Siobhan Hodge Reviews Over There: Poems from Singapore and Australia

28 June 2010

Over There: Poems from Singapore and Australia edited by John Kinsella and Alvin Pang
Ethos Books, 2008

Over There: Poems from Singapore and Australia is ambitious. This anthology reads as a sample of more to come, rather than a clear achievement of the sizable task that it sets out in its introduction. Over There is not, as the title might initially suggest, a collection of travel poems, nor is it a comparison of different postcolonial reflections arising from Singapore and Australia. It does contain infrequent travel writing poems, as well as comparative or postcolonial works, but these do not in any way dominate the anthology. What initially appears to characterise Over There is not a distinctly international or culturally comparative flavour, but rather the absence of these tropes. Over There is focused on illustrating the range of experiences – cultural, linguistic, political, just to name a few – rather than drawing forced conclusions about the similarities between Singapore and Australia.

The intention of presenting some of the very varied poetry and poetics of Australians and Singaporeans simultaneously uncovers a wealth of other issues, ideas and experiences. Among the many issues raised by the poets whose works have been collected, are notions of cultural and linguistic exchange, confrontations and adaptations, belonging and identity, translation and mistranslation. There is so much going on in this anthology that it is possible, at a glance, to not see their initial connections. However, it appears that it is this very lack of connectivity, the freedom of exchange and transience from one voice to another, from one theme and idea to another, that best encapsulates the intentions of the anthology.

This idea is endorsed in the book's introduction, as Pang and Kinsella acknowledge that the rich range of material has been gathered with the intention to ‘facilitate a more informed understanding and dialogue' between Australia and Singapore. While recognising the possibility for great differences between political views held by the poets whose works are collected, Kinsella and Pang unify the collection under the idea of ‘difference as generative', the need to read and re-read these poems in order for readers to broaden their horizons. Equality is an overarching theme throughout the anthology: an even number of pages is afforded to the poets of both countries, whilst it is simultaneously suggested that far more room is needed to develop this project further.

Pang and Kinsella have geared Over There towards presenting ideas of proximity, and how the poets whose works have been collected have subverted different barriers to this proximity. Proximity, in this sense, is one of geographical, cultural, linguistic and communal closeness. It is necessary to recognise this intention before reading the anthology, otherwise it can appear that the collection is somewhat disorganised; this disorder is wholly intentional, even essential. Over There does not seek to colonise poetics by ordering the poets' works into neat sections based on subject matter or style, but instead permits all of these to freely mingle. While this approach may initially mean that the anthology can appear to be unstructured, perhaps even ideologically incoherent, this is simply not the case: rather, this is exactly the intended effect; namely, the unrestricted expression of different views and ideas.

In some ways, the lack of regimentation makes the anthology that much more pleasing to read, as you never know what you will come across next. In addition, comparisons can be drawn between some sequential poems, perhaps revealing more about the variety of the tone and structure of the individual poets than may have been possible if their work had been filed between similar approaches. It is not contrary to the opening of cultures and poetics that has been espoused by the collection to approach these poems in a comparative way by any means; rather, the structure of the anthology invites comparisons that are not prejudiced by stringent definitions of thematic content, style or nationality.

The brevity and powerful descriptions of Yahia al-Samawy's ‘Don't Light the Candles' (translated by Eva Sallis) are particularly stunning, as the shorter line lengths emphasise the paranoid, urgent tone of the poem:

Hide the jewel of your eyes –
For this is a time in which love and country are stolen.
Throw the mirrors away
Wash the remnants of sleep from your eyelids
Don't light the candles, Shahrazad –
Light and darkness have become one and the same
In a land ruled by the graven image

The sense of entrapment, isolation and helplessness in the face of political persecution and exile are striking, and Judith Beveridge continues this idea, in a different, though no less emphatic fashion. ‘The Domesticity of Giraffes' takes a gender-orientated approach, liberally utilising images of desolation and futility in its illustration of female persecution. The descriptions of the giraffe's gaze that articulates ‘the loneliness of smoke' as she ‘endlessly licks the wire for salt', contrast with the persona's imagining of herself in her native habitat:

I think of her graceful on the plain –
one long-legged mile after another.
I see her head framed in a leafy bonnet
Of balloon-bobbing in trees.

While al-Samawy's poem is a grim reflection of the psychological and physical effects of political turmoil, Beveridge's poem is much more languorous depiction of the static, stagnant nature of a gendered form of persecution; yet both poems appear complementary in their emotionally detached approaches.

Heng Siok Tian's ‘Chopsticks' is a precisely structured poem that reflects the complicated nature of Western/Asian cultural intersections through the image of a pair of chopsticks that ‘squints' at the poem's speaker. The issues of familial expectations, culture clashes and feelings of isolation and confrontation that arise from these situations are succinctly presented:

There is an etiquette
for handling chopsticks
(handling lives.)

Suddenly how to handle chopsticks
involves a moral dimension.

There is emotional resonance here in the very delicate way in which the persona is now forced to negotiate with their cultural ties, subjected now to the disapproval of their parents. This emotional variance is echoed in the rest of her poems also included in the collection, and its delicacy is similar to that of Ng Yi-Sheng's ‘Ne Zha', and its fragmentary exploration of the confines of tradition, family expectations and a sense of duty to individuality over history. While the structure of the poem is precise, the emotions delivered are less rigid:

Beyond, you tread the clouds
shod with wheels of wind and fire,

and you wait to kill your father,
not become him.

It is not essential to compare these poems, however it is useful to observe that despite the lack of rigidity in the anthology's arrangement, it is still more than feasible to recognise trends in the works collected, and to compare these with a range of other voices.

In terms of breaking down barriers between Singapore and Australia – metaphorically and physically in the sense of the anthology itself – Over There is effective, but also strikes as a snapshot that promises more to come. The exceptional quantity of material touched on in the collection begs for more space, while the idea itself of decolonisation and deregulation of poetry is worthy of further dedication.

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About Siobhan Hodge

Siobhan Hodge has a PhD in English literature. Her thesis focused on Sappho’s legacy in English translations. Born in the UK, she divides her time between Australia and Hong Kong. Her chapbook of reflections on Sappho, Picking Up the Pieces, was published in 2012 as part of the Wide Range Chapbooks series. She is currently the Reviews Editor for Writ Review and an Associate Editor for Rochford Street Review. She has had critical and creative works published in a range of places, including Westerly, Axon, Contrapasso, Peril, Plumwood Mountain.

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