Written by Rodrigo Dela Peña, Jr.
Dated 19 Aug 2017

Gwee Li Sui’s first book of poems is a slim collection of humorous verse, “[p]eppered with freewheeling wit, barefaced puns, malapropisms and flagrantly Singaporean accents” (Pang, 1998). While a playful tone dominates the collection, the poems tackle significant and even serious issues including multiracialism, national values and other topics, grappling with the inherent paradoxes of being Singaporean.

In “Cognition Gap,” he writes: “Our women are liberated and our men feel feminized. / Our parents stress ancestral East, our kids are Westernized”. The poem stresses the difficult task of establishing a united identity: “They tell us we are multiracial and they tell us we are the same”. This theme is explored further in other poems such as “Propriations” where the persona feels constricted by strict rules, such as the law against spitting in public:

Merlion and I
live by laws.
[ . . . ] My saliva wells up and it
can find no avenue—

In an ironic twist, the mythical creature as the city-state’s symbol and monument does what the persona cannot: “The Merlion cried, My son, / my son, I spit for you!”

As seen, Gwee uses contrast and parallelism for dramatic and ironic effect, providing astute commentary on the long-standing problématique of selfhood and nationhood. “Moonfall” draws similarities between the poet Li Po and the astronaut Neil Armstrong, the former touching the moon “with a hand / and drowned,” the latter touching the moon “with a foot / and [ . . . ] / became renowned”. The poem then poses a rhetorical question, effectively illustrating how perspectives diverge:

One moon and two reflexes,
one entity that teaches
us to celebrate different heroes—

So who coined the lame
notion that East
and West are the same
when colour is the least
of divides?

In a review, Alvin Pang praises the book for its celebration of “the vernacular in both form and content” (“Excue Me”). The “distinctively cheeky style” is also a refreshing change from the somber tone of other poets, an example of “poetry of truly Singaporean concerns—of Singlish and soccer, Ah Beng and Air-levels, of Karaoke and Tekong”. According to Pang:

If orthodoxy demands pragmatism, gravity, ceremony, predictability, tradition and diligence, in poetry as well as in life, then perhaps only an unorthodox approach, light-hearted and unfettered, can unburden and reveal the true human spirit. Or at least provide moments of reprieve in comic relief.

A second edition was issued in 2015, drolly titled Who Wants to Buy an Expanded Edition of Poems?. A note-worthy poem added is “A Partridge Beholding Sir Stamford Raffles (Pantomime),” where the eponymous bird literally shits on the founding father of British Singapore, demythologising the man:

Anytime now
I will disavow
the statement I made
on your head
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
but who are you,
anyway, statue,
standing with bent arms
of bird-chasms?

Are you a god?
Are these folks who nod
to sleep beneath trees
your devotees?

Sixteen years would pass before Gwee second book of poems, One Thousand and One Nights. Beyond the reference to Scheherazade’s enchanting cliff-hanger tales, the title also refers to the duration of the poet’s love affair with a Korean novelist, the “lost heroine” for whom the collection is dedicated to. In the preface, Gwee writes:

Modern storytellers beguile us. They bring such freshness to the endings of tales that we willingly hold our breaths to a promise of them. But the best bits are in the middle where often it feels like the adventure can never die. Every day is vast with possibilities as the heart marvels at the new way it beats. These are what I keep.

Here, Gwee’s poems are intensely personal, charting the oscillations of love and its amplitudes. Sometimes diaristic and often tender, they illuminate the condition of the lover, reminiscent of Roland Barthes’ fragments that explore the workings and undoings of love. Eros permeates many poems, with evocative lines such as:

As our eyes trembled to close,
we found a new word upon our lips.
It rolled like a mystery inside
the room of two mouths, warm
with desire, silent as memory.

(“Lost Hour”)

The peaches are in the
fragrance of your neck.
This time, we will speak
with our hands and enter
each other’s shadows.

(“Peach Garden II”)

Inevitably, the poet meditates on how love is, by its very nature, temporary, a kind of Eden from where the lover and beloved are eventually banished. Love, the speaker notes in “Peach Garden III,” is “a homeless state, / an animal limb that strikes / its claws against a cage”. Yet despite the heartbreak, the poems do not dwell in anguish and instead, cherish fondly the moments shared by the couple. In “Jumok Our Promise,” the last poem of the book, the poignant parting scene takes on a spare, haiku-like solemnity:

A sudden snowflake,
a clover of lips—
everything we hid
away under a cracked moon.

While One Thousand and One Nights, which is written in a lyrical mode, might be seen as a departure in style for the author, Li Sui returns to the comic mode in his next book, The Merlion and Other Friends. In a Kitaab interview, he mentions that it is “a sequel of sorts to my first collection of verse” and “pays tribute to the dead, missing, and invisible heroes of Singapore”. As with his first book, humour pervades the collection, with zany illustrations accompanying the poems to underscore the whimsy of it all. Li Sui toys around with the traditional Western canon, adapting the poems in a distinctly local context, such as “The Education of Tan J.A., Prufrock” and “Rime of the Ancient Coffee Shop Regular”.

