Loh Guan Liang
The Cartographer of Urban Loneliness and Desire
Written by Patricia Karunungan
Dated 28 Jan 2018
Loh Guan Liang is a poet of the city, mapping textual and imaginative territories across two collections of poetry. In both Transparent Strangers (Math Paper Press, 2012) and Bitter Punch (Ethos Books, 2016), his renderings of Singapore are patterned with failures of intimacy—between commuters on the train, lovers in Housing Development Board flats, the living and the dead, and even between the author and his readers. In his review of Transparent Strangers, John Wall Barger identifies this multiplicity of estrangements as pain that “will not abate [ . . . ] unless people make an effort to connect”. However, the “god-like distance” that Loh’s poetic voice maintains problematises the prospect of healing, and Loh seems to suggest throughout his oeuvre that this tension is inseparable from the cityscape.
The vagaries of urban living seem to be paradoxical—despite the proximity that a crowded city demands, these failures are distances that seem impossible to bridge. Loh is acutely aware of this, writing in “Like Any Other Poem” that
[i]n lifts we nod but never speak,
push-button strangers separated
by stranger oceans. We hurry home,
lock the door, tune our television sets
to chatter about
the new neighbours next door.
Loh charts these tense and shared spaces—these “stranger oceans”—with a confident kind of hesitation: the poet-narrator that we encounter in the pages stops at the edge of relation more often than he crosses it, and it is at these boundaries that Loh stakes his poetic territory.
Loh’s first collection, Transparent Strangers, demonstrates this restraint best through persistently contained portraits of the people that the poet-narrator encounters—the same kind of people that any regular commuter encounters on buses, trains, and pathways, and therein lies a question with his aesthetic concerns. Loh’s attempts to portray them fail to convey the full sense that they are individuals with complex lives and worries. Instead, Loh treats these strangers with an opacity that reduces them to recognisable archetypes of domestic helper, foreign worker, tai tai, and so on. The book title is a curious contradiction: strangers only become “transparent”, or knowable, through a preliminary and imaginative construction of their identities. Loh does not gaze at his subjects beyond their obvious signifiers, however, and this renders them static; they cannot be bodied forth as individuals in his readers’ minds.
For example, in “Displace,” the maid that Loh portrays waiting for her “Little Mam” to finish school is talking to “seemingly [ . . . ] no one [ . . . ] familiar sounds on the tongue / tripping down a black wire to / this place she calls tahanan: / limited reception, out of reach”. Other than the use of the Tagalog word tahanan, nothing individuates this domestic helper. The poem is left as a snapshot of the most generic kind. Similarly in “Musical Chairs,” Loh’s eye roves over a variety of figures on the train, and while he attempts to comprehend their individual gravities he ultimately confines each person to imaginary containers that resemble the train compartments they inhabit. Most telling of his observations is that of “that woman / with the smell [ . . . ] / her belongings in a big red plastic bag: / an empty Coke can rolls out from her world.” Is “her world” the plastic bag that seems to carry her few and only possessions, or the socioeconomic reality that she has momentarily left to join this disparate gathering of nighttime commuters? The reality, perhaps, that the narrator refuses to or cannot engage with more intimately?
For Loh, observing the city is evidently not the same as being obliged to react to—much less participate in—its issues. The corollary of such narrative distance, however, is that these ‘fringe’ members of society are displayed for seemingly no purpose other than to demonstrate that the narrator possesses a capacity for empathy. On the other hand, his refusal to get closer to his subjects might suggest a more classically ethnographic approach. His distance does not distract from the analytical quality of his poetry, and this permits him to speak more resounding truths about urban living and the spaces—physical and emotional—that we choose to inhabit. For one, it hints at the extent to which a person can be knowable. At the same time, it questions whether this limit is a natural human phenomenon or the wages of living in the city-space.
