The Absence of the Contemporary in Koh Buck Song: an essay

Source: Chris M. Herrmann & stampersquest.com. 

Source: Chris M. Herrmann & stampersquest.com. 

This is the first draft of another essay for poetry.sg

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Koh Buck Song’s poetry appears, at first glance, schizophrenic. On one hand, there is a deep and almost cloying sense of nostalgia in his poems about Singapore; on the other, the mind is freed and expanded in those poems about travel. In other words, Koh can only look back when in Singapore and only look forward outside of it. In this essay I suggest that these tendencies are really a manifestation of the same refusal or inability to engage with contemporary Singapore. Koh’s personae, then, remain trapped either in the past or outside the nation-state, trying to but never quite succeeding in embodying the zeitgeist.

Koh’s poetry is obsessed with place. In many of his titles places are explicitly evoked, whether in “Stained Glass, Marina Bay,” or “Sakura Sojourn”. In fact, all three of his collections are organised by place, with travel poems sectioned off from poems about home. In fact, in The Worth of Wonder, the sections baldly state the way in which Koh conceives of place; they are entitled “Singapore,” “Outside,” and “Inside”. This suggests a sharp distinction between what local and foreign in a way that would be out of place today, but also creates a curious distinction between “Singapore” and “Inside,” the former anchored in specific places and the latter in memories and musings.

One major exception to this kind of sectioning is perhaps Koh’s most well-known poem, “A Brief History of Toa Payoh,” which also serves as the title of his first collection. That poem, nonetheless, is an exemplar of how Koh treats Singapore as a place in his poetry. The speaker here is impersonal, declamatory, and critical of the speed at which Toa Payoh is being transformed:

this town delivered so fast,
labour pains
now claim a second strike:
this time, cranes and the wrecker’s ball
strip the old town,
colonise once more
this, one of Modernisation’s
first ports of call

Interestingly, the two stages of Toa Payoh’s development are treated in quite different ways. The “swamp and swill” of its ‘original’ state is brushed off in two or three lines, whereas the “brave new world” of the first phase of modernisation is given star billing. Koh goes on to characterise it as “the pride and self-sufficiency / of early settlers,” and mourns the fact that these markers of modernisation are themselves being rebuilt. It seems for Koh that Toa Payoh New Town of the 60s and 70s is the most worthy of receiving “as in Sentosa’s museum, / decorum, grace / and privilege of space”. The squatters before it and the rebuilding and upgrading in the 80s and 90s after it are equally uncivilised, the former with its pig farms, the latter described in terms of colonial forces “strip[ping] the old town”.

This nostalgia, this ache for a certain kind of past, without the dirt, appears again in “In a Retroactive Way”:

We too may lose what we ourselves have wrought,
Since to past and future we look in a
Reminiscing, forgetful kind of way. (Toa Payoh)

Here, the speaker reminisces about the past and the future; one way this might make sense is if we consider Singapore’s official narrative of progress and forward-thinking as itself a kind of outmoded mindset that the speaker remembers fondly. This remembrance, however, is also “forgetful,” and here Koh is at his clearest-eyed—any kind of reminiscing is necessarily selective, any desire to return to the past necessarily leaving out the pig swill and squalour of the squatter. The danger of this way of perceiving Singapore is that we lose, as the above quote suggests, a true sense of what heritage means, in all its splendour and shame.

Unfortunately, Koh’s writing about Singapore rarely heeds his own advice. Wonder opens with:

If I could,
I would return
for a few days
perhaps
to hazy days
by Potong Pasir pond

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

How blurred is the video
of early recall. But still,
I would replay it
even if
freeze-frame fleeting
for a few days
perhaps.

There is an overwhelming desire for the “hazy,” “blurred,” rose-tinted Singapore of Koh’s childhood. “Teochew Street” takes this one step further backwards, in a reflection on how hawkers used to operate from mobile carts:

they were mobile
yet more rooted
in a gentler time
and a fonder place

poverty can be poetic.

Koh’s latest, The Ocean of Ambition, does a better job of managing this nostalgia, channeling it into the section “Conservation”. This is a series of poems about animals found in contemporary Singapore, where squirrels, doves and cats, images of an idyllic, more natural Singapore, coexist in housing estates, during a military exercise, in the artificial Night Safari. All too often, though, Koh slips back into unproductive wistfulness, as in “Pangolin Crossing, Mandai,” where he frames the encounter between animal and man as a “clash of civilisation,” without saying much more.

