Samuel Lee, A Field Guide to Supermarkets in Singapore (Math Paper Press, $16.00).

What’s the difference between a supermarket in Singapore and New Haven, Connecticut? In Samuel Lee’s debut collection ‘A Field Guide to Supermarkets in Singapore’, the Singaporean poet and Yale student wanders the aisles of his native city along with the organic stores of  New Haven.

The supermarket is a suitable setting for Lee’s themes of desire and alienation. ‘It’s a world of objects,’ he writes in the poem ‘Learning To Eavesdrop’, set in a basement food court. Lee observes his fellow consumers, noting how ‘everyone / is a minor character / within their own lives’, as they interact with their chosen items:

a lady holds up a bag of frozen peas
to her face       the melting ice
has grave information to disclose

Similar to Allen Ginsberg’s 1955 poem ‘Supermarket in California’, which provides the epitaph for the collection, Lee’s poetry is always ‘shopping for images’. As the poet drifts through supermarkets, art history classes, apartment blocks, park benches, the Asian Civilisation Museum and a shopping mall submerged by a flood, he often comes face to face with the absurd, such as the opening lines of ‘Fever Dream’:

Tired of folding my arms
across my belly, I’ve decided

to hang from the ceiling
in a bloated way

like a fish awaiting
its new life on a lacquer plate

Again and again, the poet pines for a simpler world and for an escape from globalisation. He laments ‘the rising price of lentils’ and repeatedly finds himself stuck: fearing death in the shower, frozen like marble in the aisles or trapped on a bus, while oranges, frozen peas, multigrain bread, patchouli-scented candles and ‘new world wines’ are given a mystical status. Somehow the products know more, and feel more, than we do.

In ‘Rupture of Fruit Through a Plastic Bag’, an orange belonging to ‘Madam Lee’ escapes from a plastic bag on a busy bus and tumbles down the aisle:

Her newly-purchased fruit were grown on trees
in California, with the same sun as the one
beating down Sembawang Road

Oranges are not only escaping plastic bags, they are able to transcend continents and timezones, while Madam Lee remains stuck on the bus.  Another plastic bag of fruit seems to know more than we do in ‘First World Grocery Shopping’:

your plastic bag of lemons blinking in your hands sweating their dew
into dark shapes announcing through their
waxen skin                  this is a memory          we are your songs
go bake a tart

As the lemons begin their blinking, sweating and announcing, it is clear they’re granted an intelligence that once belonged to us – memories and songs – before dismissing their owner completely, or in their words: ‘go bake a tart’.

Lee is part of a new generation of Singapore poets published by the influential Math Paper Press who are forced to navigate the authoritarian city-state’s strict censorship constraints. In her 2016 essay ‘Chapter and Verse’, Math Paper Press poet Amanda Chong explains poetry’s role in a city with ‘growing feelings of dislocation, a widening income gap and limited historical consciousness’. ‘Singaporeans have an affinity for obliqueness, eschewing direct confrontation for more coded expressions,’ Chong writes. ‘Poetry is seen as the ivory tower of the intelligentsia, its messages safely elevated from the masses. This has created space for narratives that contest State orthodoxy.’

A Field Guide to Supermarkets in Singapore is full of these coded expressions. Living between East and West, Lee employs absurdist devices to perform agency – his ‘world of objects’ can move more freely than the individual. At the same time, the collection often practices what it fears the most: the lyrical voice is buried under the products of globalisation, trying to find its place between Ikea furniture and a future ecological collapse. Or, as painfully stated in the final lines of ‘First World Grocery Shopping’: ‘yes the meek shall inherit the earth / and we will celebrate with bespoke cocktails.’

Natasha Stallard

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