The Mythical and Mundane in Grace Chia's Poetry
Written by Lim Qing
Dated 11 Oct 2017
Grace Chia's debut collection, womango (Rank Books, 1998), with its striking orange cover and two equally vivid red-and-yellow mangoes, immediately evokes a postmodern, pop art aesthetic in line with the energy and playful irreverence of the volume. Chia explains the significance of the title in her preface: "womango is 'woman go' or 'wo(ah) mango' [ . . . ] because I like mangoes" (iii). Her deadpan opening takes the reader by surprise, puncturing any expectation of deeper symbolism in the choice image of the mango. But the reader barely has time to let his guard down and settle in for a fun read before Chia undercuts this fresh expectation once more, by explaining how qualities associated with its colours—red for passion, yellow as a stereotypical indicator of her Asianness—are expressed through her poems visually and metaphorically. At the outset, Chia punctures and subverts expectations with a playful, at times flippant, attitude that characterises the rest of the collection.
A quick flip through the pages of womango yields its most prominent feature: the play with form and typeface. Admittedly, these ventures sometimes remain at the level of novelty. The star shape of "Starfruit," for instance, seems to serve no deeper purpose than simply to gesture towards the subject matter—the star symbols on the Singapore flag. Similarly, "The world's favourite muck" takes on the shape of a Coca Cola bottle, but the structural elements of this chosen form, like the enjambment, seem to be dictated mostly by the line length required to produce this shape, rather than the dramatic effect produced by more selectively placed line breaks. Perhaps it was not always Chia's intention to underscore deeper meaning through form in these shape poems, but it feels like a missed opportunity to go beyond just a memorable visual to impress more deeply in the reader's mind the critiques of the fabrication and commercialisation of national identity and the spread of capitalism respectively.
However, Chia's willingness to experiment comes to fruition in attempts that produce uses of form which resonate more with content. In "Quadrangle," the poem's four lines are arranged in two side-by-side rectangles. Two perspectives of an imprisoned man are presented, and each is expressed in two lines confined within one of the rectangles. This placement heightens the reader's awareness of and ability to spot the parallels and contrasts between the two views. To the imprisoned man, the space he is contained in is "my room" and the light is, like him, "solitary". Reading this half of the poem on its own yields no hints that the speaker is in prison; the feeling highlighted is a sense of isolation, reinforced by the repetition of the possessive "my" and the sparseness of words compared to the other half. The second perspective marks the man clearly as an emaciated prisoner turned remorseful by his sentence: he is an "imprisoned shell" in a "cell," and the same light is described as "penitent". Although this perspective appears at first glance to be an external one—that of someone looking in on the imprisoned man—a twist in the final line, "His window and mine / misting," reveals that the man is looking at his own reflection. The quadrangles containing each half of the poem evoke windows, symbolising the different but not mutually exclusive ways in which the man frames his imprisoned state, imbuing the image he sees of himself with varying emotions of loneliness and remorse.
Chia's playful approach extends beyond form to include tone and sound. "Boo-Boo," "The Revenge of Mr Big," "A Trip to the Zoo," and "Jelly Jar and a Fairy Superstar" adopt imagery that is colourful—"jumping green spots / yellow polka dots" ("Jelly Jar")—and kinetic—"Fan is whizzing with his balmy hands / round and round [ . . . ]" ("Trip")—that bring to mind the whimsical tones of nursery rhymes. Yet there are sometimes mature themes that create tension when paired with the whimsical, childlike tone. In "Boo-Boo," the constant repetition of "oo" sounds—"Mr Coo," "Ms Who," "Zoo" and so on—is evocative of the assonance often used in children's books. But it is also the sound one makes—"ooh"—in reaction to a juicy piece of gossip, in this case the speaker's account of Mr Coo kissing a Ms Who while his "wife cooked at home". This juxtaposition places the reader in a squeamish yet fascinated position, much like one of a child voyeuristically witnessing something he is not supposed to; he is simultaneously aware of his accidental transgression and yet too enraptured to draw away from it.
