Shifting Lights and Landscapes in Aaron Lee's Poetry

Written by Eric Tinsay Valles
Dated 4 Nov 2015

Aaron Lee’s poetic imagination was shaped to a large extent by an early appreciation of nature. In a recent talk at his alma mater, the National University of Singapore (NUS), he said his observation of lush nature scenes in Malaysia as a boy made his senses fully awake and receptive to their surroundings. He saw, for instance, “the dangerous beauty of rain” that was magical and yet caused seasonal flooding. This found poetic expression in such works as “Tropical Lullaby”:

Waiting for the rain
has a suspense
like no other.
Its silence
Is the exhaustion
of hysterical trees

(A Visitation of Sunlight)

Lee started writing poems about family and friends in his immediate environment when he attended Raffles Institution. There, he made friends and collaborated with other writers such as Alvin Pang and Jeffrey Lim. With them, he published an anthology of poems, In Search of Words (1991). He continued to hone his craft as an undergraduate at NUS, where he penned the poem that lent its title to his first collection of poems. This collection was hailed as one of the best books of 1997 by The Straits Times.

Like the older Edwin Thumboo, Lee considers himself as “a pilgrim poet with a love for language and a longing for what God called us to do” (The Poetic Life). Lee’s search for symbols adequate to what he sees as his calling links his sensory experiences in various places to spiritual growth. In the style of the divines, he approaches poetry as a creative space on which to map out his pilgrimage from the dark night of the soul (the first part of his first collection is aptly entitled “Night’s Long Road”) to perpetual light (his third collection ends with the poem entitled “Laniakea,” which in Hawaiian means “immeasurable heaven”). Through spiritual lenses, Lee raises various artifacts from Malaysia, Singapore, Hawaii and disparate places of art to the realm of contemplation. He withdraws to private spaces in the modern city, holy places, literary texts and seaside haunts for solace and inner strength that he later shares in intimacy with others.

A central motif in Lee’s spiritual journey is light, an objective correlative for spiritual truth. He describes various shades of light in diverse landscapes in order to cling to fragile memories of an innocent self, and to suggest a striving for wholeness. This strategy is eminently ethical as his dramatic speakers engage others in the world. For him, peace and happiness are attained through a fundamental awareness of personal frailty and a commitment to others. This is the premise of the poem “Just Some Found Words”:

If, on the strange path of life,
you happen to meet any of the sisters
Truth, Love or Beauty,
follow them closely.
Eventually you will meet their father
who had sent them out to seek
pilgrims on the mountain

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

your journey ends

you are finally home

(Coastlands 33)

Not all is utopian, however, in Lee’s earthly home. Poet and critic Gwee Li Sui notes in an introduction to Lee’s second collection, Five Right Angles, that “no reflective adventure here cleans up well in the name of beautiful art; what Lee leaves behind is the itch of conscience, very elemental dust”. This unease, what Lee calls “the happy struggle in my vocation as a writer,” is a recurring theme throughout his oeuvre. In the more recent “The Poet in Hawaii,” for instance, he declares partly in exasperation and partly in wistfulness:

If they say imagination is the eye of the heart
then let me only hope to see the light:
these wandering birds, the waving sea,
and always, your watchful gaze unmasking me

(Coastlands 13)

The desire for the spiritual is matched by an opposite tug of fallen human nature, a tendency toward anomie in relationships and the act of writing.

Such introspection makes the poet Yeow Kai Chai declare that Lee is “probably the most discreetly contemplative” of his generation of poets who were published in the 1990s (“Proust Questionnaire: 17 questions with Aaron Lee”). Lee admits that he approaches poetic writing “as a way of making sense of life and speculating about the transcendent: life after death, philosophy, the deepest concerns that we have in life”. He frequently dwells on the poet’s responsibility and awareness of personal inadequacy. In the early poem “Pentagram: an emblem in retrospect,” Lee maintains that the poet is a kind of wizard who “forces from empty air, / stuttering incantations. / Utterances my very own”. In “Monk Seal,” from his latest volume, the older poet remains faithful to the habit of meditation but does so while reaching out to all of creation. He writes, “Our delight like the pouring sea, and then, as I said – / It set off toward the world, its cry a glorious prayer”.

