Satire and Vulnerability in Goh Sin Tub’s Poetry

M. Kupriyanov, P. Krylov, N. Sokolov. The End. Oil on canvas, 1947-48. 200x251cm. The Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

M. Kupriyanov, P. Krylov, N. Sokolov. The End. Oil on canvas, 1947-48. 200x251cm. The Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

Goh Sin Tub, far better known in literary circles for his fiction, also wrote occasional poetry, gathered in the aptly-named Moments in a Singapore Life (1993). Edwin Thumboo explains in his foreword to the book that these were “written over a life-time that has to date spanned the Japanese Occupation and the history of our nation” (vii). Although in most of the poems sensitivity to words is set aside to prove a point, there is value to be gained from their historical situation, and a few pieces, especially some satirical ones and those that deal with uncertainty and mortality, are genuinely interesting and moving.

Goh’s poems deal with the historical in two broad ways—via statement and satire. The latter is much more interesting to me, although to understand satire it is important to look at the former. In “Reunion with Jack,” the ambivalent return of the British after the war is reflected by the refrain “The British are back, they’re back! (Good God!)” (13). Instead of building the poem on that ambiguity, however, Goh errs on the side of stridency:

The might of the white man is no more:
Slapped, kicked, stripped, forced to his knees
Before yellow men we were raised to despise. (14)

Similarly, “August Anguish” begins with a truly fascinating view of Separation:

In New York that September
outside UN gate I sought entry:
They’ll raise my flag, I must be in.
They told me: no sponsor, no entry! (37)

However, it ends on a note more reminiscent of 1990s National Day songs:

New dragon of the dragon race,
new star on the rise
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
beneath the larger skies
of Asean, Asia . . . World (38)

Too often, Goh’s historical poems either simply narrate events that might be found in a textbook, or are wholly representative of a certain narrative of the nation that has not worn well over the years.

His satirical takes are more achieved. “Mood” in parts is a frightening poem on the spectre of nuclear winter during the Cold War. In the poem, “a cow in High Street / Mooing to an inspector” becomes “curry beef for supper” in the very next line (18). Ordinary people calculate and analyse; “The amah says three / Ah Goh says one / The modest lady says nothing,” and yet all this “adds up to nought”. The inevitability of death permeates throughout without any easy thought or comfort. In the final stanza, the sounds of the neighbourhood give way, all of a sudden, to the feared apocalypse:

From the neighbourhood minaret a call to prayer,
And fragrance of buddhist joss fills the air
As through the many-layered corridors of HDBs
Flows the chatter of prayers to ancestors
With here and there a murmur
Of unexpected hail maries [ . . . .]
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Sole case for salvation from
End of the world
Mushroom. (19)

These neighbourhood sounds, we come to understand, are calls for divine help, cut off by the stark image of the nuclear cloud. The clichéd depiction of Singapore’s religious and racial harmony is rewritten as a collective dread and impotence in the face of death. Here, there is no “New dragon of the dragon race” to keep the peace.

In “Life Returns To U,” the university is a site of intellectual and sexual anarchy, where students from all backgrounds, “praising and effing,” “the rebels, rousers, freedom fighters [ . . . ] the debaters, the spotters and argufyers [ . . . ] the great lovers, the gold-diggers” mingle in hysterical lists (25). “Ra-ra-ra! zis-boom-ba!” the poem exclaims at a particularly ridiculous moment. This intermingling is described in a deeply ambivalent manner:

Clutching their diplomas they flow out from here,
products and by-products,
effluence into affluence openings:
career, family, moneymaking—
powerful concatenations
of rojak mix pungency
into the Venetian canals of our city… (26)

The power of such privilege is compared to sewage, affluence to effluence. Even though these youth may be from different backgrounds, their common experience has made them all of a same mind, the poem seems to imply. “The hope of the country is here,” it ends, and the reader is confronted again by a kind of futility at the situation.

Perhaps the best satire of the collection is “Speaking in Tongues—Singapore Style,” each jauntily rhyming stanza reflecting different linguistic periods of Singapore’s modern history. Goh here is at his most playful, weaving at least five different tongues into his poem to show how shifts in power affect educational policies, and by proxy, the linguistic realities of the people: “Kena again: t’ak ch’e, belajar, benkyo, study, du shu” (57). At the same time, the poem also skewers the mindset of Singaporeans who accept every official pronouncement unquestioningly:At first we may swear at those campaign mandarins:

At first we may swear at those campaign mandarins:
“Dammit, sial only, so suay one!
But being kiasu, soon it’s Xian Sheng zao an!

Highlighting Singapore’s unusual relationship to language, and skewering both those who impose languages and those who accept such imposition alike, this poem, I think, is the book’s most memorable piece.

Moments contains a handful of war poems, rare in Singapore poetry. Nonetheless these, like “Bombed (Dec ’41)” and “My Friend, My Enemy,” seem to be missing an emotional note in their delivery. In “Bombed,” the hollowed landscape of wartime Singapore is sketched in a hyperbolic fashion:

And behold aftermath world!
Panorama in red and black,
Fires of hell throwing up to high heaven,
Billows of Satanic smoke, stink of scorching in the wind,
ailing of the damned in agony… (10)

There is little sense of the personal response, or of concrete images; a cartoonish rendering. In “My Friend, My Enemy,” the setup is interesting—the persona meets his Japanese friend and they wrestle with their conflicted relationship—but the payoff is unsatisfying. Overstatement is the preferred method of conveying angst: “Your ruthless soldiers slew us in thousands,” “Yet here I am, foolish young lad, / Learning enemy tongue” (11). The reader never feels like he really understands either the persona or his “Kind enemy”.

It is only in the first sections of “Angel-Watched” that a sense of the war is felt:

I remember another night, another fright,
burst terror
in war-time Emerald Hill,
world suddenly mad,
enemy shells shattering all around me
and I trembling in my feeble shelter,
three bags of sand and a staircase hole,
hysterical with throw-up
outpour of panic
praying to Kuan Yin and Tua Peh Kong
and ancestors and Jesus Christ,
anyone at all, whoever will hear and help;
and in that implosion of tortured mind,
at the margin just before crossover to passout
someone or something comes
stilling my shaking hand, composing my frantic heart,
joining in my praying… (65)

Here, we are with the persona, in his head and heart, with the details of “three bags of sand and a staircase hole, / hysterical with throw-up,” the desperation of calling upon each and every god, the tension of the sentence that never seems to end all combining into a powerful description of war. This war is more frightening because of the tense uncertainty of what comes next, and because the fragility of life is sketched in sharp relief.

Uncertainty and fragility is the theme of the final poem of the collection, “Going,” where the persona prepares a friend for death, which to me seems like the persona speaking to himself:

And suddenly you have no more time
to find out

You go.

Going for good is hard,
going for bad harder,
hardest of all:
don’t-know-what for sure. (71)

As in “Angel-Watched,” Goh’s persona are at their most powerful when they are at their most vulnerable, when faced with situations that they cannot take mastery of. The question of what comes after death is one that cannot be answered concretely by anyone regardless of faith or none. If Moments is largely sustained by reflections tied to a by-now-sterile, official national history, it redeems itself somewhat by ending on a note of humility in the face of that most personal and universal future.

Hao Guang Tse