An Uncovering and Recovery

Arthur Yap’s poetry is the first known example in Singapore literature that exhibits modes of crisis and recovery in the context of homosexuality. For homophobic reasons, there has been no criticism published so far that uncovers homosexual themes in Yap’s poetry and engages with his work as a groundbreaking example of how poetry becomes a way by which the Singaporean homosexual finds expression. Yap also demonstrates how literature can pave the way for recovery from an individual and painful grappling with one’s sexuality in Singapore. 

 

Keywords: ambivalence—closet—effacement—gay—homosexuality—recovery—poetry—Singapore 

Singapore is still a repressive country for homosexuals when a law that criminalises same-sex sexual relations remains in existence; although in 2013, as reported in the local TODAY newspaper, ‘the High Court is due to hear two cases on the constitutionality of Section 377A’ (Hussain 2013), the law that criminalises sex between mutually consenting adult men. Joseph Lo, the founder of People Like Us (PLU), a gay-equality lobby group, in discussing the troubles his group faced throughout the nineties in registering under the country’s Registrar of Companies, has stated that Singapore possessed a worldwide ‘reputation of being rigid, unbending and ... oppressive’ (2003: 129). In the earlier part of the country’s relatively short literary history, Arthur Yap (1945-2006) published four major collections of poetry between 1971 and 1986. Critics in the country have avoided dealing with homosexual aspects of his work and, instead, underscored Yap’s ‘private sensibility’ (Singh 1999: 15) and his refusal to engage with nation-building discourses in opinionated ways. In an interview with Kevin Sullivan, Yap answered ‘no’ to a question about whether he was in sympathy with the opinion of Edwin Thumboo, a poet regularly regarded as a literary pioneer in Singapore, that ‘the writer must explain his society, bring into focus the forces, whether healthy or pernicious, which move society’ (1984). Yap seemed to express views that emanated from a temperament that was clearly not comfortable or convinced by a wider call in his country for poets to occupy a public role in tackling social issues.

Hovering between a conscious and an involuntary response across a spectrum of implied or explicit attitudes ranging from uncertainty, through ambivalence and ambiguity, Yap’s sense of a Keatsian negative capability is bounded to a position of liminality that runs counter to any straightforward critique or analysis of socio-political concerns. As the poet Boey Kim Cheng has pointed out, ‘liminality is central to the work of Arthur Yap, opening his work to a broad range of interpretative possibilities and making him the most elusive of the Singapore poets’ (2009: 22). Boey has also suggested that Yap’s poems ‘reveal a poet who gave himself to his art so fully that he and the poetry are one: tentative, restrained, and self-effacing’ (2009: 34). Particularly given the social climate that Arthur Yap was writing in, this sense of self-effacement and liminality could be linked to the predicament of the queer man or to private ambivalences as regards Yap’s sexual inclinations and a need to remain securely in the proverbial closet about such issues. One could even argue that writing for Yap might have also provided a form of release or respite from the repressiveness of society regarding such matters. As Judith Harris has written, ‘writing about personal experience translates the physical world into the world of language where there is interplay between disorder and order, wounding and repair’ (2003: 2). The pain of having to grapple with one’s sexuality within the conservative milieu of Singapore becomes sublimated through modes of ambiguity in Yap’s poems, these literary expressions that nonetheless allude to the theme of sexuality more than once and in ways gay audiences may meaningfully appreciate, with the potential of providing a mutual space for psychological catharsis and even recovery for both author and reader. Uncovering homosexual themes in Yap’s work can pave the way for readers to discover how a queer literary pioneer possibly used poetry to recover from a painful grappling with sexuality in Singapore. How this benefits the reader is similar to how catharsis operates in Augusto Boal’s ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’, in which ‘action shown on stage is a possibility, an alternative, and the intervener spectators (active observers) are called upon to create new actions ... which are not substitutes for real actions, but rehearsals ... The rehearsal of an action is ... the practice of an action then to be practised in real life’ (2013: 72). Yap’s readers may become precisely these ‘spectators’ for ‘rehearsals’ or processes of insight and recovery enacted in the poetry that facilitate possibilities for similar revelations and positive changes in the reader’s own life. As gay readers, we can also be said to be regaining or recovering what was deprived from us when reading ‘officially-endorsed’ interpretations of Yap’s poetry in the past, when we are finally made aware of homosexual themes in his work, or when such issues are discussed openly, allowing for greater understanding and appreciation; allowing for us queer Singaporeans to feel less alone when negotiating with the work of one of our own.  

