Grace Hiu-Yan Wong reviews the fourth collection of poetry from Singapore’s Theophilus Kwek.
In Theophilus Kwek’s fourth poetry collection, Moving House, poems are tightly bound by history –personal, global, political, biblical and imagined. Bookended by poems about his family and personal experiences of loss and change, Moving House is topical in the way it addresses the refugee and migrant crisis and other contemporary issues faced by a world in the midst of great change – even dedicating a poem to my home city, Hong Kong, in the throes of great uncertainty and political unrest. In particular, Kwek speaks on behalf of those who can no longer speak, continuing the theme of compassion from his earlier collections.
In Moving House, Kwek makes a scrupulous effort to lay open the grounding from which his poems arise. Numerous epigraphs, ranging from news excerpts, explanatory notes, to names of individuals and even footnotes, are scattered throughout the collection as signposts for its readers. Kwek’s range of sources is astonishingly broad, drawing from biblical scripture in his reimagining of Mary Magdalene after the ascension of Christ, mid-twentieth-century British policy on the repatriation of Chinese sailors, Plutarch’s Life of Theseus, and a New York Times report announcing the collision of two black holes in 2016.
His opening poem, “Witness,” sets the tone for the rest of the collection. Written about witnessing the aftermath of an accident while passing by on a bus, the narrator of the poem, a collective “we,” reimagines and “replays the scene” of the accident in their mind, and ponders at life’s different trajectories: tragic ones that topple us from our usual morning walk, and ones that “bear us away from accidents.”
But far from being an invisible and unfeeling observer, Kwek renders each snapshot in succinct and tender clarity. His poetic observations and voice break through the otherwise impenetrable silences of negligence, suppression, erasure and violence, muted by official narratives and edicts of “careful fence[s tall ones] raised / precisely to stop this from happening” (“The Week it Happens”), to dredge up the names of people and events that have once made it to the daily newscast, but have since faded along with countless other stories just like it; or been drowned out by a desensitised world eager to turn to other distractions, like a radio that is “suddenly tuned / to music, something from the seventies” (“Strangers Drowning”).
Interspersed throughout the moving and elegiac lyrics are formal experimentations that add range to the collection. In “The Week it Happens,” Kwek constructs a visual wall of text to represent the unspeakable grief around the death of a fellow conscript in camp (“this is how we build a wall around a name”).
In “Strangers Drowning,” Kwek writes of an incident in the 1970s of a Singaporean navy patrol that, according to official records, left a group of refugees on a sinking boat to drown. Kwek quietly reimagines the conscript officer surrounded by other young men “still shy of nineteen” who were in fact ordered not to assist, and were themselves traumatised (“their faces like / the distant faces are wet as the sea”).
Between each stanza of the conscript’s narrative, Kwek inserts an almost theatrical aside in which the speaker engages in conversation with a philosopher to discuss a hypothetical situation: “Two people are drowning: your aged mother / and a child you have never seen. There / is room in the boat for one, no questions. Who will you rescue?” before further expanding to the question, uncannily relevant still: “What then to hear of the same / but multiplied, at a distance, and unnamed?”
Precisely what Kwek achieves so effectively through this collection is bringing these once impersonal, and perhaps theoretical, situations into reality, and in vivid detail bringing to life the stories of displacement and loss, giving them a name, a face and a voice that readers cannot avoid.
Over the past six months, the world has been struck by a new peril as Covid-19 has swept across the globe, with countries tightening their border control or inducing lockdowns in an effort to control the number of infected cases. Earlier this year, as a direct result of Covid-19, boats carrying hundreds of Rohingya refugees were refused entry into Malaysia and left adrift on the Andaman Sea, and for the first time, even the privileged in society are not immune, as cruise ships carrying infected passengers were barred from sailing into port.
Grief is, or perhaps should be, universal, “like a wall of water” (“The Crabs”) that breaks all the windows in our individual houses to sweep us away to open seas, reminding us of the importance of compassion in a world of great change and uncertainty, bringing within arm’s reach the calamities that would otherwise be merely something on the news served alongside our morning coffee. While these topics are heavy, Kwek’s lightness of touch and his captivating language is a balm that helps readers confront these narratives of powerlessness and trauma, and his earnestness suggests that we, too, are witnesses in this world who have a part to play.
Grace Hiu-Yan Wong holds an MSc in Creative Writing from the University of Edinburgh and is a co-founding editor for EDGE, a creative journal based in Hong Kong Baptist University. Her work has appeared in Oxford Poetry, Voice and Verse and elsewhere. She is a Hong Kong native, loves the outdoors, and can be found @whygracewrites.