elder Brother (1967), were among the first written for a local Anglophone audience—When Smiles Are Done being particularly noted for its attempt to reflect “how colourfully Singaporeans expressed themselves” (Goh xlii)— being written in Singlish. His lone short story collection Tall Tales and Misadventures of a Westernised Oriental Gentlemen (2015), published posthumously after his passing on 10th January 2010, confers upon him the “unique distinction of being, [as of 2010], the only Singapore writer productive in all the main literary genres—plays, poetry, novels, and short stories” (Koh xii).

Beyond his literary practice, the 1982 Singapore Cultural Medallion for Literature recipient was also active in developing a nascent art scene post-independence, chairing the National Theatre Trust for 1967 to 1972 and taking on the position of Vice-Chairman of the Arts Council from 1967 to 1973. He also founded publishing firm Island Press, the literary journal Tumasek as well as Centre 65, an initiative in the early days of independent Singapore to promote the arts.

Yet for all of his achievements, Goh never truly forgot the boyish sense of awe and wonder of his sixteen-year-old self, who, upon witnessing the sunrise from the deck of the Oranje years ago, brought to remembrance Omar Khayyam and Shelley. Tempered later on, perhaps by experience, tragedy and age-worn wistfulness, the best of Goh Poh Seng’s works, particularly his poetry, are conscious not just of the world’s realities but are fully cognisant of the physical spaces Goh occupies. The sun and sky of that first voyage reappear again and again in his verse, whether as counterpoints to the various themes he explores, or as allegories, imagery and even pathetic fallacies.

 In “Thinking of the Poet Tu Fu,” one of his best-known poems from his first collection Eyewitness, the speaker begins by “strolling out into the evening after work / before the dew settles on the grass,” when “the sky without a cloud is as wide / and is the colour of the sea” (lines 1-5). Those first few lines adopt a conversational tone, complementing the plain language used throughout the poem, and at first seem to be little more than descriptive details of the speaker’s surroundings. Yet the simple, everyday images also foreshadow the image of the sunset thatsignals the closing of the poem, where the speaker mourns in the penultimate stanza how “once the sun has dipped / it is so far away / farther than the stars” (lines 46-48). These lines express to readers the ultimate futility ofaddressing a poem to a poet long passed into history, a figure that is, just like the stars, out of reach.

The poem then contrasts this with the final stanza which traces instead the speaker’s relationship with his wife, who “matters more to me / than all my poetry,” who we can infer to be close by, yet who has to keep asking the speaker when he “would write / one for her” (lines 63-66). The ultimate futility of writing to the dead Tu Fu and the irony of that act in light of his wife, who still waits for her own poem, deliver the emotional punch of the poem.

Such intimate moments in “Thinking of the Poet Du Fu” lend both a tragic gravity and a sense of detachment to the other stanzas that lament “wars still not ended / in Vietnam / the Middle East/ now Czechoslovakia / and Biafra” (lines 23 to 27). We can thus observe how the physical spaces the poem describes anchor the more abstract, faraway themes of conflict, revolution and change that constitutes the zeitgeist of the 1960s. Yet, the understatement with which the physical setting is described still allows space for the more philosophical elements of the poem to to be explored. This then allows the poem to make the case that good poetry contains within itself multiple, even contradictory themes and concerns; the poem is about Tu Fu, yet it is also about the speaker and his wife, and it is also about turbulence and unrest, and also about peace.

In “Vietnam 1967,” a soulful critique of the Vietnam war from the same collection, physical setting again starts the poem, where a “tentative sun” is seen “through a fragmented sky” (lines 2-3) by the subject in the first stanza, symbolising a wary world in conflict as it builds up to some of its most sobering lines:

He sees his home gutted in the sun
he sees his wife, head blown off
the body of his child strewn
among young stubble of padi.

(lines 20-23)

Where “Thinking of the Poet Du Fu” discusses war in much more abstract and academic terms, in “Vietnam 1967” the effects of war are visceral. Here, tragedy and grief are powered by imagery; “Vietnam 1967” offers a soldier “unable to quell his hate” (line 25), whose “blood splatters / into uncanny flowers” (lines 41-42), another nameless casualty dead at the hands of a dissonant “happy young crew from afar” (line 45). Shedding any tenderness that pervades the first poem, Goh brings what is far away in “Thinking of the Poet Tu Fu” to the forefront, evoking horror instead of mere tragedy.

Yet, the more concrete approach also allows a reprieve from horror; the physical, minute details of “fragmented sky,” in the “young stubble of padi,” are where the poem finds room to reflect and grieve. And above the scene of both poems watches the sun, reincarnated in “Vietnam 1967” as a baneful observer (line 36). When read together, the sun in the background of both poems roots both experiences described to the same earth. Echoes of the war in Vietnam reverberate in the poet’s mind in the first poem. The earth where a poet is allowed to peacefully ruminate over a historical figure while in the company of his family is the same earth where a Vietnamese villager watches his family fall victim to war. Physical imagery, political discourse, and celestial motifs thus meet to portray a world and a poet thrumming with discord.

