Saturday, 22 November 2014
Singapore Notebook, 22 November:
Pleasure cruises and maps in motion
Pleasure cruises and maps in motion
I sometimes wonder whether I am writing about Singapore in itself or about the Hungarian, or indeed UK analogy with Singapore. In any case I have no particular perception into Singapore society or history except what I gain from friends, meetings with other writers including students, and what I see - or appear to see. And what I appear to see is a kind of party full of bright lights and architectural swank, of people at crowded tables in food courts, of students huddled at the entrance of the examination hall catching a last look at their exercise books full of formulae and equations, and indeed of poets at performances partying, sharing and celebrating their own shaky slant on the world. I used the word amiable before. It is that, or so it appears, but there is also something a little hyper about it which makes me think of parties on delicate ships setting forth on a cruise in unpredictable weather.
I can't help but be glad for them - and myself - that things are rather hunky-dory for now. I am pretty sure most people would prefer to wander through electric gardens, to sip cocktails a hundred floors up, to gawp at The Shoppe, or even to snack in one of the endless and multiple eateries rather than toil in a swamp, have to watch every last bit of food or to labour in stifling offices without air-conditioning. We get sentimental about what is lost and feel the loss deeply. We are aware of a bottomless but not fully defined anxiety. Everything is all so new, so precarious, so deprived of values that would appear to have been firm. As soon as we are materially secure we begin to find money vulgar. The poor don't and never have.
The ecological arguments are unavoidable. Conspicuous consumption? Very well, let's have some modest consumption instead. If you eat the jungle the jungle might bite back. If you eat the sea the sea might bite back. Let us at least be polite to the gods of nature we have unseated and restricted to governable reservations. That's OK. A few natural pieties are in order as long as we remember they are pieties and not much more. It was what rankled with me a little at the Barry Lopez lecture. Why talk about telling better stories or about being nice to each other? Why not just say abandon your cars and start eating grass, because at bottom that is what we know we mean. Back to the paddy fields. Back to the swamp. On the other hand there is a voice inside us that says: hey boss, we all gonna die anyway, why not die a hundred floors up sipping a cocktail? Let's party!
Poets are ordinary people with a sensitive streak and a gift for language. Otherwise there is nothing new or strange about them. By 'them' I mean us of course. Our sensitivity might render us weak and febrile at times, and rather frenetic and thumping at others. We like the sound of a revolution providing it makes good poetry. We make dreadful administrators and very bad tyrants. Even our parties are places where we secretly wander off into ourselves.
I am meditating on all this as yesterday was a rest day. We didn't go out anywhere, we didn't experience anything except being where we happened to be, in our own air-conditioned skins. I did however meet a young student who wanted to show me a sequence of poems. We sat for a couple of hours in Fusion Spoon talking generally, then talking poetry and finally looking at his poem. Time and again I am impressed by how intelligent, perceptive, well-read and open they are, the young especially. We talked about our changing circumstances, the new wealth, the world of Google and social media, about the change in perceptions such things bring about, and he had thought about all of this and more. I liked him immensely and admired his sequence which was not perfect (though only the gods are judges of perfection, I don't claim to be) but amibitious, with splendid passages and a guiding thought or vision he was trying to explore.
It may be fanciful but I sense, almost everywhere, not just anxiety but a kind of melancholy, an implicit sadness, as if the mind had arrived where it is by accident, without a map and suddenly there it is, in a street or a park that seems unfamiliar, a tiny planet in a vast uncharted cosmos. I think there is a specifically Singaporean scent about that mental place. I have my tourist map but it is the internal ones that matter. As time passes we impose the maps we prefer on that which we think we know. But what if you don't really know? What if the map itself is in motion?