“Country” by EDDIE TAY

Eddie Tay’s poem opens with its deadly quiet one-word title, Country (published in the September 2010 issue of CHA: An Asia Literary Journal). So effectively does such a title resist depiction and discourage curiosity, by passing the reader’s sensitive eyes cannily, for ‘country’ is something too familiar to seduce any interest, too huge to occupy a second of thought, and too abstract to stir any visualization. “Call me a persona” (L12), as the writer says in the earlier part of the poem, the persona already sets off to read us into the intimidated and clandestine air of the poem, at the first word that disturbs “the whiteness of this page” (L19), hushing our thinking and gesturing the “devil” (L1, L15) watching us somewhere.

The poem conveys the voice of a “persona” repetitively identifying and expressing his love for his country. The first two stanzas smartly indicate a parallel between “the devil” and “my country”, through a deliberate exhibition of the absurd rationale behind the speaker’s inaction:

I must not say the devil’s best trick

When dealing his cards

Is to fool every one into believing.

I dare not speak of winter

Because there are no seasons

To my country. (L1-L6)

The “country” in the title, not without surprise, turns out to be one with no seasons, one that limits the speaker’s speaking freedom somehow, and one in a subtle association with “the devil” that manipulates people to believe in his false tricks. This negative first description of “country”, at odds with the usual positive connotations going with this word, stimulates the reader’s interest in listening on to his justifications, which the speaker does insinuate later in the poem: “Call me a persona,/ Prison of my name,/ My love to my country” (L12-L14) “This is my love to my country, my flag of surrender” (L20-L21). The speaker’s love seems to sympathize with the reader’s expectation, but it exists only on the condition of imprisonment and surrender.

Through the speaker’s further identification of who s/he is from Line 22 to Line 36—a diasporic (poet perhaps?) (L23: “I can leave my country and return”), a father (L26-L27: “I can watch TV and dance/ With my two-year old son”), a bread-earner (L32: “For I have bread, a passport, an apartment”), an ex-soldier (L35-L36: “Although it is true I have served my time/ With my rifle and combat boots”), the authoritative image of “country” grows fledged in the speaker’s last clarification of his love for his country, which is realized by silence, invisible tears, and pretentious laugh.

The dictatorship and censorship of the “country” is also revealed through the passivity and intimidation of the voice. The more implicit the speaker’s voice sounds in pointing out the “devil” of the country and the more repetitive his utterance of his love for his country is, the more vividly the reader can feel the high pressure. This poem doesn’t mean to create a dynamic visual image with story flowing inside; on the contrary, the words used are too simple and abstract to extract many moving images, especially the dozen of verbs in the poem—say, fool, speak, write, be, call, name, have, leave, return, ask, watch, dance, learn, serve, love, stay, cry, laugh, know, etc. Instead, it is the voice itself brings out a lively image: a middle-aged man sitting in front of us, confessing the truth about his country and looking around nervously at the same time, sometimes so nervous as to lose his thread of talking, yet fluent and eloquent when claiming his ‘love’ for his country; at the end of the talking, he raises his upper body and reaches out to us, keeping glancing around, making the last whispering: “I must not let the people/ Know of my madness.”

The short and fragmentary lines, together with the choices of words, are perhaps a formal indicative of the speaker’s “madness”. Even the longest stanza (L25-L29) is one sentence cut up into five small parts. However, it is interesting to see that the longer stanzas are always about the speaker’s love for his country, about his obedient loyalty, while the shorter stanzas often seem to be out of place, with a meaning impenetrable:

I write the same poem

again and again.

I speak in a language not mine.

This poem does not bear my name.

I am John. (L7-L11)

I cannot name the devil;

he does not have two horns and a tail.

As modern as public transport,

we have our scholars, their lawyers, the press. (L15-L18)

I must not let the people

know of my madness. (L41-L42)

Though seemingly difficult to comprehend, do the shorter and more fragmentary stanzas tell more truth? At least the speaker sounds more outspoken when he says both the language and the name in this poem is not real, but a mask disguising him as any ordinary man to avoid public attention that might be brought about by his real ‘face’; at least the speaker sounds more sober about the real situation of his country that though “we have our scholars, their lawyers, the press”, the devil still can’t be named. The voice in these fragmentary stanzas, as if gasping for breath when telling the truth, disturbs the confession of his deformed love by inserting some episodes defying smooth and complete interpretation. The truth is protected under the name of “madness”, but what is the real madness, the impenetrable meaning, or after crying in bed at night, still trying to laugh next morning?

