Critical Introduction

by Daryl Lim, 4 Nov 2015

Professor Eddie Tay is the author of three poetry collections: remnants (Ethos Books, 2001), A Lover’s Soliloquy (Sixth Finger Press, 2005) and The Mental Life of Cities (Chameleon Press, 2010). The Mental Life of Cities won the 2012 Singapore Literature Prize for poetry. He is also the reviews editor of the Hong Kong-based literary journal, Cha, where he maintains a considerable critical presence. Tay has also written an academic study entitled Colony, National, and Globalisation: Not at Home in Singaporean and Malaysian Literature (Hong Kong University Press, 2011), which studies the condition of anxiety and unease that comes with “being neither here nor there — not at home where one should be,” as demonstrated in selected Anglophone literary works of Singapore and Malaysia. Born in Singapore, Tay is a resident of Hong Kong, and a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where he teaches creative writing and poetry.

Tay’s work has shown a sustained engagement with the themes of history, migration, alienation, the urban condition and bilingualism. Tay’s first collection, remnants, can be split into roughly two main sections: one section, “remnants,” dramatises episodes from Singapore’s mythic and colonial past, while the other section features Tay’s free adaptations (the project here is not quite ‘translation’) of three Tang dynasty poets, Li Po (Li Bai), Du Fu and Li Ho (Li He). A third, somewhat truncated, section features a clutch of five, more broadly personal poems. In the section “remnants,” Tay first inhabits the mythical Singa or lion of Singapore’s founding, then other legendary and historical figures such as Sang Nila Utama, Munshi Abdullah and Wang Da Yuan. Episodes from Singapore’s past are rendered in a mythic, pre-modern register reminiscent of Edwin Thumboo and Wong Phui Nam. Particularly compelling is the poem “letters from china,” which re-creates the starvation and miserable conditions which drove the Chinese migrants from China to the Straits:

Every day your brother pulls tight his sash,
praying for rain with his two withered hands.
Mother boils roots, weeds and insects with ash.
The arid sky is not ours to command.

It is Tay’s engagement with the acclaimed Tang poets that proves the most fruitful in remnants. His adaptations imbue them with an urgency and force one does not ordinarily associate with Tang poetry. The situation of the outcast and the exile (alienated by bad governance and common in Tang poetry), is wonderfully dramatised in the poems of Li Bai and Du Fu. In Li He we have something else utterly different: a crazed and spectral poetry that unsettles and amazes.

In A Lover’s Soliloquy, Tay’s second volume, Tay adapts the poetry of the late Tang poet, Li Shangyin, under the section “Versions.” Li Shangyin’s poetry is famously allusive and enigmatic—and difficult to translate. Tay’s adaptation of a famous poem, 錦瑟 (“The Ornamented Zither”), demonstrates these qualities:

It is easy to go wayward
with this instrument of fifty strings—
I stood corrected every time
I was released from playing.

Was I dreaming
I was a butterfly
or a butterfly
dreaming it was a man?

A chance breeze
will play a melody of lives—
was I the Emperor
who loved his Prime Minister’s wife?

Tonight, a full moon,
a from lips of oysters
beneath the lake are pearls
of a demon beauty.

I wait by the mountain
trailed with veins of jade.
Dazed by the smoke of dawn,
I think of you and do no work.

Night after night,
I keep telling myself
It is easy to go wayward
with this instrument of fifty strings.

Several points should be noted about Tay’s method of free adaptation. Tay does not stick to the verse form of the original, which comprises four lines of two parts each: each stanza in Tay’s version does not always correspond to a half-line. More specific references (to Zhuangzi and to the Emperor Wang, who seduced his Prime Minister’s wife) are removed and left vague. Tay’s renditions of Li Shangyin build upon his earlier work on the Tang poets, and offer a refreshing take on Li’s poetry. The titular long poem, “A Lover’s Soliloquy,” blends urban malaise and longing to create a bleak, haunted meditation on love and loss. Less noteworthy in A Lover’s Soliloquy are the “Everyday Poems,” the third section of the collection, which seem insignificant and light, yielding little depth.

Tay’s third and most recent collection, The Mental Life of Cities, is really a comparison and interrogation of the two cities in Tay’s life: Singapore and Hong Kong. The titular “The Mental Life of Cities” brings to mind the modernist examination of the city present in T. S. Eliot’s poetry (most notably in “The Waste Land”) and also Ezra Pound’s diglossic poems, blending Chinese and English. “The Mental Life of Cities” is a disenchanted, hollowed-out paean to urban life. “This island of a city is pure invention,” the poet remarks, mockingly, about Singapore:

This island of a city is pure invention;
we live in flats, neat and compliant
like tombstones:
a book-length study of poetry
is titled Responsibility and Commitment.

There is dissatisfaction with Tay’s country of birth—“I am homesick in the city of my birth”—but it is uncertain if Hong Kong offers greater satisfaction. After all, both are metropolises, governed by the same logic of capitalism and consumerism. To quote Tay, in part xviii of the poem, “After property and stocks, what else is there?”. In another poem: “Happiness is money / in the bank and sound investments” (“Giving Praise”). In sharp relief to “Cities,” the poems in the last section “Self-Portrait” offer a glimpse into the poet’s life, with poems that are often moving, insightful and engagingly personal. The city, hostile and uncomprehending in “Cities,” has left real, personal marks on Tay and his family. A section from the poem “Letter to my Baby Daughter born on Hong Kong” demonstrates this:

Singapore and Hong Kong are to mummy and daddy what Hong Kong and Singapore will be to both of you. I can’t help but think I’ll lose you to Hong Kong, the way I am losing Titus, who no longer talks about the MRT the way he used to back in Singapore. You might grow up thinking that the MRT in Singapore is the subway with its “R” misplaced.

Tay is referring to Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway (MTR) and Singapore’s Mass Rapid Transit (MRT). In this small detail we see how Hong Kong and Singapore are refractions of each other; both are deeply involved in the poet’s life, new and old. What is interesting about The Mental Life of Cities is that despite urban disenchantment there is no real desire for the pastoral. The city is all we have, Tay seems to say, and despite our dissatisfactions, we shall have to make meaning within its confines. This includes poetry, of course.

Tay’s poetry has moved from the excavation of the past to the uncertain urban future. In his engagement with the Chinese poets of the past, Tay has also recovered glittering gems. The future, with possibilities both utopian and dystopian, will no doubt place new demands on Tay’s writing.


Works Cited

Eddie Tay. remnants. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2000.

—. A Lover’s Soliloquy. Hong Kong: Sixth Finger Press, 2005.

—. The Mental Life of Cities. Hong Kong: Chameleon Press 2010.

—. Colony, Nation, and Globalisation: Not at Home in Singaporean and Malaysian Literature. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press. 2011.