Theophilus Kwek reviews two new collections of poetry.
Jason Lee, Beds in the East (Eyewear, 2019), 90pp, and
Lawrence Lacambra Ypil, The Experiment of the Tropics (Gaudy Boy, 2019), 64pp.
Taking its title from a throwaway line by Shakespeare’s Antony on his departure from Egypt, Jason Lee’s debut collection Beds in the East begins with a compelling account of another leaving, several worlds away: ‘A mother boards a wooden skiff, / swings one son over the edge / then another…’ These lines, from ‘Out of China’, are as much an introduction to the poem as the rest of the collection, which picks up the threads of this story as the family ‘crosses […] unknown straits’, again and again. The ‘mother’ here is Lee’s great-grandmother, and although there are still many journeys to go before he is born, the poet (no stranger to onward migration) is able to claim this memory, ‘anchored […] off a new landscape’, as his own. Pages later, we meet his mother, who as a ‘White Woman’ in post-colonial Malaysia – Lee uses the unflattering vernacular term, ‘Orang Putih’ – painfully encounters the shame of her own son, who is reluctant to be associated with her strangeness. It is a harrowing moment, and, through younger eyes, Lee brings us face to face with all the daunting distances, of the map and heart, that must be crossed.
These narratives set the stage for the collection’s second act, where Lee, arriving as a young man in England, confronts – or in one instance, defends (‘Three Lions Pub’) – the baggage he has brought with him. Standouts include ‘45 Belgrave Square’, where the poet endures an unfriendly encounter at the Malaysian High Commission, and ‘The National Flag’, where Lee sees not the insignia of any one country, but ‘each bright star, infinite, ungraspable / touching lightly on an empty canvas’. If Lee’s diction can be somewhat grandiose, he deploys it to great effect in ‘Islands’, which responds to Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’ by writing back from what the Victorian poet called ‘the naked shingles of the world’. Standing on those not-so-distant shores, Lee hears the waves telling him to ‘beach [him]self’, calling ‘home, home’. Yet Lee’s reply is also a troubled one. If he comes from ‘forebears thrashing horizons near and wide’, he hopes his own progeny will one day be free of ‘birth marks’, rising not from one country or another but ‘the ocean’s womb, / standing on the edge of something new’.
In some ways, Larry Ypil’s sophomore collection (co-winner of the inaugural Gaudy Boy Poetry Book Prize) picks up where Lee’s leaves off. Though human movement – flight, trade, conquest – is also the backdrop against which Ypil’s poems are set, The Experiment of the Tropics focuses its attention on the disorienting confluence of these migrations, and the strange worlds they bring into existence.
The best way to observe these forces in action is to understand the linguistic record they leave behind. Ypil’s opening poem is an attempt to know language from the ground up, to rebuild his native Cebu word by word. ‘There is a river’, he starts – then pauses, as if marvelling at the find – ‘And then there is a man’. With each act of naming, the poet feels his way around the language, remaking each element of place with what we call it: ‘It is magic, says the girl standing at the edge of the pool […] It is magic’. Whether by speaking the landscape into being, or simply ‘holding a cup made of coconut husk into the air’, each character adds to the lexicon in her own way: ‘A daughter smiles, her foot in the water […] because she has been told all her life that she is beautiful and she believes it.’
Unlike the conquistadors who cast a long shadow across these pages, Ypil does not treat what he finds as terra nullius. The building blocks of language that he lands on in these first poems are already there, alive and familiar, like the gestures of a loved one. ‘A hand was where a man / could lean his cheek’, he reflects, ‘Casa / being a promontory / for somewhere else’ (‘No Minstrel Without a Hat’). Such definitions add up, slowly, to a place. For example, in the first of three prose poems entitled ‘The Nature of a City’, Ypil uses words for speed or direction as brushstrokes, methodically sketching an urban composition. ‘There is conflicting evidence’, he writes, ‘to suggest that the slow pace of traffic moving away from the centre of the city […] is the best indicator of a city’s development or demise’. Several pages later, in the collection’s title poem, the city is stripped back even further, to ‘mere scaffold’. ‘Road / Port / Nut / Bold / Wharf’: each piece chosen by a ‘master carpenter’, before lending style to the city itself, ‘that long-lasting thing’.
Interspersed throughout the collection are photographs from the Cebuano Studies Centre which, as the poet eventually reveals, ‘cover the early part of the US occupation of the Philippines’. While some might revisit them with the benefit of this context, the pictures – lyrical and unexplained – are, on first reading, an evocative thread tying the pages together. One poem near the middle of the collection, ‘In the Time It Takes’, seems to hold the key to understanding their place in the poet’s imagination. Here, the time taken to develop a negative is precisely how long ‘it takes for the shadow of the world / to reach the shadow of the knee’ of a woman enjoying a lost afternoon in a changing city; a woman who, at the poem’s close, ‘slowly rises to become the shadow of a shadow of me’. Playfully, and wistfully, we hear Ypil musing on how the time it takes for a moment to be frozen on film holds just enough uncertainty for an instant that, hovering on the edge of history, inevitably becomes the present.
From Lee’s expansive record of transcontinental journeys, to Ypil’s careful investigation of a rich and variegated place, these two collections not only prompt us to be attentive to how all our stories begin, but also to know – and to cherish – the motley language we must tell them in. It is only by following ‘the tongue’s forked path onwards’, as Lee reminds us, that we can ‘say that [we] have finally arrived’.
Theophilus Kwek is the author of five volumes of poetry, and serves as co-editor of Oxford Poetry. He has been short-listed twice for the Singapore Literature Prize, and his poems, essays, translations and reviews have been published in The Guardian, Times Literary Supplement, The London Magazine, and the Mekong Review.
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