Gweek Shares on Poetry of Home!

July 28, 2015

This is the revised transcript of my keynote speech delivered at the first Singapore National Poetry Festival on 25 July 2015 at LASALLE College of the Arts. Revision was made to include a portion that was unread due to time constraint and to exclude the text of a poem for which permission for print was not granted.

I like to thank the festival organisers for this opportunity to address you. It is an honour and a joy to do so and to share the stage yet again with the charismatic and very handsome Professor Edwin Thumboo.

I was asked to talk about home in Singaporean poetry, and I wondered at first if this was a trick question. It seemed like I was expected to work the same ground Professor Thumboo would cover, has just covered, and to fill your minds with more thoughts on Singapore. But let me take this all apart in the most honest way possible, and this means also the most brutal way. The organisers can decide what they want to do with me later on.

There are 3 truths poetry – especially Singaporean poetry – should be aware of in its ruminations on home. Firstly, despite the songs we sing and the slogans we love to brandish, a country is not home. A country, through its politics, its demographics, and its influences, always changes. It needs to in order to stay, in some social and then international sense, relevant.

But home is the opposite. Home is free from change; its freedom is not to have to change. This is why, as creatures made weary by living and toiling, we experience home as home, as somewhere always familiar, safe, and timeless. Home seems to lie inside a magic circle where the laws of nature cannot dictate, where no piece of us can be bargained away. Home – unlike country – doesn’t feel burdened to have to shelter us, to protect us. Home needn’t be reminded by us, sometimes in exasperation, what home is.

But a country is not home because, secondly, a city is not home. A city is fast-paced; it is modern and, even in its display of places to go to, to work in and dwell in, competitive. The city is built for anxiety, for anxiety to thrive. The home in the city manages this anxiety and regulates urban pace, urban stress. Home is a soft place; it helps us to unwind. It is a retreat and, for some, a hospital.

Among the people of the city, we cannot but feel alone. At home, even by ourselves, we somehow grow in communion. Home is home because it teaches us rest, the manner through which we become whole. Home is cozy because it tells us that we are all right as we are. There’s no pretence at home. City life is about pretending. Thus, at home, we find ourselves, each of us, in control of space and time, primarily of meaning. In the city of streets and tall buildings, of alienation and expectations, no one has true control.

A city is indeed not home because, thirdly, a house is not home. A house gives us an impression of control, of being part of some togetherness, something familial. It is essentially a structure that guides us by means of rooms and stairs and furniture into thinking that we possess a shape for our inner world, a space for our rest. But a house cannot create the conditions to feel loved and accepted, let alone understood. It cannot call down the presence of a sanctuary, let alone authenticity. It doesn’t, on its own, free the mind.

A house is built, but a home is made. A lot of people don’t realise this fact today, especially when you ended up owning a less than satisfactory DBSS flat. Where you give yourself with joy to as a place you must begin or re-begin, as a personal space, there is home. Where you tie yourself to as not just somewhere memories are made but somewhere you understand yourself, there is home.

I point all this out because there is a persistent misunderstanding which we all seem culpable of encouraging at one time or another – and probably most this past year. This is to see poems about Singapore, about place, as poems about home. But the former, poems about Singapore, may not involve, need not recreate, the latter, poems about home. If we don’t acknowledge this, we hold on to a falsehood about our existence. We limit the bigness of home.

After all, country and life are really intersecting circles. Poems about Singapore can be homeless too not because they involve themes of missing places and the homeless and feelings like nostalgia. That other type of poems – as I will show later – can be homely too! Rather, homeless poems are homeless because, as poems, they lack intensity, honesty, and sincerity – hence integrity. Nothing feels more homeless than a bad Merlion poem or a pretentious, overachieving SG50 poem.

I point all this out because, last night, as I was dipping into several volumes of Singaporean verse in search of homely poems, one poem by a young Teng Qian Xi struck a chord in me and fascinated me. This poem captures a truth in what I have been wondering. But it simply talks about a special sunny moment in nature and with friends eating roast chicken with fingers.

The title of this beautiful, fleeting bite of bliss is “Happiness”, but it might as well be called “Home”. Home is, as this poem uncovers at its end, precisely that which one wants nothing more than, in which there is nothing more to want. The poem has aimed to pin down this primordial fullness in a number of ways – as a place, a time, the company, the eating, and so on. But we know that, above all else, home lies in the epiphany itself. Home is when a person’s being in life and his or her seeking in life meet. Home is a happiness you recognise; it can’t be told. It is a consciousness.

