Tag Archives: singapore

Dear March –

Dear March – Come in –

How glad I am –

I hoped for you before –

Put down your Hat –

You must have walked –

How out of Breath you are –

Dear March, how are you, and the Rest –

Did you leave Nature well –

Oh March, Come right upstairs with me –

I have so much to tell –


I got your Letter, and the Birds –

The Maples never knew that you were coming –

I declare – how Red their Faces grew –

But March, forgive me –

And all those Hills you left for me to Hue –

There was no Purple suitable –

You took it all with you –

Who knocks? That April –

Lock the Door –

I will not be pursued –

He stayed away a Year to call

When I am occupied –

But trifles look so trivial

As soon as you have come


That blame is just as dear as Praise

And Praise as mere as Blame –


Emily Dickinson


After two days thinking about Poetry, Creativity and Environment at last weekend’s symposium in the School of English at Leeds University, the idea that my mind keeps returning to is one suggested by Zoë Skoulding – ecological writing (and thinking) should always engage with the possibility of imagining something different, a radically altered viewpoint.

Her own practice enacts that process by taking ‘a deliberately skewed perspective’ to both time and place, walking in urban spaces and re-imagining them as if all the accretions of man-made city life were not there, acknowledging historical disjunctions and the impossibility of ‘accuracy’. She read from her wonderful sequence Teint, which charts the Biévre, one of Paris’s underground water courses.


Harriet Tarlo also spoke about her ‘writing outside’, the notion of fieldwork, both alone and in collaboration with artist Judith Tucker – their different disciplines coming together like Bunting’s ‘lines of sound drawn in the air’. Going out in a state of attentive awareness in search of ‘particulars’ and then undertaking a process of ‘condensation’ and ‘selection’, preferring to bypass ‘the lyrical I’ in any resulting text. It was good to hear Harriet quote her mentor in Durham, Ric Caddell: ‘To live here is not to escape’.

I was particularly happy to meet Madeleine Lee, a Leeds alumna like myself. She is a poet and an economist and recently Writer in Residence at Singapore Botanic Gardens, where I spent a fascinating and fruitful week en route to Sydney in 2013. She noticed that people were tending to sleepwalk through the gardens and wanted to draw attention to the environmental implications of their colonial history through poems about native ‘economic plants’ like rubber, nutmeg, clove and other spices, traditionally grown along Orchard Road, now the main shopping avenue. Through her writing she has become an ‘accidental advocate’ of green spaces, the remaining 5% of tropical rainforest on the island of Singapore.


No one was particularly interested in either the didactic/rhetorical or the elegiac/mourning modes of writing about the natural world. Generally these poets are bearing witness to land, place, plants and creatures, dismantling assumptions, risking ambiguity and uncertainty, taking a modernist, experimental stance. A lucid, appreciative interpretation of Jorie Graham’s Prayer (by post-graduate researcher Julia Tanner) reflected the weighing up of moral and ethical predicaments with ‘something instinctive’ in order to transform and ‘re-singularise’ that ‘problematic’ ‘I’ everyone was tiptoeing around so nervously. Although it was heartening to see it for a change, I wondered if the mood and emphasis would have been different if the panel were all-male rather than all-female, or a mixture? Another poet with a strong Leeds connection, Jon Silkin (as you can see from the photo) was also with us in spirit – and in Emma Trott’s paper on his Flower Poems.

Yesterday I walked out of the School of English onto Clarendon Road after my classes, delighted to see the magnolia buds stretching to release their deep pinks and to hear a lone great tit playing the xylophone of its throat – notes going up, notes going down. Encountering poetry and creativity at its most vivid, spontaneous and inescapable out of doors.



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In the Land of the Lion

Image 16This week I’ve been re-visiting Singapore via my notes, photos and audio recordings.  I was unsure how I’d manage the leap in my imagination, skipping back past the intensity of both Australia and Tokyo.  Hearing the sounds again (birds, insects, cascading water plus my own commentary) was a revelation, whisking me right back to the sticky heat and lush exotic plants in the Botanic Gardens – which I was pleased to be reminded I was sorry to leave.

