Written by Thow Xin Wei
Dated 9 Oct 2016
At current writing, Leonard Ng has two print volumes of poetry, This Mortal World, and Changes and Chances, both published by Ethos books. He also has several translations of Mandarin classics available on his website: this might explain how some of his English poems achieve a certain charming sensibility in tone and treatment of subject matter that suggest they were translations of a Chinese original.
Ng is also the author of several essays and review on QLRS and one of these, The Enchanted Island (2006), is particularly helpful when reading his own poetry. Here, takes as a starting point Cyril Wong’s criticism of more recent Singaporean poetry as yuppie and shallow, giving “this sense that people have nothing to say”:
I don't want to hear about the wonders of yuppie life. I don't want to hear about you driving into the rain and having a moment.
Ng accepts the point but decides to be “a little kinder” by explaining it: he suggests that the fluency required to write poetry in English is, for social, financial and educational reasons, constrained to Singaporeans of a certain class “almost predestined” to upper middle class concerns and social mores. And while disenchantment with this roundabout has driven several poets abroad (Ng lists Goh Poh Seng, Boey Kim Cheng and Eddie Tay), he suggests, as another exit, a turn towards the “uncanny,” the “supernatural” and the “otherness” within the country to which poets “far too often [ . . . ] simply aren’t paying attention”:
And so—if I may be excused the suggestion—this might be one way to find it: to treat the supernatural (and for that matter, the natural world) not as something far away and long ago, not as something alien to our everyday experience, but instead as something alive and active now, operating in parallel to our own constructed environment. I am not advocating that work in the current mode ought to be abandoned altogether, or that we should all start writing ghost stories. But I am suggesting that a greater awareness of the sheer otherness within our own city may give greater depth and resonance to our poetry and our lives. Perhaps it's time we started trying to learn a little more about our city–not just about its politics and economics and financial structures, but its lore, its mythology, its archaeology, its superstitions, the names and qualities of its plants and birds and trees. We have, after all, something special here–a world that has somehow managed to be simultaneously mechanised and magical–and perhaps, for the poets of this country, exploring those aspects of it might just prove worthwhile.
The conviction behind these injunctions can be sensed from how consistently they manifest within his two volumes, published in 2011 and 2014 respectively. Their titles focus our attention on the parallel possibilities to the “constructed environment” of human reality: the “mortal world” (人间) recalls its heavenly or otherworldly opposites (天上); “changes and chances” is taken from the 1979 book of Common Prayer, an excerpt of which appears at the end of the collection, placed in opposition to the “eternal changelessness” of God. Frequently, Ng’s strategy is to render human experience through images and diction from the non-human “Otherworlds”—animal, supernatural, mythological, religious—creating fresh, striking perspectives that, at their best, add vitality to both tenor and vehicle. Yet for all these invocations, the main motivation is not an emigration to the realms of fantasy, but, as noted in Richardson’s foreword to the earlier collection, “a celebration of living in a mortal world”.
Of the different realms Ng employs within his poetry, perhaps his most successful is the animal world, where his keen and precise descriptions of their physical appearance, together with a wide range of symbolic connotations, allow him to address a variety of topics.
For example, in the two poems “Suckerfish” and “Koi,” Ng’s observations and descriptions of the fish outline a particular disengagement with worldly life that he associates with Buddhism. The suckerfish “glides” as a dark “blot” in contrast to the surrounding fish that “rejoice in their prettiness, / bicker and kiss again”. This separation comes from knowing the “truth,” “abandon[ing] the deception of the world,” seeking “the Way”–a term that recalls both the Tao in Taoism and the Middle Path in Buddhism. More explicitly, the koi are described as
these buddhas of water, knowing nothing but now,
in the last birth before the deep silence
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
they stay in midwater, in continuous meditation—
each mind with its word a confluence of rivers.
These personifications evoke precisely the languor of the pond fish, but one then notices the elements of ugliness and stupor into that surface in his descriptions. The suckerfish is “ugly, hideous, a distortion of fish,” and there is something debased and disgusting about how his search for truth is in “the algae and the scraps / that fall from the mouths of other[s]”. Meanwhile, the calm and deep inner life of the koi are also expressed as a limitation: although they “no longer remember” the sufferings of their previous life, they are consequently trapped in “the blue-tiled bounds of their universe”. Ng closes the poem with the scathing suggestion that this peace and contentment is precisely what makes them unimaginative and uninterested in others:
and when, each morning, manna breaks their sky
and faith, rewarded, rises to meet it,
they come, never questioning what lies beyond—
electric lamps, broad leaves, strange huge faces,
and other minds, caught still in the dusty webs of spiders.
