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Traveler's Tale and Other Poems
Damon Chua
Ethos Books, S$16.00

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reviewed by Ian Chung

The Return of the Native?

While Traveler's Tale and Other Poems is Damon Chua’s debut collection, in reality it caps a body of work that Chua has been developing since he first began writing poetry about 30 years ago. In Chua’s own words, as quoted by Singaporean writer and critic Edwin Thumboo in his introduction, ‘I want to put a marker on the ground so that I can move on to other things. […] By putting this collection to bed, I hope to move on to more unusual terrains.’ This affords Chua’s collection a certain thematic breadth, with what might otherwise be seen as disjointed poems nevertheless being held together by the lens of the diasporic Singaporean. As Chua notes, ‘[B]y having this collection out, I want to re-enter the community of Singapore writers from which I have been estranged, mainly because I have lived away for so many years.’

As a longstanding member of the growing Singaporean diaspora, it is practically obligatory for Chua to include a poem that makes mention of why more and more Singaporeans are leaving the city-state.

This idea of travelling and the diaspora is encapsulated in the eponymous opening poem, ‘traveler’s tale’, made concrete by Chua’s use of repeated sounds to build up the poem as a sonic artefact, the first two stanzas of which are quoted below:

and if there is too
a poet in you
you will know
the land
at the end of the
where two feet traveled
with a song
lining its heart;
you must have
seen the sea
if you were careful

if spotting an unknown
and following it
you come to my home
i will offer you tea
or even the bird
for a song

While the rhyming of ‘and if there is too / a poet in you’ initially appears too forced (although the assonance with ‘careful’ at the first stanza’s end is promising), this quickly gives way to a defter blending of alliteration and rhyme in ‘the land / at the end of the / lane’. A similar effect is achieved with how the word ‘know’ is recapitulated in the next stanza’s ‘unknown’, the assonance carrying over to ‘following’ and ‘home’ (itself offering an eye rhyme with ‘come’). The vowel sound is then carried over into the third stanza as well, in the form of the word ‘road’, which once again further reiterates the idea of journeying. In the end though, all this auditory circling finally finds release in the last stanza’s straightforward statement: ‘i too / have been traveling’.

After an opening poem that places such emphasis on the acoustic aspect of poetry to create meaning, it is somewhat disappointing that the first two sections of Traveler’s Tale are fairly unremarkable. The poems are not bad per se, being diverse representations of the poet’s passage through the stages of Singaporean life, from childhood memories to the rite of passage that is National Service (Singapore’s version of conscription), and beyond to the poet’s departure from Singapore. There are flashes of striking imagery in these first two sections: ‘time / going past me, / blinds’ (‘past time’), ‘the undrunk red date tea / cools in the evening lull’ (‘new year’), ‘the curtain of / bureaucracy’ (‘officer’). Yet on the whole, the poems here read like competent but ultimately generic explorations.

It is only with ‘the return’, which closes the second section, that Chua’s own voice begins to come through. The poem is divided into three stanzas, dealing respectively with the poet remembering what a past flight back to Singapore was, imagining what his flight will be like this time, and informing the reader of what the flight will actually have been like. The ironic gap is between the poet’s confidence that ‘this time / he knows it will be different’, and the reality that perhaps the flights back are always going to be variations on a theme after all, underscored in this case by that small but telling detail, ‘he will be sipping / diet coke as usual’. Or as Thumboo remarks in his introduction, ‘the further we move from what made us, the greater its grip becomes’.

The third section of Traveler’s Tale then opens with a strong pair of poems that focus on the psychological impact of returning to Singapore. In ‘homecoming’, Chua frankly admits, ‘pullovers dropped / accents folded away / i become sunny again’, the transposition of the expected verbs in those first two lines showing how physical and psychological adjustments are intertwined/interchangeable. When Chua finally confesses, ‘i would have exulted / had i remembered singlish’, the reader is prepared for the barbed follow-up in the next poem, ‘old line’:

the phone winced
slapped itself in disgust –
for masked voices behind a fresh charade
we staked out new territories of accents

The remaining sections of Traveler’s Tale shift back into a similar mode as the first two, albeit, in Thumboo’s words, ‘hedged by a stronger sense that life has a darker side, that apparent certainties are less secure than they initially seem’. The reminiscences of the earlier sections have given way to observations situated in the here and now, although since time and its passage is a recurrent motif in Chua’s collection, it is fitting that a poem like ‘sampan’ concludes that ‘time too / awaits its shadow’. This is also where the reader encounters a poem like ‘intent’, which begins with ‘the quiet psychopath / with a thirst for the macabre’ and proceeds with more than a hint of American Psycho.

Finally, as a longstanding member of the growing Singaporean diaspora, it is practically obligatory for Chua to include a poem somewhere in Traveler’s Tale that makes mention of why more and more Singaporeans are leaving the city-state. That poem is ‘not for long’, in the fifth and final section, which contains thinly veiled references to the PAP government that has been in power since Singapore’s independence (‘these men, with white in their hearts’) and its paternalistic approach (‘we are fed statistics / feel-good stories’), as well as the growing dissatisfaction expressed by Singaporeans in recent years (‘does anyone even believe / anymore?’). As issues like immigration and how different cultures are to coexist in a given society prove increasingly contentious for countries around the world, Chua’s poem ends with a sobering reminder that perhaps borrows its spirit from Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ and its ‘traveller from an antique land’:

we are wondering
how long this is going to last
the answer is
not forever;
the answer is
not for long

Ian Chung is a graduate of the Warwick Writing Programme. He edits Eunoia Review and reviews for various publications, including Sabotage Reviews and The Cadaverine. He also watches more TV than is reasonable for one person.