Girl Now and Then

Review of Caterwaul by Jennifer Anne Champion (Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2016)
by Richard Angus Whitehead

Jennifer Champion’s second poetry collection possesses the intriguing title of “Caterwaul,” an expression taking us back at least as far as Chaucer, accompanied by etymological roots as mysterious perhaps as “Serangoon,” signifier of Champion’s childhood stomping ground.  The Oxford English Dictionary describes “caterwaul” as a noun (“The cry of the cat at rutting time”), as well as a polysemous verb (“To make the noise proper to them at rutting time…To utter a similar cry; to make a discordant, hideous noise; to quarrel like cats…To be in heat; to be lecherous; to behave amorously or lasciviously; to woo”). Champion’s affection for cats is plainly apparent in her second collection in at least two poems, her Acknowledgements and a ‘portrait’ photo on p. 18 of her cat Orfeu Negro silhouetted in domestic door in the dark distance. “Cats of Sister Hill” even suggests through a less-than-hideous noise a family homestead also significantly shaped by a feline sorority’s sign language. The connotations of “caterwaul” suggesting feline voices fighting and/or making love seem telling, suggestive of Champion’s often inclusive, fabulously leaky, identity-melting, unapologetically unchaste poetry. But noun or verb, ‘Caterwaul’ carries further implications of the irritating, disturbing, untuneful: noises occurring by moonlight in abandoned older city spaces. The eighteenth-century writer Samuel Butler in his Genuine Remains (1759) writes of “Those that are concerned in one another's Love and Honour, are never quiet, but always catterwalling.” But what aside from love and honor set this refreshingly atypical, cat (and rabbit) loving, moonstruck Singaporean poet caterwauling cat- or toddler-fashion, and what is she wooing and arguing with?

Champion only started to write poetry half a decade ago or so in her mid-twenties, the age the English poet Philip Larkin claimed most of us cease to write easily without a struggle.  Oddly in this city-state, she is not the product of official arts programs or an overseas scholarship, but small local ‘edgy’ live-poetry events, recalled and celebrated in Caterwaul’s final poem, the unapologetically confessional-assertive “The I Here is Me,” and self-interrogated unmercifully in “The Relationship Between Poet and Un-Poet.”  The preface to Champion’s earlier collection, A History of Clocks (2015), alludes to poetry as ideally “something fortifying” rather than a securely technical exercise. Champion appears to have begun by richly learning through mistakes. Her early, often deceptively simple-complex performance poetry was transparent experiment, hit-and-miss, disarmingly revealing a noble, democratizing vulnerability, and an arresting, resonating quotability. Champion’s second collection is also atypical in the present Singapore-literature moment in being almost barren of such things as Singlish, heavily garnered learning displayed in allusions and end-notes, or pragmatically platitudinous (and therefore lazily national award- and school-friendly) feminism.  What some of her Math Paper Press peers explore through bespoke and fetishized national museum artefacts, Champion seems to pull almost Heaney-like out of her own quotidian domestic neighborhood present. Perhaps her comparatively uncommon outlook, history, technique and preoccupations partially explain the distinctive way Champion’s poems sit on the page: prose-like, spaced-out (dare I say “freed verse”?) recalling stirringly gushing, offbeat, queer poets like Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg.

The volume, despite its presentation in the strictly spartan, generic-abstract “Ten Year” series format put out by Math Paper Press over the last couple of years, has prevailed in being even in its material presence comparatively individual, odd, and quirky. Champion’s poems are framed and sandwiched between two artefacts. First a red-ringed map of several blocks and streets radiating out like an archery target or a budding breast from Serangoon Garden Circus to Serangoon Garden South School to the north, and CHIJ Our Lady of Good Counsel to the south. Both schools are highlighted (or obliterated?) in green felt tip. In a second, more confident, red crayon de-marking of the circular boundary, Zhonghua Primary and Secondary Schools, popularly considered to be more prestigious institutions, are carefully excluded. Second, a snapshot of the author as toddler in a dress with a large orange watering can, intituled with studied retrospection ‘A girl, a while ago’ follows “The I Here is Me,” a poem very much in the now, reveling rhetorically in a multitude of retrospections.  This continuity of poet as girl remembered, then retold by the same ‘girl’ now a quarter of a century on, is one of several themes that satisfyingly reward attentive revisitings of this collection. Thankfully, however, most of these queerly distinctive poems continue to retain enough odd mystery. Champion herself feels unable to fathom many of them. Maybe it is no coincidence that the word “woman” conspicuously emerges only in the arguably uncharacteristic stylistic experiment “A Question for Georgette”: matriarchs of both myth and local-personal memory repeatedly appear as forces who, in malevolence, out-rival faithless corporate-binary, pragmatic men.

