A cup of fine tea: Eddie Tay’s “White Pages”

Eddie Tay’s “White Pages” [Read the poem here]
(First published in Issue #12 of Cha)

–This post is written by Bob Bradshaw.

What I love about this poem1 is its logic, how it interweaves seamlessly between personal and public imagery.

White pages peel
from a notepad, smooth fingers,
yours, rustling these leaves of my book –
you know how much I love,
how much time I spend
on these pages.
(L1-L6)

The opening lines start out as if the speaker is peeling pages from a notepad, but immediately we see that instead it’s his lover rustling the pages. Let’s assume for discussion that a man is talking.

It’s a love poem, but it starts out by suggesting that it’s a love poem for language, for writing: ‘you know how much I love, / how much time I spend on these pages’ (L4-L6).

Before we leave this stanza, let’s look at the craft behind the lines. The metrics of the second line suggest the action of the pages being peeled from the notepad. How? The first line’s iambs set this up. Then the opening anapest of the second line gives us the feeling of pages being removed. That one extra syllable suggests the action, the quickness of the leaves being pulled out. A subtle trick, but nicely done.

Look at the sound in the third line. Listen to the sighing sound of ‘yours, rustling these leaves’ (L3). The sound puts us there, hearing the leaves of the pages being slipped out.

The merger of public and personal lives emerges in the second stanza as the notepad’s words emerge ‘like the two of us, / like future chapters of Hong Kong’ (L8-L9). The couple is linked not only to the notepad but to the public future of Hong Kong and Singapore.

These words emerge
like the two of us,
like future chapters of Hong Kong,
its ferries at Victoria Harbour
waiting to happen,
or stanzas of Singapore
with the Merlion poised,
awaiting the tip of a future pen.
(L7-L14)

This is made clearer by the reference to Singapore’s Merlion, ‘poised, / awaiting the tip of a future pen’ (L13-L14). The pen could be that of the writer’s. Or perhaps the pen is a reference to a future political change for Singapore. Regardless, the linkage between private and public lives is established.

Just as the couple is anticipating a future, so does Hong Kong. Its ‘ferries…waiting to happen’ (L9), while Singapore awaits the ‘tip of a future pen’ (L14).

The Merlion is itself a symbol of different forces that have combined together. The reference to Hong Kong and its ferries at Victoria Harbour reminds us of another merger, another coupling, its British past (the harbour named after Queen Victoria) and the cities on Mainland China that some of its ferries touch.

The theme of mergers, public and private, and the anticipation of the future reoccur throughout the poem. From the public sphere we move back to the intimate.

Our children are waiting to happen –
look how carefully I knead these words
from last night’s memory
of your shoulders and nape.
(L15-L18)

Again there is an emerging future: ‘our children…waiting to happen’ (L18).

But the interweaving continues as the writer relates the couple again to words, the language of memory: ‘how carefully I knead these words / of your shoulders and nape’ (L16-L17).

Seamlessly we have gone from personal to public to personal perspectives again.

Such a thick forest of words
we’re passing through –
is it possible to read from cover to cover?
(L20-L22)

Is it possible to predict the future based on the past, to ‘read from cover to cover?’ (L22), the speaker asks. His world, and his relationship with his lover, after all is such ‘a thick forest’ of words’ (L20).

Finally in the last stanza personal and public worlds blend together one more time:

The leaves are trembling in these hands,
waiting for a city to happen.
(L23-L24)

They wait together for a future, for ‘a city to happen’. Words, intimacy and the world are all linked together to embrace this couple’s future. It’s as if the poet is saying that we can’t separate language, love and the world that we live in. They all blend together. In different ways they define us, and we them.

In lesser hands the poem would have awkwardly groped from personal to public scenes because of the use of ‘like’ and ‘as’ comparisons. Here the poet has removed such ungainly couplings. He allows the poem to flow, like water slipping over smooth stones.

In a previous poem, “Country”, Tay used numerous short sentences. The subject ‘I’ dominated the piece, appropriately, in a poem about a search for personal identity.

In “White Pages” short sentences rarely exist. Why? Tay is again matching content with form, suggesting a blending of images and personal and public lives. He does this through a lovely current of images and sounds. There isn’t an emphasis on ‘I’ as there was in “Country”, but on the couple themselves, and on the world they fit into.

