A Visceral Experience of Growing Up

Written by Gwyneth Teo
Dated 25 Oct 2017

Tan Lixin is the author of the poetry collections Keeping Skeletons (2013) and its sequel Before We Are Ghosts (2015). Despite being a three-time Commonwealth Essay awardee (2009-11) and a Winner at the Forrest Fest Poetry Competition (2011), Tan professes prose fiction to be her first love. Apart from writing, Tan’s passion is for animal welfare. She was also the founder and editor of the art journal Wallflowers Mag from 2012 to 2016.

Personal, delicate, and intimate, Tan’s collections of poetry read like her personal diaries. In them, she grapples with specific events and relationships that require reflection, almost as if exorcising her personal demons.

Many of Tan’s poems deal with the same events or issues, reinforcing the sense that Tan is recursively re-visiting events in order to exorcise her thoughts. Due to the confessional nature of this poetry, I will not be distinguishing between the poet and the persona in this essay.

Keeping Skeletons resembles a prolonged artistic statement about the poet’s on-going struggle toward expression. It begins with “Veins,” in which the poet declares:

the art inside me will keep me safe
and give me strength to
hope and dream
and hope and dream.

This serves as a preface to the rest of her work, almost a defiant disclaimer of what is to come.

“Veins” also introduces a motif that will run constant throughout Tan’s poetry—the imagery of body parts. What typically provides the internal structure of the body—blood, veins, bones—feature heavily in poems where the poet is attempting to express some key essence of her selfhood. For instance, the titular veins are described as “a / dress that keeps me warm,” transposing the network of veins running through the interior of a body into a protective sheath around the outside. In “Bone, Lace,” which reads like a sequel to “Veins,” Tan reminds the reader that:

[ . . . ] my art
will always be etched upon my heart,
wrapped around my veins,
and ornamented on my bones.

The chapters in Skeleton are also titled “Bone,” “Skin” and “Brain”. Thus Tan’s descriptions of the human body form the skeleton around which the poems are cladded. The physicality of the diction used lends itself to a peculiar experience of intimacy with the poetry. As the poems describe physical sensations on the body, the reader is invited to imagine these actions acting on their own body. Tan transmits her intention to the reader through phantom sensations described via words.

This visceral language returns in Tan’s second collection, Before We Are Ghosts. The collection has been described by the poet as a sequel to Skeletons. In a personal interview with the poet, Tan describes Ghosts as broken up into three parts—the first part dealing with her father and the paternal side of her family; the second with her mother and maternal side of the family; the third focussing on herself. The titular ghosts take on many forms—literal ghosts of deceased grandparents, parents who have grown distant, personal demons and perhaps most heartbreakingly, the fading memory of a grandmother with dementia.

While images of body parts make their return, this time Tan’s voice flourishes and fulfils its potential in how she deftly transforms them into other images. In “Good Friday,” “flowers white / and small like the plates of your skull” grow from a grave. Tan imagines the ghost of the body within as “a body full of light, wondrous,” transforming the macabre into a sweet picture of death in contradiction to the usual associations of cemeteries with rot and disease. In “State of Death,” Tan imagines the sprouting of “little wings out of / [the] new body” of a deceased grandparent, transforming the human body into that of a moth in keeping with Chinese beliefs about the dead. In “Remembering,” which describes a memory of living through a war, Tan describes a face that is thrown into the air, “splitting open / and letting out a cry,” like a grenade earlier described. In each of these, Tan paints a vivid picture of the human form warping into a different image that is central to each poem, giving the phantom sensations established in Skeletons a purpose by turning them into meaningful experiences for the reader.

In Ghosts, Tan grows up. Her personal self and creative voice mature. She moves away from declarations of self-hood, digging her heels in to grapple with personal relationships and difficult events in her life, rehashing and reflecting upon them to weave them into a larger narrative. Ghosts will be familiar to many who have been through the experience of turning into a young adult. In Tan’s own word, Ghosts resembles a bildungsroman; the experiences describe the discovery and self-assertion of identity, growing up and away from the expectations of one’s parents, all while dealing with one’s first touches for true grief in the loss of beloved grandparents.

If Tan’s first two collections serve to document a young woman’s internal struggles while growing up, one hopes Tan uses her newfound poetic voice in future collections to break away from pondering identity and instead express her worldview and other passions. 

Works cited

Tan Lixin. Keeping Skeletons. Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2013.

—. Before We Are Ghosts. Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2015.