Erratic as Thoughts

Erratic as Thoughts: Goh Poh Seng’s Lines from Batu Ferringhi

by Jee Leong Koh


The travel poem is a well-established genre in Singapore poetry. Singaporeans are inveterate travelers, and Singapore poets have written of their journeys abroad in a myriad of ways. The most successful poems, to my mind, measure the distance between home and world with a very personal stride and refresh our ideas of what travel can be. Three poets impossible to ignore in any study of the Singapore travel poem are Edwin Thumboo, Boey Kim Cheng, and Yong Shu Hoong. I mention them because they represent very different motives for traveling. Edwin Thumboo travels in his poems to build alliances and friendships with other cultures. Boey Kim Cheng looks abroad for an image of what he has lost back home. Yong Shu Hoong, always observant and inquisitive, discovers differences that finally speak of human commonalities.

These different impulses originate from the different personalities of the poets, but they also reflect the historical circumstances in which the poets find themselves. When the idea of the Commonwealth still held imaginative sway, building cultural and artistic alliances seemed the most natural and hopeful course of action in the necessary work of decolonization. Later, as Singapore rapidly industrialized in the 1970’s and 80’s, the mourning for a vanishing landscape gathered apace too. Even later, middle-class prosperity supplies not only the leisure to travel abroad, but also the stimulus to see these travels as an escape from routine and work.

Goh Poh Seng (1936 – 2010) stands apart from these three representative poets. There are elements of the three different impulses in his work, but its main motivation is qualitatively different. In his poems, Goh travels to be changed, to lose stubborn habits of thought and behavior and, for a while, assume a fresh mode of being. Nowhere is this wish clearer than in his second book of poetry, Lines from Batu Ferringhi. Written in 1977 when Goh was 41 years old, the book-length poem is an experiment in depicting a self radically open to the vagaries of internal and external incidents. Goh wrote the book in seven months, from 24th April to 23rd November, and published it the following year with the press that he set up, Island Press. Eight years after the book’s publication, Goh would migrate to Canada, a decision triggered by the government’s closing of his disco lounge and his debts.

Batu Ferringhi is a beach area on the north of Penang Island in Malaysia. In the sixteenth century Portuguese traders from India stopped at Batu Ferringhi to replenish their water supplies, and their visits gave the place its name. “Batu Ferringhi” means Foreigner’s Rock. At this liminal space between land and sea, one seeks the foreign in one’s familiar self. In the 1970’s it was famous as a hippie’s hangout, as a place where foreigners came to swim “in the nude at the freshwater pools,” as a local journalist recalled. Goh was not a hippie. He was a married man with children, a doctor, a man-of-letters and, as the Vice-Chairman of the Arts Council from 1967 to 1973, an arts administrator. Lines from Batu Ferringhi does not refer to this portfolio of public selves, except for one mention of his family. It was as a private man that Goh escaped to Batu Ferringhi in search of renewal and refreshment.

In July 1974, Goh stayed at Batu Ferringhi for seven days and celebrated his 38th birthday on the fourth day of his stay. This life-event thus took place in the exact middle of his stay. The symmetry of this division is reinforced by the organization of his book. Lines from Batu Ferringhi is divided into ten sections, each section recording a day. The birthday makes up the four middle sections—the heart of the book—flanked on each side by three day-sections. The graceful organization is, however, only apparent on hindsight. Reading from the beginning of the book, one encounters each section in the same way as the speaker experiences the succession of days: linear, yet unpredictable, or, as Goh puts it, “unguessable.”

The organization of the poem is suggested by its title. Lines from Batu Ferringhi juxtaposes two linguistic registers, and registers the dissonance between poeticism and localism. The place-name Batu Ferringhi (“Foreigner’s Rock”) insists on the bedrock of experience, whereas the word “lines” draws attention to the versification of that experience. As if to highlight the poet’s craft, the lines in Lines from Batu Ferringhi are numbered in the original edition. The entire work is made up of 3048 lines. The dropping of the line numbering and of the Roman numerals from section titles in later reprints deliberately diminishes the self-consciousness of the artifact.

