Written by David Wong
Dated 4 Nov 2015

Yeow Kai Chai’s poems, on a cursory read, threaten to portray him as a poet whose pursuit of the image drives memory and experience so far from their point of origin that sentiment is abstracted out of existence. Time with his work, however, reveals a tenderness with which Yeow conscientiously twists his subjects into shapes both recognisable and unnatural. In this way, Yeow shows affection for his subjects and speakers not only through the exploration of personal histories, but through the use of objects and images concrete or abstract. Yeow’s use of objects as a means to honour the subject is seen throughout his work, from a plastic bag used to tell the story of a woman called ‘raglady’ (“Secret Manta”), to a television within which an entire poem takes place (“The 100-Year-Old Chinese Woman On Television”). In “Secret Manta,” from his first collection of the same name, raglady goes about her day with a plastic bag in hand. Raglady and plastic bag are almost indistinguishable; in the opening lines of the poem, Yeow’s description of her movement through a rubbish dump could also apply to that of the plastic bag:

raglady holds in her hands
a large plastic bag,
scuttles between overflowing bins [ . . . ]

By the poem’s end, raglady and plastic bag, both dispensable and abandoned in their own way, settle into similarly ambiguous fates:

& when her eyes close,
dream unfurls upon her, dark-magnificent,
a polyethene manta ray
gliding through her sleep.

In other poems, people are characterised by the intangible. In “My Father, the Icon,” Yeow paints a portrait of a father confronting unknown fears by changing “to black, oversized pants, / ritual for work, steel silence, / insistence on normality”; in doing so, Yeow finds the father “larger than life” but also—in an admission of weakness—“larger than himself.” In similar fashion, the poems “Silence” and “11 O’Clock One Night” describe a family through atmospheric images; be it a kitchen “surfeit with / tobacco, night air’s redolent, / brooding presence” or a brother “intent on electronic / game, screechy gadget / fillinup vessel,” Yeow’s abstractions are pardoxically visceral in the way they allow the reader to inhabit the current and future silence of the family home.

Yeow’s second collection, Pretend I’m Not Here, presents a more sophisticated but essentially unchanged method of poetic observation; here, ideas are the subjects of poems and contribute to atmosphere, and in several poems Yeow even transmutes premises and arguments into sensory experience. One such poem, “Dumbwaiter,” a meditation on the fractal nature of writing, is itself fragmentary, presented as a series of dalliances between motifs from all spectrums of art. The Merlion, for example, is put in the witness stand of an unknown trial and examined through “the self-portrait of a convex mirror” (a reference to Ashbery’s 1975 collection), before the prosecution moves to interrogate a Mr. Seth Brundle (a reference to Jeff Goldblum’s character in the 1986 movie The Fly) and a host of other characters. Perhaps Yeow expects his readers to be researched, but poems of similar make (“Hunky Nuts Lupus” and “August Moon” come to mind) work just as well spectacles peopled by anonymous, amorphous characters.

Poems in Pretend find Yeow’s preoccupations expanding beyond Secret Manta’s sandbox of local and domestic tensions to address more universal themes of mortality and the purposes of morality. In an interview with Desmond Kon, Yeow describes how this second collection found its beginning in “Memento Mori,” a poem written after his maternal grandmother passed in 2003, invoking Barthes’ idea of the death of the author as informing his practice (Luna Park Review). Speakers in his poetry share what must be secrets to their readers, without necessarily transporting the reader into a place of renewed clarity that is usually associated with such moments of intimacy. In fact, the identities of both speaker and reader are obscured to the point of near-unintelligibility, echoing certain decay in the meaning-making process, and reminding us, as the title of the poem states clearly enough, of the eventual death of all things.

