Edwin Nadason Thumboo is a poet and academic who is regarded as one of the pioneers of English literature in Singapore. He compiled and edited some of the first anthologies of English poetry and fiction from Singapore and Malaysia, such as
Seven Poets: Singapore and Malaysia, The Second Tongue: An Anthology of Poetry from Malaysia and Singapore, and the Anthology of ASEAN Literatures: The Poetry of Singapore. Thumboo has won the National Book Development Council of Singapore Book Award for Poetry three times. He has also received the inaugural S.E.A. Write Award (1979), the first Cultural Medallion for Literature (1979), the ASEAN Cultural and Communication Award (Literature) (1987), and the Raja Rao Award (2002) for contributions to the literature of the Indian Diaspora. He was conferred a Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Star) in 1981 with an additional Bar in 1991, the Pingat Jasa Gemilang (Meritorious Services Medal) in 2006, and the Suthorn Phu Award in 2013. An Emeritus Professor of the National University of Singapore, he has held visiting professorships and fellowships at universities in the USA, UK and Australia.
Epiphany in SG [i]
You chose, my Lord, a manger,
That lowliest place of all,
Arriving in the grip of winter,
To redeem us from the Fall.
In stillness, adoring Infinite Love,
Bare-chest shepherd to the triple wise,
Composes a story, much retold, in song,
In art. Keep it true, as we contextualise,
According to our world, our images,
Concerted by the power of Your grace,
My Christ. Faith spread as the Jordan Dove
Soared, and flew, through time and space.
Gaze and meditate. The walls dissolve,
Leaving only colour and radiant light
Around the advent of my Saviour,
Who succours morning, noon and night.
Wisely knowing, three journeyed from afar.
Braving ice and fire, pushed by certainty,
Skirting hazards and Herod’s sinful cunning,
They carried gifts for your Nativity.
See Mary frocked in neat-stitched blue,
Joseph his quiet, usual self. Sheep and goats;
Adoring shepherd; girl held by joyous wonder;
Figures from our history, in familiar coats.
An angel, golden curled, hands folded,
Wings firmly spread, guards our Lord.
In the yearly spinning of the world,
This season, surely, is sanctified by God.
Mother, and Child.
Pure and perfect.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,
dona nobis pacem, [ii]
Now and forevermore, ever more.
i: By Richard Walker. National Gallery Singapore.
ii: ‘Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, grant us peace’. This is derived from John 1:29 where John the Baptist hails Jesus: ‘Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world’.
Jonathan before Gilboa
I live the shadow of two lives: Father’s…
David’s… King… Brother… my necessities.
I face our final enemy. Yet you who beget
Me, are still my deadly pain. One face love,
The other hate. How they bite each other! Only
Once you sought to punish me. Yet I suffered
You psyched up tribes to cut down
Philistines, and break their cities’ trusty bones,
The spirit of their gates. Yet snuggled Micha, us
Boys, on your lap. Kissed. Showed nightmares off
Or squeezed them into dreaming. Kept doing right
With God, family and world. Blessed and praised.
Then you disobeyed.
Thereafter love leapt into frenzied raving terror.
Griped and shook and bounced off walls and joists.
Your tormented spirit writhed, coiled, soothed
Only by that one harp. Yet hurled your spear at
Him. Imposed code and law without circumstantial
Mercy, second chance. Yet rashly ignored God’s
Will in Samuel’s precise caring crucial admonitions.
Impatience burnt that offering not yours to light.
Thus withered those sublime promises in your
Anointing, in that blaze of bright beginnings.
You made history; it marred you.
And David, poor David whose God-led heart
Slew Goliath, hid from mounting praise plowing
Poison into unwonted suspicious royal jealousy.
Our souls are knit. He would be hunted. I saved
My sister’s man, a man of God, a man of people.
A man of coming days. The chosen one. I knew,
Through love, and walked more willingly behind
Nobility, rough holiness, feeling comely gentleness.
He will lead, not me, who strikes hard, speaks soft.
My veins of pain lived overlong in turbulence.
Night falls. I have no shadows left. Only that empty
Hush dallying with death before battle. I yearn for still
Waters and that perfect Garden walk at Eventide. Sela.
"Jonathan before Gilboa" was first published in A Gathering of Themes by
Edwin Thumboo (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2018).
