The Auguries of Felix Cheong
Written by Gwee Li Sui
Dated Oct 2009
What happens at the point where the hopes of a wealthy small nation meet the apocalyptic dreams that human civilisation periodically sinks into? Only Felix Cheong may be isolated from Singapore’s wide array of distinct and often pathological writers as its millennial poet, a title to be worn with both pride and much trembling. “Millennial” here suggests not an assured resilience against changing tastes but the opposite, an idiosyncratic power that is most compelling at definite moments in time. Its sense does not require a knowledge of what Cheong has been asserting of late to friends, that the current volume in your hands will represent his last significant adventure in verse. Claims of this sort, with the exception of Arthur Rimbaud’s, are seldom absolute and may signal more a concern with the muse’s apparent failure to regenerate.
The case with Cheong is, however, unique because exhaustion itself has been a defining quality of his verse from the start. He alone, of all Singaporean writers, was born fatigued, his poems struggling against emotional odds that he never feels quite able to overcome. His voice tends to crackle as if the poet has been systemically destroyed by his writing (how else can one read, for example, “Missing You”?), as if art, like Dorian Gray’s portrait, expends his soul even while it is ennobling him. The Christian Bible describes a dweller of the earth’s abyss called Apollyon who will escape into the corruptible world at the end of time. Cheong is such a creature: gaps open up between word and silence, self and others, and art and life, and he writes from within that growing hollowness.
There were, in the late 1990s, seven of us whose maiden collections of verse kick-started what has become Singapore’s second poetic revival: Cheong, Aaron Lee, Alvin Pang, Yong Shu Hoong, Grace Chia, Alfian bin Sa’at, and me. An eighth, the well-loved horror writer Damien Sin, stood completely outside our bright-eyed public attempts to change the state of local literary culture. Cheong was the oldest in this group: born in 1965–the year Singapore was expelled from the Federation of Malaysia and found sudden full independence–he was a contemporary of Boey Kim Cheng at the National University of Singapore. Both writers then had majored in literature, been active in the same literary society, and sought creative advice from the poet-academic Lee Tzu Pheng. But, while Boey went on to challenge a rigidifying poetic tradition with his soulful writings, Cheong chose a more enticing career in television, producing flagship programmes for the then Singapore Broadcasting Corporation and later becoming a studio director with CNBC Asia.
By the time Temptation and Other Poems appeared in 1998, Cheong was a picture of young bourgeois accomplishment and lived well with his wife and three-year-old son in the island’s affluent East. His poems, however, told a different story: laden with the values of a conventional route, he was haunted by lost opportunities in love and life and a palpable Catholic guilt that held them all together, swinging him between prayer and self-flagellation. His verse showed a nostalgic power that, Janus-like, set his reflections against the Yeatsian and Eliotian tones of his academic past, the religious wit of Lee, and the existential dissatisfaction of Boey. This created a strong sense of belatedness that deepened his ultimately impotent anger at time’s betrayal and the mundane concerns of life, a feeling that never truly left but is continually reinvented as his secret exigency. So, in “I Don’t Want to Awake,” he cries to admit his quiet fear of finding “my midnight sun / a sobering meteorite crushed / in my palm”:
I don’t want to awake
to truths still true
and lies still false
and life somehow still unreconciled.
Temptation was Cheong’s first and immediately pivotal work because, once art breached the thin barrier that had kept his life safe but sterile so far, classic hamartia set in. His time of rebirth–into a silence left by Boey, who uprooted for Australia in 1996, and among hatchlings with little to no institutional baggage–doomed him to straddle two ages, unhoused in both a past lost to conformity and a present diminished by jadedness. Seemingly self-reflexive poems such as “What is It to Write?” and later “What Good is Poetry” were brutal about the cost of artistic consciousness and, in this honesty, also beautifully heroic. But it was a further awareness that another kind of death waited in mere solipsism that brought Cheong in his second volume I Watch the Stars Go Out, published in 1999, to grow a social appetite and draw the world to his palate. This new impatient attempt to rehabilitate his sensibilities spared no punches, using his own experiences in the media (“Director’s Cut”), with religious doubt (“The Pope Turning Pop”), and as a storytelling father (“Tick-Tock”) as entry-points.
The move nonetheless made even clearer the terrible truth of one-sidedness in life’s most essential conversations, the basis for the continuing popularity of Sartrean existentialism in the first place. From this angle, the epigraphic newspaper snippets Cheong used to suggest societal presence became a startling travesty of how one could be so earnest as to believe that talking back was genuinely possible. “Shadow Boxing,” like the volume’s navel, thus confronts a silent but not absent God with a suspicion of an ironically invigorating futility:
Don’t you care
that as my rhythm winds down,
my fisted poems punctuating air,
that I might collapse
in a heap?
This is the old Christ-like prayer of Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani, the Beckettian cry of how “I can’t go on, I must go on”; its desperation redoubles as responsibility towards another for whom one still owes a world of meaning. So, in “Father and Son,” Cheong assumes the missing centre of paternalism himself and, by reflecting on teenage waywardness too soon for his child, enacts his belief that a higher conversation cut off by time must exist.
In 2001, Cheong became the recipient of both the National Arts Council’s Young Artist Award and its bursary that allowed him to make a greater dive for the Gatsbyian green light of his lost time. He took to studying under the supervision of the late Jan McKemmish for a Masters of Philosophy in Creative Writing at the University of Queensland. This step back into academia emboldened him to push his own artistic limits and explore transgressive desires from the fringes of his fundamentally Catholic symbolic universe. On yet another crucial level, it ended his life of comfortable employment as he made a largely unthinkable move for Singaporeans: he settled on writing as his full-time profession. Cheong–not Yong Shu Hoong or local poetry’s newest darling Ng Yi-Sheng–was the country’s first major poet to follow the steps of novelist Catherine Lim and demand boldly that art must feed the artist.
