Review: Giving Ground by Theophilus Kwek

This article first appeared on The Oxonian Review website on 24 May 2016, as part of their weekly ORbits feature. It was an absolute pleasure to write, and I’m rather proud of the end result.

‘I want to take you on a journey’. It’s the rallying cry of so many books and articles these days, despite the obvious paradox involved in doing so through the sedentary act of reading. Enter Giving Ground, the third poetry collection from Singaporean poet Theophilus Kwek. It’s a globe-trotting book, with locations as wide-ranging as Singapore, Scotland, America and Oxford, but the overriding theme is one of generosity. Effortlessly flitting between urban observations and national mythologies, Kwek is less interested in ‘taking you on a journey’ than he is in presenting you with a starting point for your own.

British cities crop up throughout the collection, and Kwek is adept at creating a sense of place through typography alone. His poem ‘Edinburgh’, for instance, conveys the absurdly hilly nature of that town through deft word choice and intelligent use of form.

Heart’s geography. Streets beneath streets,
a map let fall on an uneven hill. Right angles
where the same houses open to the bridge
and far below, again at street level.

The lines’ smooth iambic pentameter is shrewdly extended with evocative phrases, ideas appearing at “Right angles” which surprise while remaining thematically consistent. The idea of physical structures extending across different levels is embodied in the poem’s own structure, as thoughts and images recur and expand across the lines. The image of the map draped across a hill is a nice moment of linguistic playfulness, and one of several Kwek manages, like his assertion that the city’s stairs “lead where we are/ inclined”, the line break creating an effective pause before the punchline is delivered, and a frankly glorious pun on “High Street”. It’s a poem which naturally emerges from the geography of Edinburgh while still conveying a distinctive, personal vision.

The city of Oxford also makes multiple appearances. A student at Merton college, Kwek clearly understands the experience of studying here, never resorting to the crass stereotype of The Oxford Student Experience™. ‘Night’ perfectly captures the slightly stilted experience of chatting in the kitchen with a housemate you barely know – “It’s awkward, but it’s fine when we laugh;/ by the time we eat we’ve known each other/ for years.” The poem conveys a sense of understated camaraderie, which, as any frazzled undergraduate will tell you, is essential to surviving in this “eccentric city”. It’s immediately followed by ‘Michaelmas’, a witty and affectionate comparison of Christmas celebrations in Oxford and Singapore.

After the last dinner of term we are asked
what Christmas is like, back home: if there
are seasons, or how early the sun sets. If
it snows.

By turns warm, wistful and sardonic, the poem maps out the liminal space occupied by Singaporean students, “translating ourselves across the interminable/ sea”. Kwek returns to this theme in ‘Weight’, which spins a moving reflection out of a grandmother’s observation that her grandson has gotten thinner during term time, another experience familiar to many: “excess baggage. waving hands at the door/ have lifted us weightless from shore to shore.” The poem itself is vivid and elegant, although the lack of capitalisation starts to grate after a few stanzas.

Singapore comes into its own in the final section, with poems about the country’s founding myth and early history. These entries, while solid, end up feeling like warm-ups for ‘Foreign Relations’, which manages a near-perfect synthesis of personal and political. Figuring Singapore-Malaysian relations through the metaphor of two brothers, Kwek manages some of his finest imagery, describing the dynamic between two nations grown up separately. “I’ll hear your voice/ or you’ll hear mine, the water in the wall/ crackling through our landline like the sea”. The final stanza manages a perfect balance of poignancy and historical awareness, a triumphant climax to the collection overall.

you and I together
in this house, with all the furniture we bought
when good as new, and the plans we made,
to mark the casting-off we knew as birth.

The section’s final poem, ‘Archaeology’ offers a vision of the future “c. 3015”, reworking Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’, as it surveys the remains of a once-mighty city. Kwek finds an analogy between the poet and the archaeologist:

but our pronouncements, lacking precedent
are at best facts we ourselves have spun.
This, after all, is our trade.

It’s a sombre poem, but with a sense of defiant optimism, as the poetic voice seeks to know “what’s done, or what it is we have begun.” As a final statement, it’s damn powerful; the poet offers up old grounds that we might make them new again. Giving Ground is a stylish, thoughtful, thoroughly accommodating book, and boasts a poetic voice as well-read as it is well-travelled. Recommended for anyone with an interest in human geography.

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