In the original edition, the section headings are numbered and named thus:

            First day
            Tuesday, 16th July, 1974

The Roman numeral warns the reader that what he is about to read is the first part of a poem, a made thing. Goh wrote the poem three years after his visit to Batu Ferringhi, although the poem speaks of the visit in the immediate present. Below the Roman numeral “I,” the day and date pin the poem to the day-to-day; the book opens also as a personal diary does. The Roman numeral promises the reader the artistic resolution of a final section. The day and date speak only for a particular day, and the record may break off as suddenly and randomly as it begins. Without the Roman numeral, the tension between the poetic and the ordinary disappears.

I have gone to some length to establish the artfulness of Lines from Batu Ferringhi, because, at first glance, the writing appears casual, even prosaic. This diaristic style is, however, fully intentional. That Goh is capable of lyrical compression is amply demonstrated in his first book of poems. The opening poem of Eyewitness (Heinemann, 1976) packs its imaginative power in a single image.


            Afterwards there’s nothing left,
            Save memories hovering like
            Gulls round a departing ship,

            Which draws away gathering
            Conciseness of a shape till
            It comes to terms with the sea.

            It now belongs to me,
            The sea in its entirety,
            But am I increased?

In his preface to the book, Edwin Thumboo was perhaps thinking of “Memory” when he described how Goh’s shorter poems “[rely] on image and intensity of metaphor to establish meaning and consolidate significances.” Near the end of the preface, Thumboo observed that the main subject of Goh’s poetry is the tension between the individual and his environment. The subject gives rise to a variety of attitudes in Goh’s poetry, ranging from nostalgic to sardonic, and so “the poems when read in sequence,” wrote Thumboo, “display the extensive complexity of the theme.”

Thumboo was precise in writing, “when read in sequence.” Certainly, the collection could be read in sequence to grasp the many-sidedness of the theme, but it was not written in sequence, in at least two senses. First, the individual poems were not written in the order in which they were arranged in the book. Second, and more significantly, the individual poems, as lyrical poetry, are written as autonomous and complete wholes. To succeed as a poem, the lyric has to organize all its elements in itself. It is related to another lyric in the same way that I am related to a stranger on a beach: we may speak to each other, but more often than not we don’t. Did Goh feel, as he put together his first book of poems, Eyewitness, the limitations of a lyric collection to reflect the flux and openness of experience? In any case, he chose a radically different approach to writing his second book, Lines from Batu Ferringhi, in which he sets out to capture in a discursive style the movement of life in an environment foreign but not undesirable to one’s self.

To give a better appreciation of Goh’s discursiveness, instead of paraphrasing and quoting selectively from the book, I will focus on reading Section I of this long poem. This introductory section may be divided into five phases, which I name, somewhat reductively, arrival, look-around, self-interrogation, epiphany, and settling-in.

            First day
            Tuesday, 16th July, 1974

            At last I’m here
            Sitting on the beach,
            I have no need
            Of that and this;
            I’m here at last:
            It is enough.

            Past sunset now
            Early darkness touches me,
            The distant hills
            And Kedah Peak                                        10
            They too grow dark,
            Sharp outlines
            Gnawing the sky.
            While just offshore
            A small motorized
            Fishing boat chugs by
            Bobbing on the violet sea,
            Tugging along my heartbeats
            Till its sounds disperse
            Far and wide, and I                                   20
            Am returned to myself.

The first six lines give a palpable sense of relief. The directional word “here” suggests that the speaker is talking to himself, an intimate conversation that we overhear. He is finally where he wants to be for a very long time. The emphasis is rendered through chiasmus in lines 1 and 5 (“At last I’m here … I’m here at last”), a figure of reversal that suggests the absolute change from the place of departure to the place of arrival. This reversal is echoed in “Of that and this” (4), which flips the more usual expression “of this and that.” The change for the speaker is conceived in terms of having “no need” to busy himself. Being here, sitting on the beach, is “enough,” as is the simple, colloquial language expressing his relief.

The plain style is, however, artfully rhythmical. The first six lines of the poem establish quite forcefully an underlying rhythm of two beats in each line. The meter here is not accentual-syllabic, but accentual, which allows for the variation of syllable count in each line. The number of beats in each line also varies occasionally, but within a narrow range. The longest lines in Section I have four beats at most. In the whole section, there are only two lines of one beat each. I will say more about the use of these metrical variations later.

