Christopher Pollnitz reviews Clear Brightness by Kim Cheng Boey
by Kim Cheng Boey
Puncher & Wattmann, 2012
ISBN 978 1 92145 094 5
Reviewed by CHRISTOPHER POLLNITZ
It was Coleridge who prescribed for Wordsworth what seems a superhuman task, that the poet who wishes to be considered original must “create the taste by which he is to be enjoyed” — or rather, as Coleridge’s dictum is first recorded, “the taste by which he is to be relished.” Since emigrating to Sydney from Singapore in 1997, Kim Cheng Boey appears to have taken on a similar project, for rather than ingratiate himself to the Australian readers, by adopting Australian themes refigured with some performative ethnicity, Boey has continued to write as a Chinese poet whose chosen language is English, but whose sensibility is Asian. To put it more accurately, Boey is a Singaporean and international poet. The tone or address of his work makes few concessions to Australian expectations; rather, he wants the Australian reader to enter international space, to make the passage at least part way to his perspective. Four of his works over the past decade – the New section of After the Fire: New and Selected Poems (2006); a memoir of his literary formation and world travels which is also an essayistic yet beautiful prose poem, Between Stations (2009); the four-poem selection from his work he included in the dazzling new anthology, Contemporary Asian Australian Poets (2012), which he has helped to edit; and Clear Brightness itself, the first collection of his poems to come out since After the Fire – all help mark out the course he has taken as an émigré Chinese poet writing in Australia for a wider-than-Australian readership.
It is an individual path, neither stridently postcolonial nor postmodern. In one of the four prefaces to the Asian Australian anthology, Adam Aitken writes of poets who have chosen a “theory-oriented” path, eschewing identity narrative and politics; Boey eschews all three of these paths. In his own preface, Boey describes a writer’s cultural migration as a process with no endpoint, “of negotiation, shuttling back and forth between places, between past and present, and between lives and narratives.” To see such a perspective in practice in a poem, one can turn to “Stamp Collecting” from After the Fire, a poem which Boey also chooses to represent his work in the anthology. The gift to a daughter of the father’s now fragmentary stamp album elicits a stream of intelligent, difficult questions: “Is Australia our home? / What is this country? Why doesn’t it exist / anymore? Why is the Queen’s face / on the stamps of so many nations?” From first to last, none of the questions is fully answerable, but the daughter completes her own re-ordering of the album, picking “the last of a Singapore series / when it was still part of Malaya, / fingers the face of a youthful Elizabeth / pendant over a Chinese junk, / and slips it home.” The poem avoids identity narrative, or what Boey’s beloved Keats described as the Wordsworthian “egotistical sublime”, by deflecting attention to another family member’s negotiation with an ethnic past and present national identity.
In one poem from Clear Brightness, “The Causeway”, Boey does explicitly lament Singapore’s 1965 break from the Malayan mainland. In “Stamp Collecting”, by contrast, the specific political implications of the Chinese and Commonwealth emblems on the stamp which the young collector “slips . . . home” are left suspended, and the invitation is to read them rather as symbols of personal and historical change. The Queen and her former empire, like the Chinese sailing vessel, are no longer young. The “junk” and the stamp itself are somewhat dated means of international communication and passage, back and forth. Rather than a localised realism focussed on a spot of time, the poem opens out into an interrogatory, migratory exploration of a many-layered past and present. If a poem like “Stamp Collecting” marks the point Boey’s Singaporean-internationalist poetry had arrived at in 2006, what new directions has he taken in Clear Brightness?
The volume’s title poem represents a pastoral or suburban-pastoral scenario of Australian life. A December bushfire, licking the edges of a northern Sydney suburb, drives a father to make a midnight dash for safety through the “papery / ash . . . my son / bewildered in my arms, his sister bright-eyed, /exclaiming, It’s snowing, Christmas just weeks away.” The father’s memory flicks, not to the northern hemisphere and the brilliant whiteness of a European Christmas, but to Singapore and the Chinese Qing Ming. This spring festival of the dead translates as “clear brightness” but, transplanted to Singapore’s equatorial climate, is remembered as a feast of heat and ashes. Qing Ming’s ashes were thrown up by the burning of paper money, “valid only in afterlife.” The purpose of the offering, Boey drily observes, was “to replenish the ancestors’ underworld credit.” This quaint piety has now itself been disposed of – “the cemeteries dug up, razed” and the “bodies unhoused, ashed” – to make way for development. “Grandma and Dad” avoided this ignominy by turning Catholic and going “straight into the fire” of a crematorium. When the father returns to the “new life” he is making Australia, he finds it adrift with “ash, flakes falling like memory.” Memory has its pangs, but the succession of erasures that Qing Ming has undergone has buried the particularity of the festival and its ceremony of mourning under a placeless “snowdrift of forgetting.”
Mortality and commemoration of the dead are not new themes for Boey, but they have new prominence in Clear Brightness. The grandmother is again commemorated in “Soup” as the matriarch who, having lost family and friends to the atrocities of the Japanese Occupation, crafted the staple dish that served to hold together, if not the restless generation which followed hers, the generation of her grandchildren. The preparation of the soup is music and dance and painting, and its savours, which come from the grandmother’s griefs and loves, joy and patience, make up “the whole/ that we chewed, sucked and slurped / To make us whole.” The hymn to the hearth is itself a potage of dictions, of sensuous imagery and ekphrastic symbolism, of historical testimony and personal statement, and of witty instances – “the harmony of five flavours a corrective / to the imbalance around and in us.” Set as the grandmother’s daily heroism is against the nightmare of history, her soup-making might also recall the phrase Yeats applied to Keats’s championing of physical pleasure, “deliberate happiness.” This is what her ritual chooses, despite knowledge of what else has befallen and what awaits.
