Poems a veritable soul-mine

(Ethos Books, 2001)


EDITING is probably the most onerous and least celebrated stage in the process of literary production.

An editor might seem little more than a reader on a power trip, but believe me, the task is often one part literary sense, one part surgery, and three parts mining operation.

Editors are expected to be sound arbiters -- not so much of good taste or public decency -- but of the cut, clarity and value of the writing in question.

Besides being an objective and astute critic, the editor has to add polish to the book's packaging, increasing its chances of delivering the goods to the intended audience. It's a humbling task. More so when the subject of your scrutiny is a book close to your heart, such as Yong Shu Hoong's Isaac, which already received publication in 1997.

I was flattered, of course, to have been approached by the author to help edit version two of Isaac. But the sheer audacity of the task came to me later: Improve one of my favourite Singaporean poetry collections by a fellow wordsmith? What cheek!

So instead, I simply tried to zero in on the aspects of the book I most responded to. It helped that I got to work from scratch with the original manuscript and never before published poems.

By clarifying what I loved about the poems in Isaac -- rearranging the sequence of the poems rather than rewriting them -- I had a second chance to share my enjoyment with other readers at large.

At the core of Isaac is a constant tension: between colourful foreign cultures and the universal monotony of urban living, between fragile humanity and dehumanising (but resilient) technology, between the need for inviduality, privacy, and the longing for social contact.

There's already a natural logic and flow to the manuscript: 'Wild America', the first section of the text, is a road-movie -- one stranger's journey to another land to find himself, beginning with detached, aloof observations. Yet the section ends with a clutch of poems ("Heroics Of Loneliness", "Isaac") which suggest that there are more ways of being alone and alienated than simply being foreign.

'Urban Renewal', Isaac's second section, continues the theme of communication and contact, but returns to the urban context so familiar to Singaporeans.

The primary experiences of urban living, Isaac suggests, are anonymity and the solipsism it engenders. The poems in this section assert the individual viewpoint ("Point Of View", "Seeing Snow For The First Time") as a means of resisting the homogenising influences of public space ("In The Crowd").

Yet this solipsism is moderated by the need to reach out to other human beings, often in the form of love or sexual relationships, even though -- in the modern context -- these needs are cloaked in economic or technological terms.

The unquiet ferment of our ever-churning, self-renewing city results in a disquieting restlessness -- we are constantly on the look out for the new -- whether in terms of housing ("A Kinder Exodus") or partners ("Flight Patterns").

The vacuum of something more enduring than the latest fashion is keenly felt ("A Sobering Age"); its dehumanising effects evoke Isaac's most biting indictments.

But the last section, 'A Family Matter', nicely reclaims and renews faith despite the encroaching world of automated numbers. The experience of a death in the family -- remembered in intimate verse and mirrored by translations in the poet's mother tongue -- clarifies and reaffirms the redemptive value of life and family.

The poet's "realisation that I was completely human" neatly ends the deliberate arc Isaac traces from the detached voice of travel in wild America to the intimacy of a personal bereavement.

Editing may be a mining operation, but the nuggets of soul it can uncover make it worth the effort. Isaac is a veritable soul-mine of such gems that has perhaps been lost in the wild frontiers of local bookshelves; version two, hopefully, will open up its many treasures to more members of the public.