DJ Huppatz reviews New Singapore Poetry

13 May 2004

No Other City: The Ethos Anthology of Urban Poetry
Edited by Alvin Pang and Aaron Lee
Ethos Books, Singapore 2001

At Changi Airport's arrivals hall, you're greeted by the sound of birds, which is quite disconcerting at 2am. This simulated birdsong is symptomatic of the city-state's attitude to nature. For Singapore, it seems, nature is dangerous and unpredictable, better replaced with more predictable, more aesthetically pleasing technologies. Former Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew once famously asserted that the greatest invention of the 20th century was the air conditioner. Thus it is more than just an urban condition that is constructed in Singapore, it is an aesthetic condition that incorporates all aspects of life.

Singaporean poet Alfian Sa'at wrote that he “lost his country to images”, and it seems that this loss is equally lamented by a strong contingent of young poets whose work is collected in the anthology No Other City: The Ethos Anthology of Urban Poetry. It serves as an important document mapping the emergence of a new English language poetry generation in Singapore, although it does contain some established older poets whose work is sympathetic to its theme. While the older generation were struggling with new nationhood and identity after colonisation, the younger generation grew up as Singaporeans within a global metropolis with a discernable character and culture, and it is this unique urban condition that is captured in No Other City.

Editors Alvin Pang and Aaron Lee have attempted something a little different in their sequencing of the anthology. Rather than group poems by the same author together, they have arranged the poems into a series of linked themes in which each poem stands in its thematic relevance to the previous and to the next, something like a DJ mixes discrete tracks into a coherent continuum. Their aim was “to generate the strands of a kind of seminal dialogue between poems, leading to a discernable tapestry across the entire anthology.”

The result is an anthology that produces echoes and resonances between poems and poets who otherwise might have little in common. No names are included on the page of each poem, an editorial decision which is both liberating, in that it allows the reader to concentrate on the poem in the context of both its neighbours and the anthology as a whole, but also a little frustrating, in that the reader is forced to continually return to the contents pages to find out who the author of each poem is.

As the anthology's title suggests, the poems reflect contemporary urban issues, beginning with the inherent problems in the construction of such a planned, rational city, a project which seems a preoccupation of the Singapore government. Such rapid development affects all aspects of the urban landscape:

They erase the flaws,
the blemishes of the past, knock off
useless blocks with dental dexterity.
(“The Planners”)

The juxtaposition of concrete and trees appears several times in the anthology, with many poems noting the rapid disappearance of Singapore's natural environment in the wake of such development:

And so they make the crooked straight again,
filling valleys and levelling what mountains
there are in this country.
(“Road-Works”)

Amid the concrete, road-works and cranes, trees, symbolic remnants of nature, are relegated to an uncertain status:

Trees are only temporary
In a flourishing garden city.
(“Trees Are Only Temporary”)

And in the end, like the birds of Changi Airport, the natural environment comes to be replaced by a simulacra of nature:

Suddenly you realize those words
could not be printed on sea-water,
and what you thought were waves
beyond the palms and barbecue pits
are cunning hoardings, sea-blue running
the length of the beach you used to know.
(“Blue-Print”)

While the contemporary city builds and rebuilds, heritage and tradition become important issues, but only in their role as part of a profitable tourist spectacle:

Souvenir shops selling Chinese hats and fake
pigtails stapled to the end.
Umbrellas for holding water.

Postcards of nothing we really do. (“Postcards from Chinatown”)

New urban lifestyles also feature strongly in a series of works that focus on Singapore's obsession with shopping and high-tech lifestyles:

My shopping, job-hopping, clubbing, hubbing, hot-mailing
futures-trading, techno, web-surfing @ nowhere generation
Could be dying of the wrong lifestyle
But will wear the right brand to the fat-free end. (“The @ Generation”)

At night however, other possibilities emerge, and the city can take on other identities, even providing a sinister counterpoint to the safe, simulated world of daytime:

I rise in a phantom city
where a dark veil hangs careless,
merging with star-whispers.
Miracles of moonlight dart,
choke the shadows.
(“Fingers of the Cape”)

Ultimately, many poems in the anthology are critical of this “country drugged with its modernity and its self-image” (“Train Ride”), especially those that focus on some of the victims of its “blind rush for progress and prosperity” (“Turning to Exile”) such as the foreign workers from Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Philippines who function as Singapore's cheap (and often unnoticed) labour force. This criticism in itself is a both a bold move on the part of the editors and publisher, as well as an indication of the popular reaction against official opinion, particularly amongst Singapore's younger generation.

However, while the issues raised in the anthology are thought-provoking and timely, this reviewer found much of the poetry itself a little disappointing. The range of voices is rather limited – most poems are first person narratives and a kind of passive autobiographical mode dominates. There are no multiple voices, no narrative clashes, no experimental techniques and very little evidence of Singapore's vernacular languages (especially absent is Singapore's version of English, “Singlish”). If this is a generation that “lost its country to images”, rather than fight back with the techniques that produce those images, much of this poetry retreats into the realm of the “authentic” and the “personal”.

Perhaps this is a natural reaction against the dehumanising urban condition of which Singapore is an exemplary example. But while there are poems about nature and its disappearance, there are few poems that explore its “wild” side either in imagery or in linguistic terms. And while there are poems about the simulated high-tech world many Singaporeans are so enamoured of, there are no poems that utilise the techniques of popular technologies or the inhuman languages that produce such a city – cinematic techniques, for example, or the government's all-pervasive bureaucratic language. It seem to me what is missing are a range of techniques that might not only raise the important issues that No Other City does so convincingly, but also begin to deconstruct the city's urban condition which is constructed through this variety of languages.

 
D.J. Huppatz is co-founder of Textbase Publications.

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