Written by Cheryl Julia Lee
Dated 4 Nov 2015

Jerrold Yam studied law at University College London. A prolific writer, Yam published three poetry collections in as many years: Intruder (Ethos Books, 2014), Scattered Vertebrae (Math Paper Press, 2013), and Chasing Curtained Suns (Math Paper Press, 2012). His poems have been featured in numerous journals and anthologies including Time Out Magazine, Southeast Asia Globe,Mascara Literary Review, WasafiriWashington Square ReviewManoa (University of Hawai‘i Press, 2014), Off the Rocks (NewTown Writers, 2014), Mildly Erotic Verse (Emma Press, 2013), Ayam Curtain (Math Paper Press, 2012), and Moving Words. At 20, he was nominated for the Pushcart Prize, the youngest Singaporean nominee to date.

In Chasing Curtained Suns, Yam’s interest in the difficultly of negotiating adolescence runs alongside a larger concern with the individual’s struggle to place himself within modern Singapore. The collection is split into three sections, their titles—“Prodigal”, “Breaking/Entering”, and “Inheritance”—laying out the overarching narrative of a young poet coming to terms with the “countervailing tensions of moving on, letting go and leaving behind” (Chasing, blurb). Yam has a keen eye for the evocative and his collection is filled with turns of phrase that bring the local sharply into view. The questions that provide an overarching structure for his poem “Success” are immediately recognisable by any individual who has sat for the A-Levels; in identifying them as almost ritualistic, Yam succinctly evokes common sentiments regarding the local education system. The “rouge marble/straying from the set” and the “Channel 8 drama unraveling / with all the variance of our weather” (“Chase”), “mandatory school trips when culture / bloomed for orchid sketches” (“Narcissus, Imprisoned”), Faber Castells (“Idol”), the silhouettes of old men playing chess (“Inheritance”)—these familiar images create a distinct poetic landscape. This is a landscape that is, at the same time, altered by Yam’s poetic vocabulary of myth and transcendence. In “Not Answering Grandma,” the ordinary and the divine meet in the image of the television remote “wrestled by paper hands / already scrawled thoroughly / with lines from a sunken zodiac”. In “Prayer”:

Here walls
are coloured by faith, my
image spilling like sand
from pilgrim robes

At times in Yam’s poetry, it is difficult for the reader to make the necessary leaps from image to image, thought to thought. In “Blueprint: Birth” and “Things We Mistake for Vows,” for example, the connections between different sections are too obscure and the overall poetic structure comes across as haphazard. “Countrysides in a City” is a tighter poem but lines like “not consciousness / fissured like ashen guilt spilled past / the ruptured mouth of someone else” travel too far from the centre of the poem and become a distraction. However, there are also moments when contemplation is built into the structure of the poem, when lines are given the space they need and deserve. In these moments, the reader pauses not in incomprehension but in appreciation. “Diving After Icarus,” for example, is sufficient unto itself; to speak of how and why it works is to unravel it. The last lines of “Countrysides in a City” and “Not Answering Grandma” offer the same clarity and precision, and hence the same delight.

Chasing Curtained Suns has all the confidence of an adolescent coming of age. In Scattered Vertebrae, Yam is more patient with his imagination—ideas take more space to develop, allowing the reader to follow along with the poet instead of attempting to play catch up—if only because he is now speaking from a position of “uncertainty and defeat”. Of his second collection, Yam says, “[it] houses the sum of my collected fears” (“Second year… Second book published”). But this voice is not mired in insecurity, the acknowledgement of which serves as a sign of maturity. The persona falters and questions and doubts his way toward a different kind of confidence and a different kind of truth.

Instrumental in the poet’s coming out, Scattered Vertebrae is Yam at his most honest and vulnerable as he traces his trajectory from harbouring a desire not to be “an errant fibre / breaking the calm” (“Police”) to fighting for acceptance (“Monologue”). In Part One, the poet describes a household experiencing the pressures of everyday living and in doing so, provides the context for his coming out. The poet imagines his family’s history “rolled / out, beaten like dough, this instant our faces brewing in private enclosures, / once a millennium, too soon expired” (“11.11.11”). Truth begins with rending, as the title of the collection suggests, and this “family debris” (“Fairytale”), which the poet literally and figuratively contributes to, becomes the building blocks for something stronger and better. The poem “Archaeology” gives shape to Yam’s aspiration for it to be “worth all the fighting [ . . . ] the way land heaved apart”. The realisation that a life can be forged from the pieces of a history characterised by “crippling loss” offers the persona hope that what was once broken and scattered might come together again. “This is Yam’s project,” writes Kimberley Lim, “building a home from the rubble of a former one that could not extend its roof over his head” (“Review of Scattered Vertebrae”).

