Poems that work as puzzles to be decoded




By Joshua Ip

Math Paper Press/Paperback/ 101 pages/$16/Books Actually

3 stars

Footnotes On Falling, a collection of 44 poems by award-winning poet Joshua Ip, has no shortage of clever footwork as it delves into themes local and personal - from sex to senescence; from hostile architecture to the Housing Board staircase a Lasalle student paved with gold foil.

Fans of Ip's earlier work, however, might find themselves missing the tongue-in-cheek honesty of Sonnets From The Singlish (2012) or the seemingly guileless, heart-on-sleeve professions in Making Love With Scrabble Tiles (2013).

Footnotes On Falling, by comparison, is a more pensive collection. And when combined with Ip's brand of wordplay (the kind that does not try to conceal itself), the tone feels oddly scrambled.

Still, there are some highlights, such as "On Turning A Two-Dimensional Person Into Three Dimensions", which springs to life with mid-line pirouettes and half-turns.

Another memorable piece is "That Would Be Enough" (incidentally, the only one in the collection with footnotes). Ip appends to the last word of each line definitions of his own, and the poem expands fractal-like into new avenues of meaning: a "barbecue" is "how long an average person will wait in line for a twelve dollar haircut", while an "asjifiti", we are told, is "an arbitrary day, or a one-year period, but also forever".

While there is no denying that Ip is wickedly clever, there are moments when the poems ring hollow, feeling like they were written in service of an overarching pattern or acrobatic display of wit. The sleights of hand can grow wearying. ("I'm sorry if the kueh bangkit have had/the wind leak into them. they have their airs," the narrator of "The Year With No Internet" says.)

And some pieces come across as gimmicky - for instance, the bilingual wordplay in "Yuan Liang", and Ip's use of the Twin Cinema form, where the two columns of a poem halved down the middle can be read separately as well as together.

Ip, who won the Singapore Literature Prize for Sonnets From The Singlish, has since moved on to more free-form poetry.

Footnotes On Falling is not governed by the formal constraints of the sonnet, yet there is a subterranean pattern that binds the pieces together. The endnotes, gathered in lists at the end of the book, spawn new poems when they are read all at once.

Perhaps the collection might appeal to the sort of reader who sees poetry as a puzzle to be decoded.

Analysing the collection yields some interesting questions. Given Ip's fascination with the number 44, why are there only 43 endnotes? If he has been paying homage to Elizabeth Barrett Browning's 44 love sonnets, what does it mean to fall shy of this number?

If it does nothing else, Footnotes On Falling prompts the reader to think long and hard about our motives for writing poetry, why we read it, and what makes a good Singapore poem in this age of mobile phones and Twitter-shortened attention spans.

If you like this, read:Sonnets From The Singlish by Joshua Ip (Math Paper Press, $18.19, Books Kinokuniya), his award-winning collection of poems on love, language and the pursuit of laughter.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 14, 2018, with the headline 'Poems that work as puzzles to be decoded'. Subscribe