Loh suggests that distance is both a necessary and fundamental condition of city life. The irony of urban solitude is heightened; we are never actually alone—we are always surrounded by ghosts. In “Temporary Occupation Permit (TOP),” Loh compels us to consider the disconcerting Singaporean reality of making space for the living by building atop the dead: “The broader the living smile / for the camera, the harder it is to frame a shot / with enough standing room for ghosts. / Yet the dead remain in fluorescent fingers / that pat every brick and corridor in place”. Nothing is sacred, and history, too, is a spectre. In “Places that Matter,” we are reminded that heritage is made to give way to modernity:
To save space in the city, I hear Malays have stacked burials. Bodies are laid to rest atop one another in the configuration of eternal peace while, above, tired bodies turn the key, opening with a well-oiled click locks to high-rise apartments. [ . . . . ] To save space in the city the Chinese are said to house their dead in concrete complexes with block, floor, and unit numbers. The dead never go away [ . . . ]
Within these apartments built on ‘reclaimed’ land, lovers are likened to the locked rooms they occupy (“Weakness”), suggesting that even in intimacy, individual universes are impenetrable. These dissonances are reiterated in his second collection of poetry. Loh’s debut, Transparent Strangers, can in many ways be read as his aesthetic manifesto, and Bitter Punch is clearly a sequel. His narrators maintain distance from the subjects in his poems, but the naivete that runs like a current in his first collection smoulders here into an ashy maturity redolent of walking in an alleyway at night, with only the light of a cigarette on a distant stranger’s lips to signal the end of the path.
The narrators’ encounters with ‘archetypes’ are now coloured by subtle but surprising details that make their subjects more real. For instance, in “Lotus, or Ah Lian and Proud,” the titular Ah Lian wears “[c]anvas shoes in the blankest shade of youth, the hole near / the toecap a fallen petal at her feet”. By likening the the hole in her shoe to a flower petal, Loh limns the generic, challenging any stereotypical “first impressions”. Similarly, in “96,” Loh depicts a Chinese chestnut seller shouting “chestnuts / instead of gao luck”. The narrator who hears his cries then has “something inside [him] shrivelled / to make way for footsteps / freshly fallen after rain, / or a tongue / fallen by the wayside”. Sociolinguistic history is made before the narrator’s eyes, humanising the darker side of progress in the city.
What differs in this collection, too, is the sudden force of the narrator’s presence in the text. In Transparent Strangershe is self-effacing, but in Bitter Punch his emotional responses come to the fore. It is he who responds to the chestnut seller, and it is he who resists with anger certain city lifestyles in poems like “House of Gold”. “Who gives a galloping fuck,” he asserts, counterposing Lamborghinis with “a good read, / where thunder resides in a pause [ . . . ] words / are bricks in a house of gold, / affordable to all with the patience to see / inner lives through another’s words”. That final line of the poem reflects Loh’s shift from observer to inhabitant, and this is obvious not only in his new textual portraits but also in his movement towards intimate relationships.
Romance in Bitter Punch, however, does not manifest as love poems, but through depictions of marital and relational breakdown. Here, love is depicted through its shadow, the bruised fruit of its deficiency, cinders after the fire. The third section of the book, aptly titled “Blunt Trauma,” is devoted to these dissolutions and addressed to an enigmatic multiplicity of ‘yous’. The “strangers” that populate Loh’s first collection are replaced by those whom the ‘I’ has compromised ethnographic distance and risked heartache to know. The appearance of the ‘you’ pronoun in Loh’s poems is significant: first, it reinforces the limits of truly understanding another, especially in the context of city life. Second, it indicates the limits of language as a means of knowing, apprehending, and representing complex relationships. The failures of intimacy deepen here; while Loh attempts to bridge the distances he demarcates in his first collection, he is rewarded by the loss of love.
A shift in power also occurs in this section: the failed marriage turns the narrator from observer to observed:
Neighbours ask if she is moving
and she says she is moving on.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
There is no escaping the private eyes
blinking, catching the glint of a trinket
and its blunt trauma on her marriage.
This reversal carries with it a kind of violence as well. Up to this point, Loh’s narrators derive their authority from the act of looking. It is always other people that Loh selectively constructs identities for, or imposes narratives upon; the ‘I’ is never examined. In this poem ‘I’ is suddenly the subject, and the distorted mirror through which he peers at himself proffers the image of a vulnerable man.
When Loh turns his narrators’ functions as observers and storytellers inwards, towards themselves, he relinquishes some control over his poetic territory. The ‘I’ becomes one of the many strangers in his poetry, no longer a cartographer of loneliness, but another symbol on that map. Loh’s vulnerability provides a suitable counterpoint to his focus on city life. Loh’s poetry seems to suggest that the city responds to the human desire for intimacy with distancing. The titular bitter punch is, then, perhaps the brutal composure needed to defend oneself from a city that wishes to map its alienation onto its inhabitants.
Barger, John Wall. “Three Young Books: The Invisible Manuscript, Chasing Curtained Suns and Transparent Strangers.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal Issue 23 (March 2014). Web.
Loh Guan Liang. Bitter Punch. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2016.
—. Transparent Strangers. Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2012.