In contrast to the flamboyant cover of womango, the cover of Cordelia (Ethos Books, 2012) is dark and coloured more subtly, featuring artist Kris Kuksi's "Portrait of a Neo-Roman Empress". Despite the disturbing presence of spikes protruding from the Empress' body and a macabre skull hovering over her head, the image is oddly peaceful; Kuksi envisioned for this sculpture to evoke "a calming feeling, an ease of female energy" (Johnson). As the contrast between the covers might suggest, the poems in Cordelia trade the exuberance and open playfulness of womangofor an exploration of Chia's "haunting moments," shared "with eerie accomplished calmness" (Gwee 11). Yet Chia returns to some familiar themes and motifs—the reimagining and politicising of classical texts and myths, and the reworking of everyday imagery—drawing them out with a more measured hand.
In womango, Chia's interest in myth manifests in the recurrence of creatures like sirens and mermaids ("Seriously" and "Greek Blue"), but also particularly in how mythical figures are adopted as metaphors to probe the suffering of women placed under expectations of female chastity and subject to the related tendency to demonise women who are deemed sexually loose. "Mermaid Princess" is a confessional poem addressed to the late Bonny Hicks, a former Singapore top model who died in the 1997 SilkAir MI185 plane crash. Because of her beauty and her profession, she was the subject of much public discourse and local myth-making, expressed in the recurrent description of her as the "pretty kampong girl from the little isle". However, when Hicks released an autobiographical book on her modelling life which contained open discussions of her sexuality, she became the centre of controversy:
[they] called you witch, bitch, itch that plagued the
nation's innocent minds
and overnight, you became from a blossoming bouquet
to a faded pressed flower [ . . . ]
By dubbing Hicks a "mermaid princess," Chia alludes to the idea of voicelessness in Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid" to comment on the double standards of those who fetishised and sexualised Hicks, only to turn against her when she tried to reclaim her sexual agency through writing, robbing her of her voice.
Beyond myths, Chia's poems also take on classical texts by reimagining and positioning them to reveal the plight of women in the face of discrimination and sexual predation. "Apple" (womango) is a feminist revision of the fall of Adam and Eve. In the original Biblical text, Eve, being the one who succumbed to the temptations of the serpent, is typically interpreted to be at greater fault for the fall of man. "Apple" scorns this display of victim-blaming women, reimagining Adam as a sexual aggressor, and Eve as the victim to his advances. In a similar vein, "Kuksi's Pan Discomforting Psyche" (Cordelia) is an ekphrastic poem that focuses on Kuksi's mixed media assemblage take on the Neo-Baroque sculpture of the same title. In classical mythology, Pan is a frivolous and flirtatious god, but in this particular story he comforts Psyche—who is heartbroken after being deserted by her lover Amor—in what appears to be a platonic, even fatherly manner ("Pan Comforting Psyche"). Kuksi's work and Chia's poem subvert the compassionate image that the original myth and sculpture constructs for Pan. For Chia, a gendered reality undercuts this image: Pan is portrayed as a lustful suitor attracted to the young and beautiful Psyche. He takes advantage of Psyche's emotional vulnerability to seduce her, a fact Psyche is aware of but does not immediately try to reject because of how distraught she is.
