Spiritual Trial

Review of Death Wish by Gwee Li Sui (Singapore: Landmark Books, 2017)
By Eric Norris

Gwee Li Sui lays out the spiritual architecture of his new book, Death Wish, in a short preface:

“With each dying through either fate or choice, a new quality in the self becomes possible—and life survives. This reshaping is not just something natural; it is the way Nature itself goes on forever. The tree loses its leaves, the reptile sheds its skin, and the mammal moults its fur.”

Death is not a dead end in Death Wish. It is a transformation. But what kind of transformation is it? Habitually shedding leaves, or skin, or fur, is a different sort of metamorphosis than we see in our insect cousins, for instance.

Imagine a butterfly: it crawls through the obese leaf-lunching grub phase, it spins a mysterious chrysalis out of what it has digested, and it finally emerges from a cocoon, as an incredible quartet of stained glass wings.

This is not the case in Death Wish. Here, the core creature—perhaps the original soul—retains its familiar shape, as Li Sui makes clear in the second paragraph of his introduction:

“Enabled continuities across discrete moments and persons speak of cycles. Deaths not even my own hide inside my life.”

I think the key to understanding Death Wish is the idea of “cycles.” In shedding leaves, or skin, or moulting fur, the essential outlines of the creature are not lost. A larval monarch, on the other hand, or a fatally flame-obsessed moth, is transformed by its life-cycle so completely that the initial worm emerges on the other side of time as a transfigured soul.

Instead of a change in essence, in Death Wish, we see a sort of seasonal changing of persona. These manifestations of the poet are laid out in six sections in the table of contents as different characters: The Professor, The Lovers, The Philosopher, The Soldier, The Preacher, The Golden Child. I would like to focus on the first section, The Professor, as a window into the spirit of the book as a whole.

The Professor’s section also begins with a preface:

“I knew him in my last months of work at the university. Over coffee, he would talk about his dreams, his conflicts with institutional values, and his wasted years. I saw someone who resembled him on the street once, but we have not met again.”

The first poem:

So It Begins

He knows the river’s coloured song:
he knows the wrong
on which his world is built:
he knows the tilt
of many heads that praise
the bad pottery:
he knows his geometry.

Now, knowledge gives him up to tell
the whole is not well:
when music eats away his freedom
he knows martyrdom:
daily before he sleeps away
his thoughtful life
he wants his waking strife.

Naturally, the first question one asks oneself is: Who is this “He?” A teacher once glanced in the street? Or is it the poet, viewing himself in a pane of glass—from the external plane of the third person—describing himself as the professor? Or is some other person, the reader, say, looking down at the page at the author as a character in his own (the author’s) personal story? It is not clear. All three might be possible perspectives. Because of that ambiguity, I think we are quietly being invited to view the poem from all of these points-of-view simultaneously.

Whoever this professor is, he is on intimate terms with a river—symbolic, maybe representing change, or life itself, and its polyphonic poetical possibilities. One can hear the music trickling through the world by listening to the rhymes—a pattern which breaks in stanza 1 with the word “praise” and stanza 2 with the word “away”.

The subsequent lines make value judgments:

…the bad pottery:
he knows his geometry.

… his thoughtful life
he wants his waking strife.

The professor sees his limitations and this leads to an internal conflict. In fact, the professor knows only five things for certain:

1. He knows the music of the river.
2. He knows the foundations of his world are unsound—in the nice image of tilting heads of praise.
3. He knows geometry.
4. He knows bad craftsmanship when he sees it—the abstract measure of things in some ideal sense: social, moral or aesthetic, or, again, perhaps all three at once.
5. Most dramatically, the professor knows a kind of “martyrdom” as a consequence of knowing the river’s “coloured song”. 

…daily before he sleeps away
his thoughtful life
he wants his waking strife.

Strife provides as much nourishment for the soul as music here. The two seem to be dialectically related. The professor’s primary occupation consists of working out the geometry of the surrounding world in mythological, religious, and socio-political terms through song.

