When I first read Eddie Tay’s “Night Thoughts”,1 I was reminded of these lines from T.S. Eliot’s “Preludes” (1917): ‘The conscience of a blackened street / Impatient to assume the world’ (L46-L47). Eliot gives the ‘blackened street’ human consciousness; Tay likewise confers thoughts and feelings to an inanimate object on the road: ‘What is the car demanding / from me in the middle of the night?’ (L1-L2) This car reappears in the poem several times, hauntingly, reproachfully: one moment it is ‘demanding from’ the persona, another it is ‘demanding of’ trees. The echo to Eliot is still more obvious in the following lines: ‘and what the road asked of me / when I was seven / it is asking now when / I am thirty-six’ (L10-L12). While ‘the blackened street’ in “Preludes” is ‘impatient’, the nondescript ‘road’ in Tay’s poem is the opposite: it has been asking the same thing of the persona for almost two decades. The persona must know what he is being asked of. But he is not letting on.
That the persona has the eerie thought about the car ‘in the middle of the night’ (L2) is significant. If we set aside the possibility that he is mad, the hour in fact affords him solitude: ‘My wife and son are sleeping / after their TV programmes, after dinner / after the creamy Durian we shared’ (L18-L20). Here, we can see that the persona does not entirely belong: true, he shares that delicious Durian with his family, but it is hinted at that there are certain domestic activities in which he does not participate, as indicated in the pronoun ‘their’ preceding ‘TV programmes’. Perhaps this slight sense of exclusion from his own family is symptomatic of something larger, and it contributes to the persona’s flight of fancy. Also, ‘middle of the night’ highlights a possible moment of transformation — we remember the magic that sustains Cinderella’s appearance lapses when the clock mercilessly strikes twelve. The persona who is looking outside his window (L3) at the car in the parking lot (note: one particular car — his own?) in the middle of the night is perhaps yearning for change. Is ‘the car’ the persona’s pumpkin carriage? Where will it take him? Where has it taken him?
Nowhere, probably. The third stanza relates that the persona has been stuck in the same place for almost his entire life:
Different trees were there
when I was a boy,
and what the road asked of me
when I was seven
it is asking now when
I am thirty-six.
The tress by the road likely grow, change colour with the seasons, shelter birds but their transformations do not alter the fact that the road is static. Likewise, the changed family make-up — the persona was a boy and now a family man — does not necessarily mean that he has changed. There is an overwhelming sense of sorrow in the stanza, suggesting that in the reasonably wide space of nineteen years, the persona fails to respond to whatever request that the road has put on him. Perhaps it is asking the persona to leave, to start a new life elsewhere?
Regardless of what the road really asks of the persona, he does get something new: ‘I went shopping for a new briefcase / after work’ (L15-L16). The close proximity of ‘briefcase’ and ‘work’ encourages the interpretation that the new briefcase is a work accessory. Still, it is possible to think that the briefcase is for light travel: the time-marker ‘after’ gives an impression of post-work joviality. However, the next part of the stanza, ‘I heard the lampposts / asking the evening’ (L16-L17) drags us back to the insistent gang-asking of the car, the road, and now the lampposts. The last of which, I believe, is a possible reference to that famous landmark of the Narnia world – we are again crossing between the realms of reality and fantasy.
By the end of the poem, however, there is no sign that any transformation is going to take place for our Cinderella. He ‘retrieve[s] a book from its self / and hope[s] all these will go away’ (L23-L24), suggesting his wishful attempt to shield himself from the external and inquisitive world with a book. But the final lines offer no solace: ‘The television sets flicker / in the flats opposite / and the car is one car / among many’ (L25-L28). The neighbours’ ‘television sets’ evoke the previous description of the divided family: the TV programmes that the persona cannot call his own. And frighteningly he also reveals that he is not alone in being haunted by ‘the car’, he tells the reader that ‘the car is one car / among many’.
A scary thought perhaps. Where in the world can one completely escape the phantasmagoria of roads, cars, trees and lampposts?
1The poem is also collected in Tay’s new book, The Mental Life of Cities, pp. 16.17.
Eddie Tay is author of three collections of poetry, Remnants, A Lover’s Soliloquy and The Mental Life of Cities, and has been invited to various international festivals. He is from Singapore and is currently teaching creative writing and poetry at the Department of English, Chinese University of Hong Kong. Tay is Cha‘s Reviews Editor.