Lee Tzu Pheng (b. 1946)
Written by Hazel Tan
Dated 4 Nov 2015
Dr. Lee Tzu Pheng was educated at Raffles Girls’ School and the University of Singapore. She is an award-winning poet and retired associate professor who taught English Literature at the National University of Singapore. Her works have appeared in numerous poetry anthologies and journals. She has five volumes of poetry: Prospect of a Drowning (1980), Against the Next Wave(1988), The Brink of an Amen (1991), Lambada by Galilee and Other Surprises (1997) and Catching Connections (2012). The first three each won the Singapore National Book Development Council’s award for poetry. She received the Singapore Cultural Medallion for Literature and the South Asia WRITE Award in 1985 and 1987, respectively. In 1995, she was conferred the Gabriela Mistral Award, given to 50 outstanding writers worldwide. One year later, she was given the Montblanc-CFA (Centre for the Arts) Literary Award. Her most anthologised poem to date is from her first volume, “My Country and My People”. This poem was also “notoriously banned from the airwaves in the 1970s” as the speaker’s “ambivalent attitude towards the patriotism” was at that time “thought to counter the nation discourse” (Gwee 39; Ahmad par 4; Koh 1).
Lee’s poetry spans themes such as identity, love, silences and the struggle with words, and religion. Anne Brewster notes that her lyrical poetry “follows the trajectory of Romanticism and Wordsworth’s characterisation of [ . . . ] poetry as that of powerful feelings”. She also notices that Lee’s subject is the “poet’s sensibility [ . . . ] elaborated in intensely-felt passion and sensuality” (69). Bah Kah Choon claims the depth of her sensibility is “wide and intensive,” and deals with the “moment of lyricism, of insight that comes with the touching of life to the quick” (Foreword, Prospect).
Indeed, what makes Lee’s poems so powerful may be likened to capturing the “fugitive moment” – one that is constantly changing because of its transitory or ephemeral nature (Baudelaire 13). However, this is not to say that Lee’s poetry like Baudelaire’s deals specifically with the subject of modernity, or concerns itself with objects of modernity, but that it displays transitory, ordinary moments that usually escape people’s attention. For instance, in “Cyclist” (Prospect), she writes:
Next week, perhaps,
I shall have forgotten
his reality, as his shadow
on the road now flickers, receding.
No use shading the eyes,
for this moment might be
the blur of his bicycle going past
on a chance, unseen.
Lee’s description of this moment guides the reader to focus on what is peripheral. Her keen eye for the detail of these in-between moments of life brings readers insight into everyday experiences that we might easily miss.
Lee’s sensibilities also touch on the struggles that come with writing and language. In searching for identity through the medium of poetry, she writes in “Because I only write”:
because I only write
not knowing where and how to bring
these feelings to your doorstep
Here, the speaker seems to be uncertain if language is or can be an accurate representation of emotion, uncertain of its ability to “communicate a living whole”. This is further emphasised by the speaker later in the same poem:
to write is nothing.
this, only dispatching
a part of me;
the rest remains, watching
for the reach of your understanding
or your despair.
However, in Against the Next Wave (1988), fourteen years after her first debut, she writes in “If You Must Know”:
Making a poem is
taking charge of yourself,
your fears, incapacities, tears:
being tough, taking yourself
by the scruff and saying:
say it, you fool
for how else are you going to know
what a fool you are–
Here, the speaker seems more aware of the writing process and what it entails: writing is not only tough and painful, but also involves self-reflection. It resembles the act of holding up a mirror– a way of seeing clearly flaws present in every self-image. It is also a process of agonising introspection, an inward journey that the poet takes to fix these flaws. As such, the speaker says that this very act of writing is the “beginning of wisdom”.
Much of Lee’s poetry deals with such difficult emotions, and cover themes such as religious suffering and pain. In “Carmelites at Auschwitz” (The Brink of an Amen):
Those cries from the forsaken and forsaking;
they are locked into those gas-rooms we abandon
they relive each moment deaths uncountable.
She notes that such suffering is incomprehensible because of “a God we cannot comprehend”. It is worth noting that this collection took three years to prepare, and was written around the time of Lee’s conversion to Catholicism in 1989 (Chan 22). Felicia Chan describes the poetic voice in this volume as “much more confident” because Lee accepts mystery and “uncertainty as a matter of course,” as a newly-minted person of faith. In the titular poem:
On the brink of an amen
the mystery retreats, leaving
but simply a silence,
The speaker’s contentment with silence here signifies a certain acceptance, which comes with the realisation that she has to wait for answers to her “questionings,” while believing that they will indeed be resolved eventually.