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While I was there, I was reminded of the Malaysian poetic form, the pantoum, and I knew I wanted to experiment with that as a vessel for my impressions of the place.  I’d never written one before and found its repetitions strained and awkward at first but once I got the hang of it, I’ve rather liked its strange braiding.  Something about its haunted hesitations seems fitting for my disorientation when I landed in tropical, inexplicable Singapore from a very snowy UK.

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In The Making of a Poem (Norton, 2000), Mark Strand and Eavan Boland write:

Of all verse forms the pantoum is the slowest: The reader takes four steps forward, then two back.  It is the perfect form for the evocation of a past time….Since the pantoum easily enchants, the close repetition of lines sets up a tight, mesmerising chain of echoes.  It is also a form that allows its listener to relax since all of the lines make a second appearance – what was missed the first time can be picked up on the second…And yet the form is certainly demanding for both reader and poet, with its strange twists of antinarrative time and its unexpectedly hypnotic repetitions.

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Taxonomy Is Not Just Stamp Collecting

When I was in Singapore at the end of January I had the pleasure of meeting Sue Hick, a fellow plant-lover and Northumbrian, for a walk round the Botanic Gardens and tea in the lovely Halia restaurant in the Ginger Garden.  She divides her time between Allendale and Singapore and works as a volunteer in the Singapore Herbarium.  As part of a series of guest posts, I asked Sue if she would write a piece about her work there.  I’m delighted to include it here, with some pictures from my own tour of it.


Taxonomy is not just stamp collecting. Whether you’re talking about answering basic problems in evolution or practical questions on climate change, you can’t begin unless you know what’s there.

Lord May of Oxford, FLS (2003)

This quote sums up the work and importance of a herbarium. The Singapore Herbarium, where I work as a volunteer, is a reference library of all the plants in the region, covering the greater part of SE Asia.  There are specimens collected from all over the area and this is only a small fraction of the regions flora – some have yet to be discovered and some are already extinct.

I have worked there on and off for almost two years. My job is the lowest – I liken the work to a filing clerk in an old fashioned office – I check the dried plant specimens for damage, and then check the label for accuracy and finally re-file it. The herbarium is a quiet, peaceful place, air-conditioned and cool, a refuge from the busy city outside.

herbarium 2

New samples are constantly being collected from the field, pressed, fumigated and mounted on card before filing. Sometimes requests for samples come from researchers in other herbariums; some go to Kew Gardens for inclusion in their massive Herbarium.

Many of the older specimens are brittle and insect-eaten but every piece is kept – it has historical value if nothing else. Sometimes they can be repaired and remounted. The label is vital – a specimen is useless without knowing where it grew and in SE Asia countries change name and boundaries shift with time, e.g. many countries have new names since colonial times and it is even harder to pinpoint a plant collected on mountain ‘A ‘ if you have no knowledge of the country. I work with an atlas at my right hand – the last time I studied geography was in high school too many years ago!

Working there we see many researchers from all over the world who come to study the specimens. It is interesting talking to them as they discover new species or lament the absence of others. There is a sense of history as I find specimens collected by the old plant hunters from years ago – missionaries or colonial officers, or even ones collected by Ridley – Director of the Herbarium from 1888 to 1911 and who introduced the rubber tree to Malaya, which helped to make it a rich and prosperous colony of the British Empire.  I have worked at his desk and felt he would be proud of his followers who work there now.

Sue Hick                                                                                                                                  

February 2013

herbarium 3

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photo2The first plant life on earth dates back to around 470 million years ago.  Human beings appeared somewhere in the region of 100,000 years ago.  1500 years BCE the Chinese started making gardens according to precise philosophical principles.  A Chinese garden, although imitating natural landscapes, would consist of a series of spaces suited to different uses at different times of day.  Features such as gates, rocks, waterfalls and ponds were less literal than metaphysical and symbolic; the garden a representation of the cosmos, inner and outer wholeness.

