While in Singapore this past summer, I picked up a copy of Is My Body A Myth, a chapbook by Heng Siok Tian. I was eager to read some poetry from Singapore because, thanks to their bilingual education system, it’s possible to find work written natively in English. I looked forward to reading Asian poetry without the intermediary lens of translation.
Is My Body A Myth addresses the intricacies of a mother-daughter relationship through three poems: “Picking Bones,” “Mother’s Gold,” and the three-part “Is My Body A Myth.” The first two poems, meaningful individually, also serve to ground the reader in preparation for the more complex “Is My Body A Myth.” In “Picking Bones” we glimpse a peculiar dynamic, the mother reporting the wishes of the deceased father to their daughters:
no need for photo in the paper
no relative to tell
no need for friends
no need …
so mother repeats father’s last wishes
Then in “Mother’s Gold” we see a physical inheritance or dowry, twelve pieces of gold jewelry, replaced with an emotional one. In discussing the mother’s trousseau, Siok Tian writes “Hers was everything but that./She lived her wild streak, broke her mother’s heart.//Mother’s gold/is the resilience acquired with a baptism of fire.” We also see conflict that seems to be becoming a tradition: The mother breaks the heart of the grandmother, the daughter breaks the heart of the mother.
“Is My Body A Myth,” as the name suggests, deals largely with the body — specifically the female body. However, I tend to read this as part of a larger concept of inheritance, especially after reading the first two poems, and how that inheritance must be reconciled in an evolving culture. At the familial level, the daughter inherits Teochew* traditions, some of which apparently conflict with contemporary Singaporean society (the mother laments “I watch you grow up unchinese,/go out with boys, then men, with Jesus too…”). The female body is also part of the daughter’s inheritance, but a biological one that the mother and daughter share, albeit in different eras.
The narration, although largely dominated by the daughter, switches between mother and daughter. They speak indirectly to each other through the reader, at times echoing phrases the other has said. The mother states “I wept when my girl came tumbling out,/what suffering have I brought into the world?” The daughter responds several pages later with “She wept when I came tumbling out, what is this suffering?/Unknowing, I screamed with her.” In this way, we become part of their conversation. Lines such as “Her body is a kitchen-fire, mine a plasma tv” clearly show a generational disparity. But we also see commonality, such as when the daughter states “I am her body and my body,” and anxiety, as when the mother muses “What hows can I tell my girl?”
Regarding the body, the very title “Is My Body A Myth” (which conspicuously lacks a question mark), for me, points to an examination of gender-based mythologizing. This is somewhat supported when Siok Tian writes “How is my body a piece of earth/visited by rays and rain, moon and winds,/does my body hold sesmic data?”
I tend to think of this in Western terms, recalling the Romantics and a particularly pronounced example of gendered personification in Blake’s “To Spring,” which addresses spring as it approaches a female earth: “O deck her forth with thy fair fingers; pour/Thy soft kisses on her bosom…”
I don’t know if Siok Tian had Blake on her mind when equating the earth with the female body (or rather, questioning the connection). That is likely an association living solely in my brain. In general, I get the sense that Siok Tian is interested in how gender is mythologized. However, in this work, she seems more concerned with the personal. We can see the daughter’s struggle in lines such as “How do I keep my body fiercely intact/so that fingers and feet dance with earth’s revolution?” and the very erie “Did I hide my body in a freezer?” The poem closes with no real answer, although I do sense an understanding taking place between the mother and daughter.
In another matter, I’m interested in the form and language used in this collection. Most of the work is written in familiar English forms — couplets, quatrains, etc. The first part of “Is My Body A Myth” begins with an ABAB rhyme scheme.
Siok Tian comments on language in the poem:
…I formed a trio of a gig:
One in a watersleeve swaying iambic, one in a denim jiving
romances of red chambers
one murmuring with borrowed tongues decaying in sepia-ed
I really like the mix of cultures here. Watersleeves (the long sleeves of Chinese/Teochew opera costumes: see photo) do sway iambic, a prominent rhythm of the English language. Denim and jiving seem very Western, and red chambers very Chinese. And the borrowed tongues — I wonder if that’s a statement about Teochew. With Singapore’s current educational policies, a student who speaks Teochew at home would likely learn English and Mandarin at school. Which are the borrowed tongues, I wonder.
It’s also interesting how easily Siok Tian references both Eastern and Western traditions, invoking Lao-Tzu as readily as Odysseus. Although I haven’t read enough Singaporean poetry to recognize any kind of Singaporean aesthetic (if there is such a thing), I suspect many writers draw from very diverse literary histories.
*Teochew – (Or Chaozhou) A group of Han Chinese people with roots in eastern Guangdong province and a large diaspora in Singapore.
Is My Body A Myth is published by Landmark Books Pte Ltd, Singapore. ISBN 978-981-4189-28-6