While there are signs of these elements in the aforementioned autobiographical poems from Secret Manta, they emerge with greater force in Pretend, especially in “Memento Mori,” now expanded into a sequence of twelve parts forming the backbone of the collection. Some parts open with a specific address. “Memento Mori,” “Memento Mori II” and “Memento Mori VIII” begin with “Dear Bruce,” “Dear Mr Von Hagens,” and “Dear Alvin,” respectively, while the penultimate “Memento Mori XI” uses a more intimate “My Love.” On one hand, these salutations suggest an epistolary framework, complete with concrete and identifiable addressees; on the other, these addressees remain veiled and indeterminate to the reader, mysterious throughout. The other “Memento Mori” poems begin with other conversational elements, but all maintain the same balance between the private and the puzzling; there are interjections, proposals, confessions and denouncements, but they all remain fragments of an unexplained and unexplainable whole.

Yeow’s motifs and images are presented to the reader in a similar way, without explanation or recourse, sometimes in great number within one poem. “Concealed Exit Ahead,” for example, throws up images in rapid fire; an apparently simple opening of the window leads to the “ghost of a stir,” a night bird’s “strea bleek over edg of white,” before the reader finds

a toy
head revolving
quick flip page
the fowl flung out of cage

Yeow plants several possible interpretations here; is the boy in the poem getting rid of a late-night avian intruder (a nightingale?), or does the poem here enter meta-literary territory, with Yeow telling readers to “quick flip page” in the event that his barrage of images has “enraged” them? Defiantly, Yeow resurrects the avian image across the remainder of the poem, describing poetry that is heavy with imagery as “poultry addled in meaning” in a particularly self-aware moment of poetic self-deprecation, especially after having insisted in the preceding lines that “he sees images / only beautiful images.” Birds represent poetry itself, sublime, with the boy, the reader, nonetheless seeking to expel them. The poem almost ends with “suture unstitching / the end crowing,” but Yeow reveals his concealed exit by closing with “a / happy / hen,” insisting, after all, on the vitality of the bird. “From a Dissident’s Perspex Box,” a sequence of seven poems with six couplets each, is perhaps most representative of Yeow’s comfort with letting readers take what they will from his image-heavy, perspective-shifting theatrical poetics. Each poem in the sequence is a distinct narrative set against an obscure backdrop, forcing readers to make a hermeneutic leap in the meaning-making process.

Also of note is Yeow’s interest in poetic forms, particularly the couplet and prose poem forms. “Hunky Nuts Lupus,” “Couplets,” “Insomnia,” and “A Short Film About Love” speak of various loves in the context of mortality; there is familial love against the backdrop of war and its history (“A Short Film About Love”), the futility of pop romance and the art of coupling (“Couplets”), and a love-letter-cum-rant about the landscape of Singapore’s literature and history (“Hunky Nuts Lupus”), where the speaker asks “Did you miss me on August the 9th?”, challenging Singaporean readers to reflect on their own sentiments towards Singapore’s National Day whilst calling the whole affair “national lubrication” before disappearing into contrasting closing images where “a wolf howls a parliamentary monologue” and “a bear, out of nowhere, rubs against a gentle rock”.

Yeow’s uncollected work notably includes further exploration of poetic form; perhaps inspired by John Ashbery’s “Litany,” a 65-page poem written in two columns (As We Know, 1979), “Begone Dull Care,” a poem in ‘twin cinema,’ comprised of two columns of text often disparate yet thematically related, debuted in Quarterly Literary Review Singapore. Yeow’s twin cinema is the first known publication of a poem in such a form, and has gone on to inspire other work within the form by David Wong.

It appears that Yeow’s is a poetics of transitioning between themes and places and cultures, which cumulatively suggests that what Yeow pursues in his poetry is ultimately the transitional nature of the individual, how slow exterior changes belie chaotic inner lives. Considering Yeow’s conceptual and linguistic playfulness, there is no Singaporean poet better suited to expand the horizons of poetry in this way.

Works cited

Kon, Desmond. “The PROMOSAIC/PO-ERM* Interview with Yeow Kai Chai.” Luna Park Review 19 Jul 2010. Web.

Wong, David. “For the End Comes Reaching.” Quarterly Literary Review Singapore 11.4. (2012). Web.

Yeow Kai Chai. “Begone Dull Care.” Quarterly Literary Review Singapore 9.3. (2010). Web

—. Pretend I’m Not Here. Firstfruits, 2006.

—. Secret Manta. Landmark Books, 2001.