Portraits shine in exploration of death and melancholy

By David Fedo

The Bearded Chameleon Chris Mooney-Singh Black Pepper [Australia]/red wheelbarrow books [Singapore] (2011) / 86 pages / SGD20

Chris Mooney-Singh’s new collection of poetry, The Bearded Chameleon, may be the first adult book of published verse in any language whose title poem refers to a lizard (more on that curiosity later). Yet, the best poems in this handsomely produced book are about those creatures at the upper end of the Great Chain of Being—you and me.

Singaporeans have known the affable Mooney-Singh, now in his mid-50s, as the burly, bearded and turbaned Australian convert to Sikhism (he resided for some years in India, and is part of what one reviewer has characterized as the ‘reverse’ diaspora), as well as the indefatigable organizer of and participant in regional poetry slams; the head of the Writers Centre, Singapore and of the now-defunct Writers Connect; a devotee of the ancient musical instrument called the rabab; an anthologizer of Christmas poetry; a widower, now married again; and, most recently, a doctoral student back in his native Australia. However, he has retained his ties to Singapore and launched his new book at the 2011 Singapore Writers Festival. Admirers will recall that Mooney-Singh’s first major work of poetry, The Laughing Buddha Cab Company, was published in 2007.

The Bearded Chameleon, co-published in both Singapore and Australia, is a mostly entertaining and engrossing collection, divided into three parts and comprising 36 poems of varying lengths. Almost all are set entirely in India; Singapore is completely absent. The poems range widely, from sketches of individuals (‘Apartment of a Bombay Millionaire’, ‘Mrs. Pritima Devi’, ‘Advice from an Uncle’, ‘Mr. Chopra’), to landscape portraits (‘Punjab Pastoral’, ‘Abstract Studies with Monsoon Green’, ‘Aubade with Marshland’), and to urban impressions (‘Indian City’, ‘Indian-Made Foreign Liquor’, ‘Indian Standard Time’). Many are relatively short, and readers can hear Mooney-Singh’s colloquial and at times playful voice throughout. Although his subjects are often serious, he seems to be having fun with much of his work, just as I have been told he did in his poetry slam readings. In fact, in the very first poem in his collection, ‘Punjab Pastoral’, we find the poet defecating beside an irrigation canal, where “no mermaid [is] singing”. Undoubtedly, in this anti-pastoral, the mermaid has a good reason to stay away.

Read more