For a gay reader like myself, Yap’s engagement with a politics of doubt and ambivalence could be interpreted as a politics of the closet, a way of negotiating with the potential consequences of censorship and homophobia that could have influenced the poet’s overall elliptical style. From just a handful of discretely homosexual-themed poems, it is clear I have no grounds in presenting an unbroken gay cosmology in Yap’s work. But homoerotic elements and concerns do present themselves in ways that suggest the poet’s implicit struggle or half-willingness to express homosexual feelings and desires. Writing (albeit indirectly) about such feelings is, at least, a way of acknowledging them and potentially recovering from the anxieties and psychological damages of having to keep such desires secret or suppressed throughout one’s lifetime. Engaging with this aspect of Yap’s poems, I would argue, has also the capacity to enrich and enliven our aesthetic appreciation of not only his oeuvre in general, but it could deepen our sympathies for the gay psychology as presented in these revealing works, particularly when internal conflict becomes evident. Of course, the inevitable consequence of any gay reading of a work is that many readers would object that either such a reading is morally insensitive to the writer, especially one who kept his sexuality hidden from the public eye (an objection that barely veils a prejudiced view about the validity of being gay), or that any interpretation of queer desire is ultimately of little consequence, since homosexual desire can be dismissed as ‘simply another form of desire (read, heterosexual)’ (Vincent 2002: 30). John Emil Vincent has pointed out that any discussion of homosexual desire in poetry in the latter way ‘will be fundamentally flawed, if not also in the service of a homophobic fantasy of a world without gay people in it’ (2002: 30). Although Vincent wrote this with John Ashbery’s poetics in mind, his point about the positive dimensions of a gay reading is worth noting here, when he writes that for gay to non-homophobic poets and readers of poetry, elements of homosexuality in a work can ‘vivify or deflate general effects’ (Vincent 2002: 32). In other words, homosexuality shakes up our complacency not only as regards the presence of different and marginalised sexual identities within society, but also to our more intimate connections to such identities.

It was only as recent as the late nineties that the country’s first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, famously announced that ‘what we are doing as a government is to leave people to live their own lives so long as they don’t impinge on other people’; this was in answer to a question about the future for gay people in Singapore that was broadcast worldwide on CNN in December 1998 (Peterson 2001: 129). Since then, as Steve Frankham points out, in Singapore, ‘despite the law and the city’s surface conservatism, the government appears to be actively courting the pink dollar. This is based on the theory that encouraging a more cultured and creative environment that is tolerant of homosexuality will improve a city’s economy’ (2008: 546). Although it is debatable whether this sense of broad-mindedness brought about by pragmatic desires to bolster a growing economy is really the status quo of Singaporean society, it was surely not the prevalent paradigm of the time that Yap was publishing his poetry. In a relatively young nation-state like Singapore where homoerotic writings continue to be few and undiscussed in the public and academic spheres, a poem like Yap’s ‘your goodness’, for example, stands in poignant contrast to a predominant movement of poetry started since the seventies that has remained caught up in ‘social reference’ (Bennett 1978: 240) and a perpetual ‘re-examination of ourselves as Singaporeans’ (Singh 1999: 15). No literary critic on Singaporean literature in English, including Bennett and Singh, has ever discussed the issue of homosexuality in Yap’s work. I would like to argue that Yap’s poetry is an early Singaporean example of cultural resistance against hegemonic, socio-political discourses that have remained wary about the right of homosexuals to express themselves fully. 