As a reflection of his spirituality, Lee eschews linguistic acrobatics in favour of a pared-down style in writing. The starkness of Lee’s verse that tends to focus on central images with sometimes minimal elaboration may have led Daryl Lim Wei Jie to dismiss Lee as having “a tendency [ . . . ] to be on the safe side” (“Safe Harbour”). Lee depicts mundane realities in a markedly austere style, in a tradition of spiritual writing that extends back to the Preacher in Ecclesiastes or St. Augustine. The latter recommends a restrained style that moderates emotions and facilitates the assimilation of ideas by the masses. St. Augustine also prescribes a metaphorical language “which makes some other thing come to mind, besides the impression that [is presented] to the senses” (On Christian Teaching II. 1.1). Lee certainly makes use of variants of light as metaphors, such as “slow light” (“Time Lapse,” Coastlands) and “stirring stars” (“Moe’uhane,” Coastlands), in order to reveal his dramatic speakers’ inner state. When he narrates tragedies, be they misreading (“Too Little, Too Late,” Coastlands) or breakups (“Breakup,” Coastlands), they have none of the convulsive inner feelings and defiant individuality that characterise the writings of many of his contemporary Singaporean poets. “Breakup,” which Lim cites as evidence for his claim, is not “somewhat out of place” in this collection but is, in fact, central to Lee’s project of delineating liminal states. The poem’s second stanza begins with the sensation of detached, mechanical motion (“A cab winds by, engine purring”). This motion is ruptured by a psychological coastland or divide between the poem’s two subjects (“leaves him on shore and her at sea”). Both subjects are reunited, albeit in a fleeting moment, in the spiritual realm of song (“They both hear its radio slurring: / Can’t count on daddy to love me…”). There is neither represented speech nor any narrative artifice here. The focus remains on the essential lived experience.

At the heart of Lee’s literary canvas is empathy for suffering humanity in sometimes glorious but still broken spaces. He says, “We are all bound to each other. There is much to be thankful for and be joyful about life. My poetry is my small contribution to that”. This empathy is shown in familiar, urban landscapes as in the poems “City Beat” and “Scene on the North-East Line” fromFive. “City Beat” traces a boy’s transformation in parallel with that of his city. The poem yearns for lost innocence but, like the boy and the city, is swept along by contemporary bustle in a tide of anonymity. The city’s denizens lead dull lives as suggested by the kind of light that they reflect: “And they are faintly luminous, as if on last legs, / slackened and unchoosing about their whereabouts”. Finally, these urbanites have to rely on their wits to survive in the city, which is shown ominously to be a beast stalking its children (“[ . . . ] their city close on their heels”).

“Scene on the North-East Line” is also about a relationship, this time a romantic one. The poem features some of Lee’s most sensuous imagery: “Her forehead pressed tightly against his blue shirt. / Seeing the curve of her neck, he changed his mind / and was silent. He listened as she spoke, quietly”. The reader is not privy to the content of the couple’s conversation. That is not the poet’s concern. But there is a suggestion of a gulf between the couple that is mirrored by the mood of the environment (“an island of regret’).

Lee’s empathy for mortality, another significant motif, crosses national borders. In “Frangipani,” the tropical flower—its Latin and Hawaiian names are listed in a parenthetic remark to indicate its universality—is observed from a third person viewpoint. The flower becomes a metaphor for the glories and fleetingness of physical robustness and beauty. The frangipani’s allure overwhelms its observer’s senses, especially of sight and smell:

In early summer waxy blooms
might start to show, absolve as fragrances
of jasmine, citrus, spices, and other wilding scents.

But, as in his early work, danger looms, and one has in mind the Ecclesiastes Preacher’s constant refrain “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, / vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (1:2). In the end, Lee writes:

New blooms are promised every day,
line-strung, laced
on dancers’ necks, slowly
plume in air to loss.


Lee’s landscapes reflect his lyrical speakers in a fast-changing world. They express the poet’s vulnerability in the face of the dualities of life and death, love and loss, rootedness and dislocation. His response to this liminal existence is to remember vignettes of hope and joy and, when these prove to be elusive and impossible to recreate, to use his imagination to transgress boundaries, even those of memory.

Works cited

Augustine. On Christian Teaching. Trans. RPH Green. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Lee, Aaron Soon Yong. A Visitation of Sunlight. Singapore: Ethos Books, 1997.

—. Coastlands. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2014.

—. Five Right Angles. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2007.

—. The Poetic Life. Talk. Aug 2015.

Lim, Daryl Wei Jie. “Safe Harbour.” Quarterly Literary Review Singapore 14.1. (2015). Web.

Yeow Kai Chai. “Proust Questionnaire: 17 questions with Aaron Lee.” Quarterly Literary Review Singapore 13.4. (2014). Web.