Friday, June 12, 2015


I'm approaching the end of William Carlos Williams's In the American Grain. It's a book I've been meaning to read for a long time and on which I've made a couple of false starts previously. The problem is that Dr Williams assumes an awful lot of insider knowledge about American history on the part of the reader and I am sadly lacking in that department. So it's really been a matter of ploughing on even when I know I'm missing a good half of what's going on in the text. Frustrating, but I've tried to enjoy and profit from the fifty percent I think I actually understand. In future, though, I'll stick to the good doc's poetry.

Simultaneously I've been reading some of Alfian Sa'at's plays: Cooling Off Day and the three gay-themed works that make up the Asian Boys Trilogy (in Collected Plays Two from Ethos Books.) In contrast to In the American Grain these proved to be very easy reading indeed and instantly rewarding. The only problem I found with them lay in my uncertainty as to how they were originally staged, especially with regard to Cooling Off Day. This comprises a sequence of monologues based around the last general election held in this Far Place and it's obvious that a crucial part of the experience of the piece as a drama is lost in just having the monologues to read. Having said that, the various speeches functioned in my mind as powerfully suggestive individual poems, which is odd, I suppose, considering that they appear to be transcriptions of interviews with a wide range of Singaporeans about the election and political life on the island in general - so not exactly 'poetic' in the usual sense. But I found them beautifully crafted (even if they aren't) and cunningly placed in relation to each other, adding up to far more than the sum of their parts somehow.

Similarly a sense of craftsmanship underlies the three plays in the Asian Boys sequence. Individual scenes, whilst being effective in themselves, gain immeasurably from the sense of being part of a greater whole as if each comments upon the others, deepening the relentless probing of questions of sexuality and identity. All three plays are underpinned by a deep sense of yearning and a righteous anger over the injustices they tellingly delineate, as well as often being very funny. Not a bad mix! The two sequences that conclude the second play, Landmarks, also managed to be deeply moving, even just on paper. On stage they must have been ferocious in their impact.

Anyway, I'm off back to the last twenty pages of In the American Grain. I refuse to be defeated.

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