Arthur Yap (1943–2006)
“Where memory is too much, one turns to the eye”: Brief Notes on Arthur Yap
Written by Boey Kim Cheng
Dated 4 Nov 2015
I do not know if the old coffeeshop opposite the Substation is still operating, if the short pudgy assistant who, though in his forties, wears an unfulfilled adolescent look, still takes orders with a sulky look, and relays them with a drawn-out sigh. Periodically in his letters, Arthur would reassure me it was still there, and that he looked forward to having a coffee with me there on my return visit. Here we had talked for the first time, and here we had our last coffee and smoke together, before I left for Singapore, before we quit cigarettes altogether, he because of his throat cancer, I because of my new life down under.
We loved that corner of Singapore because it was relatively untouched: the faded lime-green paint, the peeling plaster, the tables and chairs spilling out on to the five-foot way and even the pavement, the subtle calligraphy of weed in the cracks between the shuttered windows, the old-time atmosphere, the cab-drivers, retirees, the skiving workers bartering news. Over coffee and cigarettes (Arthur smoked Peter Stuyvesant) we lamented the changes erasing the places we loved. The entire stretch of Orchard Road from Amber Mansions to the old CK Tang, Raffles Place, Bras Basah Road. We felt anachronistic, exiled from our own country. You could see the yearning in Arthur’s eyes for the older Singapore, a pain that is expressed with characteristic irony in “old house at ang siang hill”: “nothing much will be missed / eyes not tradition tell you this” (only lines).
In the 70s, he was perhaps the first Singapore poet to register the passing of the old Singapore in his work. Understated, anti-Romantic, the poems resist the sentimental colours that Singapore artists clothe vanished sights like the River and Chinatown in. Poems like “there is no future in nostalgia” deride the nostalgic impulse. But the yearning, the missed sights become more palpable in the ironic detachment:
& certainly no nostalgia in the future of the past.
now, the corner cigarette-seller is gone, is perhaps dead.
no, definitely dead, he would not otherwise have gone.
he is replaced by a stamp-machine,
the old cook by a pressure-cooker,
the old rickshaw-rider’s stand by a fire hydrant,
the washer-woman by a spin-dryer
& it goes on
in various variations & permutations.
there is no future in nostalgia.
The absence is cumulative, the list of disappeared sights casually noted makes it so much more troubling, poignant. The sense of dislocation is implied through the static verbs, the elliptic touches, the loss hinted at through an act of withholding.
Arthur noticed the swelling tide of change, just as it was becoming unstoppable. In “& the tide” the ironic voice picks out the forces sweeping across the landscape:
& the tide which is being urban-renewed
at bedok must go on its own tidy ways
without too much of a fuss,
coming in riprap waves [ . . . ]
At the time when Singapore writing was affirming the nation-building agenda, Arthur was protesting in his quiet way the unthinking removal of the old. In his own quiet private way, he was quite publicly prophetic.
At the coffeeshop, we were content with few words. I could see Arthur was attuned to the hubbub around us, smiling at the amusing chat next table, delighted by the hybrid language, the Hokkien, Malay, the Singlish that his linguistic ear has transcribed into his own distinctive and inimitable poetic diction. This ear and eye for the mundane and the vernacular is famously exercised in poems like “2 mothers in a hdb playground”. Like William Carlos Williams, Arthur demonstrated how local and seemingly insignificant things can be turn into poetic themes, that poems can be found in even the most unpoetic experience. Arthur noticed what everyone else missed, eavesdropping on the little details on which so much depends, to use William Carlos Williams’s pivotal word. Like Williams and the Imagists, he possessed the art of seeing, the ability to turn the quotidian into poetry with plain words. Paying attention, he was a master at that. Arthur’s work is not the poetry of memory; there are few poems triggered by recall, few that circle back to the past for narrative and meaning. His is the poetry of the now, or what Henri Cartier-Bresson calls the photographic instant, freezing time in a moment of seeing. “The Shisen-Do” embeds Arthur’s ars poetica and reveals his lyric imperative:
no photographer to record the scene, to fail.
a bowl of green tea, a biscuit on a paper square.
always the same tableau, intrinsically still,
the kindling of every sentience.
it is always the same & one can see
it had always been, will be.
(man snake apple)
The poem does not just illustrate the futility of capturing the essence of any event or experience. The tableau offers arrested time, a seeing that honours the thingness of things without any anthropomorphic distortion. The observer is all but erased, hovering on the edge of the poem. This is the beauty of a Yap poem; it frames a contemplative space, just like a Rothko painting, in which the ineffable can be encountered. In “Still-Life IV” the group portrait is fixed in a present tense, the human voices and gestures held in a moment free from past or future:
the friends’ conversation still ranges
across the past as it spreads still
around the table. they ask questions,
not probing into one another’s lives.
they would not care to admit what they cannot.
the children are held in the present,
staring over plates & cups. they have no demands
to make of anyone. they have nothing to remember
or to forget. they know exactly what is, isn’t,
going to happen next. they cup their faces,
lovely, without a cause to decorate.
