Nick Terrell Reviews Kim Cheng Boey

22 February 2010

Between Stations by Kim Cheng Boey
Giramondo Publishing, 2009

In 1997, Kim Cheng Boey's feelings of alienation from his homeland had reached critical mass. After years of watching the Singapore of his childhood succumb to ‘the cycle of tear and build that is the philosophy of progress,' he emigrated to Australia. Boey has had four collections of poetry published and won numerous awards. His early collections, Somewhere Bound (1989) and Another Place (1992), earned him high esteem in his homeland. In the mid 1990s, he attended the Iowa Writers centre, and in his third collection, Days of No Name (1996), his increasingly autobiographical poetry began to register his growing identification with an international class of writer-nomads alongside his pessimistic sense that modernisation was eroding a better world than it was creating.

After deciding to emigrate, Boey took a final year-long journey to satiate (as much as possible) his appetite for travel. In the essays that make up Between Stations, Boey's experiences from that farewell tour have become the platform for a cathartic and constructive confrontation with a childhood defined by abandonment, uncertainty and melancholy longings. Between Stations has a roughly chronological arrangement, with the essays plotting a path from Singapore through China, India and Pakistan, to Alexandria and Marrakesh, before coming to rest in Berowra on the northern edge of Sydney. Boey's real adventure, though, is through time and memory – again and again he submerges himself in the time stream with salvage on his mind.

In ‘Rambling on My Mind,' Boey writes: ‘Perhaps all my wanderings and amblings abroad are attempts to recapture the intensity of the first walks with my father.' Faced with the prospect of losing his historical moorings, Boey has turned instinctively to the fixing power of expression and communication: ‘as if afraid that he will fade away, I start writing about him.'

As an emigrant and adventurer, and as an adult still living out confusions from a distant past, Boey feels perpetually ‘in between': ‘that is what it has felt like since my father's death, since giving up our citizenship. In between departure and arrival.' Boey's characterisation of his existence ‘between stations' encapsulates the psychic drama that is taking place in parallel to his travels through time and space:

You move on a raft of reflections. You lose your father and the city you love. You bring both back to life, summon both to a distant country your children know as home. You discover or create this longing for your dead father, and reconstruct a lost city for him and you to inhabit. In between, the city and your father have become so abstract that you panic and try to pin them down in words.

In the course of these earnest and conversational essays, Boey revisits a world that has become more real, and more vital to him. When you are ‘in between', ‘you start to experience reality as something imagined, memory as something that writes you, gives you a second chance.' Taking his own son on a walk he'd often taken with his father, Boey admits ‘It feels like I am staging it, re-enacting the moments I had with my dad.'

It's not so much that Boey is succumbing to cyclical bouts of nostalgie, it's rather that he has made nostalgia his metier. This is why his melancholia, and his elegiac evocations of the lost Atlantis of his youth, are on the one hand artful and endearing, and on the other a kind of affectation. The recollections, meditations and retraced walks are preliminary exercises in Boey's art of nostalgia – the subconscious ore he is mining (and which he strikes routinely) is the kind of dense sense-memory capable of reviving a vanished world in which his father had not yet abandoned the family.

A recurring phrase encapsulates Boey's dominant intent and interest: ‘Then the memory reveals itself.' It announces the successful outcome of a common pattern (or ritual): travelling in the present, a familiar scene, smell or sound begins to warm Boey's synapses. Nothing is clear immediately, but the charge is building. Boey senses it and surrenders, lets the tumblers of his memory-bank spin gradually into alignment until the door swings open and the treasure spills out. It's a routine that yields the most vivid of Boey's autobiographical vignettes. It's also a routine that Boey plainly relishes and happily repeats, a habit which confirms the level of his commitment to the imagined and the re-experienced. He pursues these sense memory-reveries in conscious opposition to a present world which, in many important ways, has lost any comparable capacity to enchant or seduce.

The Romantic longings that fuel Boey's nostalgia have been given a modernist inflection – reverie is fully embraced but also demystified without being devalued. In ‘Passing Snapshots,' Boey returns to the locations pictured in the few photographs he still has from his early childhood and matches up their cropped down backdrops to a present locale. ‘In the postmodern age of vertiginous change,' the stasis of photographic images ‘assuages the nostos that afflicts us, offering a key to the past, memorialising vanished selves, times and places.' Boey is rediscovering and refurbishing his heritage; reinforcing the roots of his identity in the face of upheaval and reorientation. He writes in something of the spirit of The Prelude, something of the spirit of The Waste Land; a spirit, that is, strongly intermingled with anxiety.

