Margaret Leong (1921-2012)
Written by Ruth Tang
Dated 5 Aug 2016
An American who moved to Malaya in 1949, Margaret Leong (née McDaniels) published several collections of poetry that took as their subject the natural and social worlds of Singapore and Malaya. The Air Above the Tamarinds was published in 1957, and was followed by Rivers to Senang in 1958. Leong also wrote poems for children, which were collected and republished as The Ice Ball Man in 2002.
Existing critical literature on Margaret Leong agrees on where value resides in her poetry: the representation of Singapore and Malayan subject-matter, against the relative dearth of poems in the 1950s that chose to focus on such subjects. There seems to be general agreement that Leong, an American emigrating to Singapore after her marriage, was unusual–and therefore worthy of praise and interest–for focusing on the particularities of the local environment. Consensus on this begins in the foreword to her 1957 collection The Air Above the Tamarinds, where Malcolm Macdonald, High Commissioner for the United Kingdom in India, suggests that
in South-East Asia… there was more raw material for making literature… than anywhere else on earth [ . . . ] Gradually writers will extract the stuff which still lies like unmined precious metal… amongst the villages and jungles and beaches of the Malayan Archipelago.
Praise for Leong’s depiction of local subject-matter continues in the Introduction to the Ice Ball Man and Other Poems (2001). Shirley Lim remarks that she was “delighted to find poems that pictured the Singapore-Malayan world I lived in [and] [ . . . ] referenced the everyday objects and mirrored the everyday actions of my life” (14); a half-page-long list of the various “Singapore-Malayan” objects that populate Leong’s poems follows.
But over fifty years after she wrote, in an age where poems that document the minutiae of local life are commonplace, and void deck and Merlion poems continue to be generated without irony, can Leong’s poems hold anything more than merely historical value? Much is made of the “rich varied vocabulary, complex ode-like stanzas, and complicated syntactical arrangements” of Leong’s poems (Ice Ball Man 12), or how her “compressed and concise images [ . . . ] heighten a sense of lyricism and poignancy” (105). In much of Leong’s work one finds little of the sort. Instead: the dull cheerfulness of alternate rhyme, the irritatingly trite ending, the cliché of sky or a lost lover, bafflingly archaic language. Even making accommodations for the poetry written for children–though whether such adjustment should be made is of course arguable–there is little of interest in a majority of her poems, beyond her evocation of local life.
Much of Leong’s poetry is little more than description evoking the same images of nature with which poets have been perennially obsessed; the only difference is that the plant or animal of interest might be native to Malaya rather than England or America. Consider, for instance, “Song of the Genii,” from Rivers:
By rivers of Senang
On padangs on Thron,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
By the greener verge
Of an orient hill
We gather durians,
A wine to distill
Or “The Ruins”:
Where nether spirits blow
Among the cold lallang, as if they were
A part of all the life that walked
Upon the earth a hundred years ago.
The local detail merely replaces, is ornamental. If “cold lallang” had been “cold grass” the lines would not have changed; the line, or the form of the poem, does not change as if their subject is different. The “lallang grass” recurs in “A Wind Transparent,” again with little significance: “A wind transparent… Blew over me in wanderings / Among the lallang grass” (Rivers 50). If Leong’s project had been the intelligent overlaying of traditional verse form and the Singapore-Malayan subject, the treatment of her chosen subject as significant rather than incidental, there might have been sense in it. Instead it is rather uninteresting traditional verse about Singapore-Malayan subjects.
A hint of the interesting cross-application of tradition and the new does present itself in two of Leong’s poems. “Pontianak” provides a subdued, almost charmingly romantic image of its subject, against the conventional portrayal of the pontianak as a wronged, hostile spirit: “[h]er singing is as wild and far / As ivoried parakeet or bird,” “[h]er voice so like a temple bell” (Tamarinds 32). “The Water People” hews more towards convention, taking the Orang Laut as its subject and rendering them into otherworldly sea-dwelling creatures, “[t]heir lapis lazuli hands like krises,” “hair inlaid with shells” (Tamarinds 30). But these two poems are unfortunately only the slightest glints of missed opportunity in an otherwise tepid collection.
What of Leong’s “complex ode-like stanzas,” her “complicated syntactical arrangements”? One finds rhymes poorly used, woven into cliché:
Or shall I only laugh,
And be no longer sad,
Now that you are here,
And my heart is glad?
(“Returning”, Tamarinds 74)
The perfect end-rhyme is a feature of Leong’s poetry, and it is rarely used well. Where the rhymes multiply, it is to the detriment of the poem:
Holding the mosque within its clasp
Time shall hang upon its hasp
A death-like grasp,
As azure-winged garudas tire,
As to heaven they aspire,
And years like wings descending
Shall lie upon the mosque unbending –
(“Time on the Mosque,” Rivers 36)
The value of Leong’s poetry as poetry rather than representation hence appears to have been much exaggerated or misconceived. Consider an excerpt of a poem Poon praises in her Afterword:
The gold of a cluster
Of cassia flowers
That spreads in the jungle
In golden showers.
(“Pineapples,” Ice Ball Man 93)
Poon remarks that the image renders “the familiar and the ordinary beautiful,” since the “common tropical fruit”–the pineapple–is likened to “images of gold harvest and bounty” (Ice Ball Man 104). In doing so she likely gives Leong far too much credit. If one looks at the image in its context, it becomes clear that it is a simple association of colour to quality: the yellow pineapples likened to gold. Further, the comparison of fruit, or the product of the land (particularly of a previously or presently colonised land), to gold is hardly novel: one recalls the “raw material [ . . . ] which still lies like… grains of alluvial gold amongst the villages and jungles and beaches of the Malay Archipelago” in Macdonald’s 1957 introduction. The image of fruit as gold does not, as Poon argues, make it “beautiful”–it makes the fruit valuable in a monetary sense: “A gold that misers / Would like to keep,” as Leong herself writes in “Pineapples”.
