Written by Cyril Wong
Dated 4 Nov 2015

Paul Tan has always exhibited a keen consciousness of his craft within his poetry collections. Another poet, Aaron Lee, has pointed out that other than poems “born in the midst of his everyday routine,” Tan also displays a unique disposition for observation and reflection, with the occasional cheekiness and lightly interrogative gesture. Although Tan’s earlier works can seem generalised in their depictions of scenes and places, they still reveal a nascent eagerness to critique social changes. “Changing Bus Routes” from Curious Roads, his debut publication, takes the reader into a deserted bus interchange, lamenting the processes of urbanisation that have neglected a dilapidated Singaporean neighbourhood:

This is an old estate.
Look at the algae-ridden bricks—
best to be forgotten, they said…
There are no buses here,
only feasting spirits
on these unswept avenues.

A sense of nostalgia is overstated and a reference to “feasting spirits” too cursorily evokes Tan’s own cultural heritage.

Aside from glancing at his social milieu, Tan also laments superficially about the clash of language cultures within his own self-definition. In his second collection Driving Into Rain, Tan regularly stops short of divulging enough about the poet’s persona for readers to enter a more rewarding and connective relationship with the poetry. However, the poem “Watching Frank” stands out for its sudden yet short-lived declarations of solitude and unrequited desires:

The things solitude drives one to do—

What unsavoury excursions—
What undignified propositions—

Tonight I’ve become a
voyeur in this downtown bookstore,
marvelling at your
latest youthful acquisition…

It’s a kinda dirty fascination
but I stop short…
of trailing you
down the escalator—

At home,
I scrub hard in the shower,
listen to the spray of water
draining away.

Nowhere else in the book does Tan write like this again and we are given no more hint of what kind of “unsavoury excursions” the speaker has embarked upon in the past, or why he finds his own desires “dirty” enough to want to take a shower. At the same time, the poem hints at a hidden, or repressed, map of desire that runs under the sanitised surface of a bustling, urban Singapore; a bookstore is no longer a place for buying books but a site for voyeurs with unspeakable longings. This reader is suddenly presented with a city different from its preconceptions, one that is not picture-perfect. Tan has cut an opening in the fabric of conventional assumptions about Singapore through his poetry, such that readers can peek through and encounter a surprising reality about a country not officially endorsed by its tourism brochures.

In his 2006 First Meeting of Hands, Tan arrives at a poem where he is able to achieve a balance between social critique and the characterisation of a distinct and authentic—even if disillusioned and resentful—Singaporean voice. In “Appraisal,” the poet questions the reasons given for being fired:

Mr Tan, you have written here that I’m not…
…aligned to your corporate values,
unable to see the helicopter vision,
myopically clinging on
some stubborn sense of self…
It’s all true. That’s why
I lost—again—that train seat in
the standing-room-only carriage today,
sidling aside like a languorous sloth,
as more focused, purposeful
commuters elbowed their way…
At least I gave them a standing ovation.

The poem is a strong indictment of the value-system within corporatised Singapore and its unrealistic expectations which leave disillusioned Singaporeans out in the cold. The private revelation about how the speaker has been trying to stay true to his “stubborn sense of self”—unlike the others who have presumably sold their souls to corporate culture—and that cinematic detail of the persona “losing” his seat, then standing in order to give an ironic ovation, provide a sardonic and revealing portrayal of the poet’s conflicted, internal world.

Works cited

Lee, Aaron. “Hand on Heartlands.” Quarterly Literary Review Singapore 6.1. (2006). Web.

Tan Kim Liang, Paul. Curious Roads. Singapore, EPB Publishers, 1994.

—. Driving Into Rain. Singapore: Raffles Editions, 1998.

—. First Meeting of Hands. Singapore: Firstfruits Publications, 2006.