The Weight of an Image

Theophilus Kwek – Moving House (Carcanet, 2020)

There was one line that convinced me I needed to buy this book. It appears in the poem “What it’s Like” and describes a young revolutionary receiving an AK47: “they placed it in his hands, a baby’s weight”.

The image is so perfect. The surprising density of the weapon. The soldier’s duty to his gun. A weight of responsibility, thrust into your hands.

It was my introduction to Theophilus Kwek, and I was pleased to find it a fitting one. His poetry is, on its surface, deceptively simple. Careful syllables spell out scenes in what, presented differently, could be prose. Then, suddenly, he spins a simile. Everything, suddenly, comes together.

The collection is called Moving House, and it contains a loose theme of journeys, travel, exodus and emigration. As a Singaporean-Chinese writer now in Britain, Kwek brings a weight of personal experience to these poems. But he is not afraid of the imagination either.

Most poems come with a short epigram. These present us with a person or a situation, often a catastrophe or tragedy, to which the poem responds. The responses are often direct, but carry universal messages.

The image of the weapon, for example, is in reference to the Malayan emergency; communist guerrillas destroyed the country’s fledgling democracy only to be massacred in turn by a new dictatorship. The young man receiving his burden is immediate and sympathetic, but also historically informed.

Always and everywhere, it is young men who fight the wars. Violence is passed down to them, like a crying baby. The weight of responsibility always falls on them. Some pick it up gladly, others in fear.

Kwek often lingers in home territories, exploring the Malayan conflict and, in Britain, his encounters in London and Oxford. Yet there are more far-flung flights of imagination.

The “Notes on a Landscape” cycle, responding to the Icelandic sagas, is majestic. It does justice both to the landscape that inspired it and the ancient culture it depicts.

His six translations of Meng Haoran’s “Spring Dawn” are another highlight, demonstrating the flexibility of ideogrammatic translations. He moves from a minimalist haiku-esque rendering of the poem to a long and flowing tale, no doubt injecting plenty of artistic license along the way.

More than anything, these poems demonstrate poetic sophistication. They are restrained and cautious, but sufficiently evocative to merit much rereading.

– Joe Darlington

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