This theme of silence appears again and again. In “More, Not Less”:
On our knees confessing
the absurd inconsequence
of each proposal,
we are bereft of speech
beyond the negating syllable
Language, here, defines itself by pointing to an Other: the “negating” consequences that come when rich and polysemic words are uttered. Words therefore “divide / and cannot make us whole”. While her poems hint at the elusiveness of words and their meanings, what Lee tries to get at are the precise words that point to this elusiveness. The certainty of words and the elusiveness of silences constantly reinvent and redefine themselves by pointing to each other. While Lee maintains that words are slippery in nature, she seems to suggest in poems such as “Inventory” that it is in them that one can still find cause for celebration.
Chan notes that “Inventory” is a “poem that celebrates the sounds and rhythms of words” and “the pure aural pleasure poetry can give”:
In Lambada By Galilee and Other Surprises, Lee’s voice shifts and emerges once again with a “greater sense of self assurance” (Chan 26). As her title suggests, this new voice might surprise readers. The volume is divided into two sections, “On Homeground” and “On Pilgrimage,” moving from poems about Lee’s identity to poems about the external world. In the first section, she speaks of the nation’s icon, the Merlion in “The Merlion to Ulysses,” a response to Edwin Thumboo’s “Ulysses by The Merlion”:
So–the important things of our world,
you must admit,
have not changed much at all.
I am the scion of a wealthy race.
I wear the silver armour of my moneyed people
Thow Xin Wei suggests that Lee “transforms the Merlion into an arrogant spokesperson” for Singaporeans of a “certain class and generation”. However, Thow suggests that it is people’s emphasis on “material and monetary [that] is subverted by irony”. As such, Lee’s poem presents a Ulysses “less ‘amazed’ and ‘properly impressed’ than ‘puzzled’”. Her poem still suggests a Singaporean identity that is “filled with either self-doubt or self-delusion”.
Lambada expands in its second section. Here, Lee writes of pilgrimages to places like Galilee and Jerusalem, and their beauty. Chan notes that Lee’s experiences on her pilgrimages reveal “powerful lesson[s]” the poet has learnt. According to Chan, it is the “task of future volumes to divulge how Lee’s newfound confidence…will shape her poetry” (20).
Indeed, in Lee’s fifth collection, Catching Connections, we see her poems take on a whimsical, liberating tone while still addressing themes present in her past work. For instance, in “Why is your poetry so normal,” she reveals the reason why she writes, or why one should:
[ . . . ] I’d rather
take your hand and lead us through.
This crazy road of life
is challenging enough.
So listen: what’s worth saying
is worth saying strong and clear,
for the words we catch to serve us
will work their worth and more.
Lee’s poetry is suffused with a “quiet humour [that] balances the critical irony associated with her approach to her subjects” (Catching, blurb). Her words evoke a “sense of mystery in creation at its most intense and most immediately palpable” in her readers as they read her work (Chan 47).
Ahmad, Nureza. “Lee Tzu Pheng.” Singapore Infopedia. National Library Board Singapore. Web.
Baudelaire, Charles. The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays. Columbia University. Web.
Brewster, Anne. “‘The extravagance of our need’: Lyrical Poetry and Community in the work of Lee Tzu Pheng.” Interlogue: Studies in Singapore Literature Volume 2: Poetry. Ed. Singh, Kirpal. Singapore: Ethos Books, 1999. 69-76.
Chan, Felicia. Silences May Speak: The Poetry of Lee Tzu Pheng. Singapore: Times Editions Pte Ltd, 1999.
Gwee Li Sui. “The Road People: Poetry and Urban (Im)Mobility in Singapore.” Asiatic 2.2. (2008): 38-51. Web.
Koh Tai Ann. “Editorial.” Moving Worlds: A Journal of Transcultural Writings 10.1. (2010): 32-46.
Lee Tzu Pheng. Prospect of a Drowning. Singapore: Heineman Educational Books (Asia), 1980.
—. Against the Next Wave. Singapore: Times Books International, 1988.
—. The Brink of an Amen. Singapore: Times Editions Pte Ltd, 1991.
—. Catching Connections. Singapore: Landmark Books, 2012.
—. Lambada by Galilee and Other Surprises. Singapore: Times Editions Ptd Ltd, 1997.
Thow Xin Wei. “This Images of Themselves.” Rev. of Reflecting on the Merlion: An Anthology of Poems, ed. Thumboo, Edwin and Yeow Kai Chai. Quarterly Literary Review Singapore Vol. 9.1. (2010). Web.