I wonder why I’ve been surprised in Sydney to see how strong the connection is with China: after all in Australia our far east is their near north.  There is also a large Chinese community in the city, currently gearing up for the Chinese New Year celebrations, the beginning of Spring (in China, that is, here we’re moving towards the end of summer, although it’s hotter than any summer I’ve ever known – only one of the reasons why a traveller might be a little disorientated…)

photo4The Chinese influence on gardening has been a thread I’ve been able to bring with me as I’ve journeyed south.  In Singapore it was impossible to ignore the New Year celebrations – everywhere decorated with red and gold, often involving mandarins and pineapples, considered auspicious fruits because of their colour.  Shops, bars, restaurants and hotels were all lit up, like a hotter version of Christmas.

At the Gardens by the Bay, in Singapore, among the gardens representing the various ethnicities of the population (Malay, Indian, Chinese and ‘Colonial’), the Chinese Garden, while beautiful, was almost theatrical – a set piece dependent on the judicious placing of weathered stones as much as the planting.  A long canopied seating area allowed you to sit and view it, a living tableau.

Every aspect of gardening is a form of deception.

Tan Twan Eng – The Garden of Evening Mists (2012)

Here in Sydney Botanic Gardens there is an Oriental Garden, with two temple arches, lions and lanterns and many varieties of bamboo, among other native Chinese plants.  A large sign proudly announces the sponsorship of HSBC Bank – evidence of the strong financial links with Asia, which has buffered the country from our current economic challenges in the West.

The Full Moon this weekend will see the start of the Year of the Snake.  It’s a well-omened year according to the Chinese – they see the snake as a dragon in waiting.  It’s meant to be a good year for change, for the shedding of skins and new beginnings.  A Chinese Garden – like any garden anywhere perhaps – is as its best at its simplest, its most essential: the perfection achieved when you can’t take anything else away.

photoIn the 3rd century CE Shi Chong created the Garden of the Golden Valley where he would invite literary friends to walk, eat and drink, take in the scenery.  Their Poems of the Golden Valley marked the beginning of the long and venerable tradition of writing poetry in and about gardens.

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Friday 25th

At Singapore Botanic Gardens I’ve been reminded that the word Zing comes from the botanical name for the Ginger family – Zingiberaceae.  I’ve spent the past couple of afternoons trying to get my zing back in the Ginger Garden, drinking ice-cold ginger beer.

When I left England in the snow it was hard to imagine just how hot it would be out here and now that I’m here it’s impossible to remember feeling cold.  I think perhaps for the first time in my life I have understood how important trees are simply for shade, respite from the sun’s glare.

Tuesday 29th

I am just getting acclimatised now it’s nearly time to leave.  There’s so much to take in here – both in and out of the Gardens – almost overwhelming for a woman who lives in a field in Northumberland.  Today will be my last visit to the Botanic Gardens – 74 hectares landscaped around a central core of original rainforest.  I’ve been most days and still need longer to see everything.  Stunning flowers and trees, all beautifully arranged.

On Saturday I got a tour round the Herbarium from one of the researchers here.  Around 650,000 species, with space for a million.  Also an insight into the Orchid Propagation Laboratories.  More on this later…

Wednesday 30th

On the brink of my departure, much of my time in the Gardens here (the Gardens by the Bay as well as the Botanic Garden) has felt like a puzzle – as if the gardens themselves are translations of the natural world and I am trying to make translations of translations.  Singapore styles itself not so much as a Garden City than a ‘City in a Garden’ and this refraction creates a surreal quality.  Quite often I have felt as if I were in a dream, Alice in Wonderland.  Even more so when I hear of the 5 foot snow drifts back at home.

I’ll post some photos later when I’m back in more familiar apple territory.

there is garden

and there is the opposite

of garden

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