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Review: Eddie Tay’s THE MENTAL LIFE OF CITIES

2010 December 6

The Mental Life of Cities by Eddie Tay | Chameleon Press | HK$119

It may be helpful to start by pointing readers to Fenollosa’s The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, the not entirely accurate but seminal work from 1920 that influenced Pound and Williams and stood among the beginnings of a poetic sinology in America. Of particular interest is the claim that Chinese writing is grammatically closer to “the thing itself,” each character inherently a transitive verb subsuming articles, prepositions, etc.—all those deadweight items in English grammar. Fenollosa writes that every Chinese word “is not exclusive of parts of speech, but comprehensive; not something which is neither a noun, verb, or adjective, but something which is all of them at once and at all times” (68).

During his career, Pound translated Chinese poetry into English, but not the other way around. The importing was meant to transform English only. I don’t suppose he gave much thought to bilingual writing, using both Chinese and English discretely in a single poem. For this reason, Eddie Tay’s third collection of poetry, The Mental Life of Cities, is a very interesting new book. In my last review, I showed the payoff of diglossic poetry in “Cities,” excerpted from the third part of the title poem. I’ll say a bit more about this hybrid form.

For one thing, all readers—whether or not they know Chinese—will have a curious experience of choice. Poetry, unlike most prose, cannot be skimmed; its rhetoric is shaped as much by lineation and sound as it is by grammar, and therefore the spoken rhythms of its speech must be followed. When we read Eliot’s “Four Quartets” and come across “So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years— / Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres” we may not know French but we can sound it out (even if poorly) and appreciate the rhyme. Eliot was being kind when he cloistered his Greek into an epigraph in “The Waste Land.” For when we read section vii of Tay’s lyric poem and come to “They don’t teach Leaves of Grass, 野草, Howl: / 老師說話你不能 不听, / 不能 不听” what do we do if we cannot pronounce the words? One can skip the Chinese and go straight to the translations, reading in a straight English scansion. Or pause at the ideographs and appreciate their visual representations—in fecund silence, as if reading a painting. Tay’s political geography is also of interest. In his preface, he gives examples of romanized pronunciations using pinyin; but he’s from Singapore (where Simplified Chinese is used) and writing in Hong Kong (Traditional Chinese). So a bilingual reader is presented with the choice of pronouncing these words in Mandarin (as Tay might) or in Cantonese (as most of the writing suggests).

Fenollosa and Pound would have loved what Tay does in section xvi. It begins with four expository lines in Chinese. Later these lines are simplified into four verb clauses: “我沉默, 我充實; 我開口, 我空虚。” And then a couple stanzas later, still the verbs but no subject: “沉默, 充實; / 開口, 空虚。” Tay translates the progression this way (explicative brackets my own):

When I am brooding [reticent],
I feel full [substantial];
I open my mouth [to speak],
and I feel hollow.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I brood, I am full; I speak, I am hollow.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Brooding, full;
speaking, hollow.

In English, it progressively makes less sense. But in the Chinese, there’s no fragmentation; each adjective and noun is inherently an action, grammatically suggestive but already complete. This results in wonderful density. “Brooding,” for example, is composed of two characters, literally and graphically “to submerge in darkness/silence.” It’s an immediate etymology in the space of two letters. This is all poetically exciting because each page gives us multiple linguistic resonances, all the words in a dialogic context with one another.

But this may also be pedantically tiresome, so I’ll get to the poems proper. The title poem of the collection is a long lyric of ambivalence. Tay begins by establishing himself as speaker for the city: his “pen traces impulses of buildings” and he is its mental life, the “darkness on the streets.” But, “I am homesick in the city of my birth: / Are these streets real, the lampposts real?” The poet gives Leaves of Grass and Howl as counterexamples to cultural repression, and he inherits methods from both. Like Whitman he speaks universally: “I am ready – like dust, / like joss sticks by the road [. . .] I am my son, my daughter, my wife. / / I am no one.” Like Ginsberg, he wants to bear a flag for the subaltern and unofficial:

This island of a city is pure invention,
with official languages like flowers
fraying at the edges:
there are no words
for disobedience, decay, disenchantment.