A gorgeous poem.

1The poem is also collected in Tay’s new book, The Mental Life of Cities, p. 6.

Also read A Cup of Fine Tea: Eddie Tay’s “Country” and A Cup of Fine Tea: Eddie Tay’s “Night Thoughts”.

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.

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11 Responses to “A cup of fine tea: Eddie Tay’s “White Pages””

  1. mike Says:

    Thank you so much for the review. The comparison of pronouns of Eddie’s pieces is really interesting! This analysis helps me to understand more about the poem. And I like the style of this review too – refreshing and easy to read! Nice 🙂

  2. t Says:

    Thank you so much, Bob, for this review. I liked the way you unhurriedly guide a reader through your reading of the poem. Your analysis of sound and rhythm is interesting (e.g. you single out the ‘sighing sounds’ of the pages — beautiful) and the blending of the personal and the public in Eddie’s poem is get across so well in your analysis. I also thought your discussion of the naming of ‘Victoria Harbour’ is perceptive. Lastly, I liked the comparison of “Country” and “White Pages”, in particular their use of pronouns (as Mike pointed out above).

    I think perhaps the “white pages” (in the title and the first line) echoes this image from “Country”: ‘You see the whiteness of this page? / This is my love to my country, / my flag of surrender.’ There is a sense that these poems are somehow in dialogue with one another.

    I think these lines are thought-provoking: ‘The leaves are trembling in these hands, / waiting for a city to happen.’ The speaker suggests that he is looking forward to a new city to happen, as if negating the existing ones.

    Another thing I noticed is that in the poem, the speaker compares Hong Kong to a book (‘future chapters of Hong Kong’) and Singapore a poem (‘stanzas of Singapore’). I wonder if there is any significance in this? What do others think?

  3. mike Says:

    t,
    Your question about comparing Hong Kong to a book and Singapore a poem is very thought-provoking. 🙂

    The speaker may suggest that Hong Kong is a more well-established and practical place (‘chapters’ of a book perhaps take one longer to read, compared to stanzas in a poem?), while Singapore is more poetic and spontaneous; or Hong Kong people being ‘bookish’ and Singaporeans are poetic? But the dichotomy is somehow blurred by the fact that a book could be poetic and a poem could be prosaic.

    I think this pair of book-versus-poem is similar to the comparison of Victoria Harbour ferry and the Merlion. The ferry obviously is functional for Hong Kong citizens and is ‘dynamic’ (in the sense that there is traffic), while the Merlion is symbolic to the people in Singapore and is ‘static’ (it is, after all, a ‘statue’). Maybe for the speaker, Hong Kong is more a pragmatic place, a fast-paced city but Singapore is more like the permanent home to the poet, i.e. poetry and symbols he resides in.

    These are just my guesses. What do others think?

  4. t Says:

    Victoria Harbour vs. Merlion — lovely observation!

  5. Benjamin Says:

    Hong Kong people bookish? That’s a new one on me.

  6. t Says:

    The ‘nape’ in Eddie’s poem reminded me of the essay “More About the Modern Novel” (1935) by Cyril Connolly; the essay is about conventions in fiction that should be banned:

    Forbidden faces: all young men with curly hair or remarkable eyes; all gaunt haggard thinkers’ faces, all faunlike characters, anybody over six feet, or with any distinction whatever, and all women with a nape to their neck (he loved the way her hair curled in the little hollow at the nape of her neck).

    Connolly is perhaps unjustly harsh (or just humorous). The familiar image of a woman’s nape can be used to evoke something fairly unfamiliar.

    Also, perhaps Yong Shu Hoong’s discussion of the Merlion in an essay published in Cha is relevant:

    For many people, however, it was the SWF closing event, “Dissecting the Merlion”, which was the Festival’s real highlight. The occasion was dedicated to Singapore’s symbol the Merlion, a strange beast which sports a lion’s head atop a scaly body ending with a fish tail. This imaginary creature was designed by Fraser Brunner, a member of Singapore Tourism Board (STB)’s Souvenir Committee, in 1964 as an emblem for STB. Since then, the creature has taken on a nearly iconic status within the city. For many tourists visiting Singapore, the statue offers a much-desired photo opportunity. But for Singapore poets, the Merlion is the subject of much love and scorn.