Of course, the sun is only one of many motifs that Goh employs across his poems inspired by the natural world;Goh also frequently invokes the sea, which also can be found in the backdrops of both “Thinking of the Poet Du Fu” and “Vietnam 1967”. But it is in Lines From Batu Ferringhi—his second poetry publication and a book-length rumination on travel—that the sea takes centre stage. It enters the foreground when the speaker luxuriates in “the nearby / sighing of the sea” (lines 23-24), and describes fellow vacationers and beach goers in vivid detail. Variations on Goh's use of the sea as both thematic and literary device appear in “At Anawhata,” another introspective piece along the lines of "Thinking of The Poet Du Fu" but much more impassioned, from his subsequent collection Bird With One Wing. In “At Anawhata,” he invokes Tangaroa, Maori god of the ocean, wistfully declaiming “when my time comes / it will be westward / to be engulfed by the sea” (lines 195-197).

Much like how the sun sinks into the background in earlier poems discussed, the sea fades into nostalgia and memory in “The Girl From Ermita,” the titular poem in Goh's penultimate collection of poems, where the speaker, a prostitute plying her trade on the streets of Manila, reminisces how “the sea ran silver when I was a child / and clouds and trees were my friends” (lines 54-55), a sharp counterpoint to her life in the city. However, even in these examples, the sun is never absent. After Goh invokes Tangaroa earlier in “At Anawhata,” he pays tribute to “old Ra, the Sun God” who “presides golden over a cloudless sky: / just like this late afternoon, / the way he set, spilling gold / over Anawhata” (lines 205-209), waiting for the speaker in the afterlife, a figure of salvation. Similarly, the sun, while still in the background, is not merely backdrop, but associated with defiance. Here the speaker asserts: “Yes, at night I can be your sweet mango / but comes the dawn / I'll be as sour as a calamansi” (lines 157-159).

Goh’s use of the sun and other celestial imagery is particularly apparent in “As Though the Gods Love Us,” also the titular poem of his final collection of poetry. This particular poem departs from the previous ones by obscuring the identity of the speaker of the poem, and this is achieved by diving straight into a progression of vivid images, notably “the imperial Aztec sun / centripetal, as it sets / smearing the indigenous sky / livid red with sacrificial blood” (lines 6-9). Though the primary image of those lines—the sun—is the same one used in prior poems, Goh here is able to make it strange enough to differentiate it from previous iterations of the motif, and yet recognisable enough that any sensitive reading of his work demands an understanding of this sun threaded through with past incarnations.

As symbols and imagery, sunrises and sunsets—exemplified perhaps by Omar Khayyam’s lines that Goh Poh Seng recalled on that deck all those years ago—are not at all unique to Goh’s poetry. Some might even venture to say that they have been used for far too long, too many times and by too many poets. Yet the consistency with which they appear in Goh’s poetry and the transformations they undergo in each manifestation, always illuminating both imagery and themes, points towards the deeper place the sun has in Goh’s poetics, straightforward perhaps in the hopeful dawns, glaring heat of middays and wistful sunsets, but genuine, persistent, and deliberate. A universally and temporally accessible symbol, it allows Goh to both perceive and complicate the world he lived in, while keeping his verses lucid for readers, be they from the present or future. Having blazed a trail for other writers in Singapore, the footsteps he has left behind, perhaps inadvertently, are visible for all to see. He is no Ozymandias. In beholding his works and legacy, one feels not despair but, rather, an intense joy. 

Works cited

Goh, Poh Seng. “As Though The Gods Love Us.” Crazy To Sing Strange Songs—The Website of Goh Poh Seng: Novelist, Poet & Playwright. N.p., 09 July 2009. Web.

Goh, Poh Seng. “Reflections on the Writing of If We Dream Too Long.” Preface. If We Dream Too Long. N.p.: National University of Singapore, 2010. Xxxvii-lvi.

Goh Poh Seng. Tall Tales and MisAdventures of a Young Westernized Oriental Gentleman. N.p.: National University of Singapore, 2015.

Goh Poh Seng. “Thinking of the Poet Tu Fu.” Crazy To Sing Strange Songs—The Website ofGoh Poh Seng: Novelist, Poet & Playwright. N.p., 09 July 2009. Web.

Goh Poh Seng. “Vietnam 1967.” Crazy To Sing Strange Songs—The Website of Goh Poh Seng: Novelist, Poet & Playwright. N.p., 09 July 2009. Web.

Koh Tai Ann. “Goh Poh Seng's If We Dream Too Long: An Appreciation.” Introduction. If We Dream Too Long. N.p.: National University of Singapore, 2010. Vii-Xxxvi.

Millet, Didier. “Crazy To Sing Strange Songs—The Website of Goh Poh Seng: Novelist, Poet & Playwright.” Crazy To Sing Strange Songs—The Website of Goh Poh Seng: Novelist, Poet & Playwright. N.p., n.d. Web.