Pang Poetry

December 12, 1998

pang-1This review of Alvin Pang’s Testing the Silence (1997) appeared in an edited form as “His Hook Catches Words Like Blind Fishes” in The Straits Times (12 December 1998).

There is a collection of poems that was published a year ago to relative disregard when its persuasiveness should have led us to assess its contextual significance. Alvin Pang’s Testing the Silence inaugurates a new era of creative thought determined on exploring recurring questions of self without spiralling into the old abyss of identity.

His is that infrequent type of poetry whose vocalizing makes other voices credible and even desirable. It possesses the imagination that can legitimize the language spiels of Grace Chia and essentialize the deflected feelings of Alfian Sa’at. Indeed, it is Pang’s strenuousness that will finally redeem both from what may either threaten to trivialize or to neutralize them.

Before him, only Boey Kim Cheng came dangerously close to embracing such a breadth, having promised to “make of making words a ritual / appeasing as wafer on the tongue”. However, he has since spun away from every face of external demand and must now belong to that dazzling lost generation of writers, whose prose counterpart, as some will argue, is Kelvin Tan.

Pang is a re-beginning, a clearing of the burdened air, if only to return us to the step that has been missed. His disarming oratory draws us into a picturing again of estrangement — the hidden condition which best explains why friendship is always courageous — by firstly putting aside the knowledge of a failure that will follow. “Immerse yourself and play by the rules”, he beckons and, before the game is finished, he will have found estrangement again for us by going no further than the language with which we express ourselves.

His governing imagery of water — unlike that of Lee Tzu Pheng, which teaches us to tremble between the ominous and the religious — invokes the very space of communication. This space for him is irrevocably the place of truth since truth distils from us everything that communication seeks. Accordingly, communication is always miraculous because each interactive process parallels the making of water “So hard you could walk on it”.

If I am right about Pang’s wisdom so far, then his opening image of fly-fishing suggests in truth the poet’s own role in receiving the rhythm of sincerity, the “morse-code of motion”. To loosely put together his vision, the poet’s hook is “curved like a / question, poignant and dangling”, in order to catch words that “begin to breathe” like “blind fish”. That which he misses — and we already miss — is like the “weaving waves” that slap uselessly “on bare rock like absent tongues”. In this psychological realm where fluidity and consciousness are close synonyms, the colonial shade of Gawain, with his “drooped” sword, can only look on “wordless” and dream.

Given such a vast system of haunting images, each painted lovingly by Pang perfect to the hair, you will see that silence — if, by it, one imagines the unapproachable kind — is really least of his interests despite the book title. Filling up every of its recesses isolating him from another, he interprets bridging as communicating and, in more than one poem, he lets slip his humane agenda: “I take a word / and insert it into the / space between us”.

Not unexpectedly, language, in fierce retaliation, therefore raises its walls and chooses for these moments, for itself, the most vulnerable minutes of private life. Nearing a satisfaction that can almost be grasped, the poet is found barred by the presence of “physical gaps” — an “impassive, blank O of your face”, a crinkling into “G with laughter” and a sharpness “hissing like an S” — as “The I tosses you like salad / with the other images”. During such instances, he realizes, and also symptomatically denies, that the limits of language are actually locked inside, in the very inward feelings that also compel him to reach outward.

You can thus understand why I could not agree with Pang initially and had, in fact, written an earlier version of this review entitled “One Man’s Meat”. Poetic vigour becomes meaningless if its words become its limitation, its own betrayers, in the end; nonetheless, Pang goes on in his relentless, but not ignorant, attempt to write and to explore relentlessly that which he writes. But how can one who, having learnt through being honest, go on honestly to write without half-remembering what one has already learnt?

The issue gaped even more menacingly when my grandmother passed away some weeks ago and, left with a memorable silence, I thought about Pang’s similar loss and his remainder to himself that “she is asking / only for words”. In an unusual second, I believed I understood what that really implied, for what one could not do with words one already had by trying; while we might not have been one in more ways — with all the lost time, lost understanding, lost beliefs and lost customs — we got close enough. Consider this generation gap as a hyperbole for any relationship between two people and our accountability for the present is clear.

And that night, I threw away my review and sat down to write again, offering to both my grandmother and Pang’s, in these words you see here, our irreconcilable love.

Gwee Li Sui

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