EILEEN TABIOS Engages
I DIDN’T KNOW MANI WAS A CONCEPTUALIST by Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingde
(Math Paper Press, Singapore, 2014)
Nowadays in contemporary poetry, it's not a new story—this displacement/replacement of references to span across cultures, borders, styles, philosophies, arts, etc. When done poorly, the result is a jumble. When done well, the result can be elegance. And the elegance is paradoxical given the multiplicitous references surfaced through the words. Such is the feat achieved by I DIDN’T KNOW MANI WAS A CONCEPTUALIST by Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingde. It’s a collection that presents a poem like:
Georgia Demarais taps each wall to check for a weak spot. A clue like Rodin first reading Dante, then Baudelaire. “Is today Wednesday or Thursday? Where are the light switches?” Georgia is growing wary, her eye like Max Ernst’s Chinese Nightingale, its iron beak as cold to the touch. No warmth. No barrateen bedding. No food, water or electricity. Just coloured lines, and sometimes a mansard roof. Wenge door at the back, sealed shut. No windbrace or sprockets or windows although occasionally, the crackle of shrinking glass. No turning weather. No mechanism or motif or memory. No handle to grab onto.
The poet is described as a multidisciplinary artist, which I take partly to mean the poet has empathy for or trained himself to be at home in different genres. It’s not just about artistic genre; his bio notes he’s moved much through Australia, France, Hong Kong and Spain as a former journalist. He received a variety of degrees—book publishing, sociology, mass communications, theology (world religions) and fine arts (creative writing)—from not just National University of Singapore but also Stanford, Harvard and University of Notre Dame. Such a training of course can affect—because anything and everything can—the poems made. And while this disconcertingly results in one of the blurbers Kirpal Singh saying “Here is a book few of us thin a Singaporean could write!”—the fine poems coming from Zhicheng-Mingde’s pen (or keyboard) certainly illustrate the advantage of knowledge. And also how knowledge expands imagination. These poems benefit from such a background.
The risk in a collection like this—granted, as a “risk” it’s a mere “first world problema”—is that the poems can buckle under their own weight. Almost halfway into the collection, I had to laugh agreeably over the (or, what I perceived as my) hidden message in
“I wish for a simpler life,” Resident 97 said. “Of eider duck down, and not these technical feats.” He swaddled himself in a beige towel blanket that was thin and soft like a breeze and yet provided warmth in layers.
But this may be just to say—and it’s the first time I’m saying this in a review (to do a review I usually start by reading a poetry collection from first page to last page instead of dipping around)—these poems may best be enjoyed when read individually. They are simply so dense that reading them altogether creates an exponentially heavy effect. Love those brownies but don’t eat 24 in one sitting (not, cough, that I’m saying I know anything about eating two dozen brownies all at once …). For instance, take this poem:
A MYTHIC ENCRUSTING
Ought-to-live could be walking down the Avenue des Champs-Elysees, dressed in chinoiserie and weighed down in Roberto Cavalli and Louis Vuitton. These could be pirated too like the Hermes Silkypop trying to look user-friendly and commonplace. Economy is like laktong and the body of water it breathes in, pure serenity, no power to ego or overcrowding. A hackneyed image best describes the Second Dakini who has achieved old-wine maturity by cruise-ship speed, 20 knots or so. Behind her Amelia-Earhart goggles is a sail plan that will ride out any wind force, the same flap and fluster one would expect of a dugong mistaken for a mermaid in the fog. The dugong wants to join the salmon in the Great Lakes. It wants to return to 1950, the days of unlisted phones that kept everything domiciliary and home-loving.
Stuff like that does not beget rapid page-turning reading. But it does encourage breathing between poems (not a bad thing) and often contemplation that can be rewarding.
The nearly four pages worth of Notes also manifest the variety of thoughts and evocations that went through the poet’s head as he created this collection. Noted are a variety of art tendencies, artists, a variety of religions, religious peeps, koans, other poems and books, Greek mythology and literary criticism. We see further evidence in addition to the poems’ own words of the erudite roots brought by the poet to the writing studio.
The excerpted poems may illustrate the difficulty of talking about these associative poems. What one can say is that they could not have existed without a certain wild intelligence and earned knowledge by the author so that the process towards these poems can be admired as the results themselves. Kudos.
Eileen Tabios reveals something about herself in ARDUITY'S interview about what's hard about her poetry. Her just-released poetry collection, SUN STIGMATA (Sculpture Poems), received a review by Amazon Hall of Famer reviewer Grady Harp. Due out in 2015 will be her second "Collected Poems" project; while her first THE THORN ROSARY was focused on the prose poem form, her forthcoming INVEN(S)TORY will focus on the list or catalog poem form. More information at http://eileenrtabios.com