By Megan Cheah
Title: Giving Ground
By Theophilus Kwek
Published by Ethos Books
No. of Pages: 76
Available at EthosBooks.com.sg and Kinokuniya
If there is any given way to experience the world through poetic train of thought, Theophilus Kwek surely nails it in his third collection, Giving Ground.
Split into four sections, it is Kwek’s way of “gaining new ground [and] finding other homes and histories that change the way he sees his own city”. Each section break features a black-and-white photograph of old Singapore, accompanied by small illustrations from Alvin Ong, seamlessly integrated into each art piece.
The poems delve into European cities such as the Vatican City, Dublin and Amsterdam, with the author using landmarks in each place to craft scenes in the readers’ minds. Simple description is elegantly wrought in a way that allows one to picture the surroundings in a new sense, for both people who have visited the place and those who have not.
Besides visiting various countries, Kwek, whose second collection, Circle Line, was previously shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize in 2014, also brings the reader into history with retellings of past events. By putting himself in the shoes of famous figures, such as Venetian merchant Marco Polo and, closer to home, Singapore’s first Resident William Farquhar, the poems feature historical happenings while taking on a creative spin on how the events actually played out.
For example, First Sighting, a re-authoring of Singapore founder Sang Nila Utama’s arrival to the island, references the popular legend of him throwing his crown into the ocean to appease the gods as how we know it, but removes the occurrence entirely – “Nothing worked. I had kept my crown, the men / their gold (it was, we believed, no time for / miracles) when it appeared, moving us”.
Of his writing, Singapore-born Australian poet Boey Kim Cheng says, “In his precocious debut at 18, Kwek showed remarkable maturity of perception, accuracy of observation, lucidity of language and visual clarity in evoking striking vignettes of home. ”
“These qualities have been further honed since, and are now carried by the music of the line, compelling cadences that embody the rhythms of travel and catch the nuances of encounters with a wide range of landscapes and people.”
Finding Singapore by taking on the world, Giving Ground keeps the explorer, writer and poet in readers turning the pages to the end.