This diptych of pond life captures a recurrent theme within Ng’s poetry: his treatment of communion and engagement with the world as a spiritual act in itself—perhaps the most important one. Acts of disengagement then appear complacent and/or unrealistic, a view which he puts forward more directly in a later poem:
All burns, says the Buddha, with suffering, with desire.
But still I don’t long for a world where all of that is ashes.
(Ghazal 7, “Night Prayers”)
For Ng, existence in the mortal world is fundamentally beautiful, and his attitude towards it tends to the rhapsodic. Often, small or commonplace experiences have the potential for transcendental wonder, and this metamorphois is strikingly captured in two poems on moths in This Mortal World. The first, “Moths at War Memorial after midnight,” describes how their small shapes on the white pillars turn into “black gashes on the monument’s side,” and elevate them into “silent guardians,” “perpetual slivers” and “eerie angels”. In “The other side of darkness,” a nondescript moth whose body is a mere “fuzz bed of gray paper,” nonetheless gains an inner universe upon looking at a flame:
the ecstasy of candlefire multiplied
a million million times and expoded into
of celestial glories, of primal mystery
of the awful, unveiled face of the divine.
It is our duty then, as Ng reminds us in his grand—sometimes grandiose—pronouncements, to embrace and celebrate this potential, lest we wallow in stupor and inaction.
When Ng tackles this point directly through tropes of religion or love (for example in “Most of us still walk in night,” “Ten Love Poems,” “Blessed Be” and “Night Prayers”), he risks being too heavy on diction and generalities. However, the discipline and creativity Ng displays when writing about animals, shaping both their form and their essence, tempers these excesses. Compare, for example, the description of pain in “Ghazal 8” of “Night Prayers” with “Bat”. Pain, especially as a metonym for earthly suffering in general, deserves serious consideration within Ng’s conception of the world, for a world that that apportions suffering without any clear cause or offer of redemption cannot be celebrated nor embraced self-evidently. “Ghazal 8” rather too briefly brings the reader through the issue:
Show me, love, your world’s wonders. Don’t speak to me of pain.
Something I’ve had more than enough of: the memory of pain.
Standing around the table the surgeons compare notes,
Mapping the fraying lines of the nerves, the complexity of pain.
For centuries the overly pious have tried to justify God.
God himself has made no excuse for this life’s agony of pain.
Does it all mean something? Should it? Question after question!
Over and over we struggle before the mystery of pain.
Call no man happy till he is dead, intone the choruses.
Fate and the gods have apportioned our lots, quite randomly, of pain.
Once you’re gone, you’re gone; once you’re dead you’re dead.
Why complicate matters thus with this all-is-vanity of pain?
While acknowledging pain’s “mystery,” “complexity,” and randomness, the poem treats it as a merely theological and intellectual problem, failing to take into account its reality and immediacy to its sufferer. This is compounded by the final formulation “all-is-vanity of pain”: in Ecclesiastes, the lament that all is vanity is a response to man’s transience and insignificance on Earth, and the repetitiveness of existence, rather than the pain of it. Why complicate matters with the idea of pain? Because it is there as a physical and emotional reality, one that, as the torturer knows only too well, has the potential for obliterating all other considerations. How is one to accept the call to rejoice in wonders when such a fundamental quality of life is merely glossed over in the abstract?
In contrast, “Bat” makes no overt philosophical claims, but is a first person account of the moments before a bat’s death. Here, the descriptions both seen and imagined create a palpable sense of desperation and agony:
[ . . . ] Then a last-breath twist of body
and claws grip the kerb, ankle-high,
a terrified miracle shuddering half a metre from me.
But this bat is dying, nonetheless.
Weakness has infected each muscle, slowed the currents of the blood
to the point where even terror’s rush to the heart
barely causes a stir [ . . . ]
A suffering that is unmitigated by nature, which responds to this scene with “three crows circling”. The bat then unexpectedly flees, an action which the persona imbues with heroism and dignity:
like an airman trailing smoke, on one final flight,
one final tasting of the sweetness of the air
before he final, inevitable crash.
This last simile recalls Yeat’s “An Irish Airman Foresees his Death”, and invites us to take the bat’s actions as a response to tragedy and suffering in the human realm. In this poem, the persona does not flinch from the problem of suffering in the world, but rather details it carefully and respectfully, conferring on it a terrible, honest, beauty. It is through animals that Ng is best at showing, rather than telling.
To conclude, I’d like to turn to the most satisfying poem in Ng’s two collections, “Fox” from This Mortal World. Here the persona goes to England to visit a love interest he is “engrossed” with. Travelling the countryside, he glimpses a fox and, drawing on associations with Chinese fox spirits, vulpine femme fatales, paints it as a malevolent force jealously guarding against the persona’s intrusion. As the holiday progresses disappointingly, the persona identifies each mishap as the doings of the fox, culminating in the “final warning” of a fire alarm going off in the night.