Accompanying “A is for Epal” (another poem taking us back and forth between the perspectives of earlier and later ‘girl’) is an old photograph of Serangoon Garden Community Club, first labelled in grassroots officialese: “It organises many activities for the young and old.” And then in a further caption presumably from Champion herself: “Now repurposed into a shelter for women and children. 1998.” Thus, like the poem it accompanies and thus converses with, the photographic artefact generates knowingly ironic layers of meaningful ambiguity. “A is for Epal” itself sensitively negotiates with modest-sharp hindsight the topics of Filipina maids as surrogate mothers, friendships, petty laws, surreptitious lovers and other pleasures, the tyranny of mother-tongue policies, and an exogamous language privileged at the tip of the Malaysian peninsula.

The short blurb on Caterwaul’s back cover, presumably written by Champion herself, provides helpful pointers to what must be for many an attractive but perhaps initially disorientating local terra incognita. The collection is described as a “memoir” and a “scrapbook.” Certainly, a troubling, often unfairness-ridden early childhood is recalled, positively wrestled with.  Champion continuously demonstrates a welcome and welcoming investment in her own suffering as well as others’. Caterwaul is next referred to as “a wall of sound,” maybe recalling now-notorious Phil Spector’s vintage atmospheric-unsettling recordings of pop-tragic songs, those on Leonard Cohen’s “Death of a Ladies’ Man” perhaps? Perhaps this explains why in the midst of Champion’s prose/poems lines such as “Our floating bones betray us,” “to enact fantasy greater than the oedipal,” “& the words make everything feel infinite,” “everything is just a bridge across loneliness,” and “Only accepting it as the gift it is” strike us as immediately and arrestingly quotable in a way not often encountered in Singapore literature. Bookish, Radio 4-listening, yet urbanely independent and iconoclastic, Champion’s complications, actually experienced, later artfully recreated, sometimes uncannily recall the lives and work of still-marginalized, yet to be published and collected migrant poets such as Rolinda Espanola, Windu Lestari, and Rea Maac as much as that of the tight youngish local literary circle she is most often associated with. In “Emergency Room, 2010,” Champion’s response to Tse Hao Guang’s kindly ventriloquism of a Filipina maid “Joy,” health issues precipitate a reflexive, unaffected breakdown of social and national boundaries between two ailing females:

We wish we weren’t the people who break too easily, both Joy and I.
As it turns out, inconvenience has the same remedy.
Here’s a wheelchair for you and a wheelchair for you.

These lines seem satisfyingly sharp and up in the air even as they indirectly gesture to social injustice: do we celebrate a human connection made or wince at Singapore’s characteristically impoverished one-size-fits-all solution in response to a spectrum of issues? Surely both. Like William Blake or Moll Flanders, Champion’s often baffling poetry generates more questions than it answers.

Less comprehensible in Champion’s blurb are the concluding words, describing herself as “map[ping] pain and desire across middle-class suburbia, in a contest to be heard against the poetry of the heartlands.” I wonder where those heartland poems are, and how loud they are. For the past three years, Champion’s colourful poetic presence, gliding between, say, Serangoon Gardens and Cairnhill in a Mitsubishi Lancer—“suspension soft as a magpie’s wing”—has consistently loomed at least as large as that of any other, newer third-generation local poet. Heartland poets, however, such as my western near-neighbour, the bard of Hong Kah, remains uncollected.

