Esther Vincent on “island city”
In “island city”, I juxtapose seemingly contradictory ideas of ‘the island’ and ‘the city’, in order to express the tensions I feel as a Singaporean living in a rapidly changing and urbanised environment. Having grown up in Singapore in the 1980s, all I ever knew was high-rise living, interspersed with occasional visits to the beaches in the East, near where I lived: Pasir Ris, Changi and East Coast beaches. I remember frolicking in the sea as a child, running barefoot in the sand, queueing up to shower in the smelly beach toilets, cycling, roller-blading or eating barbequed stingray and satay at the hawker centres. I have not been to the beach much lately, and sometimes, I even forget that I am living on an island. Instead, I feel landlocked and claustrophobic, resentful towards the concrete, steel and glass that have taken over the jungle.
With this preamble in mind, I wrote “island city” as a reaction to feelings of alienation from nature and a more idyllic way of life. This was also a direct response to two videos that I saw. One was of strong winds hurling some trash bins and wooden paddle boats into the air at one of the beaches, and another was a video of flash floods at an industrial area in Singapore. Both these videos got me thinking about the conflict between urbanisation and nature, the former predicated upon the demise of the latter. How we uproot old trees to plant new ones, how we relentlessly destroy another precious plot of secondary rainforest to build yet another expressway, how we heap brick upon brick onto the back of our island because to be urbanised is to be relentless in the taking. And so man is responsible for tipping the balance, and a natural phenomenon like rain now produce unnatural flash floods which serve as a metaphor for our lack of spiritual irrigation.
“island city” encapsulates a mood of impending fear, terror and uncertainty, and I make a significant reference to a recurring dream, one whereby I drive headlong into the sea. In this dream, I feel a palpable sense of helplessness as the deep swallows me whole, machine and all. I mention this once and refer to drowning again towards the end of the poem, and I conflate the persona’s body with the body of her city, to amplify the loss. I allude to the imagery of the sea and water to evoke a sense of nostalgia, melancholy and sadness associated with changing tides, both literally and metaphorically. There is an inevitability expressed in the poem, yet the rain is also likened to an angry pounding or drumming of war, which suggests that nature can never truly be quelled.
While I prefer not to impose any particular reading of my poem onto my reader, I will say that form is important, in terms of how the words appear on the page, and the rhythms created by the gaps between unlikely phrases and the lack of punctuation altogether. In doing so, I hope to heighten the physical, emotional and psychological fragmentation and trauma the persona feels as she speaks and reaches out to anyone who will listen, but also as she reaches back into her mind and memory for a past image of home, and as she reaches even further back into history, time and place when her city was still just an island, still whole.