You can feel the figures in the poem, their unspoken relationships, the past holding them together in interlocked shapes but like Cezanne’s The Card Players or Larkin’s eponymous poem, the poem is not interested in depicting a realist vignette; rather it captures a fleeting moment of equilibrium, of seeing into human time through an abstract configuration. Arthur the painter is never more reconciled with Arthur the poet than in this still-life sequence.
There a tendency for the lyric self to disengage, to resist emotional involvement in the empirical world; this detachment reflex is operative in “i can’t remember where”:
where memory is too much, one turns to the eye;
so i watch the particularities.
in a few days, i shall be going to Osaka.
here, a deep contentment is, at once
I want to leave & never look back.
I know it all now; it was closer then.
The seeing self is detaching itself from the remembering self, resisting engagement with history. The historical contingent is kept out, the world brought into focus and contained in a miniature scene, a tableau vivant. In the fleeting encounter with the phenomenal world, a lyric sensibility or subjectivity emerges that is illusive, vanishing even as it leaves a trace of itself.
The anti-ego spirit in Arthur’s life and work ensures that there is minimal autobiography and a profound respect for the beauty of the everyday. In “a list of things” we can see Williams’s precept “No ideas but in things” put into practice. It is a marvellous example of Arthur’s Zen-like ability to capture the thingness of things, to depict objects and moments in their concentrated particularity. The inventory of things, each object prefixed with arresting epithets: “calm persimmons,” “alliterative clogs,” “discusses of soles,” evokes the materiality of the market magnificently (apple). The self is all but effaced in a luminous homage to the quotidian.
Much has been said about how Arthur’s post-colonial poetics, his mapping out the of the Singapore heartlands through his pioneering use of Singlish, his stylistic signatures—the lower case, the elliptic impulse, the syntactic playfulness, his poetry of the quotidian. But there is an ascetic, spiritual subtext, which is more pronounced in apple. Mark Rothko, whom Arthur admired and I think absorbed a lot of in his art and poetry, says that nothing is so accurate as silence. That which is unspoken leaves a powerful resonant space. Ascetic, winnowed, spare, Arthur’s work does not subscribe to any theology or attempt to draw up a compensating metaphysics, but there is a spirituality, a sense of mystery in the everyday and the visible. Reading “stained glass” is like looking at a Rothko painting; you feel drawn into something inexplicable, ineffable:
& at this ruby-amber corner
i could only gaze & piece together
whatever I had want of. i was free
because I was free from myself;
a mere witness in whom arose a great need,
urging like silent desperation, prayer,
to be included. I could be a mote, kill glass,
a sunsteeped blob of blood. A nothingness.
God, such stillness was.
Your fingers were there.
What do you hold up to bless?
The poem offers a direct, immediate spiritual experience, without self-aggrandisement or the ecstatic language. This is a threshold moment, this is liminal poetry, where the self bows down to the moment, and is about to cross over into a mystery it can experience but not explain. It is poetry that opens itself to the moment and to us, inviting us to listen, and step over with it into the silence.
There are of course many other aspects to Arthur. The Chekhovian dispassion and irony, the wry humour, the keen eye for detail, the socio-political and postcolonial concerns, the minimalist restraint, the playful and often Wittgenstein-like scrutiny of words and things, and so on. In the few poems that were written during a reprieve in the long battle with cancer there is a glimpse of a new phase in Arthur’s work: a narrative eye that can flesh out characters and story in a few deft touches, as in “On Offal” and “Mixed Shots,” published in the October 2001 issue of the Quarterly Literary Review of Singapore. In the latter there is a poignancy that is realised with Chekhovian restraint, and the same echo of regret and longing can be heard in “Fair Youth”; it is as if Arthur’s own feelings of loss and grief are refracted through these late poems. We can only speculate what could have been if cancer had not terminated that brief period of creativity. We are also left wondering about the ten-year silence after apple.
In the coffeeshop we deplored the state of the arts, how writers can be grasping, selfish, and sacrifice integrity for success. Arthur valued a decent human being more than a poet without integrity. He would have agreed with Gerard Manley Hopkins, who in a letter to Robert Bridges, says that it is better to be a gentleman than a poet who has no integrity. Writing and painting were hard for him after his friend Keith’s death, but in the end they did not matter so much to him as the honesty, the humility and courage with which one conducts one’s life. He was the complete gentleman-poet. In life and in art, he has given us a rare model of originality and integrity that we would do well to aspire to.
Reading his poems again, I am struck by the restraint, by how few words are used to achieve such deep resonances. I can feel the presence of the man, even though he kept the self out of his work, someone who lived his art so deeply that he disappeared into his words. His humanity is there, in the lines, the spaces between them, and in the silence where the ego has vanished.
Toh Hsien Min, ed. “The horror the horror.” Quarterly Literary Review Singapore 1.1. (2001). Web.
Yap, Arthur. Commonplace. Singapore: Heinemann Educational Books (Asia), 1977.
—. Down The Line. Singapore: Heinemann Educational Books (Asia), 1980.
—. Man Snake Apple & Other Poems. Singapore: Heinemann Asia, 1986.
—. Only Lines. Singapore: Federal Publications, 1971.