Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty
Title: B-Sides and Backslides: 1986-2018
Author: Felix Cheong
Publisher: Math Paper Press by Books Actually
B-Sides and Backslides is the award-winning Singaporean poet Felix Cheong’s collection panning the development of his poetry from 1986 to 2018. In the foreword, the poet writes, ‘These are pieces which… could not find their place in my published volumes.’ The title alludes to ‘the flipsides’ of his poetry. He compares them to the B-Sides of Beatles’ albums, which often had songs that were really interesting but not top of the charts. They remain an interesting part of a creative process. However, he claims that he has not ‘blackslid even if it might appear so,’ and in that spirit, his poetry touches our lives with its humour and variety.
The book is divided into different periods of his development as a poet. In “Juvenalia”, the section tracing his development as a poet for the first nine years, he says, ‘In various voices and versions, I have been trying to rewrite Prufrock the past thirty years…’ However, through the course of his poetry we can see how he transcends the torpor of the procrastinating Prufrock (“Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, T. S. Eliot, 1910) and the angst generated by Hollow Men (T. S. Eliot, 1925) to become a caricaturist of Singapore life, politics and culture. In “We are the Salarymen”, with an epigraph of the first two lines of Hollow Men, he concludes,
We maybe the hollow men,
but the least we own
is our honesty to know
we have the means to fill
and fulfil this emptiness,
stuffed fool and full of yourself,
little more than moans and bones
on a high horse galloping
with the weight of a lost world.
As one reads these lines, one wonders if Felix Cheong is ascending the ties he had developed with poetry written to express the disillusionment of the early twentieth century and the First World War to finally move towards his true identity as a bard of Singapore and beyond. He journeys from Singapore to the bars of Australia through different experiences to evolve as a powerful writer bringing Singaporean flavours to the world. He laces his poems with a brilliant tinge of humour. In “A New Singlish Dictionary”, he writes,
Foreign like ping pong
Mixed like lontong
Sticky like lormee
Stuck like MRT
Cheap like JB
Missing like Taxi
Fly like COE
Ambush like ERP
Tense like PSLE
Hopeful like SDP
Moody like WP
Cry like PM Lee
He is skilled in his use of Singlish (Singaporean English) words to capture the essence of what many Singaporeans would identify with. The Singaporean obsession with acronyms is well illustrated in this poem. Its rhythm and rhyme accentuate the feel of what the words convey and it would be hard not to laugh with him at our own idiosyncrasies.
He has brilliant tongue-in-cheek poems about local leaders and political processes. Given the open climate that is being mooted in Singapore literature currently, his poetry would make for excellent humour. Kate Griffin from UK (National Council of Writing associate programme director) noted in a recent essay, ‘Most of the newspaper reports noted that it was the second time in a row that the Singapore Literature Prize has gone to a novel that challenges the established narratives of Singapore’ (https://nationalcentreforwriting.org.uk/article/erasing-histories/ ).
Felix Cheong’s poetry is in the same spirit as these award-winning novels.
His later poetry ascends the burden of erudition to become verses that can be enjoyed by all Singaporeans in coffee shops and in universities. He speaks in the universal language of the heart and of indulgent laughter. His humour makes us rollick with its punch lines and realism.
Some of his poems are more philosophical. Poems like “Nothingness Is Poetry Too”, “The Place You Left Behind”, “Moonlight”, “Face Paint”, “Words” explore different aspects of life and his perceptions. “A Surreal Dream” is an early take on Salvador Dali that explores automatic writing. Some of them are to do with icons like David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Robin Williams and some are in response to comments made by celebrities and current events. Most of his poetry takes up issues faced by the common man. A poem called “Attitude Problems” illustrates the perspectives of a ‘Nihilist’ and an ‘Optimist’. His poems are easy to understand and contribute to cathartic laughter. He is truly the voice of the people in Singapore and his poetry is fun to read for all, from eight to eighty.
The most delightful element of his poetry is his ability to laugh at himself, not just mock institutions and critique them. The positive energy in his poetry courses through the words he weaves together. As Chris Mooney-Singh, the Australian born poet, aptly writes, ‘Felix Cheong’s hugely entertaining B-Slides and Backslides reminds that the best poets are polymorphs who sing in many tongues to their milieu and also beyond it.’ In that spirit, his poetry continues to celebrate different phases of living and life. Unlike the world of his idol T. S. Eliot’s Hollow Men that ends ‘Not with a bang but a whimper’, his world thrives with a zest for living and humour.
Mitali Chakravarty writes essays, short stories, poetry and reviews. Her bylines have appeared in The Times of India, Pioneer, Statesman and Hindustan Times. Her poetry has appeared as part of two anthologies, In Reverie (2016) and An Anthology of Indian Poetry in English (1984). She has a book online, In the Land of Dragons (2014, ISBN; 978-1490704333). She blogs at 432m.