From Batu Ferringhi on Penang Island, one can see Kedah Peak on the mainland. In many cultures, mountains and hills are places of spiritual enlightenment. In the dusk, as “darkness touches” (8) the speaker, the “distant hills” (9) that the speaker sees grow dark “too” (11), as if in sympathy, but their outlines grow “[s]harp” (12) paradoxically. The elimination of distracting detail by the advent of night clarifies the essential shape of things. The dark shows the hills “gnawing the sky” (13) in hunger. This need is not the “need / Of that and this” (3-4) but basic spiritual need.

Just at this time, the speaker sees a small fishing boat chugging by, presumably off on a night fishing expedition. The boat’s voyage is also the voyage of the hungry soul. The economy of the narrative here is remarkable. Instead of describing the speaker’s departure, journey and arrival at Batu Ferringhi, the poem opens with his arrival, and then suggests the voyage’s launch in what the speaker sees on arrival. The physical journey is dispensed with; the spiritual journey is of moment.

As opposed to the visual image of the hills, the image of the fishing boat is powerfully aural. Linked mimetically by the rhyme in “chugs” (16) and “[t]ugging” (18), the speaker’s heartbeat follows the sound of the boat’s motor. The beating of both—heart and motor—is reinforced by the regular accents in the long line “Bobbing on the violet sea” (17). The body can only follow the boat so far, however. When the sounds of the motor “disperse / Far and wide” (19-20), the body is threatened with dissolution and “return[s]” (21) to its unitary self on the beach. This moment of dispersal and re-grouping anticipates many other such moments in the poem; one may say that the movement is typical of the poem as it navigates between openness and organization. What is special in Goh, compared to other poets, is how far he will allow the dispersal to go before the inevitable re-grouping.

After the drama of arrival, after what can be described tongue-in-cheek as a second coming, the speaker can now look around him on the beach.

            But I’m not altogether alone.
            Oh no!

            A flock of little birds:
            Sparrows are they? Sandpipers?
            Some writer! I’m hopeless
            When it comes to birds,
            Or flowers and trees,
            For that matter!
            No. I’m not strong                                    30
            On local fauna and flora,
            Flora and fauna;
            Maybe I should
            Brush up on them?
            Anyway, it doesn’t matter.
            These . . . birds,
            Let’s simply call them,
            Were pecking along the shore,
            Dipping their beaks in yellow sand
            And hopping about                                  40
            On their tiny feet.
            They don’t seem to walk
            Like bigger birds,
            Who waddle like clowns
            Or pace a magisterial gait.
            No, these tiny fellows
            Like to hope about lightly,
            As erratic as thoughts.

Most noticeable in the transition is the change in tone. I’m not altogether alone, the speaker says rather pedantically, and then reassures himself too heartily, Oh no! What emerges here is an attractive ability to laugh at oneself. Sparrows and sandpipers are very different-looking birds, but the speaker grasps first at one and then the other in his puzzled attempt to name the flock of birds. The comical ignorance is followed by mock self-reproach: “Some writer!” (26). “Or flowers and trees” (28) draws out the full extent of his ignorance. He is the kind of helpless writer who can even mangle the common expression “flora and fauna” (32) by reversing the terms.

Behind the comedy, there is, to my mind, a serious critique of a certain method of creating a national literature. Jorge Luis Borges in his essay “The Argentine Writer and Tradition” criticizes the over-abundant use of local color in Argentinian literature to prove its nationalist credentials. He famously points out that the Koran makes no reference to camels. Borges argues further, rather provocatively, that in fact the absence of camels in the Koran demonstrates that the work is Arabic. Camels were so much a part of desert life that they were taken for granted.

In Goh’s poem, the speaker doubts that he is a real writer if he is “not strong” (30) on local flora and fauna. He asks himself if he should “brush up” (34) on them. The patois used here hints at the nationalistic pressure on writers to paint with local color. The speaker appears to be repeating, in self-doubt, what he has been told: the truly Singaporean writer should be “strong” on local flora and fauna; otherwise, he should “brush up” on them. What is, however, most significant here is that the speaker dismisses the nationalistic dictate—“Anyway, it doesn’t matter” (35)—and decides rather humorously to “simply” (37) call the birds “birds” (36).