    Both feelings were evident at the event, which began with the launch of Reflecting on the Merlion, an anthology featuring Merlion-inspired poems penned by close to forty poets across several generations. The book contains “Ulysses by the Merlion” (1979), Edwin Thumboo’s seminal poem which started it all, together with other spurts of creativity by his compatriots like Lee Tzu Pheng, Alfian Sa’at, Alvin Pang, Daren Shiau, Paul Tan and Grace Chua, who have (like how Yeow Kai Chai, one of the book’s editors, describes in his foreword) “projected their own particular hang-ups about nationhood onto (the Merlion)”.

    Continue to read: “Join in the Queue, Get under the Covers: Singapore Writers’ Festival 2009”.

  7. Mark Malby Says:

    t asked:

    Another thing I noticed is that in the poem, the speaker compares Hong Kong to a book (‘future chapters of Hong Kong’) and Singapore a poem (‘stanzas of Singapore’). I wonder if there is any significance in this? What do others think?

    I’m not sure that I entirely agree. This would imply that Hong Kong has greater depths and richer content, while Singapore remains in the singing shallows. (Though it also suggests that HK is more prosaic than lyrical.)

    To make the comparison between ‘city states’ more balanced, I’d tend to regard Hong Kong as an essay – with Singapore remaining a poem. But not just any poem. A sonnet, perhaps, to reflect its regimented structure.

  8. Asian Cha Says:

    Madeleine says: “thanks, eddie, mike, tammy… yes to the spiritual/psychological/emotional/mental lives of cities and us…”

  9. Yamabuki Zhou Says:

    In reading “White Pages”
    I can’t help but think
    That it’s a love poem
    Love for the white pages
    And for his partner of
    “last night’s memory
    of your shoulders and nape”

    Yes he speaks of Hong Kong
    And Singapore
    But why these cities?
    Singapore is his past
    Hong Kong is his present

    Taken in the context of his other poems
    With such lines as

    “What is the car demanding
    from me in the middle of the night?”
    (‘Night Thoughts’)

    or
    “As modern as public transport,
    we have our scholars, their lawyers, the press”
    (‘Country’)

    or
    “Is an economy of rats possible
    or do we need casinos?”
    (‘Cities’)

    I can’t help but think of the words
    From another poem by Eddie Tay
    “Shall I say, a city without metaphors is good/
    for there is no danger of misunderstanding?/
    Shall I die the way angels die/
    in a city where people live like ghosts?”
    (‘A Lover’s Soliloquy’)

    Is this not an ongoing expression
    Of the desolation of the modern city?
    Though in ‘White Pages’ he is more hopeful
    When speaking of cities.
    Perhaps with the knowledge
    That his children will live in them too

    Yet even so one can’t help but notice
    How the poem ends:
    “The leaves are trembling in these hands,
    waiting for a city to happen”

    I feel that Eddie Tay is fearful
    Fearful of living like ghosts
    He hopes for more
    Because of
    His love for his family
    His love for his writing
    These are what he seeks to save
    And the white sheets of paper
    On which he writes are the means
    By which he seeks redemption.

    Ultimately even Eddie Tay may not know
    What the full meaning of the poem is
    For Poems like dreams are deep and deeper
    So I only add my thoughts about this poem
    Perhaps to add a little more light
    To all the enlightening comments

    Yamabuki

    I should note that I found help
    In the article:
    “Eddie Tay captures love’s many essences”
    From the Taipei Times article at
    http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/feat/archives/2005/11/27/2003282013/1
    About Eddie Tay’s book `A Lover’s Soliloquy’
    Article written by Bradley Winterton

  10. j Says:

    The Merlion vs. The golden Bauhinia blakeana?

  11. Henry Daquipel Says:

    I found this manner of interpreting a poem very helpful especially now that I am writing a critical paper on T.S. Elliot and Langston Hughes poems. I can clearly see how the writer forms connections between the imagery and meaning and how the various elements of the entire poem blend or work together to achieve the overall effect and meaning.

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