strollers beware: there is a dinosaur in the Botanic Gardens.
So claims "Jurassic Gardens", from a first book
of poems written and illustrated in the distinctively cheeky
style of Gwee Li Sui. Gwee is 28 and a tutor at the department
of English at NUS.
with freewheeling wit, barefaced puns, malapropisms and
flagrantly Singaporean accents, Gwee has also brought his
talent for cartooning into play, producing some of the cutest,
friskiest and most endearing illustrated characters ever
to appear in a volume of poetry since Edward Lear’s
Nonsense Rhymes. The illustrations – all T-Shirt and
Coffee Mug worthy – range from a spitting Merlion
to the definitive Ah Beng given flesh, and yes, the Dinosaur
tromping through Botanic foilage.
audience is clearly the general public rather than the literati.
The literary tradition he chooses to adopt is that of Lear,
Lewis Carroll, Chesterton and popular American poet Ogden
Nash, whose irreverent and surprising humour have delighted
audiences everywhere – long before chao mugger undergraduates
or anyone had ever encountered the ‘Bahktinian Perspective
of the Architechtonic Self’. Employing the familiar
rhyme schemes and structures of nursery rhymes, popular
ballads and jingles, Gwee celebrates the vernacular in both
form and content. His Singlish is both comic and familiar,
eschewing conventional grammar, spelling, even literary
convention, for the sake of immediacy and expediency:
such as "Cognition Gap" – which begins the
book, and "Who wants to buy a book of poems" –
which names it, make it clear that Gwee is pointing out
the day-to-day foibles and ironies which pervade life in
Singapore. His neat couplets sum up the familiar contradictions
of a ‘little drip’ of land ‘hard with
say there were no Singas here and this is Singapore
They say our nation’s well and rich: why do we covet
Our women are liberated and our men feel feminized
Our parents stress ancestral East, our kids are Westernized.
is keenly aware of writing in a land idealised in tourist
brochures yet measured in bank accounts, where the profit
motive reigns over the poetic impulse, survival overrides
sophistry and pragmatism holds illimitable dominion over
all. The poet can write all he wants, but how would he pay
his bills? Does poetry in the end, matter? Or is the poet
merely a jester at the court of national interests?
Gwee acknowledges that much modern poetry, exalted to its
ivory intellectual tower, has placed itself beyond the reach
of its public, and rendered itself irrelevant as a result.
Where, for instance, is the poetry of truly Singaporean
concerns – of Singlish and soccer, Ah Beng and Air-levels,
of Karaoke and Tekong? For Gwee, the poet’s art must
reveal ‘common sight / which, being old, anthropologic,
/ apprehends some space within us / that will always hoist
the poetic.’ Poetry, to Gwee, must not forget its
After all, did we not, with
once dream a comic Mother Goose,
singing of blind mice and of chimes?
("Who wants to buy a book of poems?")
poetry must be true to common experience; it must appeal
to that innate human sense of symmetry and rhythm which
allows a 30-second jingle to sell a billion burgers. And
it need not be spiritually or morally empty. Gwee’s
less-than-epic ballad "Edward" about the rise
and decline of a less-than-heroic transvestite star is poignant
in its simplicity and social consciousness, as is his moral
fable, "A Chinese Parable":
there’s some goodness
to be less than pragmatic. No work is ample
and no wall strong if you should slight the temple.
orthodoxy demands pragmatism, gravity, ceremony, predictability,
tradition and diligence, in poetry as well as in life, then
perhaps only an unorthodox approach, lighthearted and unfettered,
can unburden and reveal the true human spirit. Or at least
provide moments of reprieve in comic relief. Certainly,
what it means to be down-to-earth Singaporean has not so
much to do with trade figures and per capita income as it
does with the "Taking of the Grail" on 17 December
the winning – both League and Cup – making
for the charm
Of the first-ever Malaysia Cup final held in Shah Alam!
December 1994, or The Taking of the Grail")
is no ‘limp-wristed faggot’ turning pale in
his air-con office scribbling suggestive verses. He is a
true-blue Singapore boy who thinks that it’s about
time poetry in Singapore becomes fun lah! His clutch of
poems needs to reach the wider audience for which it is
written, not detention on a deserted bookshelf in its provocative
pink sleeve jacket, nor Freudian scrutiny in dusty academic
libraries. It needs poetry readings, the Books Page, broadcasts
on Passion 99.5, TCS, poems on the MRT, a Webpage, soc.culture.singapore.Read
it and weep. Have a chuckle. Take yourself a little less
seriously and maybe see more clearly.
the book. And – if you have the means – prove
him wrong and buy it. Don’t scared. I may be one of
those limp-wristed scholahs, nose high high one, write words
big big type, but eh, I also read the book already. And
ah, I still waiting for the T-shirt with the cute Dinosaur
is the original, unabridged draft of the review published
in the Straits Times on 12 Dec 1998.