Alvin Pang’s When the Barbarians Arrive

Alvin Pang
  
 
 
Born in 1972, Alvin Pang was Singapore’s Young Artist of the Year for Literature in 2005, and received the Singapore Youth Award for Arts and Culture in 2007. He is a Board Member of the University of Canberra’s International Poetry Studies Institute, and of the peer-reviewed journal Axon: Creative Explorations. A poet, writer, editor, and translator with work translated into over fifteen languages, he has appeared in major festivals and publications worldwide. His recent publications include Tumasik: Contemporary Writing from Singapore (Autumn Hill, 2009), Other Things and Other Poems (Brutal, Croatia, 2012) and Waiting for the Barbarians (Arc Publications, 2012).
 
 
 
 
Alvin Pang2 
 
 
 
“This is a new and selected works, with some poems taken from Alvin Pang’s previous three collections. The selection ranges from unsentimental love poems to sharply satirical writing; here are poems that are wry and shrewd, intelligent and sensitive. They mock, celebrate and unsettle, are generous and beautiful, full of paradoxes, logic and illogicality, and are at once recognisably national and international in reach, offering a fresh edgy energy to the wave of urban poetry emerging from Singapore.”
 
 
 
 
When the Barbarians Arrive 
 
 
 
Shades of Light in Holland Village
 
 
Say you just got a raise. The last good kiss
you’ll remember for life is waiting to happen,
but you come here – Friday night, Saturday night –
the mock Latino bars that didn’t last, bars that did,
cafes and coffee-shops that keep up.
The magazine stall on the corner must have turned thirty,
the proprietors still furtively fingering
glossy foreign magazines like contraband.

What they’re really selling now
is ease. People come for love of mess, looking for a stab
of feeling, the suddenness of pain, any kind of intoxication.
Well-kept bodies who leave each year
more regretful than the last. Running from silence
into noise. Even the rooftop Balinese illusion of Café 211,
four storeys above ground, can’t hide their boredom.

Isn’t this the life? That languorous drowning of the senses?
Isn’t this defeat so subtle, our bohemian afterlife,
token as a piece of heaven, resounding in seclusion,
all the world will let you have
until the hunger you came from
dies from inside?

Say no to yourself. The old man on the void deck,
already forty when these streets were laid, still laughs
although his legs have jumped ship. Some night soon,
he says, I’ll turn off the lights in my room
and never see the sun again. You tell him no
in your head. The taxi that brought you here
is still out there, running for what it’s worth
to hunt down the kind of money
you can’t even buy lunch with; your fatigue
and unclaimed grief mark the air with sighs
disguised as breathing, and it will kill you one day
no matter what you do.
               So the struggle now is with the stiff
bolt on your front door, the stubborn wilting
of your balcony ferns, the straining of your neck
to catch one glimpse of the woman who loves you
in the best possible light.
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
Poem for an Engineer
 
 
This poem has no intention of changing the world
or even moving it one iota. For that you need
a more exact science: aeronautics, civil engineering.
You need plenty of expertise, money, management,
countless nights redrafting plans in the lonely grove
of your cubicle. While you calculate angles, calibrate
cross-shafts and supporting structures, your wife
has fallen away into sleep, your dog beguiled
by the slow wheeling of the moon on its careless axis.
This is serious work. What do poems know about
the imperatives of balance and stress, the calculus
of load-bearing metres? This one spent its childhood
dissecting sonnets, as you grazed, in the class
next door, on vast plains of lines and numbers.
While you struggled with compass and slide rule,
it was dividing dactyls from iambs, dreaming up
wild rivers, airborne castles, towers kissing sky.

Not for you, whose shoulder is to the hard stone
of this life, whose idea of sleep is one long dull
ache in the back of the neck you cannot reach.
But you are almost done. You check the figures
one last time, as the poem watches, innumerate
and invisible. Finishing for the night, gifting
schematics to the unmagical gloom; straight
lines on paper that will one day become a bridge,
a skyscraper, a lighter-than-air miracle.
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
Incendium Amoris
 
 
Burning incense could cause cancer according to a scientific study conducted by researchers from Taiwan, who found high levels of carcinogens in the smoke of incense burned in Buddhist temples.”
               Associated Press (2 Aug 2001)
 
 
 
“I have groped my breast seeking whether this burning were from any bodily cause outwardly. But when I knew that it was only kindled inwardly from a ghostly cause, and that this burning was nought of fleshly love or concupiscence, in this I conceived it was the gift of my Maker.”
               Richard Rolle, The Fire of Love (14th C)
 
 
 
I
 
 
Now we know our prayers
are killing us. Offer incense, set flame
to sandalwood, give your soul
to the votive glow of oil lamp and candle;
all it summons is this secret bird of prey,
silence fluttering beneath the rib-cage.
So the slow burn towards divinity
begins from within, after all: ashes to ashes,
flesh expiring from smoke into grace.
Gather enough faith
and it could kill a city.
 