Later on, in the same professor sequence, we enter a city of metaphysical strife, in the poem ‘Kenosis’. Because of its complexity, this poem should be quoted in full:


When I lose you
for my fallen love,
O City of
Endless Energies,
your eyes burn out
along the streets

and there are cries
between morning crows
(as there sometimes are)
but I have become
your mimicry,
a burnt moth’s wing,

and in your lag
I will walk amid
my midnight voices
and turn a single
inner structure
to deathlessness

for this is the truth
that I hear, I hear,
as long as my passages
of beauty are framed
above sharp edges
without and within

and so, you City
of my white bread,
Demon for frail loves,
walk my broad roads
of desiring
but keep in mind

how we must trust
each other after
I have paid your bills
and tapped your lines
and know well now
why you got lost,

why you mess me up,
renounce your poor,
dim your evenings
with recklessness
and scourge yourself with

for this is the truth
that you say, you say,

as long as your passages
of beauty are framed
above sharp edges
without and within.

Kenosis, in Christian theology, is a spiritual purge where the individual believer empties himself or herself of his or her own desires in order to become a suitable receptacle for the will of God. Among the voices the poet hears in his midnight (of the soul) ramble through the city, he wishes to pick out one “inner structure” (Self, perhaps) for ‘deathlessness.’

This vision of immortality comes with conditions:

…but keep in mind

how we must trust
each other after
I have paid your bills
and tapped your lines
and know well now
why you got lost…

The self cannot lose its sense of obligation to the City (and its way within the City) if the soul is to be granted that immortality the professor wishes to confer. The proposal—for immortality—is internally consistent with the logic and moral landscape of the poem.

However, I think it is perfectly reasonable for the reader to wonder if the professor is offering a fair bargain. I wonder whether the professor might not have wandered a little beyond his pedagogical duties at the university one night, out into the eschatological traffic of the world, after one too many rounds of port with his college colleagues, and, in a flash, has suddenly found himself with a blistering hangover in Heaven. Or Hell. Or some eternally perplexing existential Purgatory in between.

This isn’t so fanciful a thesis as it might seem, as we learn toward the end of The Professor’s portion of Death Wish.

The Body’s Mutation

How odd, he thought. Barely a few hours
into a different city and on
a grey day he later learnt had showers
pollution-thick—and the whizzing was gone.

Something should have been gnawing at the back
of his nose: a buzzing and a cocoon,
a thug in the left eye and side of neck…
So he waited a day more and till noon

to be objective. It was truly gone:
the air felt like a leg below the knee
restored. How odd, this time he spoke, that on
this side of life I could breathe easily.

Again, we hear that river music thinking through the end-rhymes; just as we heard it in the opening lines of the poem ‘So It Begins.’ It is clearer here what the relationship between the professor persona and the narrator is: the professor is the body itself. Not just the physical body either. This body may be a set of shared myths, philosophical doctrines, religious beliefs; or it may be a social group, a city, a nationality, or race; or a community of the faithful, or any other group of cells in the body politic that add up to an identity in conflict with the guiding consciousness at the center of the whole. There is something quite Kafka-like going on in the professor’s skull: a kind of trial.

This spiritual trial—or test, which would seem to be a metaphor more in line with the professor’s profession—is intellectual, political, metaphysical, and physical at the same time.

So I Head Out

Among books I wait for a two-tongued poem
with eight levels of meaning to emerge.
I wait for words to renounce matter
and wait for madness
in the bodied remembrance of faces
that cut and cut me again.
I wait as stern heavy eyes
prop up the falling of the day
and titles the passage of many words—
but what will hold up the darkening
of non-arrivals
when death finds me alone with shelves
and I hide by counting the endlessness of
ignorant hours and the weaknesses of genius,
wishing once more to reflect in some
new migrant color,
and so—

Having a better sense of his limitations and his relationship to his knowledge, the narrator—who has shed the skin of the professor over the course of the sequence—is initially caught and petrified by the light of what he has learned from the books surrounding him. He knows what he would like to do with what he has learned, but he can’t seem to act to make it happen, at first.

