Excue me, I'm tue kiasue to queue in this haiku

(Landmark Books, 1998)


Casual 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.

Peppered 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.

Gwee’s 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:

I’m tue
to queue.

("Singaporean Haiku")

Poems 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 paradoxes’:

They say there were no Singas here and this is Singapore
They say our nation’s well and rich: why do we covet more?

Our women are liberated and our men feel feminized
Our parents stress ancestral East, our kids are Westernized.

("Cognition Gap")

Gwee 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?

Yet 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 roots:

After all, did we not, with rhymes
once dream a comic Mother Goose,
singing of blind mice and of chimes?

("Who wants to buy a book of poems?")

So 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.

("A Chinese Parable")

If 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 1994:

Twice the winning – both League and Cup – making for the charm
Of the first-ever Malaysia Cup final held in Shah Alam!

("17 December 1994, or The Taking of the Grail")

Gwee 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.

Enjoy 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 leh!

This is the original, unabridged draft of the review published in the Straits Times on 12 Dec 1998.