Written by Ng Yi-Sheng
Dated 4 Nov 2015

Teng Qian Xi is a young poet, with only one solo collection to her name: the Singapore Literature Prize-nominated They hear salt crystallising. Nevertheless, hers is a voice that calls attention to itself in Singapore literature, especially due to her unflinching commentaries on the nation’s political history.

“Casualties of the Efficient World” is her indictment of the government’s bilingualism policy and Speak Mandarin Campaign, which resulted in the annihilation of Chinese dialect culture:

Twenty-two years ago, my parents began to limp
across a road leading out of Singapore filled with shattered ideograms

reflecting the sky of the efficient English world.

Two days before I was born, dialect storytellers
spooled in their stories and Confucian values from the airwaves

like coiling malt on splintering sticks,
grateful for praise in a prime minister’s speech.

Now, the illiterates die silently in old folk’s homes
where someone else writes their name on their death certificate

and in white rooms children are born each day.
From plastic cribs red birth-cries bloom briefly;

new named tongues pare the bilingual air.

Note how Teng integrates politics and biography here. In this and other pieces, she explores the experiences of her ex-leftist, Chinese-educated parents and her own state-supported “élite” education, illustrating the intersections of national history and personal life. Likewise, she relates the story of leftist suppression in Singapore is told through a tender portrait poem “On History,” which simultaneously lionises and humanises the exiled politician Lim Chin Siong.

Ironically, Teng’s poetry could itself be used as evidence of the success of Singapore’s education system, though this is a claim she denies on the grounds of her class privilege. She is unambiguously bicultural, drawing on the literature and lore of both China and the West. She shines a spotlight on the heroines (and heroes) of Greek myth, Genesis and Chinese legend, reimagining their lives, reclaiming their rage with her vivid, precise language. She experiments daringly with form, giving us a prose poem, a ghazal, a poem made up of found text–and, of course the searing “three love objects,” wherein her lines intertwine with those of the Tang Dynasty poet Li Shangyin, the French Renaissance poet Joachim du Bellay, and the modern Romanian poet Paul Celan.

Yet it would be remiss to only view Teng’s work through the lens of politics and interculturality. Some of her strongest work consists of deeply personal poems, excavating the traumatic experience of growing up–“An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump” even shines a light on her failed suicide attempt, “filled with jazz and twenty chalk-white pills”. Other poems are dedicated to friends and ex-lovers, examining the emotional tussle of each relationship, as pungent with yearning as they are enigmatic. Consider “Rescue,” which comes with the subtitle “(for C)”:

We pushed toward the centre
of the dance-floor, the crowd
about to separate our group any minute–
the first time you took my hand
was out of necessity.
Five years on, it still feels
as if you are carrying an injured animal
which you wish to keep from further harm,
searching for a habitat where
it might survive,
its body slack in your hands.
It is in shock,
it cannot see that your touch

was a prelude to the end
of your duty
to another living creature.

Pain, loss, numbness: these are the themes that run deep in They hear salt crystallising. Yet Teng’s craft is so honed, so modulated, that the work never sounds self-indulgent. Instead, we are mesmerised by the poet’s voice, moved into feeling the same sorrow.

Works cited

Teng Qian Xi. They hear salt crystallising. Singapore: Firstfruits Publications, 2010.