Wednesday 5 October 2022

Aphrodisiac Foods From Distant Lands: Tse Hao Guang on Jay Gao's 'Imperium'

Editor's note: Pardon the overlong hiatus in the poetry column – which can be attributed to my having been on reservist training for the latter half of September. We return this month with an incisive review of a keenly-anticipated new Carcanet collection, by the Singapore poet Tse Hao Guang (previously featured here). 

The Chinese love our imperial imagery. We feel good surrounded by gold, and dragons, and jade. The more expensive our restaurants are, the more they try to recreate the feeling of an emperor’s banquet hall or pleasure garden. This is to say that there are many different empires spanning time and space, that different peoples have different relationships to the ideas of empire, and, in fact, a total rejection of the imperial seems to be a distinctly contemporary tendency. Indeed, the word imperium has come to mean more than simply “absolute power”, and could also refer to legal authority, as well as power derived from wealth, political office, or religious influence.

Jay Gao’s debut, so-named, promises poetry that disturbs singular ways of looking at or dealing with power. Imperium’s references and touchstones range across time and space (from Angkor Wat to Odysseus to the Vietnam war), admirably managing to reckon with such an epic sweep of ideas through the lens of the lyric “I” (disguised, sometimes, as the lyric “you”), in a relatively slim volume of poems. The best of these escape the ponderousness of their ideas and flow through the touchstones and contexts, emerging as artifacts in their own right rather than commentaries.

Another review has noted the hotels and hotel bars that run through the book, rewriting Odysseus’s maritime voyages into mass tourism, his exile and heros journey into something more incidental and self-deprecating: “…I felt like such a nobody” (“Hostis”). As Gao’s speaker says: “I hitch my pity / onto the mosquito trapped under the cling film / of this exotic dragon fruit salad” (“Hostis”). There is no grandeur in exile. Instead, the exiled is an annoying, insubstantial, sometimes dangerous insect, often filled with mixed blood. The “I” claims powerlessness, even as it betrays a desire to leave its “red archipelago of bumps rising irritant”, its buzzing “that weal in the fossa of your ear” (“Nobody”). Even if they cannot command canonical status, Gao’s words still seek the power to make one scratch and slap, and occasionally fall very, very ill.

One itchy spot that deserves attention is the idea of the “exotic”. This seemingly unnecessary description of the mosquito’s dragon fruit salad trap suggests that the speaker objectifies himself to a degree. In “Nobody”, the speaker lies to his lover, pretending not to know Greek or how to pronounce “ekphrasis”: “Yet, you must admit, occasionally, you did masturbate to that shame, to replicating an exotic unknowability in your performances…”. This made me wonder if self-exoticisation could be, in contrast or addition to the usual charge of being self-degrading, an act of self-preservation or self-love.

Later in “Nobody”, the speaker confesses to feeling aroused by Greek statues in a way he never had or could have been by the Chinese Terracotta Warriors, whose bodies were “too minor and anonymous”. In fact, the speaker prefers his Greek statues white, rather than with their “original paint”. Self-degradation reemerges in a love for neither ancient Greek nor Chinese culture, but for the ways we have willfully misinterpreted or “leached” the ancient. The “exotic” ends up being the inauthentically made-up or stripped off, “camp colonial fodder” rather than any real or particular cultural difference. 

The contemporary hero of Imperium derives his authority from being both inconsequential and impossible to ignore like a mosquito, from being fake and admitting as much. This paradoxical relinquishing and retaining of power is enacted in the two poems both titled “Body Sonnet”, which gripped and loosened me. The poems were doing things with language different from the dominant narrative mode: “Re-open time like the cloche on our / earbuds pressing themselves in / dream-brought”. It was as if I had fallen into another book altogether, a book recording the dreamscapes of the book titled Imperium.

Then, looking closely at the acknowledgements, I found that Gao’s “Body Sonnets” were “drafted via a Travesty Generator…. [an] algorithmic scrambling tool”. It felt almost embarrassing to have found these poems the best or most interesting, as if I had slighted Gao, even knowing that he reworked the machine’s draft. Procedurally-generated but fresh, playing with the idea of the real and the virtual, the "Body Sonnets” extend Gao’s play with power into the very style and syntax of his lines. Embedded in this procedure is a comment on how the mediating algorithm has already emerged as a new form of power, one sometimes seen as practically total.

There are other things I noticed about Imperium that deserve some attention. I admire long poems or poem sequences done well, and those here (both “Body Sonnets”, “Nobody”) rose to the challenge. Conversely, some of the shorter poems exhibited the slightly baffling formal tic of separating the last word of each line from the others with a space (“The Fig”, “Beeswax”, “Seeing Man (I)”, etc..), which I found needlessly distracting. Perhaps there is a significance to this move I have entirely missed. And of course, the central narrative of the speaker and his unnamed lover, which I thought was at its core a device to explore the exilic and the exotic.

Here in Singapore, there is a strand of cooking passed down from the Hainanese, who in colonial times learnt British food from being hired as cooks or house help. Eventually the British left and many Hainanese set up restaurants and coffeeshops selling localised versions of what has come to be called “Western food”. Now, imagine the Overseas Singaporean Unit (non-Singaporeans, it’s real, it engages our often twice-removed diaspora) sending the best Western food cooks to London for Singapore Day (also real!), to satisfy our craving for good ol’ Hainanese pork chop rice (the dish is real, but I’m not sure if the craving is). That’s what Imperium tastes like to me: “The buffet table mewls underneath steel platters of aphrodisiac foods shipped from distant lands” (“Nobody”).


Tse Hao Guang (谢皓光) is the author of The International Left-Hand Calligraphy Association (Tinfish Press, 2023) and Deeds of Light (Math Paper Press, 2015), the latter shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize. He is a 2016 fellow of the University of Iowa's International Writing Program, and the 2018 National Writer-in-Residence at Nanyang Technological University. His poems appear in Poetry, Poem-a-Day, Dreginald, Tammy, New Delta Review, Pain, Minarets, Big Other, Entropy and elsewhere.

Photo: Daryl Qilin Yam