Singapore Shelf: Turning to poetry after grieving a daughter's death

Writer Linda Collins came to poetry after the death of her daughter.
Writer Linda Collins came to poetry after the death of her daughter.PHOTOS: MALCOLM MCLEOD, MATH PAPER PRESS

In this monthly feature, The Sunday Times lines up three hot-off-the-press home-grown books for readers to dive into

Poetry

Sign Language For The Death Of Reason
By Linda Collins
Math Paper Press/ Hardcover/ 154 pages/ $26.75/ Available here 

Writer Linda Collins came to poetry after the death of her daughter.

Collins, 62, a Straits Times copy editor who has worked in the newspaper industry for most of her life, is well-versed in the formula of news writing, of constructing logical narratives out of hard facts.

But after her 17-year-old daughter Victoria McLeod committed suicide in 2014, she realised she needed new structures of language to grieve.

"Have you ever loved the dead?" she writes in the poem Grief Love. "Then you'll know it involves a sign language for the death of reason."

This phrase became the title of her debut poetry collection, which was edited by Singaporean poet Tania De Rozario.

"Poetry's got its own language that conversation or normal verbal speech doesn't capture," Collins says over Zoom from New Zealand, where she was born. "It's irrational sometimes. There's no rhyme or reason to it."

An event like the death of a child, she adds, "changes you right to the cellular level".

This is something she thinks many are going through during the Covid-19 pandemic.

"It makes you realise you're not really in control of your life, that there are things at another level that throw that out. I hope that title encompasses that feeling as well."

Collins moved to Singapore in 1993 with ST deputy picture editor Malcolm McLeod, now her husband. Their only child, Victoria, was born and grew up here.

In 2019, Collins wrote Loss Adjustment, a memoir about her daughter's death. It draws on Victoria's journal entries, which Collins found posthumously.

Collins, who is now pursuing a creative writing master's degree at the University of East Anglia in Britain, has continued to write about teenage suicide. She contributed a chapter to an upcoming non-fiction book, Katie's Diaries Updated, edited by pre-eminent psychologist David Lester.

Both she and Victoria had poems come out earlier this year in Canadian anthology Voicing Suicide, a rare instance of a mother and her late daughter being published in the same anthology.

For the longest time, she tried to write away from Loss Adjustment and her daughter's suicide, until her mentor, American poet Michael Montlack, told her: "Linda, you got to put the kid in the book."

Victoria is now present in the collection, from The Grief-Box, a poem on cremation in the two-column style of twin cinema, to a found poem composed of the titles of Nancy Drew detective stories found in her bookcase.

Still, Collins wanted to subvert the tropes attached to the grieving mother. In one poem, she writes about sexual desire and slyly quotes rapper Lizzo.

"The 'I' in the poem is a slippery 'I'. It can be used in many ways. It doesn't necessarily represent the writer at all. I was kind of shocked that people didn't realise that.

"I want to stick them in situations that some might find awkward and uncomfortable, like for example sexual yearning. A grieving mum is meant to be asexual. I just wanted to be a bit playful with that.

"If I make people have a laugh or become aghast or feel some sort of emotion - well, this is what poetry does. It reaches, sometimes, places that other genres can't."


Non-fiction

Letter To My Mother
Edited by Felix Cheong
Marshall Cavendish/ Paperback/ 200 pages/ $24.98/ Available here 

Letter To My Father
Edited by Felix Cheong
Marshall Cavendish/ Paperback/ 200 pages/ $24.98/ Available here 


This double collection of letters from children to their parents follows last year's Letter To My Daughter and Letter To My Son. PHOTOS: MARSHALL CAVENDISH

This double collection of letters from children to their parents follows last year's Letter To My Daughter and Letter To My Son, the latter also edited by Singaporean poet Cheong.

They contain heartfelt conversations the authors would like to have - and sometimes did not get the chance to have - with their parents, from Christine Chia's reflections at the funeral of the mother who abused her to Koh Jee Leong's poignant poem for his late father.

"I've written book after book after book," he writes, "and placed them like bombs in your hands."

A gift for Father's Day next Sunday, perhaps?


Helplines

National Care Hotline: 1800-202-6868
Institute of Mental Health's Mental Health Helpline: 6389-2222
Samaritans of Singapore: 1800-221-4444
Touchline: 1800-377-2252
Care Corner Counselling Centre: 6353-1180

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