St. Francis Xavier
High born, you faced turbulence from first
Days. That red horseman galloped; your
Father died. A brother pushed a failed revolt.
Lands taken and Xavier Castle brought down
To a widow's mite. But tragic loss double-forged
Will, resolve. And faith, our first, our last resort.
Soul and spirit know no bounds when touched.
God mapped you, blessing through love and grace.
Moved to save, transforming at appointed times.
Who but Him?
College in Paris was prayers away. Peaceful.
You roamed, graduating among philosophers.
Befriended Pierre, then Ignatius whose repeated
Question recruited you co-SJ founder. With four
Others, vowed poverty, chastity, obedience in a wee
Montmartre chapel. Surely His hand again. Never
Stopped preparing for His call, digesting Church
Fathers and Marulic’s great work that tidied kings.
Added second words to faith’s stout reasoning,
Suasive power, to surge our Gospel. Years later,
Nagasaki side, his chapters were in Japanese.
Who but you?
The first Jesuit mission, east to India, Apostolic
Nuncio, you came to save eroding compatriots
Sliding the way of dark ambition, avarice, revenge,
Debauchery. You re-enkindled the Commandments,
Embraced a new yet ancient land, as Christ’s all in
All, labouring for His Kingdom. Every step, every
Hoist of sail, every storm you calmed, every port,
Every town and village, every sermon, every heart
You changed, every reach of coast, every language
Wrestled with, brought you closer to His way.
The Holy Spirit in little daily acts: a kind look, quick
Helping hand, entering humble homes, mending
Distress and sickness in prison, hospital, the leprous.
Lame. Taught, ordained multiplied the harvesters,
Walking the streets calling children to catechism.
After two years, journeyed south, baptising, raising
Churches, visited Ceylon, then Mylapore, Thomas
The Apostle’s tomb, a hallowed moment blessing
Journeys to come, to all corners of your parish,
Malacca, Maluku, Ambon, Ternate, up to Japan.
You worked two years 24-7 with mixed success.
Satsuma was friendly but within a year forbade
Conversion. No Kyoto audience with the Emperor:
The times disturbed by war, blocked the Way.
There was Cathay. You dreamed, headed and died.
Moved to St Paul’s, Formosa, your remains
Overlooked the Malacca Straits Sequeira recced,
The settlement Albuquerque captured. That you
Shook off its dust is peninsular memory. They
Took them, uncorrupted, in piety to Bom Jesus,
Now housed in Silver, Medici Cosimo’s gift, within
The mausoleum Foggini the Florentine designed.
These echoes of Portugal and her Europe, speak
Side by side with scenes from the stations of your
Pilgrimage, moments of joy, anguish, adoration.
I have stood before your empty tomb, with friends,
Or alone, long years ago. Before I came to Him, you
Were in Portuguese 101. The Settlement venerated,
Prayed for intercession, in grey, diminishing times,
Rampaging politics, loss of heritage. For they cried
Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka! at the foot of your hill.
Later I felt, such is belief, your sandal’s footfalls,
Hands ringing the angelus, your thoughts lighting
Candles, sharing His blood and body. Yet I kept
From you. Perhaps the moment had not come. It will,
This December, when I share the pilgrimage around
Brother Joseph McNally
(for Venka Purushotaman)
I. You came out of Irish Mist.
Years ago, by a Celtic
Cross where three paths met, its swirling cold suddenly
Gripped me. I felt ethereal voices in high mood. Perhaps
Of those betwixt Earth and Heaven, who shared the ways
Of gods and men, goddesses and women: Tuath De Danann,
The Sidhe, Cu Chulainn and Finn. They knew the rush and
Ample fury of dauntless places. Forged love and hate. Sought
Truce among inland waters. Blazed monumental deeds into
Heroic Twilight that sang tragic gaiety into myth.
You, Bro. Joe,
Who loved Christ and Cross, knew them outside in.
They spark willing imaginings. Stir in mine. Surely
Quicken robustly in yours to fuse your making. I
Have La Cha and Hanuman aka Wu Kong. They ride
The elements. Gesture, speak, adding lineage to my
Telling. Yours in wood, distilled ore; those speckled
Glitters in a rock, all Bible-touched. Mine through
Metaphors adventuring in textures interlacing texts.
Piety, hope, upliftment: La Salle Brothers crossed
The farthest seas to teach to uplift those deprived.
