Anything But Human
By Daryl Lim Wei Jie
Poetry/Landmark Books/Paperback/96 pages/$23.01/Available here
4 out of 5
"The kettle boils water to a crisp/ there are orang-utans in the bath again/ the orchids have eaten the cockroaches..."
So begins a poem in Daryl Lim Wei Jie's Anything But Human, a kaleidoscope of familiar images twisted into the alien and strange.
With its allusions to subsidies and sheltered walkways, capitalism and capital punishment, this dazzling, delightful collection finds a fitting backdrop in a country where love is commodified and economics erotised.
Lim, whose first poetry collection, A Book Of Changes, came out in 2016, is on steadier footing here. The pages reveal an array of intriguing images, from the ramrod incline of one Mrs Lee, who is "hypotenuse to the railing of ageing steel", to the Escherian turns of Narrative (III), where "stories come to me missing/ beginnings and stairwells".
The book is divided into two parts: "desert of the real", likely a nod to a book by Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek; and "great reset", a World Economic Forum theme.
Rather than engage in a heavy-handed critique of the world and its ills, Lim holds up a funhouse mirror to it. The collection, as a result, sometimes comes across as a mishmash of the familiar, a bit "processed", but in a way that cleverly exemplifies its subject matter - the "cherry cola blood" of a nosebleed; the refined carbohydrates of a dessert ("outside of a sundae/ do you know what a strawberry/ tastes like?").
The second half features some of Lim's experimental translations of Tang poems. The sparse, spaced-out renderings of Bai Juyi's poetry are abstractions of abstractions, evoking the aesthetic of "liu bai" in which areas of a painting are left blank. They are competent attempts.
In breaking from the formal constraints of the original Tang poetry, they are in the good company of Joshua Ip's Translations To The Tanglish (2021), which performs a Singaporean spin on Tang and Song poems, to varying degrees of success; and the vital brushstrokes of Wong May's recent In The Same Light: 200 Tang Poems For Our Century, the work of a more confident hand.
Lim's book will resonate with many readers, even if its ideal one may be the bourgeois type who reads Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges and thinks in English while turning a wistful gaze to their ancestral homeland.
At their best, these poems move with a playful restraint, held in curious suspension between contradictory impulses.
One of these is Expression Of Contentment, in which the lolling languor of the day is fringed with palpable tension. The narrator's thighs have turned to organic jam, the tree is blue, his tongue purple and the clouds grow "pregnant/ with knives". "I am extraordinarily really very/ comfortable", he declares. What a mood.
If you like this, read: Mok Zining's The Orchid Folios (Ethos Books, 2020, $20.33, available here). Mok's debut collection is an assemblage of poems on the orchid and other horticultural, colonial and personal offshoots.