In their quick hopping movement, these birds are unlike “bigger birds” (43). Bigger birds look clumsy in comparison (“waddle like clowns”), or self-important (“pace a magisterial gait,” the heightened language imitating the sense). Goh’s description of the “tiny fellows” (46) is, of course, also a self-description. He would eschew both pumped-up bulk and what he calls in a later section “authoritarian airs” (1187), in favor of quickness, agility, doubt and self-awareness. At the same time, the description of the birds gives the method of the poem. Just as the birds hop about “[a]s erratic as thoughts” (48), so does the poem. “Erratic” is rich in meaning. Here it has the primary meaning of “unpredictable.” Its other meaning is “eccentric.” This sense of the word alludes to the poem’s experimentalism, its deviation from conventional poetic strategies. Finally, the word in its Latin root, errare, also means “to err,” or “to wander,” and therefore, to travel. Goh’s long poem will not only wander, it will also entertain error.

But what are the little birds doing, “pecking along the shore” (38)? They are feeding wherever they could find food, along the meandering, ever-changing line between land and sea, in sand aesthetically “yellow” (39), as the sea was earlier described as “violet.” Unlike the motorized fishing boat, the birds will not haul in a great catch, but, “[d]ipping their beaks” (30) in the sand, they look for “titbits” (52). The small size of the birds is, in fact, adapted to their seaside environment. Beyond practical survival, however, they seem to “like” (47) to hop about lightly. There is pleasure, even joy, in their adaptability.

            So for a while
            I sit in proximity,                                       50
            Watching them pecking
            Furtively for titbits.
            Actually, an activity
            As fitting as any other.
            I should not disparage,
            Myself only coming here
            In search of a rest,
            Of a little decent happiness.
            And happiness is a fragile thing,
            Ever elusive, difficult to catch,                  60
            Hard to keep intact
            The best of times;
            Worse if, on my part,
            I should impart
            Judgement on others,
            As well as upon myself.

            I’ve had enough of that!
            Enough too of incessant strife
            Over things big and small,
            And all the throes                                      70
            Which surround each act.
            It’s truly hard to fathom
            Why we bother with all that.

            Alas, the simplest truths
            Are the hardest to come by.
            Isn’t it sad
            Beyond all telling
            That we can get
            So easily misled?

            Now I’m here,                                            80
            After a little voyaging,
            Here to unlearn
            The ways of my living.
            It is something to be wished,
            If only it can be achieved.
            For I know now,
            Though I may later forget again,
            How little I really know,
            And how little that matters.

In this third phase, which I have labeled self-interrogation, the speaker muses on the question of happiness. He has come to Batu Ferringhi in search of “a little decent happiness” (58). The gentle irony in this aspiration is only apparent if one recalls that “happiness” is a stated goal in the National Pledge. In the oath of allegiance, Singaporeans pledge themselves to build a democratic society, so as to achieve “happiness, prosperity and progress” for the nation. The speaker is hoping, however, for a “rest” (57) from Singapore, to find “happiness” away from it. As if to register that disloyalty, the speaker describes the little birds as looking “furtively” (51) for food. “Decent” in “a little decent happiness” refers not only to an adequate amount, but also a quota of happiness that can be honorably, or decently, obtained away from one’s post.

The proposal is not an easy one to consummate. The speaker considers three difficulties, in an extended stretch of propositional language. The first challenge is that happiness is “[e]ver elusive, difficult to catch” (60). The idea here is illustrated by the earlier images of the fishing boat going off into the night, and of the little birds pecking on the shore. The second difficulty is the destructive effect of judgment. Judgment destroys happiness, Goh suggests, by distancing, or dividing, the judge from an innocent, or paradisal, union with his world. The repetition of “part” (63) in “impart” (64) hints at the threat to keeping happiness “intact” (61). The third and final difficulty is “incessant strife” (68) over “things big and small” (69). The last phrase is meant to be inclusive—meaning “everything”—but it also re-emphasizes a distinction—between “big” and “small”—that will be developed in Section V into the impact of geopolitical turmoil on personal happiness. Categories introduced in the first section of the poem will be taken up and transformed in later sections. This continuation through transformation is what gives the poem its discursive unity.