Elsewhere, in a series of poems about time and tempi – “Lost Time”, “Marking Time” and “Take Five on the F3” – the dailiness of experience and the making of art are further opposed and synthesised with unexpected results. A rueful wit that diversifies and lightens the “grave news” gives these poems their prevailing tone. Hearing Brubeck’s jazz number on the radio during the long shuttle to and from work, the commuter’s mind shuttles back to troop movements in World War II and forward to the articulated lorries sweeping past on the freeway, “from the darkened gums and paddocks dissolving to / rolling miles of oil palms and rubber trees.” The jokey, jerky rhymes and rhythms here flatten into eternal recurrence, there take up an optimistic upbeat, but whatever the destination and whatever the moment’s mood “you just have to keep the pedal down.” The paradoxes of experience, transformed into the contraries of art, make themselves felt in every poem and across the collection as a whole.
Clear Brightness is replete with series and sequences, the most impressive of which is a sonnet cycle, “To Markets.” The Sydney market which comes first in this sequence might be the one just across the road from Gleebooks, and from there the cycle roams on nomadically, through “a queue of bazaars, Xian, Cairo, Marrakesh . . . ” For me, Xian’s is the most tempting of the markets. Formerly called Chang’an, the city was the gateway to the Silk Road and the barbarian West during the Tang Dynasty, and the birthplace of printing. In stalls that peddle everything from “Mao watches” to “fake imperial coins”, you can still find “name seals in rose quartz”, and in “the street of calligraphers” see “a goateed old man trail his bamboo brush / across stretched rice-paper”, recreating “Wang Wei’s ‘Seeing Off Yuan / the Second on a Mission to Anxi’.” This last is the one really coveted item from all the markets for which Boey prepares his fourteen-line catalogues. It is the one memento he would he would like to keep with him, for “west of Yang Pass”, as the Tang Dynasty poet put it in the eighth century, “there will be no friends.” And west of Xian, the market-goer of another millennium sees “the long caravan train / of memory and desire fading into the endless sands.”
“To Markets” is not only a cycle, but a corona, crown or wreath of sonnets, an Italian form best known in English as John Donne realised it, in the seven-sonnet prologue to his Holy Sonnets. The precise formal requirements of the corona, met by Donne, are loosened, adapted and extended in ways that interrogate as well as underscore the conceptual content of Boey’s cycle. The overlapping of the last line of each sonnet with the first of the next is calculated, less to show what local markets in a global conspectus have in common, than to probe what common urge impels us to join acquisitive queues, whether these lead into period-rich and culturally diverse bazaars, or into monstrous Western shopping centres, or into those fetes and fairs that sell secondhand wares, craft items and farm produce, and have sprung up in opposition to chain supermarkets. The cyclical form allows Boey to ponder why it is we desire “to be desiring”, what spiritual lack or “want” it is that stirs “the want to want.” “To Markets” poses Buddhist questions: do we want to be bound forever on the wheel of desiring more and more possessions? Do we want to break out, eternally, if to cease from appetitive desires is to cease being fully human and alive, to “end here at this stall”?
“Memory and desire” – one of several conscious quotations or fully assimilated borrowings from T. S. Eliot in Clear Brightness – might be used to show how effortlessly Boey moves between a modernist line descending from Donne to Eliot, or from Keats to Yeats and Lawrence. But to read the poems Boey has written in Australia solely by the light of these English traditions is to read him through the limited preoccupations of this reviewer. Boey does indeed write with a “historical sense” of “the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer”, and within that the whole of English literature, “in his bones”, but to that should be added his interest in later twentieth-century American poets who have made passages to India differing from Eliot’s idealist, Harvard-filtered approach to the Sanskrit scriptures. No doubt Eliot’s concern for a poetry that registered the tempo of the modernist period and its cities, but remained stateless and timeless, has been a durable influence on Boey’s poetic. Yet, coming from a Chinese perspective to Buddhist and other Eastern contemplative traditions, Boey refreshes what Eliot’s puritanical instincts made of desire and memory. Eliot’s idealist purging of the love and fear of the beginning and the end has different outcomes to Boey’s musings, in “La Mian in Melbourne”, on the beginnings and endings of his plate of noodles. If one turns back the clock a little over a millennium, to the Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu’s “In Abbot Zan’s Room at Dayun Temple” – “Sanskrit sometimes flows out of the temple, / The lingering bells still echo round my bed. / Tomorrow morning in the fertile paddock, / Bitterly I’ll behold the yellow dirt” – it’s here one finds affective paradoxes and complexities in key with those of Clear Brightness. Boey’s is a less detached, less idealist Buddhism than Eliot’s – so it seems to this Australian reviewer – but to slurp a Boey poem as an emotional whole, we must allow him to create in us a relish for his kinds of wholeness.
CHRISTOPHER POLLNITZ has written criticism of Judith Wright, Les Murray, Alan Wearne and John Scott, as well as D. H. Lawrence, and has been a reviewer for Notes and Queries and Scripsi, as well as The Australian and Sydney Morning Herald. His edition of The Poems for the Cambridge University Press series of Lawrence’s Works appeared in 2013.