Sunday 31 October 2021

The land remembers: New poetry by Laura Jane Lee and Esther Vincent Xueming

Guest review by Crispin Rodrigues

October was a stellar month for debuts with both Laura Jane Lee’s flinch & air as well as Esther Vincent’s Red Earth published. Both these collections deal with social and cultural memory: what we inherit from those who came before, and how we bear witness to the present. In this, they speak of a new generation of poets who are grappling with their literary lineages, while looking ahead to the concerns of today.


In one of his lectures, James Joyce noted that ‘The Irishman, finding himself in another environment, outside Ireland, very often knows how to make his worth felt’. This could not be far from the truth when reading Laura Jane Lee’s flinch & air (Out-Spoken Press, 2021), which portrays women in exile through its political and familial narratives.

The first half of the collection focuses on the lineage of women in constructing the self, a narrative too often forgotten in family trees since the experience of relocation or displacement is usually presented as a masculine adventure narrative. Here, we see the weaving of poems from the perspective of multiple women related to Lee, and their stories, and the silences around them, have shaped Lee’s experiences as the central protagonist of the collection.

If the poems in the first half are framed within the perspectives of the matriarchs in Lee’s family tree, the voice in the latter part of the collection emerges from their narratives in the section aptly entitled 'Ngo' (or 'I' in Cantonese). In this section, there is an unflinching voice that seeks accountability for the political conditions in Hong Kong. Here, the poems call out among the turbulence of political instability, as seen in a poem like 'all flesh':

mangled joy; 

your singing ache

crooning like a mutilated canary:

all flesh is terrible

Here, there is a strong desire to overcome the turmoil through active participation, to make known the invisible voices of those affected by the violence of the protests – as if to undo the silencing of the characters represented in the book’s first half.

In the book’s closing section, ‘mothering the land’, we are presented with narratives of women who encountered violence when vehemently protesting the Extradition Treaty  in 2019. The three poems in this section possessed a silence reminiscent of the first part of the collection. As a reader who was taken on this journey of self-actualisation, I was actually keen on reading more of the Lee’s own retelling of her experiences of that period of time that would nicely incorporate the autonomy and voice that were developed in the first two parts to provide some sense of finality in the collection.

That being said, I thoroughly enjoyed the multiplicity of perspectives throughout the collection and did not feel a sense of disorientation despite the number of perspectives. As a debut collection, Laura Jane Lee nicely balances oral history and documentation with poetic flair of a seasoned poet, and I look forward for more to come from her.


Esther Vincent’s Red Earth (Blue Cactus Press, 2021) recalls the lineage of ecopoetry, stretching from the Transcendentalist tradition of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson to contemporaries like Joy Harjo. The poems in this collection burrow to seek something deeper flora and fauna, offering a reassessment of our relationship with our natural environment. In that sense, it captures the metaphysical writings of Transcendentalism – how casting an outward eye allows us to look deeper into ourselves.

Through Vincent’s poems, we see pockets of Singapore’s greenery peeking through, offering the author moments of meditation, from the death of a sambar deer in ‘Crossing' and how it leads the speaker to consider the dignity of death, to the Zen silence of 'Little Guilin'. While these poems sit at the meditative heart of the collection, I find that they tend to be less experimentative, with a narrower range of tones as the speaker encounters natural spaces and meditates on the ephemerality of human existence alongside the seeming agelessness of these natural spaces. Similarly, the poems on placemaking tend to be a little repetitive, often contemplating the brevity of experience in a foreign land, and how the speaker attempts to hold that fleeting moment as a point of healing. While there are moments where Vincent pushes the boundaries of form to lend more focus towards ecocriticism in poems such as 'Island city' and 'We have forgotten', I wished there were more instances in which Vincent could push the limits of ecocriticism in the context of Singapore. This is especially considering other recent Ethos publications such as Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene and The Orchid Folios, which have employed innovative lenses to view the detrimental effects of the state on ecology.

The ecopoems are also interspersed with poems about family and lineage, which is where the collection delivers brilliantly. These poems lament what is lost through traditions of compromise to suit an administrated way of life and its pragmatic view on culture. In poems such as ‘Family tree’ and ‘Lost tongue’, Vincent charts her lineage, only to find missing surnames and the inability to speak one’s original language. These poems probe the loss of oneself through gaps in our inheritance, and provide subtle socio-political commentary on state-acceptable losses of cultural spaces. This culminates in the poignant ‘Throw me in the landfill’, where the speaker imagines her cultural memory in two of Singapore’s most well-known landfills:

A city might forget, but the land,

she finds a way to remember.

Here, the cultural history of the demolished kampungs in Pulau Semakau and Pulau Sekang becomes a metaphor for the loss of personal memories of one’s origins, which makes Red Earth a silent memorial to loss of the self to state forces.

Red Earth provokes a revisiting of the purpose of poetry that has been somewhat placed by the wayside – stillness and fragility. The poems within the collection ruminate on the liminal spaces in which nature can be a healing salve to an over-ordered world. While the collection may feel a little predictable at times, I like how it simmers rather than explodes, layering on the earthiness of the poems.


Crispin Rodrigues is a poet, editor and educator. He has three collections of poetry, the most recent being How Now Blown Crow (Math Paper Press, 2021). He is currently working on a novel set in the Jin Yong fictional universe.