The unity can be seen, in miniature, in the punning wit that pervades this phase of Section I. A pun repeats but also changes. I have mentioned the repetition of “part” in “impart.” The word “act” (71) first appears in “[a]ctually” (53), and then in “activity” (53). It’s hard to “fathom” (72) why we bother, says the speaker, using a term of nautical measurement that recalls his position by the sea. The simplest truths are the hardest to “come by” (75), an expression meaning to obtain, but also referring to the passing by of the fishing boat and of the little birds. Finally, the sexual pun in “titbits” (52) is emphasized by the rhyme with “fitting” (54). The sexual innuendo looks back to when the early darkness “touches” (8) the speaker; it looks forward to his self-mocking randiness for a young blond girl in a white bikini in Section III, and his hallucinatory, lust-driven night in Section VII.

Not a pun, but another form of repetition-and-change concludes this phase of Section I. Echoing but also altering the very first line of the poem, “At last I’m here,” the speaker says, “Now I’m here” (80). Time and place come together in the present. Here is the place to “unlearn / The ways of my living” (82-83). This “unlearning” is “something to be wished / If only it can be achieved” (84-85). The passive constructions here are aptly self-deprecating, an attitude also conveyed by the repetition of “little” in this verse paragraph. To unlearn, to surrender stubborn habits of thought and action for a new mode of being, one needs to be open to outside help, to external influence. Now is the time to know, in the Socratic spirit, how little one really knows. This paradoxical knowledge of one’s ignorance is fragile, fleeting, for one may later “forget again” (87). It is useful—here and now—to remember the title of the poem, Lines from Batu Ferringhi, and its preposition, from. The title re-casts the poem, written in the speaker’s immediate present, as a reminder to a forgetful future self, back home in Singapore. The poem serves as a talisman against forgetting.

Only when having arrived at the here and now can the speaker enjoy the hope of the coming days of his vacation, and contemplate the crossing to another place, to a different state of mind. Acknowledging his ignorance, the speaker is open to fresh insight.

            Ah, there are days ahead,                           90
            Days to be fulfilled
            With just a soft, soft wind
            Filling the space of dreams.
            Already, time slowly slackens.
            There is hope then,
            Hope when the salt wind rises
            Rippling over the sand
            And over the water,
            Frothing their crests,
            Giggling with merriment,                            100
            That I could cross
            At last into calm,
            Altogether another place,
            Another condition:
            Though maybe only of the mind.

            A light wind comes
            Along the coast
            Careening, cool,
            Scattering the birds.
            They take off                                              110
            To some other sky,
            Wings fitfully flapping,
            Blown away
            Like small black leaves;
            I watch them
            Fly away out of sight
            Into the night,
            Into space, unbounded.

            The hour has come
            When night descends,                            120
            Gathering around me,
            With its silence.
            On this lonely beach
            Far from the city,
            Far from havoc,
            The night becomes
            Almost hourless,
            A continuous moment
            Within which I’m enclosed:                  130
            A world within a world,
            Whole as a blue
            Balloon idling in the air.

            Speaking in undertones
            Tide ripples whisper
            As if they were alone.

The wind blowing through this phase of the poem is nature’s breath, but it quickly gathers mystical overtones. As “a soft, soft wind” (92), it first appears as a wish for the “days ahead” (90). Then it becomes a condition for the speaker’s hope for peace. There is hope, the speaker muses, “when the salt wind rises…” (96), the salt evoking not only the smell of the sea, but also a sense of vitality, as in the Biblical expression, salt of the earth. This wind is moving air, but it also moves “[r]ippling” (97) like water. As it moves over the sand and the water, this wind, “[f]rothing their crests” (99), churns up both land and sea into a foam of activity. In its substance and effects, the wind is not one element, but three: air, water and earth. The activity of the wind is emphasized before the content of the speaker’s hope is shown to be calmness. The hope for “[a]nother condition” (104) of the spirit is expressed through the mystical paradox of an activity that is not restlessness, and a calmness that is not emptiness.

