is probably the most onerous and least celebrated stage
in the process of literary production.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
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
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.
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.
Renewal', Isaac's second section, continues the theme of
communication and contact, but returns to the urban context
so familiar to Singaporeans.
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").
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.
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
vacuum of something more enduring than the latest fashion
is keenly felt ("A Sobering Age"); its dehumanising
effects evoke Isaac's most biting indictments.
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.
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
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.