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Literary Arts

Nightswimming in Arthur Yap’s ‘nightjar’

Yeow Kai Chai on how the pioneer poet’s private introspection reels everyone in


Published: 17 Nov 2020

Time taken : ~10mins

My fellow birdwatcher, what is a nightjar,

                                                     and more importantly, how do you spot one?

You’re likely to locate it,
by listening:

here, in the night, trees sink deeply downward.
the sound of moonlight walking on black grass
magnifies the clear hard calls of a nightjar,
its soliloquy of ordered savagery, little intervals.
time, clinging on the wrist, ticks it by
but eyes, glued to the dark pages of night,
could not scan the source on the branch.

its insistent calls jab & jab so many times
to a silent ictus, so many times, ringing off the branch
in tiny sharp tuks, each lifting from the last

through the night. while the shadows of the trees
go past the edge of sleep & i sit awake,
if it’s footfalls across the road, they should be
far away. sounding on the trees, an euphony
lodged on high, the starlit side of heaven.

So, what does a nightjar really sound like?

What it isn’t:

a show-off aria by a typical songbird: the soprano’s trill of a red-whiskered bulbul (merbak jambul), or that of an oriental white-eye (mata puteh); matched by the staccato cooing of a zebra dove (merbok); or the kaleidoscopic riches of a white-rumped sharma, or the whistlin’ filigrees of a Chinese thrush (hwamei).

A nightjar’s call is none of the above.

What it is:

a singular voice—stencilled by a series of ululations, not pretty chirrups but rather a monotonous loop of tuk-tuk-tuk (think James Earl Jones as Darth Vader). It is odd. It does not ingratiate. It is the imperturbable voice of a loner.

Any surprise that the assiduously private poet, Arthur Yap, would write an ode to an oft-heard, little-seen bird?

Fact: The nightjar isn’t endangered by any means, widespread as it is in numerous continents and known by various incredible regional names.

It ranges from the onomatopoeically-named eastern whip-poo-will or chuck-will’s-widow (both from North America), to its subtropical South American cousin common pauraque, which delivers a whistled weeeow wheeooo (“who-r-you”), a gentle puk-puk and a whip in a courtship flight) as well as Mexico’s buff-collared nightjar which is said to call out its Spanish name, “tucuchillo”, in a swiftly accelerating skein of clucks ending with a definitive “chee-aa.”

The sub-species found in our part of the world is the large-tailed nightjar. A crepuscular and nocturnal bird, it squats inconspicuously, like a toad, or a mini Jabba the Hutt; its largely brown, cryptically-patterned plumage means it’s perfectly camouflaged in tall grass and other shady areas, only taking off when an intruder nears. Accordingly, it has a fondness for the cemetery, thus its macabre moniker in Malay, “burung tukang kubur” (“gravedigger bird”). 

Hidden in plain sight

What then to make of Yap’s choice of bird, and his kinship with it? 

You remember the last time you saw the poet in person (several years before he died of nasopharyngeal carcinoma on 19 June 2006). The chance encounter was at the last of the Forum Readings, a monthly series which ended in the early 2000s at the old National Library at Stamford Road.

He sat at a discreet corner of the Courtyard, by himself, hidden in plain sight.

A recent check with the co-organisers, namely Paul Tan, Heng Siok Tian and Yong Shu Hoong, confirms that Yap had turned up unexpectedly. Siok recalled asking him why he came. He replied that he had read in the papers about the Forum readings ending, and he wanted to see it for himself. He politely declined to join us for drinks afterwards.

Reading the poem nightjar (from his fourth and last collection, Man Snake Apple & Other Poems, Heinemann Asia, 1986), you’d realise privacy does not preclude engagement. He does not hobnob, but that does not mean he is anti-social, hermetic or misanthropic. In his case, the privacy/quietude affords an alertness, and a curious eye for observation. His inquisitive verse is attuned to the minutiae of everyday life, particularly its less obvious rhythms. 

He stands apart so he can better scrutinise the interlaced universe of systems, patterns and behaviours, rooted as it is in his appreciation of “textual cohesion and generative grammars gleaned from his linguistic studies” (Robert Yeo 1999, p. 138).

Yap’s reticence and scepticism of an essentialist identity is why critics have differentiated his opus from that by poets like Edwin Thumboo and Robert Yeo, whose nationalist aesthetics partake in “the macro-narratives of nationhood” (Goh 2006, p. 36).

While they explicate, he implicates. Every sentient creature is linked. Whereas many works by poets of his generation are sign-posted by large themes and concerns (invariably tethered to the nation-building arc), his remain unpinnable, un-dogmatic, low-key and minimalist (literally so, in his affinity for the lowercase). 

Is it mere coincidence that the titular subject of the poem nightjar is hidden from view?

Still, you know the bird is there, there. Its presence, secluded, can only be deduced from the sounds it makes. Yap’s description melds the forensic exactitude of Imagism with a daub of Surrealism—what Rajeev Patke calls his ability to use “words precisely in order to evoke imprecision”. (pp. 174-175).

On one hand, the bird is objectified into glassware, a music instrument, a glass jar, if you will. Hear the “clear hard calls”, the “little intervals”. On the other, the poet acknowledges the wildness which subsists in “its soliloquy of ordered savagery”.