What makes the poem particularly enjoyable are the intriguing ambiguities within it that open up a range of interpretive possibilities. The fox wasn’t seen by the persona’s companion: was it real or imagined? Was it really more than an innocent woodland creature, or was it a convenient supernatural scapegoat for the persona’s paranoia?
Another line of inquiry is the nature of the persona’s trespass. On one level, the contested territory appears to be the love-interest, but then again the persona, as a visitor to both the country and the Country, is crossing other boundaries as well. Can we detect xenophobia or racism in the teahouse “clos[ing] its doors in [their] faces”? Is the unsympathetic background to their excursion—ominous crows, predatory winds—the result of vengeful nature, or just their own unfamiliarity with the landscape? Read in this way, the fox can be seen as an embodiment—part real, part imagined—of our vulnerability while being a stranger in strange lands: it stands for the forces that shut the doors on us, as well as our own nervousness at being “lost in the newness” of a new lover, or a new environment.
Another peculiarity is the love of the fox—we could take it as romantic, since jealously is involved—but this is complicated by the strong similarity that runs between fox and beloved. Both of them “share the same eyes, the same ears, the same quick, sharp voice,” and in fact, the fox is described as a “totem” spirit watching over as an “invisible benefactor”. From this doubling, I suggest a reading where the fox embodies an element within his beloved (or perhaps the feminine, more generally), which resists his advances and eludes his understanding. Writing this poem, then, could be seen as an attempted exorcism, penning down what he finds, but one that ends, ultimately, in failure and flight.
This deference is especially notable because it’s something of an exception in the general thrust of Ng’s poetry. More often, the persona’s beloved tends to be cloaked in the nostalgia of past relationships:
I reach into the space inside my chest,
Into the tin heart there, and place
This final belated message from the stars
Alongside a photograph of you, still bright,
A photograph, kept from the days of radiance,
When all we thought would lie ahead
Was happiness— [ . . . ]
(“In place of a love poem,” This Mortal World, 33)
In the dark of that morning
I did not tell you I loved you.
You did not say yes or no.
And we did not tumble into the abyss of each other
or trespass beyond truth [ . . . ]
(“Sunday Morning,” This Mortal World, 41)
Or presented as coy mistresses that the persona is persuading, a la Donne or Marvell (but frequently with a disturbing brutality):
[ . . . ] to slip past your border checkpoints,
find my way behind your veils,
exploring your body with a guitar,
Little by little
I will search every inch of you,
finding out each secret, pushing ever deeper
into the uncharted space of your being—
searching for the spring
which inundates you, floods you,
renders you fertile, [ . . . ]
( “Ten Love Poems,” Changes and Chances, 12)
Unhood yourself, nun. It’s high time your tongue learnt new prayers.
Come and stand here before me with your corset unlaced, in your solitude.
(“Night Prayers,” Changes and Chances, 84)
When you shuddered as pleasure overwhelmed your sweet mouth
Could you hear the first birds hymning your new ecstasy of light?
Put off your sullen armour! It only weights you down.
Let love’s angel take you to his aerie of light
(“Night Prayers,” Changes and Chances, 96)
Lay your body down
by my side.
Set aside your crown
and your pride.
Let longing drown you
in its tide.
(“Interludes and Occasions,” Changes and Chances, 21)
Or mounted in a display of poetic fervour, best exemplified by the 16th ghazal in “Night Prayers”:
Into your hands, goddess, I commend my will; I know what must be, must be.
I surrender now, infinite lady, before the inevitable logic of your hips.
Granted, some of these are probably meant allegorically, with the surrender to passion a metaphor for the embrace of life discussed earlier. Nonetheless, Ng is generally more sensitive when writing about animals, and therefore presents a more nuanced view of human experience when using animal encounters as intermediaries. Returning to “Fox,” for instance, Ng seems more willing to allow his central figure free rein outside the lines of his pen, elevating her from mere allegorical trope to a proper character. This in turn adds bite to the menace and a presents a more complex picture of love.
Leonard Ng is a poet with admirable consistency and optimism in his approach to the world, committed to exploring the path he set out ten years ago in 2006. There is still more to cover—in particular his translation work and the sensibility it confers on his English poetry feels most intriguing and deserving of a closer look.
Ng, Leonard. This Mortal World: Poems. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2011.
–. Changes and Chances. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2014.
–. "The Enchanted Island." Quarterly Literary Review Singapore 5.3. (2006): Web.