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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.