In the next verse paragraph, a “light” (106) wind rises, as if in fulfillment of the condition for the hope in the last paragraph. The light wind scatters the little birds and they take off for “some other sky” (111). I am reminded here of W.B. Yeats’s poem “Wild Swans at Coole,” in which the birds take to the air too before the speaker’s wondering eyes. Yeats’s theme of human aging is consonant with Goh’s birthday poem. In his informative essay on Goh in Sharing Borders: Studies in Contemporary Singaporean-Malaysian Literature I, Aaron Lee tells of the young Goh in Dublin, Yeats’s city. Ostensibly there for his medical studies, Goh hung out in pubs, instead, with Irish writers such as Patrick Kavanagh and Brendan Behan. I am in no position to study the poetic influences on Lines from Batu Ferringhi, but I hope that Goh’s papers, scattered in at least three different countries, are being preserved and made accessible to scholarship.

Yeats was a strong influence on early Singapore poets, such as Edwin Thumboo and Lee Tzu Pheng. One aspect of that influence can be seen in the two Singaporean poets’ taste for poetic authority, in writing of either the public or private realm. The poem in their hands is an authoritative statement, even when the content of the statement is that of loss, confusion, or disintegration. Goh may have borrowed Yeats’s imagery in Lines from Batu Ferringhi, but he has disavowed an authoritative stance. His little birds do not “pace with a magisterial gait” (45). At this crucial moment of the poem, they fly off with “Wings fitfully flapping” (112). “Fitfully” means intermittently, or, in a less positive sense, inconsistently. But it can also mean, in a pun, well suited, or well fitted. The birds may look desultory to our eyes, but they know, of course, what they are doing. In like manner, the poem.

The visual aspect of the scene is key to the epiphany. The birds are described in a beautiful simile as “small black leaves” (114) blown and flying away into the night. Black into black: the speaker cannot see where the birds go. Space becomes “unbounded” (118), and time “almost hourless” (128). Like the whispering tide ripples, Goh is enough an heir of Romanticism to insist, in this vision, on his essential solitariness, far from the city and from havoc. He is enclosed, instead, in an oxymoronic “continuous moment” (129): he is “[a] world within a world” (131). In an unexpected comparison, he is “[w]hole” as a “blue / Balloon idling in the air” (132-133). The color appears first, lighting up the darkness, and then the shape. Coming after “violet sea” (17) and “yellow sand” (39), the blue balloon completes the trio of primary colors for the three elements of water, earth and air.

The balloon carries a festive atmosphere; “idling in the air” (133), it is a delightful interruption of work and routine. It is not good for anything but enjoyment. Its surprising appearance in the poem, out of nowhere, as it were, presents the aspect of a gift. The image appears again in the last novel published in Goh’s lifetime. In Dance with White Clouds, subtitled “a fable for adults,” the protagonist, an unnamed old man, summarizes his understanding of life: “A person must always have a dream! It fills the spirit, lifts the soul. Without it, a person is like a deflated balloon and can never rise to any great heights” (quoted in Aaron Lee’s essay, which discusses Goh’s novels and plays, as well as his poetry). Goh, who had aspired to be a writer since young, was fortunate to receive, as a gift, in both senses of the word, the dream of poetry. The epiphany of the poem—“a continuous moment”—celebrates the writing life. This celebration will be rocked by troubles later in the poem, but it anticipates Goh’s central theme of the heroic affirmation of life.

            It’s time to move on,
            Return home,
            Although home’s only
            A rented room.                                          140
            Never mind. After all
            Homeliness can’t simply be
            Measured by the amount
            Of furnishing.
            It’s what I can invest
            Within bare walls,
            Where my mind’s at ease,
            My spirit can come to rest.

            I walk away, lurching a bit,
            A bit tentative, this first day;                      150
            It’s only the first day,
            I would not fret the slow-settling,
            Should instead take delight
            In this refluent shore
            Where the lighthouse by the headland
            Has begun flitting its light;
            A beacon to lost ships,
            And, hopefully, lost souls
            Who will be renewed by sleep.

