Seas Move Away, a poetry collection by Joanne Leow, traverses a maritime landscape, as it reflects on life in exile from the post-colonial nation state of Singapore. In her first collection, Leow deftly ponders the life of a Singaporean exile.
For most people, Singapore is known for the intersections of histories that have brought Chinese, Malaysians and South Asians diasporas to a city state that is heavy with the long arm of British colonialism. Post-independence Singapore is also known for its authoritarian laws regarding the freedom of association and the freedom of the press. For much of its post-independence, the ruling party - the People’s Action Party - has ruled this maritime city state with a restrictive legislative agenda. The agenda is aimed at the control of the population and its political affiliations and mobility in congregating together to protest the government’s nationalist agenda. Meanwhile, for most of the civilian population, there is affluence there and a well-established middle class.
The poetry collection is comprised of six sections, each section grouped under maritime descriptions such as Tides As Waves, the first section. Beginning this book is a poem titled National Day and it explores through compressed verse the various departure moments of a lived life. The poem is addressed to an anonymous “to you” and proceeds to explore themes of exile, melancholic return, citing the “non-citizens” that are in and out of borders and to those who “saw everything and nothing”. The poem is written completely in small case offering a fluidity of words that run down the page in spare verse with the continuous repetition of the subject to who this poem is written to; known only as P.
Leow also explores the landscape of Singapore, in the poem Eden: Gardens by the Bay, Singapore, a seven-poem sequence on the development of an idyllic park and vertical garden structure. The focus of the poem is a critique on the material development of this space and buildings and the labour it took to complete the tourist attraction. Here “exotic flowers and transplanted shrubs” serve as a metaphor for the migrant labourers who helped build the place where “brown hands” are employed. In the poem Conservatories, Leow explores the material aspects of one of Singapore’s tourism highlights – the Gardens By the Bay – a garden on reclaimed land covering 100 hectares. While tourism snapshots make this a must see during one’s time in Singapore, Leow looks at the materials for creating such a conservatory that takes up 2.8 hectares of land.
The collection looks to frame a perspective of the authoritarian legislation that restricts lives in Singapore. In When Power Applies to Behaviour the poem begins with a reference to a piece of legislation on restricting the citizenry. Leow again through constricted verse shapes a protest. This is a powerful voice speaking to a response to legislative authoritarianism:
I obstruct, I hinder, I impede
I am disorderly, indecent, offensive
The use of capitals in referring to the self (I) grounds the poem in disruption where even the idea of being in a public space could be cause for police harassment. Leow funnels her anger in this poem towards the ubiquitous presence of the regime.
In the next poem Public Order (Includes) Leow asks
Where is this regulated place
Where is this unrestricted area
Can I give you advance notice
The poem alludes to one particular law that requires a person to seek an approval from police services to congregate in public spaces in a group; a law that ultimately stifles the ability of people to gather together on any given public issue.
Many of the poems in this section reference specific legislation at the beginning of each poem. The thematic of repression continue throughout this section of the book touching on issues of how elections are conducted, who can use a “loudspeaker” or cannot, or the kinds of sentencing regimes which apply if one is convicted of being a protestor.
In Foreshore’s Act, Singapore, the reader is provided a lesson in how to write a poem based on government legislation. This is almost a documentary poem but with a lyrical beauty that Loew deploys as her intervention amidst government language. Through the poem we are opened to not just the subsummation of the land, but the historical time line of colonial government. Leow uses precise liquid living language to speak to the colonial appropriation of land. The terrains of landscape sweeps across the page as Leow so wonderfully uses the page to recreate this landscape.
The poem introduces us to all aspects of how land is confiscated, but not just land, even “ports, quays, wharves and jetties” are owned and can be “jettison(ed) in to the sea.” The use of line breaks that cascade across the page emulates both sea waves and continental drift in connection to the poet’s own voice pacing the individual in an act if disruption and dissent. The use of tactile language and the multitude of nouns to identify aspects of the landscape and the poet’s relationship to it, draws us into an intimacy of what an authentic connection to land can be. In the fifth stanza the deeply personal breaks in to a form of a legislative poem, call out the interconnectedness of the human body to the “coral, stone, clay, sand, gravel, brine, petroleum [and] mineral oil;” as a metaphor for who should this land belong to; and in the last line we are provided a call to revolution – “of our power, our right, our territory.”
Leow’s mastery of linguistic disruption offers the reader a frame to engage and interrogate land ownership within the colonial and post-colonial moment, and she does this with a muscular use of vibrant words.