CRITICAL INTRODUCTION

Written by Daryl Qilin Yam
Dated 4 Nov 2015

Ho Poh Fun was a teacher, poet, and writer of prose. Educated at Tanjong Katong Girls and Raffles Institution, she went on to receive a Masters in English from the National University of Singapore in 1987 and became a teacher at Raffles Junior College. In 1996, she won the Commended Work in Poetry award from the National Book Development Council of Singapore.

Ho’s fiction first appeared in Tanjong Rhu and Other Stories, a collection of four prize-winning titles from the former Ministry of Culture’s 1982 Short Story Writing Competition, followed by Moving Pictures in 1985, as well as the anthologies ASEAN Anthology of Literatures: The Fiction of Singapore and Inthanon: An ASEAN Anthology of Short Stories. But it is her contributions to poetry in the 1980s and 1990s that have made her an important figure in the national literature. Having appeared in a handful of anthologies (including the landmark No Other City: An Ethos Anthology of Urban Poetry, edited by Aaron Lee and Alvin Pang), Ho’s first and only collection to date, Katong and Other Poems (UniPress, 1994), would come to be regarded as the culmination of a life’s work, carefully sown and bountifully harvested in a generous volume of sixty-eight poems.

Split into four sections, Katong consistently displays an affinity for nature and wildlife: Ho’s exterior landscapes constantly refract onto her lines and her stanzas, rendered and yet altered by the poet’s hand, while her interiority often gestures towards a higher plane of understanding and self-enlightenment. The first and titular poem of her collection, “Katong,” is exemplary of this duality in motion:

beyond tanjong rhu
where private residences
extend eastward
park-like toward the cape
where turtles used to roam

This opening stanza reflects the outward directions Ho’s eye travels: words such as “beyond,” “where,” “extend,” and “toward” take prominent place in her sparse and careful lines, while the final line of the stanza embodies Ho’s subtle tendency to project her own desires onto other living creatures. But her eye is not merely descriptive or wandering: Ho’s point of view is firmly affixed to her present whereabouts, and as seen later, she reveals an ambivalence towards not just the industrial/urban enterprise, but towards the artifice of Singapore’s garden city, tying together personal and national concerns:

today where amber gardens/amber road
swerves in heavier traffic
toward tanjong katong south

an explosive display of concrete
structures–rigorously erect–
girdled by well-manicured lawns
shrubbery and a selection of the tropic’s
most widely-acclaimed trees
–ornamented by planters bearing the nation’s
most assiduously cultivated blooms

Just as Ho’s initial exteriority betrays a more interior quality, her journey outwards becomes a metaphor for a desire to return to a shared, collective past. She veers away from endorsing the country’s present, where developmental aspirations hold sway, and it is only towards the end of “Katong” where we lurch into unknown territory with bright flashes of this collective past, “now held in memory / in life’s best-loved pictures”:

the beach–now marine parade road–
where adults come beachcoming
scraping the surfaces of rocks
for trapped oysters

the sea–across which the east coast parkway
now runs–where women bathe in sarongs
with infants in tow
and slender-limbed children
riding the waves in chortles

The following three sections of the collection do well in capturing the full range of Ho’s sensibilities and concerns as a painter of the exterior world, and their well-chosen titles do her much service in encapsulating the various aspects of her poetic practice. “Climatological Reports” suggests a scientific approach, measured, orderly and utterly logical, but its poems instead allude to a combination of fact, confession, and impression, as well as a struggle over the ambivalence of change. In the surrealistic “blue sky blue,” the persona recounts a peculiar dream:

last night after days of uninterrupted grey
i dreamt a bit of blue fell on your face
and your countenance
imbued with such strangeness
kept me at bay

Also of particular note is the sense of intimacy in “Climatological Reports,” flaring up again and again across the section—from rain-drenched settings (“rain,” “the waiting,” “year’s end”) to night skies and morning-afters dominated by images and afterimages of the moon (“moon,” “and the night,” “morningside, elias road”)—an aspect of her style that resists easy categorisation of Ho as a poet at ease in the cool, unfeeling world of science. This quality persists in the following section, “From a Naturalist’s Notebook,” even when its poems boast titles such as “caladium,” “anthurium,” “heliconia,” and “stephanotis.” A remarkable trio of swordtail poems (“courting swordtail,” “territory-conscious swordtail,” “matriarchal swordtail”) delightfully genders the naturalist’s gaze as male, eroticising the physical aspects of the fish with moments of surprising humour, formal lightheartedness, and respect for the female figure, resulting in audacious lines such as these:

your pectoral fins become

a pair of impatient hands

clamouring for arrows

and all other fins

dorsal caudal anal
correlate variously into one gesture
roundly calculated to correct all measure

oh no no no no no no no

The collection’s final section, “Evocations in Mood and Gesture,” makes up the second half of Katong. It is concerned with drawing forth and suggestion: of allowing something to be brought to mind and memory; of acts that begets further acts, as well as a mood that encourages deeper feeling. Specific concerns reveal themselves to the reader: Ho’s interest in East Asian culture and history (“the fragrance box,” “dragon dance,” “legend of emperor qian long”); the (re-)development of Singaporean spaces (“dhoby ghaut,” “shopping centres,” “the painting of maryland park, phase one” and “two”); as well as poetic answers to paintings finished by her contemporaries (“new nature,” “blossoming,” “landscape situation,” “seascape”). But above all else, this section reveals Ho’s overwhelming preoccupation with gardens. In “transitional,” Ho wonders if gardens can provide an answer to home or a way to a false answer; in “biological” the garden becomes a representation of the self from birth to rebirth; in “the balcony garden,” she criticises the careless state of home gardening; and in “pomegranate,” traces the powerful growth of a girl into womanhood.

“thoughtscapes singapore,” arguably Ho’s most ambitious poem in the collection, fuses poetic observation with physical landscape, producing contemplative sections that evoke lost time, memory, and forgotten spaces. Split into nine parts, it is unclear who the “you” or the “we” Ho writes about is at any given moment—coloniser or politician? lover or community?—and that uncertainty itself becomes a comment on the nature of Singapore, caught between past and future, the contravening forces of Orientalism and globalisation (“i am Singaporean and asian / first and foremost / attentive student of world models / second”), and the “quagmire” of its multicultural and multi-colonial heritage. The result is induced schizophrenia, the poetic voice in the throes of mania—a sharp and unforgettable image of Singapore:

hola hola they shouted
how we laughed
looking up
how we laughed
till we cried
how we laughed

Works cited

Chua, Alvin. “Ho Poh Fun.” Singapore Infopedia. 2010. Web.

Ho, Poh Fun. Katong and Other Poems. Singapore: UniPress, 1994.

Neubronner, Marion. “REVIEW: Ho Po Fun, Katong and Other Poems (Singapore: Unipress, Centre for the Arts, NUS, 1994); and Heng Siok Tian, Crossing the Chopsticks and Other Poems (Singapore: UniPress, Centre for the Arts, NUS, 1993).” Focus. Singapore, 1995.

 

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