My Lot is a Sky presents a diverse range of poems written by Asian Women. These collected poems, anthologised by Melissa Powers and Rena Minegishi, represent the expressions of individual female poets and their subjective consciousness. The informative and thought-provoking introduction to the collection clarifies the overall essence of the anthology when it declares:
This anthology is not a documentary on thirty-one Asian women. It is a collection of brilliant poems from thirty-one poets, whose lived experiences may influence their art in varying ways and degrees. The poets happen to be Asian women. (xiv)
The structure of these sentences and consequently, the information presented to us, highlights how these poems are first and foremost written by poets. It is only coincidental that these poets are all Asian Women. As such, this anthology prioritises and makes known that the emphasis of the collection is on artistic expression rather than Asian-ness or Female-ness.
While the freeness and openness of this mission produces liberated voices, these poems converge through an ironic but surprisingly true statement given at the Call for Submissions, namely: “We are looking to read poems so specific to you that everyone can relate to it” (xiii). The inherent contradiction in specificity and generality is hard to grasp initially but making my way through the anthology, I was beginning to comprehend how the idea functioned. Although the poems and experiences were worded and told in a unique and individual manner, the feelings that arose out of them were familiar, capturing a seemingly universal quality of human experience.
Making my way through the poetry collection, I’m quickly struck by the diversity and range of the poems and voices. While this is a clichéd expression reserved for anthologies, I can honestly declare that there is something for everyone in this collection. From the formally experimental to the rhythmically lyrical, this anthology boasts of a wide-range of voices which explore familiar but complicated thematic concerns such as love, loss, relationships and hope. Although I was admittedly drawn to some of these poems on account of their familiarity with regards to subject matter and stylistic expressions, I found myself astounded by the ones I didn’t find familiar. I re-read these poems because they provided, what was to me, a specifically foreign experience with an unfamiliar style. However, the more I familiarised myself with it, mastering how the new words challenged my mouth to move in a novel way, the more I began to feel the familiar essence. This pleasant mixture of the familiar and foreign becomes a key advantage of this anthology, collected without a specific thematic rigidity.
Among the unique voices that emerge from this anthology, there are some who sought new and challenging ways of expressing the notion of the complex self. Among these innovative poems, Jocelyn Suarez’s “Ah Ma” daringly plays with mixing colloquial Singlish and Standardized English to create a conversational tone which sounds familiar to modern Singaporean readers. The poem describes the speaker’s relationship with her mother as she gets a boyfriend that her mother does not like. The mother, who teaches her daughter perfect English, blames the boy for ‘eroding’ her speech and introducing unruly dialects to her language repertoire. However, it is not so clear that it is the boy who affects her language as the speaker is able to masterfully and delightfully rhyme non-proper English. When her mother witnesses the speaker order a “teh o siew dai”, the Hokkien hawker-centre slang for Tea without milk, less sugar, the speaker reflects:
I notice you wince just a little,
Which is to show you not happy when I
Told you that we went steady already. (15)
The non-standard English used in the final two lines perhaps shows the impact of the boy’s influences on the speaker’s perfect English. However, to construct a hilarious rhythmic internal rhyme of “happy” and “steady” displays an attuned understanding of Singlish. Apart from this stylistic manipulation of language, the poem also thematises language with a complex metaphor of the lips and tongue. The speaker remembers how her mother “once said never to compromise [her] tongue” but later admitted that “she gave up [her] tongue” (15). This direct contradiction of her mother’s instructions denotes a rebellion against her mother’s teachings. However, ultimately, this poem is about the beauty of a mother-daughter relationship. Eventually, when the speaker breaks up with her boyfriend, she reports:
I half expected
You to reprimand but instead,
All you whispered was “see la”. (15)
These final lines display the bond a mother has with her daughter that attends to the pain and sorrow rather than rub salt in the wound. Although the final “see la” suggests a I-told-you-so attitude, I think it actually points to how the mother absorbs and adapts to her daughter’s change in language utterances. Therefore, this poem paints a moving portrait of a mother- daughter relationship that can be tensed but eventually resolves due to the bond and love the mother feels for her daughter. This kind of sentiment can be extended to communicate a parent-child dynamic that can be universalised. As such, this poem serves as an ideal depiction of the resolved irony that the poems are specific and general all at once.
While the language used in this poem is highly innovative and central to its message, there are other poems in this collection that mix languages such as Malay and English. Cara Ow’s “Buah Keluak” contains almost half a page of footnotes which explain the several Malay expressions and phrases in English. This style of mixing languages makes the poem a bilingual artifact, a unique phenomenon that arises in a country with a diverse linguistic landscape.
Apart from the creative play with language, the anthology also includes poets who play with form to emphasise the essence of the poem. In Shirley Camia’s “Always A Mother”, the form is reminiscent of William Carlos Williams’s fractured and short stanzas. The poem draws inspiration from Leanne Dunic’s quote but also, an old age Chinese Adage which postulates that the spirit of a loved one could visit as an insect. A fragment of a poem writes:
from the body
keeping vigil. (29)
The use of stanza splits slows down the pace of the poem as the reader has to move a considerable distance before meeting the next word. Furthermore, this split also has symbolic significance because the isolation of the words “a spirit” from “the body” in the next stanza highlights the separateness of these two fundamental aspects of human existence. In this way, the poem uses some of its formal features to demonstrate how the mother’s spirit returns as another form, but always persist in watching out for her children regardless.
Besides these poems which feature a uniqueness with regards to experimentation with language and form, there are also rather poignant portraits of intergenerational family relationships. While there are poems that use language in a playful and meaningful manner, Christine Ruth Tan’s “Lua Bor” reflects upon the intimate functions of language in connecting people. The speaker of the poem looks through her memories in remembering her grandmother. The imagery of this poem creates a sense of wistfulness and sorrow as the persona cannot verbally connect with her grandmother who speaks Hainanese. However, there is a sense of hope at the end of the poem as the persona imagines that in the future, they will be able to communicate in the afterlife, where words and language is universal.
I believe Christine’s poet tugged at my heartstrings for I too suffer a communicative barrier with my grandparents, who I so earnestly want to connect with. This line especially resonates with me:
I feel terrible that what I know about you,
I always know through someone else. (44)
There’s a suggestion of indirectness and perhaps distance in this well-put-together lines. This universal struggle of feeling distant to one’s grandparents is not innately a woman or female problem, rather, it affects all of us. Therefore, Christine’s poem, full of heart-breaking sentiments and anecdotes, truly reflects the human condition.
As International Women’s Day, 8th March, draws close, I believe this poetry collection serves as a wonderful companion to get a first look into the sentiments and expressions of individual female poets. Each poem proves to be a different reading experience as the voice, subject matter, style and perspective shifts drastically throughout this collection. I encourage anyone who would like to get a wide sampling of female voices to slowly and meticulously savour this poetry collection. It is only through diversity that we begin to understand the larger picture and expose ourselves to the large complexity of being woman.
On a final note, Happy International Women’s Day to everyone.
by Marcus Goh