One of the privileges of being a poet is getting to know the poets whose work you love as people. These are connections formed on many layers: how you know them as poets, as friends, as lovers, as contemporaries, as critics, as travel companions and sometimes as foes.

Two of these three friends of mine who are poets (or maybe poets who are friends of mine) have new books out. The third has a not-so-new book going into its second printing shortly. I’m one of those people who just rave about the things they love (you may have noticed, if you’ve been following my blogavatars for some time). So here are some favours for them as a friend, and some word-of-mouth as a fan.

INDRAN AMIRTHANAYAGAM’s The Splintered Face: Tsunami Poems

Indran is a mentor, in some ways. He’s writing the foreword for my forthcoming book, after all. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t trust my opinion of his work: you only have to ask him to know that I have disagreed with some of his word choices, syntax, punctuation, whole poems — just as he has with mine.

What most struck me about this book of poems, written in the aftermath of the Asian tsunami of 2004 and focusing on its impact on Sri Lanka, was the attention to detail. Not just circumstancial description, but mainly emotional mapping of a subtle yet distinct variety. A substantial number of the poems adopt a persona, an eyewitness view, and there are moments at which the poet convinces the reader totally of having had the experience. The poet himself was in the United States at the time of the disaster, but you would never be able to tell, were it not for this admission in his introduction to the book.

These are far-ranging poems of much thought and great insight. Granted, their topic is one of pathos by default, but the true success of this book lies in the fact that the maudlin is a sentiment that occurs rarely. Amirthanayagam’s style is spare, his lines pared down, their enjambments numerous (I have wondered about this before — perhaps it is the poet as performer who dictates this style). My favourite lines from the collection are those that form this striking image, from the poem “Bosched”: “the city, machan,/like a virgin delivered/to her husband/on the wedding day.”

The Splintered Face: Tsunami Poems was published by Hanging Loose Press, New York in January 2008. You can buy it online from Amazon, among other places, as well as from the publisher itself.

PoojaThe Splintered Face

I scoured the newspapers
and Web this morning
but did not find the 76th day
anniversary of the tsunami
cited. Difficult to keep
daily pooja, cut
jasmine flowers
and break coconuts
at the temple doors.

In these mountains,
coconuts are a specialty
item at the HEB, and
Catholic churches
do not encourage
heaping servings
of rice, plantains
and yogurt at the feet
of their images.

If I could take India
into my hands like
a ball of rice and curry
and eat in front
of everybody, pierce
the billion names
of god into one god
ring rattling
from my nose

that would make
my neighbors swoon
and me feel at home
in the silence of canyons,
church naves open
only on feast days,
Sundays, where the ablution
of holy water has been
removed for questions of hygiene.

POOJA NANSIStiletto Scars‘s Stiletto Scars

I first met Pooja at the KL Literary Festival in March 2007, where we “sparred” at a poetry slam. I was captured by her warmth and her gutsiness. We spent some time together when I was in Singapore last month, and I am hugely proud that she’s brought out this honest, sassy book. I’m not the first person to say it, but she’s a ray of sunshine amidst the generally excellent but rather sombre contemporary poetry of Singapore. Stilleto Scars was published by WordForward, Singapore in December 2007.

How To Be A Stiletto

Give the gift of power.

Not just by rising up to heights but by knowing
that pain can be overcome with
stubborn audacity.

Show that appearances are more important than reality.

That the blistered, chaffed parts of you
must at all times be covered in
sequins, so that even if you feel battered,
you look invincible in all your glory.

Reveal all that has been hidden deep inside.

Expose the seduction, spunk, spirit that’s been
quashed by the lazy wandering of easy flat planes.

Remind everyone that safe
is not wondrous.

Gratification is not the same as contentment

and that gracefulness has
to do with

Recognise that red is your best colour,
that you are a tool and a weapon all at once.

Harness your ability to keep someone
under your heel and grant freedom
from the same point
of your existence.

Walk low self esteem enlightened
into the night.
Make sure they wince
only once the music dies,
when they are saf
from the public eye.

Lead hearts on to dance floors.
Lift them into the promise
of the music to the understanding that

a life lived afraid
and in comfort,

is no life at all.


NG YI-SHENG’s Last Boy

Yi-Sheng and I met last month at the Singapore Writers’ FestLast Boyival. I was blown away by his performance poetry, and flattered that he remembered having seen a copy of my chapbook at Books Actually some months before. Yi-Sheng is really something to behold onstage. He brings across both quiet, emotive poems and loud, performative ones so convincingly — and is equally impressive on the page. I was so enamoured of the copy of Last Boy that he gave me that when we met for supper (crocodile meat in Geylang — and sad to say, it does taste just like chicken), I kept associating things he said with the poems in it. Only later did I think that in his place, I would have been weirded out. Most impressive about this book is Ng’s wide range of inspirations and images: from history to anatomy to mathematics and more, his poems are layered with knowledge — meaningfully. Last Boy was published by Firstfruits, Singapore in 2006, and will be reprinted soon. You can buy it online from the publisher.

for QX

Sometimes the reason the girl will not speak
is that she is weaving shirts out of nettles
for eleven swan-brothers. This is why midnight
calls her to the churchyard, a sickle in her hand
as she sleeps in the bedchamber. People will call her
a witch, but really, she was stitching them long
before you found her, ragged-haired, swollen of hand
at the lake, waiting for rescue.

Sometimes the shirts are spun badly
and will not save her, even when flames lick her thighs.
Sometimes the brothers are not yet born
and the swans are inside her.
Sometimes she is a witch indeed,
and has had her eye on you since daybreak
and you need only lift the shutters
to break out in feathers, stiff as paper.