 
 
II
 
 
We sensed the bigger picture that day
on Jurong Island: refineries humming
like desert temples; land gathered and burnt
for one purpose only. On the horizon
smokestacks tower like Seventh Month joss,
under whose gaze even light wavers,
cowed into sunset. Second after second
the waste flares roar
their fierce syllable of
love
love
love
 
 
 
III
 
 
How often we fall to the naked gaze of fire,
trusting the blaze of fact, faith, desire
to light the way out from ourselves to wholeness.
As if salvation is earned by becoming less,
by feeding our dreams to the right combustion.
Does the soul hide in plasma? Is God a question?
The unsolved science of this calculable space,
whose name resides in the geometry of light?
Perhaps freedom gleams in answers which escape
us, eludes our sense of what could be. In which case
we are more than what a quantity of ash might
hold, and what we seem to lose, released from shape
only. Any day soon, we could stumble on paradise
in the embers of here and now, and what we sacrifice.
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
To Go to S’pore
 
After Zagajewski’s ‘To Go to Lvóv’
 
 
To go to S’pore. Which station
for S’pore, if not in a dream, at dusk, when rain
glistens on chrome. When Mass Rapid
Trains and Light Rail Trains are borne
to all corners. To leave in a hurry for S’pore,
night and day, in August or in May, but early,
but only if S’pore exists, if it is to be
found within the bounds
of this island and not just
in the colour of my passport, of my smart card;
if the smell of raintrees after thunderstorm,
of angsana, of frangipani, still lingers
like fresh smoke; if the canals brim
and grumble like epithets in Hokkien, vanish
beneath ground. To pack up and go, to leave
and never look back, at 5 p.m. to cease
like shop windows, while beneath the whirl
of fans in coffee shops, geckos chatter
their politics. But the office tower rises, straight
as the law, and everyone standing
in its shadow, and a mop and bucket leaning
on window glass, and our dream which hadn’t
come yet, only concrete, and litter-bins and the
rainbow pulse of new pubs set to music, the low
bass tremble of bumboats, rocking.
Always too much of S’pore, no one
could fathom the depths of its neighbourhoods,
walk the inside trails between each block and hear
the creak and hiss of each brick speaking, scalded
by sun, at night the city’s muteness, the dead
stillness in Shenton Way unlike that of temples
where monks keep silence full of unseen rivers.
In Liang Seah street history spilled
in unlit stairwells and on window louvres
swinging and shutting by themselves, in china
blue ceramic tiles, in flour, in the smell of eggs,
the form of feathers plastering the walls, in green
muck collecting in rusty pipes, fronds growing
where laundry once sprouted and the streets
played percussion and the air singed, the procession
of the devout sang like kings of the world
toward the temple gates. People in such frantic joy
they didn’t want to stay indoors. So much life
it burst and flooded every street, it cracked the sky in
thunder and fireworks, the new year lived over
and over. My granny as she stood at the window
calling for my father, dinner ready and
steaming in the evening light and neighbours
shouting from windows, watching out for
trouble and the next meal and nothing tentative
as hope. An uncle slaved himself blind
reading by candlelight, while my father was out
catching fireflies. The health inspector came
and my grandfather bought him a drink
and covered the cockroaches with his sole, and
got away with it. Even then
there was too much of S’pore, it overflowed
each drain, came down as rain, so much and yet
none; what was there spawned, grew, cut
into shape not without love and now the green
June springs from every square, verdant wigs
pulled over everything. Weeds, attap, kampong
and five-foot way fell away as the towers rose,
pushing out above the temples, people shuffled on,
handbags and wallets full of tomorrow,
and every estate growing into each other,
and everyone a leaseholder, and now in a hurry
to just go, and somewhere to come and go from,
S’pore tugged every which way,
S’pore clutched in the small palm of the sea,
becoming and flowing in like tears, tides, currents,
rivers run beneath the surface everywhere
 
 
 
 
from When the Barbarians Arrive (Arc Publications, 2012).

Order When the Barbarians Arrive.
 
 
 
Listen to a podcast at the Scottish Poetry Library where Ryan Van Winkle discusses language identity, Singapore literature and poetic practice with Alvin at the StAnza 2013 poetry festival.

Alvin writes about poetry in Singapore for The Poetry Society website.

S J Fowler interviews Alvin for Poetry Parnassus.

Order Tumasik: Contemporary Writing from Singapore.

Visit Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Softblow and Asymptote.
 
 
 
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