If the Singapore of the past can only be fondly remembered, and the Singapore of the future only dreaded, then there is nothing more to be said about Singapore, and it makes sense that the poetic eye turns outward. Koh himself says as much:

Travel really opens the mind and nurtures open-mindedness [ . . . . ] I feel it is necessary to include travel pieces, as the world is so big and there is so much to experience and capture. To focus on Singapore alone would be too narrow a perspective. (QLRS)

For Koh, there is something inherently ennobling and enriching about travel. This, in fact, conjures more than one echo of the ethos underlying the Grand Tour:

A typical eighteenth-century sensibility, consequently, is that of the sturdy commonsense observer [ . . . ] wandering about foreign parts and reporting his findings about human nature [ . . . ] for the benefit of stay-at-homes. (Fussell 129)

This also sheds light on why Koh’s work is so dependent on place and memory—these two, after all, deal with the experiencing and observing self. John Locke’s psychological theory that “knowledge comes entirely through the external senses, and from the mind’s later contemplation of materials” animated both the Grand Tourists and, it seems, Koh himself (Fussell 13).

The observational nature of Koh’s travel writing is perhaps most well-illustrated by “England’s Lake District: A Sketch”. Here, the place travelled to seems to be reduced to a great view. Koh’s persona compares his powers of observation with that of a painter producing a work of art:the exhibits rotate,

the exhibits rotate,
seasonal shows
almost clockwork
yet never two still lives
nor landscapes alike (Wonder)

Interestingly, in his bid to draw a comparison between observation and painting, Koh renders the Lake District curiously flat, and the lack of specific images (bar the lambs in the final stanza) makes it difficult for readers to get a sense of what Koh’s persona was actually looking at. In other travel poems, too, concrete images are eschewed for broad brush-strokes, less Impressionist than vague.

Again, Ambition is the book that treats travel the most sensitively. The personae are less impersonal, and more willing to acknowledge their own subjectivity than in previous collections. In “Moose-hunting, Canadian Rockies,” the act of hunting is reminisced over in Singapore: “trigger-images will have to suffice / to satisfy this haunting longing”. This is undercut at the end by a surprising self-reflexivity: “triumph without taint, / memory without murder”. The selective memory of nostalgia reappears here as a thing to be questioned rather than enjoyed. Nonetheless, the larger question of travel—why do it at all?—remains unanswered. The cumulative effect of Koh’s travel poems is a realisation that we have, here, a poet of substantial means, able to conquer, as the title of Ambition’s travel section suggests, the sights and wonders of the world.

Fussel suggests that travel excites “Partly because it triggers the thrill of escape, from the constriction of the daily, the job, the boss, the parents” (13). In Koh, it also seems to be a way to escape the modernisation of Singapore:

[ . . . ] Claude Levi-Strauss notes that a traveler takes a journey not just in space and in time [ . . . ] but ’in the social hierarchy as well“; and he has noticed repeatedly that upon arriving in a new place, he has suddenly become rich [ . . . . ] The traveler’s escape, at least since the Industrial Age, has also been from he ugliness and racket of Western cities, and from factories, parking lots, boring turnpikes, and roadside squalor. (Fussell 13)

For Koh, nostalgia and compulsive travel are both sides of the same coin. Where the former reflects a psychic turn away from home to a half-remembered former version of it, the latter is a physical turn away from it. If Koh is to make verse that speaks urgently to the Singapore psyche, he has to take to heart Arthur Yap’s now-famous words, written 15 years before Koh’s first book, to heart:

There is no future in nostalgia

& certainly no nostalgia in the future of the past. (Commonplace)

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Works Cited

Fussell, Paul, ed. The Norton Book of Travel. New York and London: W. W. Norton and Co., 1987.

Koh Buck Song. A Brief History of Toa Payoh and Other Poems. Singapore: Imperial Publishing, 1992.

—. The Ocean of Ambition. Singapore: SNP International, 2003.

—. The Worth of Wonder. Singapore: Times Books International, 2001.

Toh Hsien Min. “Wilfred Owen meets Hokkien peng.” Quarterly Literary Review Singapore Vol. 2. No. 2. (Jan 2003). Web. 28 Oct 2015. <http://www.qlrs.com/issues/jan2003/interviews/kohbucksong.html>.

Yap, Arthur. Commonplace. Singapore: Heinemann Educational Books (Asia), 1977.

Hao Guang Tse