You came East, ministering across The Causeway,
Then here, between stints in Dublin, Rome, New York.
Deepened as you taught, painted, sculptured. Kept Faith
With Him, and the Brotherhood’s outreach. You tugged
Ideas into programmes, grew the beautiful among us,
Stimulating Art and Rasa to choreograph and multiply
Worlds of colour and form, sound and mood.
You coaxed intent into St Pat’s Arts Centre, then grew
A Fine Arts School that morphed in a College. Forged
Vision into edifice. Foreseeing the way ahead, designed
An educative poetics. It sensed our cultures, set free a
Spirit-energy. Still enthused, it mills and gathers beyond
McNally Street and McCampus. From Barbra’s office, I
See LaSalle-SIA wings glide SG skies, sip Michelle’s double
Teh tarik, then breathe the deep silences of Malar’s library.
By our growing Tribe,
Each July, that variable Poetry [i]
Four languages share
II. I am from Ireland.
Had transported me to her: The Key Above the Door
And, Green Rushes. ‘The Quiet Man’ starring J Wayne
And Maureen O helped me meet some folks who say I
Am a dreamer. The Black and Tans’ systematic cruelty
Brought Batang Kali back, making your past, my present.
Linked by a coloniser. I found 1166 and its thereafter;
A bardic history; Danny Boy plus Mother Machree, all for
A fledging poet’s journeying.
As one of us, you understood,
Giving your all, you who so loved County Mayo’s colossal
Cliffs, her Atlantic roar, her glens’ rich trove of bygone
Days, as skirling pipes floated seasonal moods that knew
Long oppression, now liberated into fine, new signifiers.
I am of this Island too.
So you were.
Remote sensing compacted time and distance as you
Adapted, as it rearranged Irish memories which inspired
And fed your final SG mission. More equinox, less solstice.
Here trees burst green, your ancestral shade. Two monsoons
Rule; hot or hotter; wet or wetter.
Yet, half the world away,
Beneath the fever and the fret, cool air-con hum, around every
Corner, fresh HDB estate, the buzz of infrastructure, high-tech
Start-ups, proclaim SG’s march.
We share cyclic moods of Earth, Water,
Air, and the Fire of the sun. Here is your place, art, your life.
I am God’s creation, you said, as much as is the tree struck
by lightning. I therefore work closely and in harmony with
Nature. I seek my inspiration there and in The Bible. [ii]
Duties left you
Crumbs of time.
Sculpture demanded months before a mouth looked cool,
On the verge of speech. A special utterance. And ergs before
A hand, ample with grace, could command surrounding space.
Even the little ones, released from a great bog oak, sapped much [iii]
Before finality. As Emeritus, you were free, at last. In hands
That knew years of delay, the torch cut, welded, fussed and fused.
Power tools chipped off granite in a jiffy, mixed epoxy, merged
Colours, syllables, polished, burnished A Terrible Beauty, A Flash
of Lightning, Wind of the Spirit, Lord of Heaven and Earth,
Flower, Poet, Here to Infinity, Banyan Tree, and Holy Spirit,
All enshrined in SG, all your many journeys,
Now starting ours into the
Infinity of Art.
i: The annual Poetry Fest SG, each July, inaugurated in 2015.
ii: ‘My life has been dedicated to education with little time for my art. Only in the last couple of years have I had a chance to develop my sculpture. Hence I see this particular exhibition as an indication of my maturity as a sculptor.’ Artist’s Statement, 24 September 1996, in A Flash of Lightning: Recent Sculpture, Brother Joseph McNally, exhibition programme, Dr Earl Lu Gallery, 3-20 October 1996, LASALLE-SIA College of the Arts, 90 Goodman Road, Singapore 439053.
iii: ‘When I had gone to Corroon’s Dysert bog in early ’99 to select some pieces for Singapore, Michael Corroon showed me this unusual trunk of an ancient tree and said it was oak… I had it strung up by chain hoist... Then after several weeks of observation, I began to cut it with a chainsaw, at first in chunks, suggested by drying cracks in the grain. From these I got smaller pieces…’. Of the eight of them, Poet is of special interest. ‘I worked the lower part first, and I opted for some “garment” more related to the Roman toga rather than the Celtic trewes... However I proceeded very slowly with the neck and head. It could ultimately be a male or female form. It was finally the Adam’s apple that determined masculinity... By now it was becoming clear that the figure suggested some kind of deep emotion or agony. So I accented it with a gaping mouth. But what were the arms and ample chest doing? I decided to let them continue struggling under the toga. The agony was that of poetic or lyrical creativity. Hence the name.’ (Italics added.) East, West, North, South: Brother Joseph McNally, Curated and Exhibited by Cooney/McNally Gallery. p. 24. Nd.
