Cécile Parrish’s Potential

 Durian, William Farquhar Collection of Natural History Drawings, 1819-23

Durian, William Farquhar Collection of Natural History Drawings, 1819-23

Often “potential” damns with faint praise. In this case, it laments. Cécile Parrish’s only and posthumous Poems (1966) begins a struggle to live between cultures and worlds, containing pieces held in tension between reality and fantasy, the ‘West’ and the ‘East,’ the child and the adult. If she had lived longer and written more, her influence on Singapore letters and beyond would have been undoubtedly felt.

W. A. G. Scott in his introduction to Poems provides a perceptive if undeveloped sketch of Parrish’s concerns, broadly categorising her poems by provenance and tone:

[Her poems] were written from her undergraduate days onwards, some in Europe, others in the East which was her home. Readers will not be surprised to know that she had a special interest in children’s literature and was herself a writer of stories for children. Many of the poems have a dream-like, fairy-tale quality and a delicacy of perception to which children and adults alike may respond, others deal more directly with what has been observed or felt in experience.

While it is true that most of the poems fit into these categories, I want to focus a few that to my mind trouble them, poems that in different ways are ‘both,’ and ’neither’.

“Carol,” for one, begins in the realm of high fantasy and fairytale, detailing the various ways God could have allowed baby Jesus to enter the world—“He could have dropped a dome / Carved of sapphire and amber,” “He could have made a ship / Keeled with the crescent moon”. It ends, however, by playing with the expectations it originally sets up:

But God sent down the baby
When night was wet and wild;
Hungry into a hungry world,
Crying like a kampong child.

Here, instead of mere theology, we get poetic argument; after almost hyperbolic opulence, sobriety and a suffering world; and all this structured by a rhythm and rhyme scheme recalling Mother Goose or the balladic Yeats. That final line binds through metaphor the stereotypically high and low, both arguing for the poverty and humanity of Jesus, and suggesting that the kampong is actually most fit to host a sacred presence.

In “Bidadari,” which is on the death of a child, a similar mediatory tendency emerges through playing with the idea of sight and vision. The sonnet begins with a description of wreaths wilting in the heat of the day. Paradoxically, the persona experiences the brightness of noon as a kind of disappearance and blinding. First, the flowers die, then, “My shadow fades beneath my feet,” finally, in “the blinded stone,” extreme brightness makes the dead child’s gravestone impossible to read. One reading: the harsh glare of reality obscures the persona’s memory and commemoration of her child. At the same time, the persona admits to “my deficiency of tears,” a seemingly disturbing lack of emotion that in fact makes her clear-eyed, helping her to “reconcile” or better perceive the blinded stone of the child’s legacy.

In the world of the poem, sunlight makes things unclear, and a mother’s inability to cry for her drowned child enables her to better remember him. The final paradox lies in how the persona commemorates her son: “My ritual hand is all that bears / Remembrance of his blood and bone / And prays a pale and alien cross”. The act of crossing oneself is foreign, pales in comparison to the harsh local sunlight, and yet this apparently futile, dislocated act resolves and ends the poem. A radical reading might discern parallels between the child and Bidadari cemetery itself today, its imminent destruction evoking the same themes of remembrance, loss, and troubled reconciliation.

If in “Bidadari” the landscape is at war with itself, land versus light, “The Scarlet Land” describes love between land and sea. This land is exoticised, orientalised, the sea agent and instigator, and, of course, the medium through which the region became important to and was colonised by the Portuguese, the Dutch, the English. Land is rendered through almost hysterically sensuous turns of phrase, and although the alert reader realises its ludicrousness, I still find it easy to get taken in. The land is on passive display for colonial “Fawning, ador[ation]”.

However, the final two lines complicate matters slightly—the land “Stoops for the white kiss of the enchained sea”. Land here is above sea, and deigns to stoop, is actively consensual, while sea is immobile, bound. Whether these lines signify female agency, neocolonial collusion, both, or neither, they repeat by-now-familiar moves: Parrish sets up readerly expectations, then toys with them. Diction and rhyme prepare us for the certainty of children’s stories, but we receive poetry at once simple and full of interpretive potential.

Even in those poems which to me are juvenilia, Parrish demonstrates an ear that surpasses those of many other local poets writing contemporaneously. From “Low Tide, Johore”:

Suspended in eternity
The hour hangs motionless, before
A rising sigh along the shore
Heralds the returning sea.

The sounds of the words enact that suspension of time before the sudden return of the tide. Assonance, in particular, reflects the rhythmic repetition of the waves: “hour” with “before,” “rising” with “sigh,” “along” with “shore”. Assonance between the first and last lines mirrors the tide that appears, recedes, and reappears: “Suspended” with “heralds,” “eternity” with “returning”. The enjambment of “before / A rising sigh” brings to mind the force of water that overspills. Both the enjambment and the half-rhyme of “eternity” with “returning sea” soften the end-rhymes, allowing the sound of waves to echo naturally. It sounds effortless.

If Cécile Parrish had had the chance to develop her concerns, refine her prosody, and become less imitative, I believe she would have grown into a force to be reckoned with. Her lack of interest in nation-building means she likely would not have been accepted as a Singaporean writer soon after independence. Today, however, her poetry may yet reveal things worth listening to.

Hao Guang Tse