The poem is thoroughly urban, and not especially happy about it—a postlapsarian lament for purer days (“Do we remember? Can we try?”) attempting to deal with the present. It strives after a theme: in nature (“Year after year / concrete refuses / to return to the soil”), in acting (“Install a persona”), in prosodic empathy (“There are runaway hexameters / coursing through veins of street protesters”), in estranged dialogue (“What is the car demanding / in the middle of the night?”), in almost-narrative (“This is a story, no,”). But in the end the theme is sought in vain; the poem feels stitched together, and the scouring reposes in no final unity. The “noun tried to run away” and “did not do her work / of making this poem make sense.” The lyric ends with charged but nebulous faith in change and independence.

Tay’s voice and style are not yet distinctly his own. He borrows Ginsberg’s breath-based long line, but he abandons the repetitions that begin each thought (e.g. in Part I of Howl the repeating “who,” “Moloch,” and “I’m with you”), which anchor the rhythm and argument of Ginsberg’s lines. Without these anchors, Tay’s lines would be better suited by prose blocks than by hanging indentations. In the book’s second section, Tay announces his intentions with the title “Craft or Sullen Art” and we’re given a sort of greatest-hits tour through poetry. These are more imitations, exercises even, based on typical and didactic interpretations. In “3 Short Takes on Shakespeare,” the poet proclaims a personal engagement with Hamlet—“I confess to having memorized your lines, / signing them with my feelings”—yet the play is reduced to its “to be or not to be” cliché. King Lear fixates on the epic storm, and The Tempest is just another post-colonialist reading. In “The Love Song of J. Elsie Prunes-Frock,” Tay’s statement is worthily distinct from Eliot’s, but parodic showmanship obtunds the content; at best it’s goofy. In poems like “Walking on Campus,” we are voyeurs to artistic impotence, a poet unable to write a poem without self-consciousness and ultimately giving up. This is a true enough experience, but as readers we want more: even the most pedestrian poem should make the effort of sincerity, to deliver new understanding or at least new phrasing.

The greatest shortcoming in Tay’s work is a lack of poetic density, the illusion that each chosen word is inviolable. While his masters are poets from the Tang Dynasty and Modernism, he is still winnowing both. English is Tay’s primary language, not Chinese; when he implements the meditative spirit of the Tang poets, he uses the explicative wordiness we often find in poor translations. And once he achieves the unprepossessing chattiness of post-Confessional poetry, he tends to forget the thrall of exact idiom, the quiddity or thingness of words, e.g. Whitman at his least discursive: “My foothold is tenoned and mortised in granite . . .” (or more recently Cornelius Eady’s “summer / Has gauzed the air,” or W.S. Di Piero’s “sluice of cars,” etc.)

The strongest poems are in the final section of the book, titled “Self Portraits,” the subjects of which are close to home and written with unaffected style. The poems to his children are sincere with wonder, especially “My five-year-old who loves the buses and ferries.” One of my favorites from this collection, “Harmonica (II),” takes the associations of a blues harp—age, class, economics—and harmonizes away distinctions with the unexpected sway of music. “Giving Praise” approaches, without irony, the peculiar tension between contemporary poetry and happiness; the images are evocative and selfless, and the poet is able to “let this poem disappear with me.” The poems “for arthur yap” and “after gu cheng” are short lyric choruses with interjections [in bracketed stanzas]; the form’s brevity results in more attentively chosen words.

The Mental Life of Cities is the work of an emergent voice, an affair with literature and the determination to imbue its values into mundane city life. Many of the poems are diglossic, which is to say they’re not only bilingual but multi-voiced, sometimes with bracketed dialogue, sometimes with the intrusion of other speakers, and constantly aware of disparate languages and their repercussions. The self-consciousness of many of these poems may be a kind of rebellious apologia, suggesting that poetry and individualism in Tay’s locality are radical. The title poem attests a will to actualization. In any case, this is a collection worth a look; it will inspire thought.

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