A Critique of "Poems by Dr Ng Kian Seng"
I must first confess that I am neither a literary critic, nor a poet. But I love reading, writing, passionate causes and sensitive literature, which have I believed, coloured my approach to life.
My first contact with Kian Seng was when he first submitted some of his poems to the MMA News (Berita MMA) for publication. I remembered that this was almost 12-13 years ago, when this little known physician from a small town in Kluang, Johor, would submit these pithy if esoteric verses that verge on religiosity and perhaps a dash of erudition, so long forgotten in this era of byte-size throw-away ephemeral simplicity.
Since then, I have learnt that Kian Seng is indeed a phenomenon in his own style and panache. He has published his verses widely in more than 52 publications; indeed he gained a PhD for his work linking poetry, aesthetics to Christian themes. His poems have filled 3 previous books of verses. Another Kind of Magic is his fourth.
He is an accomplished batik water-colorist, as well as a lay-pastor, besides being an Internist Physician. His literary works including some short stories, have won several prizes nationally and globally, and his website alwaysmorebeyond.blogspot.com carries a treasure trove of collections of his works, which showcase the breadth and depth of his talents.
I remembered arguing with my editorial board members then, that we had to publish these poems because, if for nothing else, they appeared to impinge upon my untutored mind as extraordinary pieces of creativity, which touched my heart, and penetrated my cloistered senses. I have always believed that the practice of medicine must encompass more of the humanities, i.e. the greater gentler Art to temper the stone-cold Science of dispassion.
We started tentatively, but soon, I believe, Kian Seng’s poetical influence began to ignite others, other doctors to create their own, if less polished endeavours. Thus, began our foray into the literary world of single column poems and verses. Dr Ng Kian Seng is one of that rare breed of physicians, whose artistic talent and sensibility beacons sweep stroboscopic swathes of spotlights on our otherwise hidden perceptional recesses, igniting our hitherto hibernating sensitivities. Perhaps, these might have helped make us that little bit more human!
In the increasingly senseless, humdrum lives of physicians, Kian Seng has used his considerable creativity to prod and hone the subtle sensitivity of others less endowed. His cerebral if picturesque imageries exude a sensuousness, which mirrors some of our longings, our unspoken if déjà vu glimpses that elude the more mundane amongst us.
With considerable ease, his carefully crafted style snatches and melds together contrasting snapshots from medical, biblical, Homeric and even contemporary (David Blaine, Dan Brown, Leslie Cheung!) templates, as well as from gleanings of a wide array of poets and renowned literati.
Underlying the poetic licence of juxtaposed thought-provoking contradictions, I perceive a tugging of irrational belief, of faith leaping off the ‘magical’, the inexplicable, even as we choose to be scientistic, in a world where popular agnosticism is widespread among many nowadays.
Yet, I believe that the underpinning Christian faith of Kian Seng effortlessly merges well-read erudition with insightful sagacious interpretations, making sense of the otherwise senseless…
Using metaphors from common day-to-day examples, even historic ones, Kian Seng manages to weave together ‘haiku’-like stanzas of unique expressions of hope/despair and contrapuntal puzzlement. Consider “Lights, Lamps & Leaping Flames” where in the 3rd piece The Unhallowed Ground: “There are no bushfires / in New York, only Twin Towering / fires and religion the unhallowed / ground on which terrorist boots / stomped.” The horror of 9/11 is quizzically remembered, juxtaposing bushfire passion with religious intolerance, hence terrorism.
Yet underlying it all, one senses the religiosity and his Christian roots bursting through: “Is it not the still / small voice that Elijah heard?” and “Shall it be then, my hand / upon yours, my finger writing / on your palm, wordlessly, the single / resolute Word Who will say / what I feel and feel what / I say?"
In Another Kind of Magician, he subdivides his thoughts into the biblical Genesis of 7 days: Beginning, Musing, Seeing, Praising, Mirroring, Meaning, Resting. When he thinks aloud on Infinity within the section on Mirroring, his God-guided logic emerges: “When my gaze / is not on myself, I see / in parallel mirrors my reflections / creating an image of God. / This then is poetry / where the law of physics / is multiplied infinitely.” There is thus, much to absorb, to muse ourselves, to enjoy in the occasionally quixotic and the sacred.
In The Final Diagnosis, medical themes stretch from musings of madness, schizophrenia, Parkinsonism and dementia, to suicide, drug addiction, patient woes, to headaches and healing. These exploit the urgent and the cryptic breadth of medicine’s less than clear-cut diagnoses, their unfamiliar less-explored nuances, from the vantage points not just of the patient’s but clearly too, of the physician’s.
For the uninitiated however, some of these medicalese or jargon may be less accessible, but the emotions attendant to the evoked verses still ring true with vivid colors of uncommon understanding and penetrating perceptiveness. An example of ironic contrapuntal realities blending disease with emotion is seen in the following: “But the pain is the greater / cancer, it spreads not into adjacent / organs but metastasizes by jumping / across chasms, from body to mind, / the secondaries in the psyche / causing the greater distress.”
In “God does hear your cries of pain…” you can almost feel and sense the pulse of the hospital setting: “Do you not hear them too? / The sigh of a hospital-pale / bouquet as it sheds tears / of petals. The high strung / weeping of morphine as it travels / a plastic route from bottle / to body. The sobbing of the cardiac / monitor as the screen numbers / the minutes of a fluttering / heart. The groans of the trolley / wheeling in the many last / suppers………………………”
Thus, doctors interested in the offbeat literary aspect of medicine, would do well to read and digest the sensibilities of these ailments behind the façade of pure doctor-patient encounter and the accustomed cold comfort of case-diagnosis compartmentalization and barriers, which physicians are so prone to erect, and shield themselves…
Perhaps our more human, humane side would be better served, by being prodded on to contemplate on some of the themes so magically put together by Kian Seng.
Another Kind of Magic is worth many moments of musing and contemplation, to realize or to reignite our passion, our vocation, our common humanity and perhaps to experience the God-centred inspirations of a fine doctor steeped in the tradition of the Arts and indeed the Humanities!
Dr David KL Quek,
Kuala Lumpur, May 2009