Battling monsters to reach dark tower's door

In this week’s edition of Book Box, we look at new poetry, including long-awaited collections by Singapore Writers Festival directors past and present, as well as a fresh biography of Singapore’s unofficial poet laureate Edwin Thumboo

Yeow Kai Chai’s new collection One To The Dark Tower Comes is a journey through grief and self-discovery, with many of the poems written in the months before his father died in 2008.
Yeow Kai Chai’s new collection One To The Dark Tower Comes is a journey through grief and self-discovery, with many of the poems written in the months before his father died in 2008.ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

Towers rise and fall in poet Yeow Kai Chai's new collection, One To The Dark Tower Comes, a dark, dense journey through grief and self-discovery.

It is the former Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) director's first collection in 15 years. It took time to produce, says the 52-year-old, and it will probably take time to read.

"It's not a book that you can read in one sitting and understand. It's a book that you need to get frustrated with and go back to."

Yeow finds towers fascinating. Sitting in the shadow of Parkview Square - the Bugis edifice more popularly known as the "Gotham City building" - he says: "The tower stands for something to which everybody wants to aspire. It could stand for ambition, it could stand for redemption, it could stand for arriving at a place where you always wanted to go - but when you arrive, what do you see?"

The literary canon is full of dark towers. Yeow's collection takes its title from Robert Browning's 1852 poem, Childe Roland To The Dark Tower Came, though it quotes as its epigraph Roland Deschain, the gunslinger of Stephen King's fantasy series The Dark Tower (1982 to 2012).

"I want the reader to go on a journey," says Yeow. "It's not the most straightforward journey. Like a knight on a quest, you will encounter challenges, obstacles, imagined monsters. The book ends at the door of the dark tower, but doesn't tell you what's inside. You can have your own idea of what the dark tower is."

He feels One To The Dark Tower Comes is a book of arriving, of presences. It follows on from his second collection, Pretend I'm Not Here (2006), which was a book of absences.

It alternates between standalone poems, numbered quarterly reports with deceptively jargonistic titles - "Advanced Water Treatment Plant" or "Flatted Factory Telelift Riser" - and visceral 13-line verses called "A Slit From Sternum To Pizzle".

"It's like how butchers cut open pigs or other animals," says Yeow of the last section. "It's top-down, an excavation - what you see when you go inside yourself, all your entrails and emotions."

Many of the poems were written in the months before his father died in 2008 from septic shock. Back then, the dark tower represented death for Yeow.

"Death is very difficult to write about, without being morbid but also without being sentimental," he says.

His father was a Hainanese barman. "He wasn't educated," says Yeow, "but he valued education. He was not the most articulate or voluble man, but his actions spoke a thousand words. He didn't force me to do the practical thing, like study law instead of literature. If he had, I wouldn't have been able to write this book."

Yeow spent 15 years as a journalist with Singapore Press Holdings - including stints as Straits Times Life deputy editor and MyPaper editor - during which he published his first two collections. He left ST in 2014 to do a residency at the University of Iowa's International Writing Programme.

He helmed SWF from 2015 to 2018 before handing the directorship to Pooja Nansi. He now works as editor-in-chief at music event company 24Owls.

For him, poetry has always been about the long voyage. "Poetry is not there to make you feel fuzzy, to pat yourself on the back and say, 'Oh, that's interesting.' It's not a diary entry. It's not an Instagram post.

"Whatever languages you're given, you should not keep within their confines and get comfortable. You should explore the limits of your language and then do something wonderful with it."

•One To The Dark Tower Comes ($37.45) is available at Books Kinokuniya.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 21, 2021, with the headline 'Battling monsters to reach dark tower's door'. Subscribe