Book Review: Vital Possessions by Marc Nair


Reviewed By Mitali Chakravarty

 

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Title: Vital Possessions

Author: Marc Nair

Publisher: Ethos books, Singapore

 

Vital Possessions is a collection of poems, haikus, monologues and photographs by award winning Singaporean poet and photographer Marc Nair. The content reflects the tussle between city life and nature.

Marc Nair takes us on a journey through ASEAN countries — Taiwan, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia and of course Singapore. He finds nature pushing its way through the crevices of city life. In one of his haikus, accompanied by a photograph of a worn out wall with grass growing out of the gaps, he writes,

“Nature never fails

to push against the grain

of forgotten cities.”

When I see the picture and read the lines, what springs to my mind is the St Paul’s church in Malacca, built in 1521, a forgotten church of a bygone era. The monument has vegetation growing out of crevices, which many old buildings would have. However, a sense unique hopefulness is brought to the fore by Marc Nair’s brevity of words to create a picture perfect perspective.

He has poems on gardens in Japan, train rides in Taiwan, villages in Indonesia and life in Singapore. He weaves in his erudition into common daily occurrences to create an unusual play of light and shades on one’s mind. His monologues paint vivid scenes of life in different places. ‘The Last Train’ captures his perception of the last train ride from Singapore to Johor from Tanjong Pagar KTM in 2011.

Part of the work had been created in Gardens by the Bay, Singapore, as the Writer- in-Residence (2015). These poems are his perceptions of nature and man’s manipulation of it, including a poem called ‘O Supertree’, which is shaped like the man made creations in the Gardens by the Bay, a tourist attraction in downtown Singapore. After reading his pieces, one is in a conundrum, wondering if man moulds nature, or nature shapes humans. Perhaps it is a symbiotic process that his poetry settles for as in ‘O Supertree’, where the falling dying leaf could well reflect a person’s plight,

“Should a leaf break away

with impunity, find itself

cast out from the canopy,

 

drifting to the ground, it’ll

brown a little, turn to brittle,

freed from his mechanical gown”

Some of his haikus, invariably accompanied by photographs, make for an interesting read. This one, accompanied by the picture of an empty swing swinging from a lone tree, emanates a fleeting sense of nostalgia.

“From childhood, the weight

of memory keeps an empty

swing in motion”

Another haiku with a photograph of a lone figure sweeping evokes pathos in the reader with its heart-rending realism and rationale.

“Sweeping is lonely

work; constant looking

For the unwanted”

The title of his book is reflected in one of the poems, ‘Selah’ (Hebrew word of unknown meaning but used multiple times in prayer). The poem dwells on what basic possessions are required for survival as against manmade constructs like ‘glory’. It questions the needs of man’s cognitive existence, much in a spirit similar to the best-selling Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. Harari also contends that all manmade constructs are a reflection of our cognisance and therefore alterable.

“Give me vital possessions,

percussions of breath, truthful

foretelling deep in the chest

 

In pockets and cavities

unhallowed by air, silence

unviolenced, seasons of prayer”

My favourite poem in his book is ‘Rasam’ (a spicy Southern Indian soup). It is written for his grandma, a description of her deathbed. The poem is heart-rending in its description. The brevity of words creates a sense of poignancy.

“She does not know

who she sees; no thing

of memory remains, not in

muscle or breath, not in

the taste of rasam lost

beyond her tongue, thin spices

souring over the years of simmering

in a dusty kitchen, morning sun

aging the linoleum, a ‘For Sale’ sign

growing in the yard.”

Marc Nair’s poetry is defined by his unique perceptions of nature and life around him, his unusual usage of words and his erudition. His poetry flows smoothly on the tongue and makes one ponder on relationships between man, nature and life. They are often poignant and introspective, redolent of the heavy, warm weather in Singapore with an inexplicable sense of lingering, reminiscent of a whiff of magnolias; on the other hand, Felix Cheong’s poetry reflects a self-induced play of words and thoughts that can push to create a vibrant idea. Both major poets of Singapore, their poetry paints us glimpses of the diverse colours of this island state.

 

Mitali Chakravarty is a writer and an editor. 

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