From the archives (June 23, 2016):
Review of The Other Merlion And Friends by Gwee Li Sui (Singapore: Landmark Books, 2015)
by Eric Norris
It seems odd—or it seems odd to me—that a volume of verse like Gwee Li Sui’s selection of poems and original illustrations, The Other Merlion And Friends, should answer so serious and fundamental a question as “Why do I love poetry?” But it does, and there it is, the truth: fizzy and slightly dizzying, like a secret sip of chilled champagne when you were seven.
I don’t know how it is for you, but nine out of ten times when I finish a new book of poems, I feel pretty sad. More than once this year, I have found myself in the shower, softly sobbing, wondering exactly how I ought to memorialize my lost innocence: should I send my soul a commemorative wreath of black chrysanthemums? Or should I take more aggressive measures, Revenge: collect all the money I would have wasted on flowers and make an anonymous tax-deductible donation to a deserving charity with an international reputation and reach, say, S.P.E.C.T.R.E.?
Here, a well-known—possibly award-winning—American or British writer.
There, a benevolent silencer poking through a pair of drapes.
Not so with The Other Merlion And Friends, I am happy to say. I enjoyed this book from beginning to end, from every vantage, coign, and angle: light verse, dark verse, pastiche, poetry, cultural and political criticism, even philosophy. I first read the book in a single sitting at Starbucks. I read it again at home, in a single sitting, a couple of days later. I couldn’t get some images out of my mind. Gwee Li Sui’s imagination invites one back for a second helping of mysteries, in that insidious way Stevie Smith does.
First, let us consider the author’s meditation on SARS: the sad fate of Singaporean poetry when faced with the awesome and arbitrary powers of even the most benevolent State—
Did I type poetry?
I meant poultry, clearly.
The predicament of chickens.
An easy enough mistake to make, if you have spent any time in a writing workshop, MFA pogrom [sic], café, fooling around on Facebook or Twitter, or anywhere else on planet Internet. Or Earth.
In other words, watch how a genetic misunderstanding unfolds into something far more sinister and complex under a skillfully comic and colloquial touch:
The Fate of Singaporean Poultry
Someone says we are killing poets now
and I jump, both feet pointing to the door.
“Must kill them, ya? They dangerous because
the bird flew!
Those words sweat me even more.
Poets are being lynched for some lost bird?
“He means poults,” a voice bends close to retrace.
“They are culling five thousand at the farms
just in case.”
Just in case what? “Just in case”
should never be used to end sentences
like, you know, whatever…
That, and a dubious (but tasty) plate of chicken rice, should stand as an invitation to dinner and a warning to us all: the uncertainty of our own position when facing larger forces—language, genetics, government, our own appetites and ambitions. All the author really does is to allow a pun to run amok, to its dark conclusion: the ultimate “just in case” scenario which authoritarians of all stripes invoke as a kind of controlling authority to secure the public good, however intangible that good might be.
We get more of this grey area in the poem “An Introduction To Hesitation” which is accompanied by an illustration.
I should describe the illustration.
Picture a young girl in a little dress, dorsal view, scratching her head, standing before a pair of closed doors emblazoned with identical stick men, the sort of figures that adorn restroom entrances in malls:
An Introduction To Hesitation
You say Life is not black and white,
You say it knows no wrong or right.
That may be so, but I live each day
In dark or lighter shades of gray.
Who is this “you”?
Where does this “you” derives the authority to define life as a gray mist of meaningless distinctions?
I feel fairly confident that the “I” is someone I vaguely know by now, possibly the author.
This is my best guess, of course, based on my reading here and elsewhere.
If the world is really made up of meaningless distinctions, the “you” and the “I” mentioned above might be one-in-the-same, geographically speaking: consubstantial as fear in a handful of dust. Even more worrying, “I” might actually be me and “you” might actually be you, or vice-versa, perfect strangers to one another, peering through the page at a pair of strange eyes. All we—if I may be so bold as to refer to us in the first person plural without assuming excessively regal, Neo-Imperial airs—all we have is a feeling of dislocation or exclusion to go on.
Logic, like language, in the land of Gwee Li Sui’s, as in many areas of life, is no help at all.
This is why art comes in so handy sometimes and why the illustration helps so much here.
The picture raises questions, too.
How did those identical signs—those stick figure men—get posted? Is the poet to blame for this, too? Or is it the publisher? Who is the agent at work here and whom does he/she/it work for?
I can easily envision an army of well-meaning anti-Manichean cranks on a mission from a benevolent but ill-defined Divinity: someone who wishes to blunt the sharper edges of reality by establishing gray areas everywhere on the globe, removing individual distinctions between persons—sinners, saints, what have “you”—for therein the Devilish details of Humanity lie.
I mean, and I am just theorizing here—spitballing ideas, as it were—but I have a feeling those two lavatory signs were posted in error by a drunken janitor, temporarily on loan to Singaporean poetry from a nightmare vision of Kafka. One feels a creepy certainty that there is a larger story lurking behind this book of poems and pictures: those loo doors, those signs and symbols, those sexes, perhaps an entire society, or a civilization.
You never know.
And that is the intoxicating truth about The Other Merlion And Friends: an odd thing to find in a four-line forbidden sip of champagne and a testament to the skill of the author. You never know what to expect with Gwee Li Sui, but you are immensely grateful for the insights into the human condition that you receive. This is why I enjoyed the book so thoroughly and why I feel that the reader—any reader with a sense of depth perception and humor—will be inclined to forgive the few poems in the collection that fall flat: the book invites us to ask the right questions.
It is not a perfect book, but it doesn’t need to be perfect. Because, for the purposes of poetry, it gets so many things memorably right: patterns of speech, patterns of thought, details, quips, pictures. Puns become verbal incidents that travel far from their philosophical points of origin and never once feel tired when they arrive at Customs.
I seldom dogear books. But I have made an exception here. Several exceptions. All of them lead back to that little girl’s plight in the mall, “An Introduction To Hesitation” and the bewildering bathroom signs. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is about her, but I identify with her, though I do look a bit ridiculous in a little dress, even from the rear, and in a wig. Hers is the choice of no choice, one we have all faced.
Sometimes you just have to go to the bathroom and society is no help.
All you can do is to try the handle yourself and hope.
Eric Norris‘s poems and short stories have appeared in Softblow, Assaracus, E-Verse Radio, Jonathan, New Walk, Glitterwolf, The Nervous Breakdown, and The Raintown Review. He lives in Portlandia, USA.