The collection’s binding principle is reconciliation. In it, destruction and creation are two sides of the same coin. This false dichotomy is refracted through love’s “capacity for hurt” (“Cosmos”), which Yam explores not just in the family but also in the church. “Audition” explores religious hypocrisy as the persona addresses his having to ‘audition’ for grace and salvation. The persona figures himself as one among a people “unaccounted [for] in [God’s] grandiose / universe plans, left out and put away at the spark of creation” While his peers are “sprinting to the altar” and fiercely “claim[ing] places at [God’s] table”, he imagines himself a “stranger / let in on charity, left to do the dirty work”. Again in “Communion,” the persona is marginalised, “mired / in a swarm of sinners,” ironically during a ceremony that forgives and unites all in the remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice; seeking and being granted compassion is the “one action [he] cannot get right”.

What the church denies, Yam finally receives from his sister, “the mercy, the family / [he] never asked for”. In “Gift,” a moving if meandering poem, the persona gives thanks for an arm looped over his back and legs that bend and kneel with his, when others seek to “throw the errant ones out the window” (“Seed”). Faced with doubt, uncertainty, and fear, Yam suggests there is strength to be gained from small mercies, that they are worth the fight. Scattered Vertebrae begins with the tentative “I don’t pretend to know why we are here” (“Cosmos”), it ends with the biblical “let there be life” (“Genesis”).

In Yam’s third collection, Intruder, he comes to find that displacement is his theme and that home is less of a permanent structure than one might imagine. The idea of home is caught in a process of constant metamorphosis. It is the literal place where the story begins, the direction the heart tends towards “as a compass adamantly/rights itself” (“Route”); it is also the space of a temporary resting, anchored on “pictures and birthday cards” (“Routine”). It is the figurative alcoves we make of chests drawn over “like a mountain’s shadow” (“Compass”), hands surrounding cheeks “the way children lift water to their faces” (“Etymology”). Yam explores the ways in which we inhabit the world that ‘belongs’ to us, as much as it ‘belongs’ to others, to anyone. This is a world that Yam suggests is always and finally closed to us. He offers a resolution as well as a question: “Home … may be a fiction that we must resist claiming for our own. After all, can we—and should we—be more than intruders?” (Intruder, blurb).

Interrogating the possibility of possessing a place or a person, Yam redefines the act of conquest. In “Gentleman,” the sexual encounter is tentative, full of “polite offers” and “delicate [ . . . ] attempts at bartering”. There is a sudden tension in the lines as the persona unravels at the “ferocity of a lover’s tongue” but it gives way quickly to hesitation and contemplation. Conquest loses force, proves inadequate. It adopts a vocabulary of surrender—“Use me however,” says the persona without judgment or contempt. In “Blueprint,” possession similarly exists in a fraught relationship with lack as Yam suggests different ways of inhabiting a space and a person: “I can be / so deliberate as to fill / spaces she has emptied with herself”. With new definitions come new ways of understanding, of reconciliation. Where in Scattered Vertebrae the persona seeks acceptance on others’ terms, here he establishes his own, both giving and receiving.

Intruder is markedly more obscure than Yam’s previous efforts. There are moments in which the reader feels excluded from the persona’s thoughts, where the poet seems to conceal more than he reveals. But then there are also moments when Yam bares enough to touch a nerve. In “Snow,” for instance, lines are balanced in their weight and rhythm, and broken in all the right places. Phrases such as “no generosity / in unwelcome surprise” and “the neighbor’s yard clenches” establish a pattern of expansion and contraction, giving the poem a truly living quality. The reader is allowed to inhabit the gaps just as the persona in “Blueprint” does. “Snow” is for Intruder what “Diving After Icarus” is for Chasing Curtained Suns, an example of Yam at his best.

Yam continues to grapple with the issues that first preoccupy him in Chasing Curtained Suns. With each succeeding collection, however, he traces a trajectory toward maturity that makes him an interesting and worthwhile poet to follow.

Works cited

Lim, Kimberley. “Review of Scattered Vertebrae.” OF ZOOS 2.1. (2013). Web.

Piccirillo, Laura. “Second year… Second book published.” The Tab. 2013. Web.

Yam, Jerrold. Chasing Curtained Suns. Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2012.

—. Intruder. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2014.

—. Scattered Vertebrae. Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2013.