The spell breaks, the speaker realizes that he has to “return home” (138), back to his guesthouse. “Home” was a word with particular resonance in Singapore at the time of Goh’s writing. The Home Ownership Scheme was introduced by the government in 1964 to encourage Singaporeans to buy instead of renting their flats. The rationale given for the scheme was to increase Singaporeans’ stake in their country’s future. The scheme also had the effect of disciplining a restless population into a modern workforce. After a slow start, it became very successful. 90% of resident households own their homes in 2012, according to the Department of Statistics. As the country prospers economically, homeowners have seen the value of homes bought in the 1960s and 70s increase manifold.

Goh’s reflections on home in this last phase of the poem were strongly at odds with his times. Home, for the vacationer, is a “rented room” (140); for the spiritual voyager, too, home is a temporary place that he does not own. After all, no home on earth can be “[a]ltogether another place, / Another condition” (104-105). Not in Batu Ferringhi. Certainly not in Singapore. “Homeliness” (142), or what is proper to the home, also means a lack of adornment or embellishment. Uninterested in the “furnishing” (144) of life, the speaker turns the financial term “invest” (145) into a mental and emotional operation. “Homeliness,” the speaker reminds himself, cannot be measured or quantified. It is, instead, one’s investment of oneself within spartan, even monkish, ‘bare walls” (146). It is a spiritual condition.

The last verse paragraph begins with a pair of four-beat lines that demonstrate perfectly Goh’s artistic control in writing about an erratic mind or motion.

            I walk away, lurching a bit,
            A bit tentative, this first day;

Like an accordion, the accents bunch up and then disperse. The chiasmus in the lines (“lurching a bit, / A bit tentative”) adds to the twirling motion. Working in tandem with the end-stopped lines, the caesurae mark the speaker’s hesitations. Most of Section I is written in two-beat lines, but Goh extends the verse line to four beats occasionally for a variety of effects. “Early darkness touches me” (8), in its song measure, is lyrical, whereas the rhythm in “Dipping their beaks in yellow sand” (39) is imitative of the pecking birds. Goh could sound epigrammatic, as in “And happiness is a fragile thing” (59), or reflective, in “Though I may later forget again” (87). The line decelerates in “Already, time slowly slackens” (94), but soars in a succession of accents in “Hope when the salt wind rises” (96).

The lines here, in this last verse paragraph, lurch with the speaker as he heads home. The speaker may be tipsy from his epiphany or alcohol, we don’t know. Instead of fretting “the slow-settling” (152), he counsels himself to take delight in this “refluent” (154) shore. The description of the setting naturalizes the ebb of inspiration at the close of Section I, but also promises high tides (“re-fluent”) in the days to come. The last thing that the speaker sees is “the lighthouse by the headland” (155). This is Muka Head Lighthouse, a 14-meter high, white granite tower standing on the promontory at the northwestern tip of Penang Island. “Muka” means face in Malay. The symbolism of the name of the lighthouse is apt. Muka Head Lighthouse by the “headland” will guide not only lost ships, such as the motorized fishing boat at the start of the poem, but also lost souls home. From the position of Batu Ferringhi, to look toward the lighthouse is to look away from the peninsular mainland, out of the Strait of Malacca, to the Andaman Sea. At the close of Section I, the reader is left looking forward to even wider, wilder, explorations the next day.

The promise is very largely fulfilled. Goh will tussle with questions about sex, art, aging, commerce, and war. He will encounter a procession of personages, an unnamed old Indian cowherd and his wife, Malay women digging for siput (a kind of edible shellfish), Australian tourists, Manikam the taxi-driver, a prostitute named Mei Ling, and Pak Din, the owner of the homely restaurant Din Bamboo. He will read and argue with Leo Tolstoy, Rainer Maria Rilke, Federico García Lorca, and Albert Camus. He will experience heights of ecstasy and depths of desperation, so much so that, at one point, he rues that readers may think him a “manic-depressive” (2597). But summaries such as this one cannot convey the erratic movement of this poet’s mind in verse. How can anyone paraphrase, for instance, the concrete poetry of these lines below?

            Yes!Yes!Yes!Yes!Yes!Yes!Yes!             (1363-1369)

Lines from Batu Ferringhi must be read to be appreciated. And it must be read as a whole, not in parts.

