Eddie Tay’s “Country” [Read the poem here]
(First published in Issue #12 of Cha)
The persona in Eddie Tay’s poem1 expresses love for his country several times in the work (L14, L20, L37). However, by the time the reader reaches these expressions of love they have already been undermined. In the opening stanza, the persona seems to connect the country of the title to ‘the devil’: ‘I must not say the devil’s best trick / When dealing his cards / Is to fool everyone into believing’ (L1-L3). If the ‘country’ is indeed ‘devil’ in disguise, what is he trying to ‘fool everyone into believing’? What are his ‘cards’? Does ‘everyone’ (L3) imply that this is a totalitarian regime?
The ‘devil’ is mentioned again later: ‘I cannot name the devil; / he does not have two horns and a tail’ (L15-L16). The persona’s reticence is not about the ‘devil’ alone; in the second stanza of the poem, we are told: ‘I dare not speak of winter / Because there are no seasons / To my country’ (L4-L6). Of course, the persona might be merely referring to the country’s tropical climate in which there are no distinct seasons2 (one may speculate this to be Singapore?) and in that case, winter may symbolize a kind of nostalgia for another form of life outside the country. But one is also tempted to interpret this as a severe form of censorship. That the persona does not ‘dare’ to speak of weather, one of the commonest topics in daily conversation, alerts us to the suppression the persona and other people in the country may be experiencing. Also, his claim that he must not talk of winter as there are no seasons implies that the official government line is that there are no bad times, that life is comfortable and free from the ups and downs suggested by the changing of the year, particularly the difficulties associated with the colder months. Note that ‘seasons’ (L5) rhymes perfectly with ‘reasons’ – perhaps a secret is revealed: ‘there are no reasons / To my country’.
Indeed, the persona suggests that his speech is suppressed several times throughout the poem, in phrases such as ‘must not say’ (L1), ‘cannot speak’ (L4) and ‘cannot name’ (L15) and towards the end of the poem: ‘I stay quiet as a number’ (L38). He is also deprived of his authentic voice: ‘I speak a language that is not mine’ (L19). Perhaps the use of his mother tongue is not allowed or considered improper in the country. Or just as likely ‘language’ here means something more like individual expression: the persona has to adopt the same banal forms of expression as everyone else and suppress the idiosyncratic language pattern that defines him as an individual. Later, the persona tells us: ‘If I say what I cannot say, / I must be mad’ (L30-L31) and ‘If I say what I cannot say, / I must be ungrateful’ (L33-L34). These lines read very much like 1984-esque indoctrination (e.g. ‘Thoughtcrime does not entail death: thoughtcrime is death’, Book 1, Ch. 2) Perhaps these aphorisms have been repeated to the persona so many times that they form part of his vocabulary and trigger his self-censorship. Worse, his creativity also seems to be affected by this suppression and results in his writing the same poem repeatedly (L7-L8) – surely, this is a poet’s nightmare – the stifling nature of repeated expression. It is perhaps also an echo of the monotonous tropical weather in the country. Even if the persona has the inspiration to write something different, we are repeatedly reminded that he is reluctant to use his real identity: he says that his poem ‘does not bear [his] name’ (L10), he gives himself a nom de plume, John (L11), and finally, he pleads with the reader to call him simply, ‘a persona’ (L12).
The persona seems to forego his freedoms (freedom of speech, freedom to create) because there is no other choice. Within the poem this choice to acquiesce to the dictates of the regime is ironically presented as a kind of duty arising from the love of country. When love is mentioned for the first time, for example, it is associated with ‘prison’: ‘Call me a persona, / prisoner of my name, / my love to my country’ (L12-L14). The second time it is mentioned, the persona explains that the empty page before him reflects his love to his country: ‘You see the whiteness of this page? / This is my love to my country’ (L19-L20). These lines suggest that the poet is unwilling to write because of social and political pressures and has given into the will of the authorities. This notion is expanded upon when the blank page becomes ‘my flag of surrender’ (L21). The full effect of his giving into the love of homeland becomes evident near the end of the poem: ‘This is my love to my country: / I stay quiet as a number, / cry in my sleep, / learn to laugh in the mirror’ (L37-L40). With this love the persona is silenced and reduced to a number (one is reminded of W.H. Auden’s poem“The Unknown Citizen” and Oscar Wilde’s prison number ‘C. 3. 3.’.) He cries in the dark and it requires great effort for him to be joyous (even laughing needs to be learnt). One cannot be forced into true love, only into unhappy subservience.
Yet it would be too easy to criticize the persona’s self-censorship. Something else is at stake: a comfortable life of high social and economic security: ‘I have a life’ (L22), ‘I have a family: / I can watch TV and dance / with my two-year-old son’ (L25-L27) and ‘I have bread, a passport, an apartment’ (L32). The persona has chosen a comfortable and prosperous domestic life, one which is presumably at least indirectly provided by the government, over freedom of expression. He submits himself to silence, to the devil’s company, so his family life can stay intact, so he will not be branded ‘mad’, and end up an outcast or even in one of the regime’s mental institutions. (In totalitarian states, those who voice opposition often find themselves in mental hospitals [see here, for example].) Considering the possible consequences, the persona can hardly be blamed for the compromises he has made. Perhaps the devil does not need to fool people into believing, but into pretending to believe. This reminded me of the lines from Tom Stoppard’s playEvery Good Boy Deserves Favour, which is about the dictatorial Soviet regime: ‘To thine own self be true / One and one is always two’ (Of course, ‘to thine own self be true’ is from Shakespeare’s Hamlet [Act 1. Sc. III]). If you live in a dictatorship you may be able to believe what you want in your heart, but in public, one and one adds up to whatever the government says it does.
1The poem is also collected in Tay’s new book, The Mental Life of Cities, pp. 18.19.
2No chance to experience this: “It is cold in December. The months of cold equal November through February. There are four months of cold, and four of heat, leaving four months of indeterminate temperature.” —Proof
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.