A gay reading of literature can generate aesthetic, sociological and empathetic insights that are surprising and rewarding. For example, Eve Sedgwick broke new ground when, drawing on feminist scholarship and the writings of Michel Foucault, she drew attention to covert socio-sexual subplots in the works of writers like Charles Dickens and Henry James. Sedgwick argued that any understanding of modern Western culture and literature would be incomplete or ‘damaged in its central substance to the degree that it does not incorporate a critical analysis of modern homo/heterosexual definition’ (2008: 1). As a leading queer theorist, Sedgwick focused on exposing underlying meanings, distinctions, and relations of power in larger cultural discourses that others have oversimplified. Similarly, as regards Yap’s poems and their socio-cultural context, it would be a shame to disregard interpretive possibilities that allude to a private negotiation with sexuality and their implications for homo/heterosexual discourses in Singapore. Sexual identities exist on a continuum and do not remain in the neat labels we forge to contain them. Sedgwick interpreted texts in a way that would easily deflate rigid heteronormative assumptions about sexual identities. In Henry James’ prose, for instance, she observed that ‘words and concepts such as “fond”, “foundation”, “issue”, “assist”, “fragrant”, “flagrant”, “glove”, “gage”, “centre”, “circumference”, “aspect”, “medal” and words containing the phoneme “rect”… may all have “anal-erotic associations”’ (Edwards 2009: 59). Such associations serve not just to enrich our understanding of Henry James’ literary technique and aesthetic, but just as importantly, an appreciation of these associations also challenges homophobic or prejudiced assumptions that might undergird general readings of a given text.

Sedgwick was drawing from Foucault and how, as he had tried to show, a multiplicity of sexological taxonomies ‘facilitated the modern freighting of sexual definition with epistemological and power relations’ (Sedgwick 2008: 9). He pointed out that sexual categories and identities were socially engineered and codified in order to energise and entrench power-relations as well as promote new extensions of erotic pleasure. For Foucault, homosexuals only became ‘a species’ (1980: 43) in the nineteenth century and such a species was compared to, while serving to defend and support, the heterosexual norm, and thus rendered as deviant, perverse and negatively pathological. Homosexuals everywhere continue to find themselves hugely oppressed by the heteronormative Other, even if theorists from Foucault to Sedgwick have repeatedly problematised the theoretical practice of division into comparative binaries.

In just a few poems from Yap’s books, gay readers of Singaporean literature like Alex Au, a political activist and commentator behind the widely read online website, Yawning Bread, have found in Yap a kindred spirit as well as the voice of a fellow queer. In his article Homosexuality and the Problem of Scale’, Au criticised the local media for refusing to even discuss the possibility that Yap was gay during announcements of Yap’s passing. Au alluded to Ong Sor Fern’s tribute article in The Straits Times – Life!, ‘A Man of Few Words’ on 21 June 2006, in which the reporter had merely alluded to his sexual orientation when she wrote about Yap’s ‘friend’ Keith Watson having passed away (Au 2009). Au was affronted by the lack of consideration for this dimension of Yap’s life: ‘Why such elliptical language? If the love of Yap’s life had been a woman, would The Straits Times have been more forthright about the importance of the partner in his life?’ (2009) Au is also adamant that Yap had never tried to hide his relationship, even though the latter had never actually come out to declare his sexuality publicly. To prove his point, Au points out that Yap dedicated both commonplace (1977) and the space of city trees: selected poems (2000) to Watson, as well as this love poem in Man Snake Apple and other poems (1986):

your goodness 
for Keith

your goodness, i sometimes light 
my anger with, is what you have. no one 
can burn it away; it is not for my discussion. 
i know, near you, i myself feel good. 
& this is enough for me, my friend. 

this is a life-time friendship; the poem 
is short, inadequate &, except for a word, 
totally redundant. (1986: 14)