The problem is that the book is out of print. Goh’s Canadian books of poetry are still in print, but they include only one or two sections of Lines from Batu Ferringhi. Sections I and II appear in As Though the Gods Love Us (Nightwood Editions, 2000). The Girl from Ermita (Nightwood Editions, 1998) reprints Section V. (Aaron Lee in his Sharing Borders essay refers strangely to this fifth section as “the title poem” of Lines. He may have been misled by the title used in Girl: “Lines from Batu Ferringhi – Saturday, 20thJuly, 1974,” which does not include “Fifth Day” and so does not indicate that the section has been taken from a book-length sequence.) Outside the Canadian books, Section III can be found on Goh’s Memorial website. These piecemeal offerings, necessitated by publishing practicalities, give a woefully inadequate idea of the work’s integrity. It is high time to reissue Lines from Batu Ferringhi in a new edition. Or to reprint it as the centerpiece of a new Selected Poems.

In current popular discussions of Singapore poetry, three poets are central to our understanding of the origins and nature of post-Independence poetry: Edwin Thumboo, Lee Tzu Pheng and Arthur Yap. As any strong poet would, Goh Poh Seng complicates the picture. Though capable of writing in a high poetic register, he did not keep to it, as Thumboo and Lee did, nor was he as concerned with asserting poetic authority. His writing displays a winning self-deprecating humor, not a satirical temper. Though alert to the nuances of language, he was less interested in its coded play than Yap was. His poetics is different: conversational in tone, free-flowing in development, discursive in manner, ranging in topic. As he puts it himself in Lines from Batu Ferringhi:

            Words, words to weave
            Into prose, into verse,
            Varied as life,
            As the weather,
            The August sun
            The dark December rains
            Each valid in its own temper,
            Movement, rhyme and rhythm.
            I would labour
            Over poems crystal clear,
            Clean of tone
            On the one hand,
            And yet must dare range,
            On the other,
            To tackle, not shy away from,
            Any and every complexity,
            The twists and turns follow
            The cacophony contained
            In each subject matter.             (1115-1134)

While the other three poets—Thumboo, Lee, and Yap—wrote mainly short lyrics that seldom went beyond a page, Goh wrote the book-length Lines from Batu Ferringhi, and long talky poems such as “Bernard Moitessier,” “Gate of Heavenly Peace,” and “The Girl from Ermita,” the last a dramatic monologue. Bird with One Wing, his book after Lines, is subtitled “A Sequence of Poems.” His exploratory stride is long, and dedicated to the long form, Goh Poh Seng expands our sense of possibilities for Singapore poetry.

Works cited:

Goh, Poh Seng. Lines from Batu Ferringhi. Singapore: Island Press, 1978.

Wong, Chun Wai. “Life’s a Beach in Penang”. July, 2013. Web. December 05, 2015. <>.

Goh, Poh Seng. Eyewitness. Asia: Heinemann, 1976.

Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Argentine Writer and Tradition,” Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings. New York: New Directions, 1964.

Lee, Aaron Soon Yong. “Caught between Earth and Sky: The Life and Works of Goh Poh Seng,” Sharing Borders: Studies in Contemporary Singaporean-Malaysian Literature I ed. Mohammad A. Quayum and Wong Phui Nam. Singapore: National Library Board, 2009.

Department of Statistics Singapore. “Home Ownership Rate of Residential Households.” Web. December 05, 2015. <>.

Goh, Poh Seng. As Though the Gods Love Us. Canada: Nightwood Editions, 2000. 

—. The Girl from Ermita. Canada: Nightwood Editions, 1998.

—. “Lines from Batu Ferringhi,” Crazy to Sing Strange Songs. Web. <>.


I gratefully acknowledge Helaine L. Smith's insightful and generous comments on an earlier draft of the essay. Thanks also to Dorothy J. Wang for reading and giving her thoughts. Part of the essay was presented at the annual conference of the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers. The essay was first published in the Quarterly Literary Review of Singapore.


Jee Leong Koh is the author of Steep Tea (Carcanet), named a Best Book of the Year by UK's Financial Times, and a Finalist by Lambda Literary. He has published three other books of poems and a book of zuihitsu. The above essay will appear in his forthcoming collection Bite Harder: Open Letters and Close Readings (Ethos Books).