Caterwaul begins startlingly full-on with the ambitiously long “Nap Time.” The poem seems to both return to and grow out of the world of “Ballet Class,” which is the equally long first poem in A History of Clocks: the world of being five, as opposed to turning ten, and the infant-feminine milieu of well-heeled Singapore kindergartens. “Nap Time,” a subtly interconnected poem of four parts, sets up enduring links between kindergarten childhood and adulthood; nap time, to misquote Bob Dylan, blurs into a temporary death.  In a hostile and alien setting, a linguistically marginalized little girl is obliged to make her slumbering body a church, and not in a good way:

I pull my arms up with my feet into my face.
my grandma says,
this makes me a church when I need to be.
when I need to be quiet:
when everyone’s inside voices are all too loud

“Nap Time” also initiates a surreal-supernatural strategy-theme echoed later in Champion’s collection: children-adults seem to grow up into, rather than out of, superstition: “I didn’t know until much later that it might have been because of what I was wearing. The ghosts I might have been attracting to them.”

A sense of the darker, uncanny unseen resurfaces in “Reading the Palms of a Wendigo,” a meditation inspired by a “Vice” documentary about Japanese literature student and serial killer, Issei Sagawa. By doggedly drawing on heart-detected material, Champion is refreshingly freed to go on authentically deeper, and imaginatively beyond even the taboos of incest and cannibalism, with conspicuous results.

Later in “Nap Time,” there is a sense of the poet caught even before birth in her family history. That past embraces Islam as it locally, probably, whimsically once was, and Christianity as it inexorably persists in local milieux. Family confusion is recalled over whether a grandfather should be buried as a Muslim or a Christian. The supposedly ingenuous line “I/ don’t know if Serangoon ever had a mosque but it has five/ churches.” dexterously begs more than one question.  In ‘Grandparents’:

She didn’t want to move with him to Hougang.
The food would be too “Muslim”
For a Hakka-tempered tongue (13).

Elsewhere in “Confessions of an English-Speaking Opium Eater,” a speaker asserts,

… my father bows and makes salat five times a day
in the direction of mechanist ideals.

Champion thus confidently, naturally if mediatedly, generates striking imagery from local Islamic roots. Yet, as with Sharif Udin’s writing, at times the reader is left uncertain as to the moment at which autobiography bleeds into fancy—or someone else, as in “Nap Time.”  It might be too much to claim that “For When You See Things as They Are” uncannily recalls the short, textually later, chronologically earlier, Quranic surahs such as “al-Ikhlas,” which in their rhythmic, spell-like, simple repetition gesture illuminatingly to the sincerely unseen. Few prominent Anglophone Singaporean writers past or present, Gregory Nalpon and Ng Yi-Sheng aside, have even attempted to touch on this dark side of the landscape, Singapura’s indigenous minority culture. Fortuitously, Champion is somewhat proudly rooted in it. While it may all be part of a seemingly distant past, now reposing in older aunties, with scant resemblance to the surface world of, say, Alfian Sa’at’s Malay Sketches, Champion’s light touches point interestingly to an alternative past: a richly, deeply efflorescing Islam in Singapura as it once was and might have been, say, in scholarly pondoks, a stone’s throw from Serangoon Gardens.  

In Section iv of “Nap Time,” we witness a deft, complex, wide-arcing shift from past to present to future. The shift is linked by a genuinely wilful resistance to a constricting status quo. A grandmother seems to be the forebear of a series of regularly negative impositions experienced on domestic-national levels in several poems. In “Axe. Oil” and “Dining Table,” for example, older women are intent on stifling younger ones. But Champion, as girl then or girl now, never “needs” to be quiet; she cannot be anything but tirelessly too loud even in the face of bullying. “Nap Time” ends with infant joy and Orc-like (Cf William Blake, America: a Prophecy, especially plate 12) rebellion recollected in tranquillity, as the little girl rejects such impositions with joyful resistance retrospectively celebrated

At any rate, I lifted my face and screamed too loudly, “No, I don’t!”
And the church that I had built with my body
exploded with light and laughter.