Despite a number of allusions to and reworking of myth and classical texts, Chia's poetry mostly focuses on the mundane. The thematic interest of illuminating skewed power structures remains consistent, however, and she often recasts the ordinary in politically or sexually charged terms: the letters "V" and "Y" become visually suggestive euphemisms for female and male genitalia ("Brand New Virgin," womango), the tilde symbol ("~") turns into the racially stereotyped Asian slit eyes ("Wok This Way," womango), and quotidian activities like cooking and watching television transform into markers of domestic tension or a strained relationship ("Partners" and "Seasons Greetings," Cordelia). A particularly recurrent everyday motif is that of food and consumption. It is used at times to reflect the imbalance of gender power, such as in the aforementioned "Apple," which likens Adam's raping of Eve to a worm eating an apple and Eve's genitals to mangoes. The image of consumption is loaded with sexual overtones that emphasise the passivity and helplessness of women in the face of a male sexual aggressor, much like how fruits are inanimate and unable to resist being eaten. The food motif is also used to flesh out postcolonial sensibilities, reflecting a similar uneven power structure. In "I Love Monarchy!" (womango), the literal food exports from the tropics to Britain gesture figuratively towards the colonial usurpation of resources and manpower from the colonies. In "Starfruit" (womango), it is the now-emancipated colony of Singapore that continues to submit to the tastes of its ex-colonisers by packaging its national identity and culture for tourists to consume, a phenomenon that the poem wryly critiques: "culture is cheap to make / [ . . . ] it's an import / worth your stopovers; take our money and our women please".
A key theme that is less apparent in womango but which emerges more distinctly in Cordelia is the experience of writing, or more broadly the emotional struggle of the artistic process. "Fear of Trying" depicts the uncertainties and pressures writers face that can be as frightening as imminent death and lead to a blockage of the creative process: the persona, daunted by the prospect of a hostile "axe-wielding executioner critic" and equally unforgiving "scholars in a gladiator's pit booing for the kill," finds the verses that she "incubates / flee like tadpoles / downstream". In "Lunacy," the poet "lay[s] slain" on a "bed of metaphors". The creative process is capricious and often unyielding— her thoughts are "orphaned," finding no home in the form of words—and it eats at the poet "like roots that dig inwards," finally leaving her heart "desecrated, / charred, wrecked". The image suggests that writing paradoxically destroys the writer even as it creates a text in the process, and the poem is perhaps a veiled call for more empathy towards texts produced under such trying circumstances, and the authors behind them.
The thematic and stylistic interests discussed above—the struggle of the creative process, the reimagining of mythical and classical figures, whimsical imagery and tone, the metaphor of food and eating—converge in the most compelling poem of the two collections, "Goya under the influence of a 1998 Shiraz: Saturn II" (Cordelia). Written in first-person, the poem imagines Spanish romantic painter Francisco Goya painting under the influence of alcohol; it weaves high art and pop culture references (the speaker grows "hulk-like") together with postmodern irreverence, presenting a collage of imagery that is provocative and deliciously dynamic. The stormy opening lines give way to whimsical, almost childlike, but still energetic images: "The moon played hopscotch / with his sister sun" and "Earth skated round the rink many times / while hapless Mars held on for the ride". Abruptly, the idyllic scene caves with the onslaught of images conveying violence—"raped," jackals that "scavenged," the threat of "mash[ed]" brains—hinting at the aforementioned unpredictability of the creative process. The final lines capture the destructive self-cannibalism of the artistic endeavour:
in one drop of a crystalline tear
the labyrinthine stew of my brains
was ravaged, swallowed whole.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
starved, I gouge out entrails,
pop an eye then devour my organs.
The metaphor of consumption is potent yet pliant, moulded from the motif of drinking into eating as symbol of power struggles, and finally resting on the image of the creative process as a violent cannibalising of the self. In a sense, "Goya" can be read as the essence of Chia's poetry: unrelentingly dynamic and cutting, skipping between themes and different subject matter, fragmented and resisting coherence, yet somehow whole and always growing beyond the words on the pages.
Chia, Grace. Cordelia. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2012.
—. womango. Singapore: Rank Books, 1998.
Gwee Li Sui. "Preface: The Cordelia Complex of Grace Chia." Cordelia, by Chia, Ethos Books, 2012, pp.10-14.
Johnson, Brian. "Kris Kuksi Talks Sculpture." Empty Lighthouse Magazine. 15 Mar 2013. Web. 7 Aug 2017.
"Pan Comforting Psyche." Google Arts and Culture. n.d. Web. 13 Aug 2017.