Written by Tissina George
Dated 4 Nov 2015

Ng Yi-Sheng writes in various genres, most notably plays and poetry, for which he has won numerous local prizes; he is also involved with performance poetry, and has performed slam poetry at various literary events. His poems have been published in journals such as SoftblowQueer and Asian Journal, as well as poetry anthologies such as First Words and Love Gathers All. He has published one collection of poetry, last boy, which won the Singapore Literature Prize in 2008. Lee Tzu Pheng states that Ng’s writing is “always good for a romp through the enticing playground of language” while allowing readers to catch their breath “and observe the soul-ground” upon which Ng’s poetry romps. This poetry delights in wordplay, the whimsical and the fantastic, while exploring issues of identity and sexuality.

Ng draws images and words from disciplines ranging from mythology to chemistry. In “Meitnerium Anniversary,” he writes of element 109:

Formed in the lab
by repeated bombardment of iron and bismuth,
I suggest the pendant. If the combined energy of two nuclei
is sufficient, repulsion is overcome. It complements
a lead apron, atomic weight 265 [ . . . ]

The poem demonstrates Ng’s delight in overturning his readers’ expectations. “[P]latinum is very yesterday,” he assures us blithely, and in a few words strips the element of its apparent importance. The dense, rare element, which is produced only with great difficulty and is thus valuable, is reduced to a passé fashion trend. Instead, Ng focusses on meitnrium, an element with a half-life of at most 7.6 seconds, in order to reveal beauty through transience.

“kami/kaze: a correspondence” demonstrates this tendency. The poem begins with the deadpan line, “An astronaut and a samurai fall in love”. Ng imagines what the astronaut and samurai write to each other—despite coming from different worlds, the duo eventually reveal themselves to be more alike than not. The title of the poem initially suggests a self-destroying impossible relationship, a kamikaze run. But by splitting the words—“kami/kaze”—Ng reminds us of the origins of the word: the “divine wind” of the samurai. The initial connotations of self-destruction grow to accommodate the word as a symbol of protection. Again it is the fragile and the transitory that reveals beauty, this time in the romance of the samurai and the astronaut.

Although sexuality is a central concern in Ng’s poems, it is not always framed in terms of identity politics. Instead, Ng chooses to focus on the personal, the minutiae of the relationships he describes. He gives his readers glimpses of everyday life, small moments painted with emotion. Even here, he employs his characteristic trick of exalting something, and then unceremoniously cutting it down—in “Desert People,” for instance, he writes:

[ . . . ] I told him, “Daniel,
your skin is pale and dazzling, like the sand.
uncountable and brilliant is your skin.”
“I need a tan,” he mumbled [ . . . ]

Moments close to levity, such as this one, lend realism to an otherwise purely lyrical, near-mythic poem, a pattern which repeats throughout his collection. Ng borrows heavily from esoteric mythologies and science in order to create fantastic landscapes in his poetry; however, the poems always return to the intimacies of personal relationships. Ultimately, Ng’s poems blend dreamscapes from our embodied and imagined worlds that evoke their most singular qualities.

Works cited

Ng Yi-Sheng. Last Boy. Singapore: Firstfruits Publications, 2006.