Aaron’s Magic

February 6, 1999

lee-1This review of Aaron Lee’s A Visitation of Sunlight (1997) appeared in an edited form as “When Inner Demons Come A-Calling” in The Straits Times (6 February 1999).

Walk with Aaron Lee into the magical hours of dusk. Search the “cold science of stars” for lasting feelings and the sleepy streets for Cains with their eternal foreheads bearing “two geographies”. Listen to the rain come with “the sound of the world” holding “a finger to its lips”; retreat into his room where solitude screams in the blast of radio music. Then sit beside him as he begins to write, wrestling the struggle of Jacob.

Now I know that there are magicians among us and they do not always go by names like Robert Creeley, Seamus Heaney, Linda Pastan and even Alvin Pang, as Lee will have us think. Sometimes, they are subtler and darker, yet calmer and surer, and for such a reason Lee frightens me. He treads the creaking floors of reality and dances on the dim spaces of memory — each he alludes to as an “oasis of light” — and, all the time, he bids us like an infant devil to revel with him.

There can be no turning back if ever you accede, for his uncertain grounds of rhapsody are all too believable. They are your reasons why daytime resembles a “slipstream of happenings” and why, sometimes, the nights are sleepless and alluring. You have heard that voice which passes between your syllables before. You have felt that rush of anti-climax when a relationship failed and sensed in that solitary face all its promises of pain.

Lee invites you therefore to return, to take one step away from the wakefulness of Paul Tan, and two from the willed typology of Felix Cheong, into that Proustian realm of beautifully useless emotions. Nothing of your existence in the light will have changed when the full rhythm of society resumes; indeed, “Morning whitewashes / the canvas of your dreams / in broad sweeps”. But, until then, the outlines of hidden things reign superior as “mere semblances / waiting to be sketched in”, serenading your stray thoughts.

In them, you will find the unfulfilled moments of Lee’s past and the longsuffering of Admiral Cheng’ho’s lover as she sews her life into her gift of a blanket. The blanket is really a symbol of loneliness and also of death; the next time you see it, it is the cloud in the eyes of an unnameable girl, running through passageways with her equally wordless song. Turn however into a different corner and you will meet Lee again, dreaming some luminous vision within a magic circle of Imagists.

The point of the nocturnal maze is never to make directions so as to escape — because there is, in fact, no escape — but to keep on moving till the new dawn frees us, by enslaving us within the systems of day. Through this curse, the vain empire lives on “older than the trees” and, while we change continually, it remains forever “no wider than a child’s / outstretched arms”. From twilight to twilight, its gates lay open for us and within us; its experience is common among human souls and, in each human soul, among the layers of its past.

Accordingly, Lee should be commended for having recognized that such a domain must stretch from the ancient worlds through Poe’s horrific imagination to our urban present. The overlap of too many stories conjures a powerful meaning which, in blending the lack of the past with the property of the yet-to-be, dissolves the immediate in some unreality of experience. All our world becomes precisely that “bottomless bin” into which absolute solution loses its sufficiency, into which even the moon, as the eye of God, of the scavenger, peers feebly but expectantly.

Those who say therefore that poetry is about conquering inner demons has one thing to learn, to ask whether they even believe that themselves. Lee shows us that, often enough, what we triumph over returns in gorgeous dreams; it is as if the mind remembers us solely through many strange faces. If poetry’s failure to negate is really its gift, then there is no demon more real than our refusal to un-imagine confrontation, to silence our dualism of self-centredness.

For all that cannot be freely given, Lee has come to see that his own intense feelings of loss must also be lost to him and that, indeed, within this second loss is found the difficult voice of poetry. The awareness leads him to his paradoxical wish: “Let me find my way back into that dark place / I came from . . . / or else let me find another place for myself.” And — by the miracle that sometimes happens if we say the right words — he has found both in that secret night of forfeited images, disappearing now with A Visitation of Sunlight.

Gwee Li Sui

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