The unambiguous sentiment in the above poem sets it apart from most of Yap’s poetry that is more well known for its ‘vivid local observations, and indeterminate yet resonant and provocative timbre’ (Holden, Poon and Lim 2009: 176). Ambiguity gathers around ‘life-time friendship’ after that reference to ‘a word’ that turns a knob in the poem, opening a door for gay readers to cross an unspoken threshold and enter a deeper cave of meaning. For me, reading this poem for the first time was like passing another gay man in the corridor of a darkened alleyway—the almost insignificant meeting of eyes during which a swift and tacit understanding is reached, a mutually-empowering acknowledgment that I-know-that-you-know-that-I-know born out of an unspoken complicity between gay men. The thrill for gay readers in reading this poem remains in knowing that the unspoken has been referred to, but the deliberate guise of ambiguity around the ‘word’ shields the poet in the same way as closet doors protect the vulnerable homosexual from social victimisation. Au, however, takes a more unequivocal view on the meaning of that ‘word’, asserting that it points to Yap’s sexuality without a doubt, a fact that he insists is crucial for any reader to understand when reading the poem: ‘Why is it important to know he was gay? Well, the above poem gives you the answer. You cannot understand it unless you know the relationship between the poet and the “you”—Keith Watson’ (Au 2009).

Au’s stance is understandable. Yap’s poetic ambiguity creates for a multiplicity of readings that the poem is generously equipped to absorb. Not exactly disagreeing with Au that knowing the poet’s sexuality provides important significance to that connection between Yap and Watson, I nonetheless prefer to think that the ‘word’ can also refer to Keith’s ‘goodness’, as well as the ‘goodness’ of their relationship. I have always found the poet too alert to semantic playfulness to allow for just one type of reading. The strategy of not openly declaring one’s homosexuality turns the reader’s attention away from any possible discussion of immorality and the repercussions of homophobia that might detract from the celebrated ‘goodness’ of this ‘life-time friendship’. The poem could be urging us to perceive this relationship in the same way that Yap has probably chosen to remember it—in terms of a final sense of affection and commemoration, without attaching that baggage of a history of prejudice or persecution that has dogged homosexuals since time immemorial. At the same time, if we do insist on reading the poem as pointing to that word, ‘gay’ (a word that begins tellingly with the same letter as ‘goodness’), it is with an implied nod, a knowing wink and warm embrace that Yap welcomes our differing interpretations, or the variety of ways we may choose to understand ourselves through his poetic tribute.

Faced with constant oppression, many homosexuals are forced to remain in the symbolic closet, negotiating with and expressing their sexualities through sublimated ways. The ‘closet’, to draw from Sedgwick’s framework, includes the processes of repression and prohibition, as well as the struggle to resolve tensions between ‘the explicit and the inexplicit around homo/heterosexual definition’ (Sedgwick 2008: 3). As Foucault suggested, prohibition works not only to contain that which it outlaws but it also cultivates its sanctioned objects in a new mode. The sexual repression of the Victorians, for example, did not so much eliminate an interest in sex as ‘produced new ways of representing and thinking about the sexual’ (Michie 2006: 109), permitting the extension of erotic pleasures into the domain of language, making speech itself a site of excitement. Camp, in this way, when it manifests through language, becomes a way by which homoerotic excitement, which has been repressed elsewhere, may find release. This is a point that I would link (and will, more explicitly, later) to Yap’s poem, ‘A List of Things’, in which a queer sensibility, expressed through flamboyance and sexual imagery, presents itself. Camp is often associated with homosexual culture, or at least ‘with a self-conscious eroticism that throws into question the naturalisation of desire’ (Bergman 1993: 5), and it is tied to and generated by Yap’s inevitable need to keep his own sexuality hidden from view. As a gay reader or ‘person who can recognise camp … [who stands] outside the cultural mainstream’ (Bergman 1993: 5), I am in an empathetic position to appreciate not only the qualities of camp within Yap’s poetry but also the internal tensions and contradictions that might have been the cause. A less sublimated expression of homosexual desires comes through in a later poem, ‘gaudy turnout’, in which a (homo)erotics of space in Singapore that contextualises a direct negotiation with difficult emotions becomes evident. Oppressed, repressed and marginalised, homosexuals, especially in countries like Singapore, continue to operate outside of the system through their use of ‘public spaces as private spaces’ (Russell 2006: 19), subverting such sites in a manner not envisaged by urban planners. As I will try to show, this sense of a public space becoming a private space for queer desires is presented poignantly in ‘gaudy turnout’, a poem that stands as a moving, early example of Singaporean literature that dared to document the problems homosexuals faced when negotiating with the public sphere from within the closet. Gay people will always find ways to be simultaneously visible and hidden within any complex cityscape through ‘a world of space bodies in the formation of the gay ghetto’ (Bronski 2000: 184) and Yap points implicitly to the presence of such ghettos in Singapore. The emergence of such eroticised spaces continues to be important because it encourages the continued formation of an alternative community that has been forced to thrive more or less underground.