“i” melting into the soundscape

The co-existence of contrarian elements (object/animal) is integral to what Boey Kim Cheng identifies as the liminality underscoring Yap’s poems, which are open fields of ambiguity (Boey 2009, p 22-35).

Nature, thus, isn’t a passive canvas, but rather an active participant, especially so in the amniotic sea of night. Anthropomorphised “trees sink deeply downward,” and one is lulled by “the sound of moonlight walking on black grass” while “the shadows of the trees go past the edge of sleep.”

In fact, the poem goes beyond birdwatching (or more accurately, bird-listening), to become something else, an immersive Sensurround experience, where the “i” is transmuted, or diffused into it, the soundscape expanding…:

& i sit awake,
if it’s footfalls across the road, they should be
far away.

Astir, the senses are porous, yet it is significant that his is not a godly omniscience with access to everything:

eyes, glued to the dark pages of night,
could not scan the source on the branch.

Contingent, everything is at risk of obfuscation, and it’s alright. At the core of this avian ode is another wondrous still-life in constant movement.

Tactile frissons are replete throughout his oeuvre. In the poem tropical paradise, he itemises “the feel of things”, “textures”, “the elastic skin/gently pliant to the touch” and “the cold metallic shock/of water in a shaded pool, galvanizing all the pores”. In change of pace, he describes how “the sun tumbles out/scattering its spectrum wetly over grass”.

These sensory transgressions mean it can sometimes be hard to pinpoint the line between nature/culture, rural/urban. In still-life v, Yap asks, “where does rigour end & rigor mortis begin?”; and in dramatis personae, he asks, “where does the road end and the beach begin?” 

As Zhou Xiaojing contends, nature in Yap’s poems “does not assume a ‘compatible’ or an ‘unalterably alien’, ‘unfeeling’ attribute; rather, nature, culture, and humans are fused into an infinite process of evolution” (p. 115).

More echo-poetry than eco-poetry

Do poems like nightjar qualify as a nascent form of eco-poetry then? Maybe they do, maybe they don’t. One suspects Yap won’t give a definitive answer.

For one, his often paratactic approach to things is refreshingly democratic. Where many eco-poets tend to wax lyrical about nature’s munificent gifts, bemoan climate change or decry human destruction of the environment– in short, push forward a clear-cut moral agenda from the get-go—Yap does not proselytise, at least not so bluntly.

Instead, he gently invites the reader into a so-called “floating world”, to adapt the title of one Kazuo Ishiguro novel, where borders are adrift, and all elements fair game. This “indeterminacy”, as critic Marjorie Perloff has characterised as the driving force for the avant-garde branch of 20th-century modernism, “allows for free play, constructing a way of happening rather than an account of what has happened, a way of looking rather than a description of how things look” (p. 85).

In nightjar, the way of happening or looking is limned in micro shifts of emotion:

its insistent calls jab & jab so many times
to a silent ictus, so many times, ringing off the branch
in tiny sharp tuks, each lifting from the last

Is there, for instance, a perceptible dint of annoyance at the bird’s “insistent calls” which “jab & jab” at a “silent ictus”, not to mention the double repeat of the phrase “so many times”?

Look at it this way—this becomes less about nature per se,

but more about the nature of finding existential meaning, to “scan the source”, so to speak, navigating this mind-field we call Life, beyond “dark pages of night”, past “shadows of the trees”—

never mind the mystery bird who comes and goes—

to arrive at one’s inner
jar resonant

an euphony
lodged on high, the starlit side of heaven.


Boey, Kim Cheng. “From the Tentative to the Conditional: Detachment and Liminality in the Poetry of Arthur Yap”. In Sharing Borders: Studies in Contemporary Singaporean-Malaysian Literature II (2009): 22-35.

Goh, Robbie B.H. “Imagining the Nation: The Role of Singapore Poetry in Singapore in ‘Emergent Nationalism’ ”. Journal of Commonwealth Literature 41, no. 2 (2006): 21-41.

Patke, Rajeev S. “Ambivalence and Ambiguity in the Poetry of Arthur Yap”. In Complicities: Connections and Divisions, Perspectives on Literatures and Cultures of the Asia-Pacific Region, edited by Chitra Sankaran, Leong Liew Geok and Rajeev Patke. Bern: Lang, 2003.

Perloff, Marjorie. The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981.

Yeo, Robert. “Parts of Speech: A Speculative Note on Arthur Yap’s ‘Commonplace’”. In Interlogue: Studies in Singapore Literature. Volume 2: Poetry, edited by Kirpal Singh. Singapore: Ethos Books, 1999.

Zhou, Xiaojing. “Arthur Yap’s Ecological Poetics of the Daily”. In Common Lines and City Spaces: A Critical Anthology on Arthur Yap, edited by Gui Weihsin (2014): 114-132.

Contributed by:

Yeow Kai Chai

Yeow Kai Chai is a poet, fiction writer, editor and arts curator. He has been working in the media industry for more than two decades, including as entertainment editor and music reviewer, in various newspapers such as Life, The Straits Times, 8 Days and My Paper. An editor of Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, he served as Festival Director of the Singapore Writers Festival from 2015 to 2018, and helped launch the nationwide music platform, Hear65, when he was working at the National Arts Council.

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