Critical Introduction

by Daryl Lim and Esther Ng, 4 Nov 2015

Aaron Maniam’s debut collection of poems is characterised by an endearing simplicity. His lines suggest just enough to trigger recognition in the reader, and then to let it subside just as inconspicuously as it had surfaced. The poems remind one of the soothing sense of being read to by a loved one. The tone is sincere and clear, resulting in a collection of poems that is touching: one that says things just as they are, without being overtly intentional or cloying.

The images in Morning often describe the familiar, that of “dried leaf rojak,” “Grandpa’s white” and places familiar to Singaporeans, such as the MRT and Newton Circus. In doing so, Maniam conjures a common space in which we readers comfortably fit, our varying impressions and memories filling in this shared space. Maniam does not overpower with his imagery, but rather dwells on the ordinary, the prosaic, leaving the reader with a sense of unusual resonance, much like listening to the sound of footsteps walking away.

Most of the poems in the collection seem to gesture towards the idea of a place that exists in between moments of simply being. Maniam invites us to that place between memory and dream, a momentary dwelling that can slip by unnoticed. In “Remembering Jalan Kayu,” he wonders whether thoughts would choose to float

In the morning, at memory’s border?
Rising above recollection and remembrance
Might they also, somehow,
Avoid being forgotten?

This is also a place of fragility. The persona states that “Some places permit only tentative steps,” and “So we tread softly, / Respecting the silent store,” highlighting the sacredness of what we usually deem mundane. This notion is further explored in “Ordinary”:

There’s a certain comfort, restful
helpful salve, in nothing. Those
moments people don’t write poems about don’t
think of don’t talk of don’t remember:
which hover around hearts, brushing softly,
softly as we forget to forget them.

Maniam shows us how these moments of seeming nothingness deserve to be investigated, and if considered seriously reveal themselves as intimate, dear.

A common theme explored by Maniam’s poems is both the fear and desire of giving place and light to things that are overshadowed or lost: the could-have-been. He speaks of this concern in “Words Lost”. “What happens to the words we lose?” the persona wonders; “You know the words I mean: / Those we manage to touch, hold fast to”. For Maniam, these things that are lost or overshadowed function as a connection to the spaces between. He likens these things to the umbilical cord: “At the frail umbilical string / Connecting us, it floats away / While we, with all we have, / To retreating shadows cling…,” emphasising the fragility and also the organic nature of this connection. As we read further, the persona says that what we are losing is “This between-world straddling / Memory and Dream, will come the ache / Of words that recede from recollection / Before they start to be, or even seem”. This is the space where comfort and nothingness overlap, where the poems in this collection reside in. However, Maniam resists over-indulging in this notion in “Maths Tutorial ii”. Here he suggests a value in severance, rather than connection: “As much as it pains us / Sometimes we must admit / That love’s subtraction / Is also a kind of adding”.

The last poem in the collection, “Standing Still,” is perhaps the best example of Maniam’s ability to say a lot with very little:

Standing here, I brush shards of knowing
That space is sometimes just the lack
Of sound; and why these spaces,
This stony syntax, is what God chose
For chronicle, canon and commandment;
Why, to places like this, we bring
Our most quiet prayers and wordless pleas.

“Standing Still” celebrates the power of simplicity, encapsulating the poet’s ability to bring together grand ideas and imagery with the small things of the everyday.

Aside from the consideration of the quotidian, a clutch of three poems halfway through Morning also explore Maniam’s position as a Singaporean Indian in multiracial Singapore. “Uncles over Christmas Dinner” recreates Christmas dinner conversations in Maniam’s family, in all their bewildering, multilingual and cross-cultural variety. A relative asks:

What about the chapati, dhal and naan
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I know they’re not really Christmas fare
But you can’t take the mama out of the man!

The result is a glimpse into Maniam’s complex position as a Singaporean Indian poet writing in English, and sets the stage perfectly for two more explorations of this identity. We find out that although Maniam is of Tamil extraction, he does not speak much Tamil. Maniam’s use of two Western poetic forms, the sonnet and the pantun (a Malay form, but also adapted for Western use) accentuates the peculiarity of Maniam’s situation. In the playful sonnet “Alagappan: A non-speaker’s guide to Tamil names,” Maniam’s persona struggles with a Tamil name:

[ . . . ] I, a marooned native, the truly poor,
Tongue stiff and lazy from English lure,
Tried to play this acrobatic game
Of gymnastic g’s and d swapped for t
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Try as I might, nothing could leaven
The taste of these names from my ethnic tree.

In “Pantun for a Drink Seller at Newton Circus,” the playfulness of the previous poem is transformed into an urgent question: “What kind of Indian are you?”, a drink seller asks the persona in Tamil. But the speaker is only able to reply in Malay, “our one common tongue,” because he has “abandoned the sarabat-prata tradition,” with his “stammering Tamil, two words of Urdu”.

Maniam does not proceed to answer this question, at least not directly. But in the last section, “Borders,” with poems set entirely overseas, one probable answer to the question, (and a counterpoint to the preceding poems, which dwelt on memory, identity and the interior self), is that travel, and the world outside Singapore, are a crucial part of self-discovery. In this, Maniam is not unique: themes of travel are ubiquitous in Singaporean poetry. Like so many Singaporean poets, there is a sense in Maniam’s poetry that looking outwards relieves the intensity of self-examination. But left unresolved is that tension that exists in so much of Singaporean poetry: whether the cosmopolitan is a sufficient salve for local anxieties.

Works Cited

Maniam, Aaron. Morning at Memory’s Border. Singapore: Firstfruits Publications, 2005.