Also last night, as I dipped into my own poems, mostly unpublished one, I found an old piece about belonging titled “Archaeology”. I remember submitting it as 1 of 2 poems to Professor Thumboo, who was then editing Fifty on 50, a verse anthology to celebrate Singapore’s 50 years of self-governance. It wasn’t the chosen poem for the 2009 book. The other poem called “The Garden of Paper” was. But let me read “Archaeology” to you now:

Lost for words, she stood
trying to remember
(and then she did)
how the road behind the void deck
did not have right angles
and that there was a chess table
among trees with another colour,
the signs wearing another font
with Malay words now missing
from her recent past.

Earlier, there was a plot of grass
larger than when it had such open walls.
It was the space of a history
where skinny boys brown with sun
would run as if along eternity,
uncut by lallang, their sticks
waving defiance at time.
And she was their golden girl,
always squatting on a rock
counting away their minutes.

This poem is about loss and memory; it is about growing old. But it is, as I realise on revisiting it, also about home. While it begins with a suggestion that home has been erased, destroyed by modernity and the passing of time, yet it increasingly reveals that what was, was only a place and a moment. Home achieves eternity. It survives as part of our selves, recoverable through our commitment to living memory. In remembering who we are, we experience, return to, where we want nothing more than to be, where there is nothing more to want.

By speaking in these terms, I seem to be in danger of dealing with religious abstractions, an insistence on transcendence. But, in a way, home is such a quality: home is a spiritual truth. It is a small measure of Heaven on earth. A few years ago, the US TV journalist Diane Sawyer famously asked a Nobel laureate, the very wise and brave girl Malala Yousafzai, all 16 years of age then, why she would want to go back to Swat Valley. She was shot in the head by the Taliban, if you remember. Malala simply replied that she must because, “[i]f you go anywhere, even Paradise, you will miss your home”.

What truth is to be found here! Even in Paradise, Malala will miss home because Paradise in itself isn’t where her self belongs. Swat Valley is. Home is – because home is paradoxically the higher concept, greater than a less encompassing Paradise. This is why, in religion, ultimate reality – be this a transcendent place or state of being or just non-existence – is always posited as, first and foremost, our home.

And isn’t that why, when someone passes on, while we may say that he or she has gone to Heaven, more often we say that he or she has gone home? The latter is more accurate because we really don’t know whether the person has gone where we think he or she went and not the other place or elsewhere. But we know for sure that a person has gone to where he or she rightfully belongs.

This is why we still say, or rather Pliny the Elder said, that home is where the heart is. By the way, Pliny the Elder also said that there was truth in wine, but that is another story. Malala’s home is where she has given her heart to, and so Paradise must have Swat Valley.

We who are poets, who give our hearts to poetry, must with no less effort make our beds in it – which is why to turn to country, city, and place to poeticise home can be a hazard for poets. It is a disaster for poets with no understanding. Home should already be found within our verse, through which we have committed in all radical sincerity to free ourselves. The best of Singaporean poets, such as Professor Thumboo here, know this intuitively even if they go on to write about Singapore as home – because they understand that, without poetry, Singapore is no home.

I like to use one last poem, this time one by Daren Shiau, to make my closing point. The point I want to end with is that, through poetry, the poet becomes capable of being truly honest and, in this capacity, at home. If a poem can be homely without talking about home and home can be found through self-knowledge, a poem explicitly about homelessness can be homely too. This is the solace poetry gives to life, through consciousness.

The poem “Letter from Bedok Reformative Training Centre”, written from a delinquent’s perspective, is thus formed like a paradox:

Remember what you taught me how to
play congkak? Moving the marbles and seeds from
hole to hole? Do you understand now? All those days
when I was missing; when I hit the streets to roam,
all I was trying to do
was to find my own way home.

The poet speaks for and as the non-poet, the homed in poetry for the homeless in life. But, in the poetry, homelessness is also housed, admitted through the door of the poet’s truth. This, too, is a poem about home, and we must learn to see it because poetic truth is home.

When we say that poetry is the poet’s home, we indeed do mean this, that poets, as humans, are like snails. We always carry our homes on our backs; we are not really going anywhere else but in. We are nomads only to others, but this also means that we always have our gers, our tents, with us, are always non-nomads. Poetry houses us and gives us the authentic way that takes us to ourselves.

Thank you.

Gwee Li Sui

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