Zhang Ruihe reviews The World Must Weigh the Same by Carol Chan

The World Must Weigh the Same

by Carol Chan

Math Paper Press, 2011

Reviewed by ZHANG RUIHE

Since its inception just over a year ago, Math Paper Press’s Babette’s Feast chapbook series has introduced a host of new voices to the literary scene in Singapore. The voice that emerges in Carol Chan’s first collection is lyrical, ‘ever soft, gentle and low’, and, like Cordelia’s in King Lear, it is both compassionate and unafraid to speak its truth. The World Must Weigh The Same is an examination of the connections between the personal and political in contemporary Singapore – a tentative attempt to articulate a vaguely-felt malaise that Chan names in one poem as ‘first-world boredom’ struggling to find purpose in the face of ‘human dreams’.

It is hard not to take a topical reading of some of the pieces here. Published in 2011 after Singapore’s watershed May 7th polls, the collection contains coy references to ‘elections’ and ‘rallies’ tucked into poems addressed to unnamed interlocutors who could be friends, lovers, government, or State. ‘Common State’ is perhaps the most successful of these, and incidentally, also the most representative of the concerns of the collection as a whole. Read as a love poem, it is a heartfelt plea for ‘difference’ in a relationship that has gone stale from too much predictability; read as a political poem, that same plea acquires additional resonance in the context of a ‘dead silent country’ where the ‘future you think is possible’ is ‘one I do not see’. These would have been brave words twenty years ago, before Alfian Sa’at’s One Fierce Hour, especially in a first collection. Now, they are typical of a sentiment that, thanks to the Internet, has become a commonplace. Lamenting a lack of vision in the nation’s leadership and bemoaning a sense of personal disempowerment have become national pastimes, like shopping and eating. And Chan does it more eloquently and poignantly than most; at times, as in ‘Electives’, even playfully:

         & not to be soggy but there are limits to how much
        we care about whatever. Say nothing / say love / say war.

In ‘State’, the speaker wonders if
                           …… what you run
                           up against          
                           is only the lines
                           from your dreaming 

        or the language to speak
        out of line.

The self-reflexive awareness of the perils of sogginess, of our complicity in our disenfranchisement, rescues these poems from cliché.  

Yet, the question is – what is the expected readerly response to such discontent? At the risk of reproducing the standard discourse pattern of Singaporean bureaucracy, the instinctive reaction is to wonder what sort of aesthetic vision is being offered as an alternative. ‘Briefcase’, the gem of a  short story that opens the collection, proposes an answer – love, commitment, the comforts of familiarity and domesticity, and the hidden beauty of the everyday. After going through something of a midlife crisis in which he questions, for the first time, the way his life has turned out, protagonist Mr Zhang arrives at a place of contentment, learns compromise. Forget politics, forget idealism – there is ‘something precious’ in the life that happens to us, or, at best, that we meander into. ‘(T)he memory of soft-boiled eggs with dark soy sauce’, a letter from a daughter, these are the compensations for our choices – or non-choices, enacted in the very language of the story: an ordinary, homely diction most noticeable for its plain-spoken poignancy. And this in itself isn’t a bad answer. It may not even be an unsatisfactory answer. I like the empathy, and the clear-eyed honesty – these qualities were what first drew me to Chan’s writing, and make for a heartfelt story that gently criticises without condemnation. But the story’s placement at the start of the collection, rather than at the end, suggests a tentativeness, a refusal of closure; and the reader is left looking to the rest of the pieces for some development in the dialogue, a new way of seeing, perhaps, or an aesthetic space with room for imagination and change.

And there is certainly some of that. ‘Key Performance Indicators’ satirises standard bureaucratese with deliberately unintelligible consequences; while ‘File > My Scans’ fits a series of gnomic musings into the linguistic structure of a computer filing system. And then there is the delightful whimsy of ‘Trees Don’t Have Midlife Crises’ that segues into a quiet meditation on identity and change. On the whole, though, the collection doesn’t quite take flight. The reader is left with the sense of having been comfortably disturbed, but the sparks of conflict and friction are never allowed to develop into a full-blown conflagration, which, granted, was probably never Chan’s intention in the first place. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder if it is possible to write about smallness and limitation, in a way that transcends, or at least, transforms that limitation, makes it new – and does so in ways that do not sacrifice sense in the process. What to make, for instance, of lines like these?

Say the answer lies
in our denial of this crate; 

Don’t pretend
the lack of dream thinks.

Why ‘crate’, and what is it a metaphor for, and even supposing that the closing of ‘State’ is an abstract, Ashbery-esque comment on how a lack of vision (‘dream’?) is often excused in the name of reason or rationality (‘thinks’?), the suddenly awkward syntax is distracting and not well-integrated with the rest of the poem.

Such awkwardness is, thankfully, confined to only a few of the socio-political pieces in the collection. Where Chan excels, however, is in her sensitive rendering of the personal and familial. And when the personal becomes a lens through which the political is examined, it reveals a subtle, self-questioning poetic sensibility that should, with time, grow in its ability to weigh the world without getting weighed down by the world.