But it was only on a further reading that I pieced together in “Nap Time,” this jigsaw puzzle of a mini-epic, the possibility that the little girl is not necessarily responding to her grandmother’s proscriptions but rather her whistle-blowing infant classmate’s unreflective tell-tale carping: “Lao si! Ta yao si” (“Teacher! She wants to die/be punished”). In Champion’s recollections, linguistic differences, as opposed to racial ones, are more prominent in animating mind-forged manacles. Individual rejection of such socially engineered bonds for the masses seems to continue into the adult world of “Am I or Am I Not Interested?”: “Fridges? Administrators? Pah.” I may be misreading Champion’s poem, but I get a sense of refreshing or perhaps enduring contempt at, and dismissal of the seemingly inevitable crass imposition of “development,” the masculinist and corporate ideology, simultaneously on local nature and local people. That theme of vocally escaping what is silently forced upon us recalls Champion’s earlier poem “Lonely Whale.” There is no hint here of a comfortably politic poet expediently dodging and hiding behind literary form and well-publicized extra-literary good deeds. As for me, I felt indeed fortified recalling the last lines of this poem as I hear, with eerie timing, screaming budget-blowing Sungei Tengah jets unnecessarily drowning out the imam’s khutbah, or jumah prayers at a West Jurong mosque.   

Our core selves, it has been argued, are more or less rapidly defined by the age of five; in a sense we’ve fundamentally learnt more by then than we will ever learn subsequently. Champion touches on how the anxieties of childhood, poorly appetites, experiences of death, and (not) wishing for death, bleed poignantly into our adulthood: in poetry, in real life, in engagements with the “dead” and with “art.” In “HERE IS A REPRODUCTION,” the adult poet, with no false modesty, refers to her infant self’s visual response to her grandmother’s framed and hung jigsaw of Jean-Francois Millet’s painting “The Gleaners” (retrospectively recreated on p. 10): “a much more sophisticated answer than cut and dried scribble or jigsaw riddle.” Although published now in her thirties, Champion locates and delightedly reclaims an artistic sensibility and creativity in herself as early as five. Perhaps I am again over-reading, but a closer look at Millet’s painting suggests that in her tribute and gift to Grandma, “little me” has disregarded Millet’s foreground, in favor of the top left background detail of haystacks, as if sympathetically looking through the eyes of the very small girl in the painting. Yet the child Champion’s gift is ungratefully misread: “the grandmother will tell the little girl that she has / drawn a church. an awful awful church. why is the cross upside down?” To add further ambiguity, the pitchforks that the grandmother reads as inverted crosses do not actually feature in Millet’s painting. The little girl, in early Eastern Christian mystical fashion, can as yet only respond in negatives: “notachurch, I answer.” Champion again deftly juxtaposes and opposes memory past and present, generating mutually and simultaneously illuminating perspectives.

Champion’s seemingly unbroken, at times very heart-on-sleeve, online connection with and subversive privileging of childhood, the past, the beautiful, and the uncertainly unspecious may place her in the tradition of, say, William Blake, Stevie Smith, perhaps even John Betjeman, as well as confessional female poets such as Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath.  One moment Champion seems very much on trend, not least in her literary allusions. However, at other times she is—perhaps especially in a Singapore context—urbanely, nuancedly old-fashioned. And at yet other times, she is somewhat hippy dippy. There is an overriding sense of ‘muldoonery’ to Caterwaul: difficulty/obscurity coupled with some of the attractively discombobulating qualities of an album by a cherished rock band.

In another exploration of her own neighborhood, “Serangoon Gardeners (An EP),” Champion perversely chooses for an epigraph a short cut-and-pasted mid-sentence section deliberately taken out of context from Daryl Qilin Yam’s poem “Loring Chuan”—“the smallness of things, or the breaks” as if it were a kind of found poetry within poetry originally headed elsewhere. This seems reminiscent of Samuel Lee’s postmodern strategies in his recent collection A Field Guide to Supermarkets in Singapore. “Serangoon Gardeners (An EP)” conjures up a locale pieced together by juxtapositions of its quotidian minute particulars and uncharacteristically short lines with a relentless rhythm and rhyme.

Growing specious, inside shadows.
spider leggings. en bloc assholes.