However, despite the odds, after wrestling with his own self-doubts, he finds it within himself to make a transcendental dash away from death anyway:

and so—

After that “—” the journey really begins. We head out with the narrator to explore other ideas in the further sequences of Death Wish: love, philosophy, war, religion, and personal myth.

What I like most about Death Wish is how carefully the author has captured the psychology and metaphysics of the quest for self-knowledge: where one self ends, another begins, in a continual process of shedding and assuming new personae in a cycle of renewal. It gives us all hope.

My only criticism of Death Wish is that, here and there, the author takes the reader so high into the stratosphere of metaphorical abstraction that one begins to feel light-headed from the extreme cold and lack of breathable air.

Consider how an eyewitness to the events of September 11th, 2001 might read the poem from The Soldier sequence, ‘End of Days: September 11th, 2001,’

he rides on the minute hand
he shuts the lower jaw of the hour
he calls upon the souls of the living
he razes the unexpected tower

his name is inked on many words
his voice is called in the wet of desire
he arrives before he is recognised
he is the cheap primordial mire

few rage against the thought of him
what invites is the gaze and the smile
in one or a hundred thousand ways
our movements still are infantile…

Similar observations continue for a few more stanzas.

There is no personal emotional investment in the events or the images here. There is no sense of individuality. For that reason, I don’t think this poem is a statement on either the psychology of soldiering or the horrors of war. It is possible that a lack of detail is part of deliberate poetical strategy to create distance, for absorbing the implications of a complicated historical event we do not fully understand to this day.

Even so, this poem feels more like a metaphorical AAR, or After Action Report. The rhymes report in. They do their duty for God and country. They bear a kind of witless rhythmic witness to history. But there is nothing combustible about these materials. Nothing burns in the throat or the eye, as it did on that cruelly clear morning in September almost 20 years ago. The human element—the human anchor—is missing.

Think of Auden at the end of his elegy for Yeats:

In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait
Each sequestered in its hate.

Intellectual disgrace
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice.

 ‘End of Days’ is one of the few places in Death Wish where one feels like the poet loses his psychological footing.

Remember those lines from the poem, ‘So It Begins,’ in The Professor sequence, mentioned above:

…he knows the wrong
on which his world is built:
he knows the tilt
of many heads that praise
the bad pottery:
he knows his geometry.

Somebody has forgotten his geometry. Maybe the soldier. Or maybe the poet. It is hard to say.

A lapse in memory is not a sin—at least not a mortal one. And the poet finds himself again, fairly quickly. And, after a stint as a preacher, is soon ready to face his final trial of strength, composing his last words, in the final sequence, The Golden Child:


Unlike other nights, tonight
I have my epitaph ready.
I made it up in the day,
wrote the words on white paper
and buried everything
two inches down my throat.
Some parts may be hard to read
but no matter: it won’t be read.
It starts with the usual “Here lies”
and admits a few kind words:
six lines in all and they rhyme.
Tonight, I am not afraid of death.

“Tonight, I am not afraid of death.” I do, in part, believe him. Those familiar with Gwee’s earlier collection The Other Merlion And Friends will see the author’s sense of humor at play here more than in any other poem in Death Wish,

It starts with the usual “Here lies”
and admits a few kind words…

Nobody looks to an epitaph for truth. The same might easily be said for poetry. Yet, however tempting it might be for a poet to reach that cynical conclusion when confronting death, Gwee Li Sui never does. The poetry survives, as a way of happening—a mouth—even if those words are buried in the throat, as they are here.

Instead of being cynical, Death Wish is an intellectually curious and courageous book, honest and searching, with the humility that comes from the imaginative ability to step outside one’s self and see one’s life from another perspective: from the point-of-view of the professor, the lover, the soldier, even, in a playfully self-referential way, as the Merlion does.


Eric's poems have appeared in: The New English Review, Foglifter, Ambit, Impossible Archetype, The Peacock Journal, Classical Outlook, E-Verse Radio, Softblow, and Assaracus, among others. His latest book, Astronomy For Beginners, is available on Amazon.com.