That tempered combination of salt and sweet, the long-brewing that achieves it, is not just the flavour that Boey’s palate craves. It also speaks to the balance that the poet seeks in his writing. Even as absences haunt this description – ’what was never said,’ the stories left untold’ – the poet conjures the bowl of soup into being.
Alongside these urban environments, with the poem ‘Archipelago’ Boey offers us coastlines, a glimpse of how the natural landscape also tells the story of the individual within it. As he shows us ‘beaches lapped by memory’s tide’ he notes that the personal charting of these islands is akin to ‘mapping the meridian/ of yourself, the routes that led you from the coast of forgetting/ to this coast of remembering.’ The landscape itself – its inlets and vanished mangroves, its palm trees and horizons – are as much a part of his subject’s biography as the kampongs and the routes between them. He writes of the journey through the archipelago as an act of ‘riding past the stations/ of your life’, evoking the understanding that we all have such sites and stations.
The poems of Clear Brightness are often deceptive: appearing plain on the surface, the quality of their workmanship makes for an unassuming, unostentatious foundation. There are no pyrotechnics on display here, but instead a steady eye that, despite its steadfast gaze directed at memory, refuses sentimentality. The volume’s title demonstrates the subtlety of Boey’s poetry: the ‘clear brightness’ seems to border on tautology, but of course there is distinction, differentiation, between the two. While the brightness doesn’t turn into unforgiving glare, the light shed on these poems allows for unflinching engagement with a sense of permanent displacement in which, perhaps, the only ‘homecoming’ the poet experiences is in contemplation of the past.
While every so often Boey gives way to ‘poetic’ description (‘Dot joining emerald dot’) the seeming plainness of his language strengthens the poems. Against such plainness, the moments when he stacks adjectives – ’the air/ acrid, shriven, ashen’ – gain extra power, appearing in relief when compared with the sense of reticence that haunts the poems. In rhymed poems, such as the sonnets of ‘The Markets’, the poet’s long lines make the chime of end-rhymes less insistent: another example of the poet’s subtlety. Elsewhere the poet’s use of assonances forms an architecture, as when in the title poem Boey writes ‘The dead were fed/ their abodes swept, and the filial queue/ of joss offered.’ Such shifts in sound show impressive attentiveness to language; such surprises are small in scale and their nuances will not be evident to impatient readers. The clarity of the poems means that you can read them quickly and understand their narratives and their themes. Their strength as poems emerges when subjected to a slower reading and its accompanying close attention. The slimness of the volume is suggestive of the degree of work that has gone into the poems themselves.
Kim Cheng Boey is one of the most well-known ‘Asian-Australian’ poets: this hyphenation is useful insofar as it reminds us that there are other voices among us than the dominant European strain. It is worth remembering how long Asia has been part of our multicultural society, and how long Australia has been part of the Silk Road. Clear Brightness shows us why Boey deserves to be simply a well-known Australian poet. Boey’s true questions – where do I come from? How do I live with the past? – are questions that we all ask. The poet’s invocation of memory is obsessive, but it is obsessively human.
The book ends with an interview with the poet, reflecting on his body of work, both here and in his other books. The interview offers insight into Boey’s consideration of the ethics of writing about his dead and notes that, ‘the poems about my father and grandmother are attempts to memorialize them, to deal with their disappearance.’ This instinct to memorialize spreads through Clear Brightness, extending not only to his own family, but to experience and its emblems more generally. Of his body of work he states, ‘What the poems offer are sundered moments, some sunlit, some dark, clouded. I do, however see each collection as marking out a stage or phase in my life’: the concentrated gaze the poet offers of entry to middle age in this book expands beyond his own specific memories and memorials, opening a quiet space for the reader, no matter his or her own age.
In its way, Clear Brightness reveals that the world has always been multicultural, has always been built on cultural exchange, that the Silk Road began before we imagined it did, and never ended. Boey’s long memory explicitly crosses generations and implicitly evokes a much larger sense of history.