I am reluctant to read this poem simply as an ironic one. We all have loved someone, something, some place. The feeling is complicated, especially after a long time of interaction with the beloved ones. It is never white and black, just as sense and sensibility can never be completely independent from each other. The speaker’s love is anything but an ironic trope adopted to criticize the “devil” in his country, however destructive and inhuman it is. If we listen carefully, we might sense a struggle underlying the poem and within the speaker, between the two voices—one from deep in the heart, the other to be heard and scrutinized, also between two mentalities—one insisting on justice and conscience, the other paying homage to one’s loyalty.

 

Added on Nov 23rd night:

I just read CHA’s co-founder and co-editor Tammy Ho Lai-Ming’s review on this poem and talked to her about some of my ideas of re-reading this poem after reading her review. Here it is:

  1. “Rifle and combat boots” might be literal; at the same time, they could also be symbols of wars, or violent movements.
  2. I love the multiple ways you interpret the second stanza “I dare not speak of winter,/ because there are no seasons/ to my country”. I just noticed the preposition used here. Usually we say there are no seasons in my country, while “to” means something subjective, something about your perception. Perhaps the speaker is emphasizing the lack of knowledge of seasons as a concept instead of as a factual period of time? In this case, how can winter be talked about if people even don’t know the idea of season?
  3. I am still thinking about the motif of love for one’s country in Tay’s poem. I believe it might not help to understand the tone of this poem, if we read the poem in the single direction: either we see the speaker’s compromise as a consequence of his love for his country, or as a choice of comfortable domestic life over the freedom of expression. “Love” as a word repetitively used in this poem is a crucial hint to decipher the tone of the poem. The poem needs to be read in both of the approaches: the speaker compromise for his family, but his love for his country doesn’t. Love is the undertone through the whole poem; yet love is expressed in a self-satirizing way, because he can’t leave it behind even if it fails him. There is sarcasm in the tone, dipped in helplessness and sorrow.

 

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2 Responses to ““Country” by EDDIE TAY”

  1. A cup of fine tea: Eddie Tay’s “Country” « A Cup of Fine Tea Says:

    […] –This post is written by Tammy Ho. Please also read Vivian Ding’s discussion of the poem here. […]

  2. Yamabuki Zhou Says:

    “Difficult as they are to find
    Truth and Love
    Need each other
    Each requires the other
    Both feet are needed
    To walk life’s path”

    ‘When the Stars were Right’
    http://yamabuki9.blogspot.com/2010/11/when-stars-were-right.html

    What a beautiful poem
    Eddie Tay writes
    Not just the printed words
    But the spoken language
    Revealing feelings
    Hidden in despair

    “This is my love to my country:
    I stay quiet as a number,
    Cry in my sleep,
    Learn to laugh in the mirror.

    I must not let the people
    Know of my madness.”

    Reminding me of Akhmatova’s

    “The Last Toast

    I drink to our ruined house,
    to all of life’s evils too,
    to our mutual loneliness,
    and I, I drink to you –
    to eyes, dead and cold,
    to lips, lying and treacherous,
    to the age, coarse, and cruel,
    to the fact no god has saved us.”

    When the Devil calls the shots
    None of us are free
    But don’t make the mistake
    of thinking that China and Russia
    Are the only places
    That the Devil rules
    The Devil’s rules are everywhere
    Madness is everywhere

    But poetry is for the unspeakable
    Poetry names the un-nameable
    Though it does not save us
    Any more than Akhmatova’s god

    Yet in the act of speaking poetry
    There is a magic
    That not even the devil can suppress
    The magic is the vision of hope
    That comes from transformed despair

    This is why God does not save us
    For we are learning to speak the unspeakable
    This is the magic of poetry
    Its Truth and its Love
    That allows us to continue on the path of life

    yamabuki

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