In the same collection as ‘your goodness’, 'A List of Things' evinces resistance through a poetic strategy of flamboyance and excess through which a queer sensibility may express itself while still remaining hidden:

A List of Things
A Market At Ueno

gesticulating fingers of lentil, unwiggly eels,
spearheads of bamboo shoot, soothing water chestnuts,
green snakes of cucumber, jetsams of seaweed…
no-nonsense tangerines, arms-folded-over squid…
alliterative clogs, knobbly topshell, discusses of sole…
brisk aprons, tough-guy pork, sectional ropes of radish…
humpy peanuts, leathery heels of abalone,
aerial spring onion, hour-glass pears, rotund avocados,
rib-caged pumpkins, chlorophyllic piles of iparella,
grumpy red mullet, macho beef, sassy tomatoes

are all there. (1986: 39)

The poem’s unguarded flair, its lively, seemingly free-associative re-imaginings of banal, edible and non-edible items at a market, is ripe with an undeniable sense of descriptive camp. As a style of humour, camp is constantly caught up in its own playfulness, frivolity, and an ironic display of excess. Susan Sontag has pointed out that there is a ‘peculiar relation’ between camp and homosexuality: ‘While it’s not true that camp taste is homosexual taste, there is no doubt a peculiar affinity and overlap … homosexuals, by and large, constitute the vanguard—and the most articulate audience—of Camp’ (1995: 108). Camp forms an ‘aesthetic sense’ that homosexuals use to facilitate their integration into society, since it ‘neutralises moral indignation [and] sponsors playfulness’ (Sontag 1995: 108). Deliciously indulgent, Yap’s poem is full of leery gestures, phallic symbolisms and lusty vivaciousness, from the ‘gesticulating fingers’, ‘green snakes of cucumbers’ to the ‘humpy peanuts’ and ‘rotund avocados’. The ‘no-nonsense tangerines’ and the ‘arms-folded-over squid’ possess a daring effeminacy that stands out in contrast to the calculated ordinariness of ‘rib-caged pumpkins’ and ‘chlorophyllic piles of iparella’ and the performed masculinity (or ‘macho-mary-ness’) of ‘tough-guy pork’ and ‘macho beef’.

After such an inventory of objects made evocative by the addition of bewildering adjectives, the poem takes a dramatic breath before ending with a humble flourish—‘are all there’—like the cleverly understated tilt of a top hat at the end of an accomplished cabaret performance. Under the poet’s scrutiny, food items and trinkets can be said to have given up their hidden personalities and suppressed emotions. To put it in another way, the poet could be encouraging us to recognise ourselves in these diverse items; the poem becomes a comedic way of alluding to and delighting in the superficial constructions of identities. The poetic observation can be enjoyed as a celebration of social diversity, or of the differences in formations of selfhood. It can be a cathartic recovery of such differences for one who has been forced to live with(in) hegemonic sameness. The present-tense mode of the final line hints that such a multiplicity of differences has long existed, regardless of unremitting pressures to conform to limited modes of behaviour, or to repress oneself for the sake of social acceptance and political mobility. By inscribing the characteristics of human behaviour onto commonplace objects, the poem implies that if we strip away our restrictive and conditioned essentialisms about how we perceive ourselves and each other, the bodies upon which we mark our identities are not so different from unspectacular slabs of meat, fruits or vegetables. This has positive implications for trajectories of prejudice—from racism to sexism and homophobia—that limit our minds and dictate the way we treat one another. The poem permits us to laugh freely and recover from the oppressive conditioning of heteronormative predictability, even if only for a brief moment.

