Edwin Thumboo

Contributor Biography

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 MalaysiaThe 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.

 Our Lord,

                     Our Christ,

                                            Our Saviour,

 Hallowed,

                      Loving,

                                      Pure and perfect.  

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,

            dona nobis pacem[ii]

Now and forevermore, ever more.

                                                            Amen. 

Author's Note:

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

Rendingly.

            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.

Author's Note:

"Jonathan before Gilboa" was first published in A Gathering of Themes by

Edwin Thumboo (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2018).

St. Francis Xavier

I.

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?

 

II.

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.

 

III.

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

 

Bom Jesus.

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.

                                                                     Mission-led,  

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.

 

                                   Pushed

                         By our growing Tribe,

                  Each July, that variable Poetry [i]

                                Returns. Hear

                          Four languages share

                                   One spirit.

II.          I am from Ireland.

                Maurice Walsh

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.

Author's Note:

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

Contributor Biography

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).

The Convent

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.

Keppel Port

After Sundays, the church dome rises

in white silence. Hours pass southwards,

washing the sky with bells.

A priest sits in his windowless office

listening

               to confessions

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.

Author's Note:

"Keppel Port" was first published in Burning Walls for Paper Spirits (2021).