This poem seems to have evolved out of a poem of similar name occasioned by a SingPoWriMo writing-month prompt in 2014, and then revised for Champion’s first collection. It would be fascinating to conduct a close comparison of the three versions of the poem, which would illuminate our understanding of Champion’s process of poetry-making. One could do the same with earlier and later versions of “Confessions of an English-Speaking Opium Eater.” While “Serangoon Gardeners (An EP)” appears to have undergone a process of rigorous atrophy from free verse to sparing rhyming syllabics, “Opium Eater” seems to have experienced the opposite: fertile accretion. New lines, whether intuitively or arbitrarily added to this poem, appear to be among the most arresting.  This performance poet’s work refuses to stay still even on the printed page but is productively deemed unfinished, not abandoned but repeatedly sprouting into newer things. Both poems bear testimony to Champion’s developing skills, as well as the variety of her poems in both form and subject matter. While I personally prefer her deceptively loquacious heavenly length (oh for a much more substantial volume to wallow and ramble in, which includes Champion’s uncollected occasional pieces), it is interesting to see her once in a while pushed under the pressure of a resisting form to something impressive, dazzling in a wholly new and atypical way.

A number of themes appearing in The History of Clocks are revisited in Caterwaul: mouths and throats that are not just for eating, communication, and articulation. Conversely, means other than mouths, speech, and words are explored as perhaps better ways to communicate. Especially during infancy, Champion re-envisions herself communicating via media other than speech even if still using her mouth. In a sense, the collection is woven together from first to final poem by such recalled moments of a little girl, who at a loss for Chinese words to tell a teacher the call of nature, shows the vomit glittering in her open mouth. Cinema and film, first explored in Clock’s “Pink with the Morning,” are constant themes in this volume, as is visual art. Sorority, female friendship, and hetero-bi-lesbian sexuality also continue to be explored with characteristic wordplay in works such as “Gertrude’s Steinway Piano.”  If I have any reservations, they might include the sense that uncollected, occasional online Champion, while perhaps not always as polished, is at least as interesting as what we find in the collected-to-date Champion.  “A Question for Georgette” is an accomplished poem, but unaccountably causes me to wince, though less so than the earlier “Paradise City” and “The Fried Chicken.” In these rare moments, Champion perhaps seems too easy, crowd-pleasing, and obvious, too like much else currently generated by a small coterie in a small country.  This may be, for all I know, my fault: something to do with this armchair reader’s age and generation, ignorance of, and distance from the vibrant spoken-word scene that Champion is presumably part of, originally partly born of.

Having said this, I am very excited that Champion’s poetry is to be included in the local English curriculum. I recently observed a lesson at a girls’ school: a supposedly ‘ideal’ exam-friendly gynocentric feminist poem had been selected for discussion. The able students discussed the poem competently but there was no real discussion as the students came quickly to a consensus. The limited discussion had little to do with the limitations of the students but with those of the inoffensive, specious poem, closed truism perhaps unknowingly passed off as profound. I very much hope to see more genuine, deeper discussions generated as students chew and spiritedly argue over Champion’s rich, ambiguous-mysterious, satisfyingly problematic poems.

In the context of this often constrained, often less than flexible and often too courteous island, worryingly silent on issues of race, gender, sexuality, this inclusive poet, literary warrior, witness, and chronicler in an urbanely assertive and authentically informed voice offers nourishing delight and hospitable hope:

the hallway in which you enter, you found yourself
giggling.
Something went through your head.
You loved it.

 

Angus Whitehead is a long-suffering lecturer in Anglophone literature at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University of Singapore. Angus’ research interests include archival recovery and significance of the immediate social and historical contexts within which William and Catherine Blake lived and worked, early nineteenth century laboring class poetry, lyrics in current dissenting rock music (especially Bob Dylan, Alice Cooper, Peaches Nisker, Julian Cope & Mark E Smith) and roads less/ hitherto never traveled in Singapore literary studies (notably poet Wong May and local migrant worker writings). He recently co-edited with Professor Angelia Poon a collection of essays on Anglophone Singapore literature, Singapore Literature and Culture; Current Directions in Local and Global Contexts (Routledge, 2017). Angus has recently completed essays on Peaches Nisker ("stick it to the pimp": Peaches' Penetration of American Popular Culture' in Canadian Music and American Culture; Get Away From Me edited by Tristanne Connolly and Tomoyuki Iino (Palgrave, 2017)), and William Blake’s letters (The Uncollected Letters of William Blake, Huntington Library Quarterly, 2017). He is currently researching the comic in the works of Kelantan writer Che Husna Azhari, sexualities in contemporary millennial Singapore poetry and homosocial metaphor, subversion, wit and wry allusion in the song lyrics and other writings of Bob Dylan, Alice Cooper, Julian Cope and Mark E Smith.