Whether it is to pay an intensely personal tribute to a lifelong love or to indulge in a recognisably queer aesthetic, the works discussed here continue to dance (like most of his other poems) along the parameters of ambiguity; they remain focused on self-conscious modes of uncertainty. Yet the poems also possess enough clues for gay readers like Alex Au and myself to relate with their creator as a fellow queer. Any controversy that arises from this perception of Yap would likely stem from the belief that to call the poet queer is to necessarily malign him (a belief that is itself inherently offensive to homosexuals who have come to terms with their sexuality—and who have no problem expressing their sexuality in public—as well as to anyone else who supports the right and freedom to be gay). Regardless of the possibility that Yap might have himself been uncomfortable with being perceived in any straightforward way, I would maintain that the poems continue to hold an affinity with queer readers who relate to the emotional content and aesthetic sensibilities of the works as though they have been composed by a gay writer. Unlike commentators like Au, however, I wish to draw attention to a lesser-known poem by Yap (taken from commonplace) that no one has analysed for its unspoken homoeroticism. It is even possible that this early work is the most homoerotic poem of them all:

gaudy turnout

if i were you, i would walk the dark night
into some brightness, a lamp-post or lit shop-front,
& stop at the door, adjusting shoelace or smile
i wish i could find the doorsteps of the cellar-club,

the quick of your heart. how i wish i could
know for sure about tomorrow’s party :
how many, who, won’t be there, sensitive is the ear
of night & hears a loneliness for miles.

will there be dancing cheek-to-cheek? will someone
be recounting minutely his peculiar operation?
& is someone keeping score? will you
shut the door? why do you groan & groan?

if i were you, a gaudy boy afflicted with joy :
sensitive is the eye of day & sees a leer for miles. (1977: 30)

What we can easily agree on regarding ‘gaudy turnout’ is that the poem is haunted by loneliness and desire. But whose loneliness? Whose desire? And what is the nature of this desire?    

The darkened urban setting in which the speaker eyeballs another male on a street recalls a hundred other urban spaces energised by covert meetings between gay men. The anonymity of the men in such spaces is usually ensured by their nondescript behaviour, appearances and the use of discreet, non-verbal signs: ‘Eye contact, body language, and physical actions are the keys to communication’ (Russell 2006: 27) when these men attempt to meet one another for an intimate encounter without being discovered by law-enforcement officers or unsuspecting heterosexuals who stumble upon the same spaces by accident. Gay cruising has long been a way by which homosexuals erotically inhabited and re-imagined city spaces, particularly before the advent of internet chatrooms and indoor saunas or clubs, in which gays are more able to meet without apprehension. The title of Yap’s poem brings to mind the gaudiness of such clandestine proceedings, as these encounters often consist of lingering looks and signalling gestures that might be deemed lewd and distasteful. Given the limited options that gays have to meet one another in homophobic societies, the atmosphere of such spaces, electrified by unspoken exchanges and the possibilities of intimate relations, is also weighed down by an undercurrent of loneliness and quiet desperation. As the American psychiatrist, Martin Kantor, has argued, ‘sexual preoccupation accompanied by an incessant cruising for sex that amounts to promiscuity is a typical gay behaviour’ (1999: 57), one which contributes to emotional disorders in homosexual men. And cruising areas are spaces where gays have been forced to occupy in order to fulfil their specific desires. Such spaces create a psychologically detrimental environment in which gays use sex to numb themselves from feelings of frustration and alienation caused by their marginalised status within the larger society. The speaker of ‘gaudy turnout’ has briefly found someone—maybe an acquaintance, but most likely a stranger—who has captured his desires. Just like in the tentative dance that gay men enact when cruising, an initial distance is established between them, one projected from the poetic spectator’s position of solitude and a fear of rejection; the forestalling of a desired meeting in which the viewer pretends to hesitate, ‘adjusting shoelace or smile’, in order to analyse his target safely from across a gulf of longing. Daylight becomes connected to the dangers of exposure, the indictment that will follow when one’s sexuality is revealed, or the embarrassment of being seen as being enslaved by one’s queer desires. But at the start, the cruiser longed for his object to enter into ‘some brightness’, which suggested not just the ability to better see his target, but also the possibility of happiness that such a moment of intimacy might bring. Such a meeting also hints at a more metaphorical union of souls; or simply the desire to be overtaken by another, preferably someone ‘afflicted with joy’, since joy has been denied the cruising persona. The notion of joy as something that ‘afflicts’ suggests a bitterness projected by the observer upon his object of attraction, negativity that stems from a general sense of self-hatred which homosexuals have experienced as a result of disenfranchisement and the difficulties of accepting themselves as homosexuals and in securing meaningful relationships.