This has its setbacks. In ‘My Best Friend,' Boey bids goodbye to a briefly flourishing and rewarding friendship thus: ‘We swap addresses and shake, knowing that years from now, we will one day wonder what has happened to each other, as Du Fu did about Li Bai, wonder whether our friend is still alive, long after the letters have ceased to flow.' This is emblematic of Boey's tendency to add moment, or cultural immanence, to events and observations by appropriating the aura of some established icon or culture hero. The comparison to Li Bai and Du Fu, for instance, illuminates nothing about Boey's actual friendship (or about the friendship between Li Bai and Du Fu). It does show, though, that Boey has a desire to paint and perceive himself in a similar light. Fortunately, Boey's earnestness and his sobriety mean that his appetite for this kind of window dressing rarely comes across as pretension.

In another essay, an image of Chet Baker, in his decline, is seen to ‘breathe the same exhaustion' as the image of Boey's father (and vice versa). Aside from such look-alike comparisons being the laziest kind of description, the association seems so tenuous that there must be something else going on. Seeing his father in the image of Chet Baker answers a persisting childlike need to invest the absentee with a remarkable iconic aura. Throughout Between Stations, Boey's desire for consoling images and associations shows these essays to be deeply rooted in (and animated by) continuing emotional insecurities. Nostalgia is, after all, something of a natural recourse for the anxious.

Among the recollections which Boey courts in seeking out his father and the Singapore of his childhood, he sorts through some pivotal moments in his development as a poet. In ‘Dust and Silverfish Memories,' Boey recalls his discovery of John Keats and the identification that followed: ‘Against the mahjong tiles and the stench of alcohol and cigarettes in the flat, Keats held out a whiff of salvation, a promised land of the imagination that would someday turn into reality. I forced parallels between my childhood and Keats's, imitated his handwriting and its tilted cursive.' In his state of abandonment, Keats and his peers became absolute role models. Young Boey even calibrated his aesthetic sensibilities to Keats's – reading how Keats had felt vertigo when Edmund stepped off the cliff in King Lear, Boey tried earnestly to match him. Like many people of the book, Boey grew up inhabiting cities of the mind and finding peers and psychic familiars among characters and authors.

In his youth, Boey considered a monastic calling. Good sense prevailed and he chose not to retreat from the world, but in his attitude to writing and writers there is an unmistakeable dose of displaced religiosity. Boey's year of travelling is presented as a traveller's last hurrah, conducted in the knowledge that a new and settled life is waiting at the end. Beyond this though, in Boey's destinations, in his attitudes to his fellow travellers and in his caste of mind in general, his narrative is the work of a scholar-pilgrim. His attitude to knowledge and history and his desire for the company of like-minded men creates an atmosphere which is at times charmingly archaic – Kim Cheng Boey's Wanderjahre – but also somewhat aloof. This owes something perhaps to Boey's fastidious prose – he employs a kind of high modernist style that conveys in tone what he seeks again and again to convey in content, a kind of dignified ascension over disposable culture through the creative maintenance of history and tradition.

Between Stations is ostensibly about travel, and it does contain plenty of evocative colour, plenty of meditative transports, and some doses of exoticism as well. Here, for instance, is a hair cut in Calcutta:

… the barbers mist scented water into our parched hair with atomiser sprays, comb out the day's tangle, select their shears and fall to their renovating work. We breathe the sandalwood tendrils from incense sticks in front of a garlanded Ganesh, watching the reflection of the busy street outside merge with our faces and the figures of the barbers into a multilayered reality relayed by echoing wall-to-wall mirrors. The Hindi hits mixed with the hurly-burly outside, and the now desultory conversation between the barbers and the two locals soon lull us into a reverie.

Boey is a fine writer, and when his meditations and recollections incorporate a cast of fellow travellers there are some novelistic pleasures to be had. Boey's own present travels, though, are really only of secondary interest to Boey himself. They are the platform for his true interest – his recurring meditations on the density of sense-memory and the prospect of forging some kind of good inheritance from the fragments of his troubled relationship with his father.

Boey can be precious (about art, writing, intellectualism etc.) but he is more earnest than pompous. Boey's identification with the more maudlin philosophies of the Romantic poets can be endearingly gloomy – ‘On this earth we have no abiding home,' – and he gives the impression of having been careworn since the age of approximately five. Though he is only in his mid forties, he describes himself as a very old man. He has long since made friends with his melancholia – he accepts it, jokes with it. But this is more than a rhetorical posture, it reflects Boey's willing identification with a mature and disenchanted worldview. He has passed into the romance of disillusionment (far too early perhaps) and learnt to cherish past enthusiasms which have long since faded ‘into the light of common day.'

As a writer making sense of himself, Boey relishes pathos. His losses are irresolvable, but aesthetic transformation offers something like the promise of compensation. In the best modernist tradition, he is rejecting chaos and the void by creating touchstones that might add up to a continuous heritage.

Nick Terrell is a contributing editor at The Ember.

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