The profoundly erudite third book Broken by the Rain, based on Cheong’s graduate submission, saw print a year after his return from Australia, in 2003. While it remains his calmest, most disciplined, and least self-absorbed volume of verse to date, the usual obsessions were seen in how he chose to circumvent society and enter directly into the mental worlds of tortured individuals. Cheong had discovered dramatic monologues, and they became in his hands a trans-conscious activity that highlighted violent and damaged inner lives such as those of a self-mutilator (“Notes for a Suicide”), a killer (“I’ll Make This Knife Talk”), and the worldly women of “The Stripper,” “The Prostitute,” and “The Massage Parlour Girl”. This romance with cruelty was overpowering, and so was its underside, the guilt that placed his enjoyment only at a pen’s distance, glass-windowed by words. The sheet of separation kept his fascination pure but also twisted him, at the level of logocentric perversion, into a kindred defiler. He had entered the arena of his secret inferno, and his masks of otherness barely concealed how his two intense needs, faith and art, were contending for abstract finality.
Indeed, the true horror of Broken by the Rain lay in its bystander’s assuredness, in how it tried to empathise through self-effacement but often exuded masculine voyeurism instead. There was a Poesque creepiness that trailed his easy lyricism (although the coincidentally titled “Annabel,” a previously uncollected poem from the same period, is his least dreamiest verse addressing a woman). Cheong had stopped bearing the weight of his fiercest anxieties and, in doing so, shed the pain that was his signature tone and best promise of identification. Even his despairing sounded oddly remote, and his non-attendance grated with more performance than soul, more beauty than perceptivity. It is in this context that “Meditations” records his intuition of artistic weaknesses and of being “bereft / and coming undone”:
I must have got it all wrong–
though I cannot remember when the writer
became more urgent than the writing,
the tool more needed than the task.
The six-year silence that followed was a testament to Cheong’s wish to relearn in the face of a lyrical emptiness that had come to represent the outer edge of his poeticising. During this period, he worked as a film reviewer for the tabloid Today and began teaching journalism and creative writing at a range of higher institutions including by now LASALLE College of the Arts, Temasek Polytechnic, and local branches of the University of Western Australia and the University of Newcastle. His creative appetite was sustained by a couple of editorial projects and the writing of so-called “tweenie” novels, the two published so far being The Call from Crying House (2006) and Woman in the Last Carriage (2007). This period also saw the troubles of his marriage drag unsteadily but inevitably towards the divorce of 2008, with his ex-wife gaining full custody of their only child. The sequel to “Father and Son” must be read as more than another parental moment as that moving attempt to connect with his son via the widening gulf itself, their mutual pain becoming a conduit to find each other.
These new poems–if you can make out which they are in the current collection–are elegiac but not adrift and, perhaps for the first time, capable of genuine play. Cheong told me that his recent style of “layering” was inspired by Gerard Manley Hopkins’s sprung rhythm, but it really follows not thoughts but the tempting possibilities of meaning in the words that express them. For example, a comparison of “A Love Poem, By Way of Wikipedia” with an early piece “What is It to Write?” will reveal the same technique of jumbling up words to re-form purposeful worlds as well as the difference of a wiser cheeriness. It is as if the flesh has finally become word, as if he now accepts no other prison than language through which his life and what is left of faith can coexist. “Before Reality Shows” (note also the return of the metaphor of television), in a way, celebrates this integrity towards essence:
There are no alternatives. Nothing
else will alter what is native
inside you. A box
where not even silence escapes.
Such clarity represents a grand achievement at the end of–or hopefully a mere stop in–a poet’s journey from loss and knowledge of more loss to an embrace of life’s scenic chaos. Cheong’s eleven-year concerns have splintered into numerous deviously interweaving threads that kept reframing new tensions between youth and age, practical and artistic duties, love and lust, pain and guilt, and confession and surrender. We have learnt with him that, as something good always emerges from the ravages of life, this cycle is a constant against which we must struggle to win a personal truth that we have at least chosen. Poetry itself may well be such a mere record of how we war with our inability to give up parts of ourselves even as we are, in the writing, already giving them up. In Cheong’s case, the tussles that continually impoverish him have so established the inner solace and certainty of words that language is now, for better or for worse, the concrete on which his being walks.
That such an end game is understood and even emphasised by Cheong is clear in his use of two closures for the current compilation. “Last Words,” taken from the third volume, warns of how, while “the way back is never the way out,” a growing “Prospero faith” in language may cause a writer to “go Lear-mad” at length. Yet, in a clear signal of his preference, the actual last poem is a new one called “The Word,” which rejects the dark inevitability and affirms the example of the true literary life. Its three-way gaze–inwardly to the poet, upwardly to God, and outwardly to readers–finds promises of reconciliation in each direction and seems importantly to do something more. After all, it is a much younger poet’s “Famous Last Words,” not included here, that wishes:
Sometimes it seems the last poem
I have written
is the last I shall write,
and if sheer finality
is sincerity enough,
then I might return
to an imagined time,
eden-silent and indestructible once,
where no blood was ever spilled
for the sake of god or love
across the face of earth.
"Introduction." Felix Cheong. Sudden in Youth: New and Selected Poems (2009).