Painted in strokes of shadow, the ‘dark night’ of the scene in the poem is not compensated by the promise of ‘tomorrow’s party’. It is probably the same ‘party’ the cruiser and his desired object are planning to attend. At first the speaker refers to ‘dancing cheek-to-cheek’ (an oblique reference to both classic Hollywood heteronormativity as well as the campiness of Hollywood musicals), the success of others who have discovered intimacy, inspiring jealousy; then he remembers the repetition of someone always ‘recounting minutely his peculiar operation’ or ‘keeping score’, occurrences that keep happening at such a gathering. These recollected details emphasise the speaker’s particular alienation, the repetitions that make up the potentially depressing life of a gay cruiser; repetitions that the homosexual nonetheless re-enacts out of loneliness. The nature of this ‘peculiar operation’, the allusion to ‘keeping score’ and the pornographic groans in the poem suggest that the party is, in fact, a space for erotic to sexual conquests, maybe even orgiastic encounters. The queerness of this eroticised space is further heightened by the fact that the club in which the party occurs is tucked away underground, by the shutting of its door to keep its premises from public or homophobic scrutiny. It is not really a party in any enlivening sense, considering that the speaker understands it as supplying the context for long-term promiscuity and a continued emotional disaffection with one’s self. To be ‘afflicted with joy’ also sounds like an aggrieved re-explanation of the word ‘gay’, an ironic play of layered meanings that confirms once and for all that the poem is, without any doubt, about the psychological pain and longing of a homosexual speaker.

To be ‘afflicted with joy’ presents homosexuality as a burden, that is, if one were only capable of understanding the gay lifestyle in terms of promiscuity and a tragic inability to attain long-lasting love. A ‘leer for miles’ stresses not just the lustiness of the speaker’s stare, but also the interminable ache of longing that only drives the homosexual into a dark corner of physical addiction and mounting self-hatred. Compared to ‘your goodness’, ‘gaudy turnout’ turns out to be a far more desolate affair. Its depiction of homosexual desire is miles away from Yap’s later testimony to the goodness of same-sex relations. In ‘gaudy turnout’, the satirical and cynical refrain from Gershwin’s song about romance and the poem’s pornographic allusions point to the poetic speaker’s internal conflicts and ambivalence about being homosexual—full of yearning, but also full of contempt for aspects of that yearning. Given Yap’s preference for ellipsis and doublespeak, the poem could be interpreted as a reproachful reflection on homosexual desire articulated from within the confines of the closet, a reflection that gay readers like myself can appreciate and feel less alone after connecting intimately with its implications and warnings about the gay lifestyle with its existentially empty dimensions resulting from a deeper desire to escape from merely ‘surviving’ in a predominantly heterosexual environment.