Tragic Gaiety: Briefly, the phrase sums up that coping with the mood of deep pessimism generated by the unfolding political polarisation and conflict in Ireland in the period leading to WWI and the subsequent struggle culminating in an independent Ireland, Eire, in Dec 1937. It has been applied to W B Yeats’ last phase. The treatment of the theme is best exemplified in ‘Lapis Lazuli’ (1936) which was inspired by a large Chinese carving he had received as a gift. See for instance this or this.
Hannuman & La Cha: Known for his role as King of the monkeys in The Ramayana, Hannuman is thought to have influenced the later characterisation of Wu Kong, an important figure in Chinese mythology where his exploits share the disruptive but creative spirit of La Cha. The best-known account of his exploits is Arthur Waley’s 1942 abridged translation of Monkey: A Folk-Tale of China, by Wu Cheng’en (1504-1582). See this and this.
LaSalle College of the Arts: Founded by Brother Joseph McNally in 1984 and starting with 27 students, the College was renamed LaSalle-SIA a year later when Singapore Airlines donated SG$15 million to expand its campus. With the two buildings being planned (2017), the College embarked on a new phase of growth, with all its facilities, Schools, Departments and programmes centralised.
The Causeway: Popular name for the Singapore-Johor Bahru Causeway which was officially opened in June 1924.
Maurice Walsh: I used to haunt the secondhand bookshops along Bras Basah Road. Once they knew you bought, you could browse. I picked up The Key Above the Door and Green Rushes, a collection of stories that included 'The Quiet Man', which was made into the film starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. On 12th December 1948, soon after the start of the Malayan Emergency, 24 unarmed men who had been separated from their families, were gunned down by automatic fire. There was only one survivor. He had fainted and been thought dead. See this.
‘Your past, my present./Linked by a coloniser.’: On an extended drive in 1980 that took in most of Yeats country, I was told more than once that the Lt Gen Percival who surrendered Singapore to Lt Gen Tomoyuki Yamashita, had been in Ireland between the wars. There ‘He gained a reputation for brutality against republicans and the IRA put a bounty of £1000 on his head. There were two unsuccessful attempts on Percival’s life.’ (Excerpted from here.)
Ann Ang is best known as the author of Bang My Car (2012), a Singlish-English collection of short stories. She has just published her first collection of poetry,
Burning Walls for Paper Spirits (2021), and is also a co-editor of the literary anthologies Poetry Moves (2020) and Food Republic (2020).
Ringed by high-rise apartments
stands the convent at only four storeys,
white-washed and capped by dun-tiled roofs
with wooden shutters folded against the sun.
Behind the times, some might say,
these cool, columned corridors.
Beneath thought, the many feet
passing and repassing over smoothened tiles.
Beneath breath, this nominal relic
of a crucifix in every room.
Beneath sight, a street sign
to which we’re respectfully blind
until we meet grief amidst
the headstrong business of living,
which like a ridged medallion
burns hot against the palm
and finds behind the years
the folding of prayerful hour into hour.
Almost beneath memory
are words thumbed over beads
enclosing and disclosing a child
for whom the tedium of Sundays
is quick salve for faithlessness.
Above the convent, we live in apartments
unroofed by the heavens.
After Sundays, the church dome rises
in white silence. Hours pass southwards,
washing the sky with bells.
A priest sits in his windowless office
from container cranes at Keppel port:
steel pulleys in sun-raised shrieks
heaving barnacled lucre; the weight
of sea-travel lifted and dropped
by scalloped behemoths. Cheek by
jowl by jaw, ocean cargo screech
and groan, under horns of rust.
These wounded dragons
have fallen from the clouds and
the largesse of space. He wonders
at what he hears, where
he sits, and who he is
to be opening
this small door in his heart.
"Keppel Port" was first published in Burning Walls for Paper Spirits (2021).