Sightlines: How Marc Nair “sees the world in a grain of sand”, much in the tradition of William Blake
Book Review by Kaiyi Tan
Author: Marc Nair
Photographer: Tsen-Waye Tay
Publisher: Math Press, 2019
I must first confess that I did not like Sightlines when I first read it. As I absorbed this book of poems with photography by Marc Nair and Tsen-Waye Tay, I couldn’t help but feel that a certain song-like lyricism was missing. Usually, my first instinct is to judge verses based solely on the quality of sound alone. Meaning can be secondary, as long as the words form a particular harmony. Knowing that Marc Nair is an established poet in Singapore with a huge reputation for spoken word, I was slightly disappointed.
But on my second reading, something very simple happened.
I followed the recommendation in Mr. Nair’s introduction: I read the poems with the images in mind. And suddenly, like Blake’s experience of seeing a world in a grain of sand, the entire book changed for me. Mr. Nair’s words, together with the stark and beautiful photography of Ms. Tay, emerged as mini-narratives of their own.
Sightlines takes on the perspective of an unnamed wandering photographer, who is a combined consciousness of the two creators. Like a diary, each poem is a secret observation of the world as she sees it. What each poem lacks in lyricism is greatly overcome by the tight bonding between the imagery of the words and the pictures. Consider “Four at Wuḍūʾ”, a poem consisting of four short haiku-like stanzas lined up side by side under a landscape photo of four men facing a wall. Each stanza contains musings of the men’s hidden lives, the inner spaces that are unseen to the naked eye. Like a flawless tango, Ms. Tay’s photograph invites us to look, before Mr. Nair’s words draws us into the world that is beneath the surface. While the previous statement might seem to make light of Ms. Tay’s contribution, you can be assured that it is furthest from the truth. Her spartan imagery teases our imagination with a world that lies beyond, before Mr. Nair’s words delivers promise. A lesser photograph might tempt us with overt style and content, which would then gorge our imagination with too much information and leave little space for the poem to work with.
It is Ms. Tay’s simplicity and Mr. Nair’s depth that each poem contains a “unity of effect”, according to applying the term coined by Edgar Allan Poe loosely. The photograph speaks to the eye, while the words connect with the heart.
The narratives not only examine the inner spaces of people, but also how they live in relation to the physical spaces around them. The poem “Profile” is paired with the image of a lion statue with the shadow of a man crouching beside it.
The lion was looking away the moment
the image was made. He would always regret
this, his contemplative side was never his best,
his jawline looking more regular than regal
Never just an observer, the photo-poetic consciousness realises a certain affinity with the inanimate figure, bridging the gap with:
But she loves this pensive state, reminder
of her own heart, too often on the ramparts
Not all musings are deep and pensive. Sightlines acknowledges the spectrum of human emotions, even the lighter ones. Humour is celebrated in the poem “Monument”, where the photographer catches sight of a man sunbathing by the river. In the foreground is the Eiffel Tower. With a cheeky poem bordering on voyeurism, the photographer imagines that a slight shift in her camera’s lens could empower the man with a towering virility that reaches the heavens.
While the poems themselves are packed with delectable ideas and powerful images, I can’t help but wonder if they could have benefited with more lyricism. The power of the book comes from the combined strength of poetic imagery with photography. But I don’t believe the words retain their full effect if read on their own or without the photography. This issue is more apparent in the pieces which describe more generic figures or situations. “The Fighter”, a poem about a Muay Thai combatant, does not elicit any emotional depth or insight compared to some of the poems mentioned above. The descriptions are more straightforward, which is not necessarily a bad thing if there is a certain melody ingrained into each poem.
Other poems like “House Music”, that locates the photographer in a dim house party in which she fails to reach out to a man she is interested in, sounds more like the sketching of a short story than a poem. I’ve seen Mr. Nair’s spoken word performances and perhaps, they need to be delivered with a certain gusto unique to him. But not all readers will (or want to) appreciate poetry in that way. Hence, those who wish to pick up this book need to understand the author’s background and intention before they can fully unlock its depth.
Mr. Nair is an artist with a background in poetry and photography based in Singapore. A recipient of Singapore’s Young Artist Award in 2016, he has published and edited twelve books of poetry. He is also principal photographer of Mackerel, an online culture magazine which he co-founded. On top of that, he has also released two spoken word albums with his band, ‘Neon and Wonder’, and has collaborated with distinguished Singapore musicians. His versatility with the pen, camera and the microphone gives him an extraordinary range of artistic expression. But like all gifts, it is a double-edged sword. Being so well-versed in a variety of arts might draw away focus from mastering one to a certain depth.
On the positive side, Mr. Nair embodies the spirit of playful exuberance. Sightlines is a beautiful book of poems that contains multitudes. From traditional verses with pristine photography to visual poetry that plays with the concept of space, it is a book that will delight lovers of verse looking for experimentation and variety. I’ll illustrate with a second mistake I made. Having gone through some of the visual poems, I tried to enjoy the final one which consisted of a list of locations. It took me a few seconds to realise that it wasn’t a poem, but an overview of the places Ms. Tay visited for her photographs.
After getting over my stupidity and laughing at myself, I realise that there is no lack to Mr. Nair’s energy and excitement about the art of poetry. Sightlines is his latest invitation to play with him.
Tan Kaiyi is a content consultant at a marketing communications firm, based in Singapore. His poems have been published in Quarterly Literary Review Singapore (QLRS). His play, On Love, was selected for performance at Short & Sweet Festival Singapore. Kaiyi’s horror story, The Siege, appeared in Kitaab’s Best Asian Speculative Fiction (2018).
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