Elsewhere, even where the use of language is generally unobjectionable (if slightly archaic), one is puzzled by how Leong’s poetry is thoroughly conventional verse that could have been written a century before. Writing in the 1950s, Leong nevertheless seemed untouched by any form of modernism. There is a resolutely nineteenth-century slant to the language, a dull Wordsworthian sensibility about the observation of nature:
O where the rivers of Senang
Wind like a lustrous snare,
My love all clad in wonder
Walks in morning there
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
There shall never be an hour not yours
Nor thought of mine but knows you nigh;
No life for me, but life in you,
Nor even death if you’re not by.
(“Rivers to Senang,” Rivers 8, 24)
It is as if the entire poetic tradition, and its various reinventions, had not existed. Curiously, Lim brings up Pound’s exhortation to the Imagists–to ‘make it new’–in her Introduction to Ice Ball Man (15). “To see the world as if for the first time,” after all, is not something one experiences with Leong’s poetry. First to the subject matter she might have been (though that contestation recalls the patronising colonial comments about “raw material” from Tamarinds’ foreword), but there is nothing surprising or defamiliarising about the way she approaches the Singapore-Malayan landscape.
Occasionally there is a surprising image: “And the sky–a sari wound in blue yards– / is fastened to the temple with a giant pin” (“Thaipusam,” Tamarinds 31). A fine beginning: “Since you no longer come, / Except ghost-wise” (“The Edge of Sorrow,”Tamarinds 38). A good ending: “While in the salt-consuming earth / the dead were left alone” (“Chinese Funeral,” Tamarinds 40). Or a single poem that begins to justify a comparison to Marianne Moore Lim makes in her introduction (Ice Ball Man 12):
At first I thought those cages were
For gulls around the sea
But when I saw their nets alive
With a splay of curving fin
I knew they had been made for fish,
Though gulls could also enter in.
(“The Kelongs,” Tamarinds 26)
Here the habits of the poet work with rather than against the poem: the “fin/in” rhyme is unobtrusive, the detail (“splay of curving fin,” “nets alive”) is well-chosen rather than undiscerning description. And–rather than taint the image with a trite abstraction–Leong lets it be. The unspoken tension in the poem’s first line and its last (“had been made for fish / Though gulls could also enter in”) is finely wrought.
Unfortunately, there are few of these–instead page after page of rhyming quatrains present themselves with their banal endings: “This passing year / with those that went before” (“Continuity,” Tamarinds 57); “O tied are my wrists / to thee… linked to thee / Eternally.” (“Hindu Wedding Song,” Tamarinds 62).
The flaw is more than merely formal. Perhaps in part because of their subject matter, a number of Leong’s poems read like chinoiserie, second-rate Pound. At their best, the borrowed or observed culture is decoration, lending temporary gravitas to the poem only to vanish into generality later on. Consider these lines from “Elegy from the Chinese”:
… I am desolate
With the loss of you–
Ten thousand li away,
Beyond the reach of every mountain,
My candle burns to blue.
Here is ordinary emotion that has not been rescued from banality by language. The same poem ends in bland cliché and abstraction:
Another year has gone–alone
I remember that you are gone forever,
And wonder hopelessly
What has become of you.
At their worst these poems replicate an exoticising gaze: “Fleeting and exquisite / You will always seem to be / Momentary as a lotus / Fashioned in fragility” (“To A Chinese Lady,” Tamarinds 41). The language of postcolonial theory is more than academic buzzword here: entire poems are awash in orientalising portrayals. The “loveliness” of the aforementioned nameless Chinese lady and her “carved jade cup,” the nonspecificity of “Taoist spirit” in “On A Chinese Scroll” (Tamarinds 42): “Taoist spirit circumscribed / in symbols, / tracks across the brush stroke / signatures / in brevity”.
Yet one wants to imagine some degree of self-awareness in this obsession with the local image, the local object. Leong stayed in Singapore fourteen years; the back blurb of Ice Ball Man accurately terms it a “sojourn”. In much of her poetry in Air Above the Tamarinds (1957) and Rivers to Senang (1958), the attitude of a sojourner is clear: she is an observer that pretends at but can never replicate participation in what her poems document. In “Illusions,” however, the untenability of this position emerges:
No sirens these, but women casting
Their nets into the Sultan’s shores;
Above them, like an azure kris,
The empire of the clouds unrolls.
The sun weaves gold against the red sarongs,
The waters beat against their knees,
Their hair is like a sorcerer’s mantle cast
Upon the air–and yet–no sirens these.
The poem pushes back against its own half-formed realisations: the image of the “kris” and the “empire,” and the “sorcerer’s mantle” all suggest the blithe ignorance of the other poems, but the insistence of “no sirens these,” repeated at the beginning and end of the poem, suggest that Leong is aware of a temptation to simplify–to paint over a Singapore-Malayan landscape with familiar Greek myth–and resists. The pity, in the end, is that in much of her poetry she does not put up any of this resistance.
Leong, Margaret. The Air Above the Tamarinds. Singapore: Eastern Universities Press, 1957.
—. The Ice Ball Man and Other Poems. Eds. Lim, Shirley Geok-lin and Angelia Poon. Illus. Goho-Quek, Susanna. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2001.
—. Rivers to Senang. Singapore: Eastern Universities Press, 1958.