Here is Li Sui channeling Yeats in “Sailing to Byzantium”, a meditation on old age in Singapore:

Someone’s grandfather got lost this morning.
He lives in a colour-coded building
         on the second floor.
         That and furthermore:
he commands the Queen’s English, not the kind
with lahs and lors I hear his children speak.
I believe they visit him every week
and bring with them good food. Today they find
that he has returned without returning.

Eric Norris gives a glowing review of the collection in Singapore Poetry. “The book,” he says, “invites us to ask the right questions”. He commends the collection for

[getting] so many things memorably right: patterns of speech, patterns of thought, details, quips, pictures. Puns become verbal incidents that travel far from their philosophical points of origin and never once feel tired when they arrive at Customs.

Lighthearted as the book may be, the poet considers subjects with gravitas, including the towering figure that is Ah Kong, who is given an irreverent panegyric:

Your our father and our father’s father and father’s father’s father how that was even possible I dunno but you Da Man
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
You Da Man scaring da angmos and da non-angmos and da non-non-angmos everyone was in awe of you when you said to jump we shouted how high and then worked hard to afford foreign talents to do da jumping for you Da Man
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Da Man you and we loved you but we feared you and we loved you but we also feared you and we dunno anymore because you were larger than Life and Life itself loved you and feared you and said to you you Da Man you Da Man you Da Man you Da Man you Da Man

In Haikuku, Gwee Li Sui adopts the haiku form as a vehicle for commentary. The first piece embodies the author’s ars poetica:

A hermit poet
sharpens his words. In quiet
books, his metal glints.

Aside from its sonic richness (observe the half rhymes of hermit/poet/quiet/glints), the piece is compelling as it works on many levels, portraying the poet as a monk reminiscent of Zen Buddhists who meditated on being/non-being through haikus, as a solitary figure like Thoreau who “went to the woods because [he] wished to live deliberately,” as a craftsman honing his tools, and even as a warrior. Far from being helpless, the poet, in his labour of using words to create a paradox of “quiet books,” commands authority, the gleam of his metal (note how he calls attention to the material of the weapon, not the weapon itself) a reminder of the power that he wields.

Li Sui nimbly uses the haiku, embedding multiple layers of meaning in such a compressed form. Many of the poems in the book deal with ephemera, then-current events that might have popped in one’s Facebook feed and quickly relegated as a footnote in history, such as “To SG with Love Haiku”:

A film has been banned!
Now there are buses to catch
screenings at JB.

The downside is that some of the poems, especially the ones focusing on fleeting issues du jour, are phrased prosaically and make for unmemorable poetry, relying entirely on a flat punchline.

Some haikus might sound obscure until one reads the title, which serves as the key and can actually be found only at the end of the book. See if you can figure this one out:

Bag, flag, pick-up sticks,
Singa, detergent, candy,
haw flakes, NEWater.

The above haiku is “My SG50 Funpack Haiku,” an ode to common things that mark Singapore’s landmark 50 years of nationhood, including the clincher of recycled sewage water.

Gwee’s substantive work in literary criticism is also worth mentioning, as he is one of a few academics who specialise in contemporary Singapore poetry. Among his notable essays is “The New Poetry of Singapore,” which surveys the local poetic terrain from the 1990s onwards. He identifies different modes of transformation which have resulted in “the explosion of new poetry [that] altered the nation’s collective consciousness”. Highlighting individual voices such as Grace Chia, Alvin Pang, Aaron Lee, Ng Yi-Sheng, and Yeow Kai Chai, among others who represent the rich diversity of the genre, he suggests that in Singapore poetry today, “politics is answered by humour, ideology by confession, lyric by prose, form by flair, image by idea, consciousness by the subconscious”.

Gwee’s own poems seem to fit with at least the first two of his characterisations, and above all demonstrate a fertile imagination at work.

Works cited

Gwee Li Sui. Haikuku. Singapore: Landmark Books, 2017.

—. One Thousand and One Nights. Singapore: Landmark Books, 2014.

—. “The New Poetry of Singapore.” Sharing Borders: Studies in Contemporary Singaporean-Malaysian Literature II. Ed. Gwee Li Sui. Singapore: National Library Board and National Arts Council of Singapore, 2009. 236-259.

—. The Other Merlion and Friends. Singapore: Landmark Books, 2015.

—. Who Wants to Buy a Book of Poems?. Singapore: Landmark Books, 1998.

—. Who Wants to Buy an Expanded Book of Poems?. Singapore: Landmark Books, 2015.

Norris, Eric. “The Fate of Singaporean Poultry.” Singapore Poetry 23 June 2016. Web.

Pang, Alvin. “Excue me, I’m tue kiasue to queue in this haiku.” The Straits Times 12 Dec 1998.