Nowhere before ‘gaudy turnout’ is its sense of reproach and self-loathing featured in the same collection. The poem is so different in mood and tone that it is no wonder that it was not chosen to be included in the eventual compilation of selected poems published in 2000; Anne Brewster, who edited The space of city trees, has only wanted readers to pay attention to how Yap offers ‘a means of apprehending reality differently’ (xv). A poem like ‘gaudy turnout’, or one that engages with the psychological complexities of same-sex desires, never occurs again in Yap’s books after commonplace. It makes me wonder if Yap’s preoccupation with language play in his later volumes was a shift influenced, in part, by a private decision to recede further into the closet, considering Yap’s earlier and less ambiguous evaluation of the consequences of homoerotic desire in ‘gaudy turnout’.

But this is speculation, at best. We will never know the private details of what actually happened between ‘gaudy turnout’ and ‘your goodness’ that made Yap finally change his mind about same-sex relationships (we can only guess that the entrance of Keith Watson into his life had something to do with it.) However, what is not speculation is how the poems discussed here provide enough evidence for gay readers to connect with Yap’s queerness in epiphanic and self-fulfilling ways. No one else other than Alex Au in the less formalised sphere of cyberspace and a few brave students writing essays within the literature departments of universities in and out of Singapore have taken the time to respond critically to the homosexual concerns in Yap’s work. The absence of published critical material on the subject is glaring; critics have continued to focus only on Yap’s innovative linguistic play, his poeticising of urban spaces and embedded commentaries on the price of progress within Singaporean society. Granted that the gay-themed poems are few, they still deserve attention for providing insight into an aspect of the poet’s life that must have inevitably shaped the tenor and concerns of his work to the point that ‘he and the poetry are one’ (Boey 2009: 34). The best poems, irrespective of how mysterious or confessional we read them to be, will always reflect a dimension of the poet’s temperament and personality. The author might be dead, but the poems remain a memorialised extension of his thoughts on art and life. I hope that in uncovering or recovering Yap’s homosexual concerns that have long been suppressed in more official and mainstream engagements with his work, and with progress being made now in the repealing of anti-gay legislature in Singapore, I have helped to remind present-day readers that gays too have their own significant cultural history in the country, with Yap as one of the earliest and finest examples of individuals struggling to make sense of what it has meant to be gay in Singapore. 

 

Works cited: 

 

Au Waipang, A 2009 ‘Homosexuality and the Problem of Scale’ Yawning Bread, at http://www.yawningbread.org/arch_2006/yax-618.htm (accessed 10 February 2013)

Bennett, B 1978 ‘The Subdued Ego: Poetry from Malaysia and Singapore’, Meanjin 37: 2, 240-246

Bergman, D 1993 ‘Introduction’, Camp Grounds; Style and Homosexuality, Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press, 5

Boal, A 2013 ‘Catharsis in the Theatre of the Oppressed’, The Rainbow of Desire: The Boal Method of Theatre and Therapy, London: Routledge, 72

Boey, K C 2009 ‘From the Tentative to the Conditional: Detachment and Liminality in the Poetry of Arthur Yap’, in L S Gwee (ed) Sharing Borders: Studies in Contemporary Singaporean-Malaysian Literature II, Singapore: National Library Board, 22-34

Brewster, A 2000 ‘Introduction’, in Yap A 2000 the space of city trees: selected poems, London: Skoob Books, xv

Bronski, M 2000 ‘The Gay Ghetto and the Creation of Culture’, The Pleasure Principle: Sex, Backlash, and the Struggle for Gay Freedom, New York: Stonewall Inn Editions, 184

Edwards, J 2009 Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick: Routledge Critical Thinkers, New York: Taylor & Francis, 59

Foucault, M 1980 The History of Sexuality. Vol 1: An Introduction, New York: Vintage Books

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