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Reviews in Canadian Literature, The Antigonish Review, and Word

Canadian Literature
"Goh Poh Seng's The Girl from Ermita & Selected Poems provides, as the title indicates, a sampling of almost forty years of Goh's poetry that documents a life spent in Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Tahiti, and Canada, among other countries. The breadth of Goh's travels is reflected in work that demonstrates wide-ranging concerns and a capacity to engage with the communities he visits. At times the narrator of these poems is a detached observer; at times the poems take the shape of dramatic monologues. The title poem, for example, allows the girl from Ermita, a Filipino prostitute, to recount the story of her life. This, of course, can evoke the uneasy feeling of appropriation: the male poet stepping into another culture in order to claim the voice of a marginalized female. At the same time, however, the sensitivity of language with which Seng renders these poems, the magic realist tone ("They call me Fely,/ I was born in Samar,/ I'm the girl with the bird in her head) allows us to perceive the poem as mediated by a canny poet. Poems such as these might remind the reader of Michael Ondaatje's "Elizabeth" or "The Cinnamon Peeler" in their blending of the narrative and the figurative.

Goh's development as a poet over the course of four decades is significant. The voice gains confidence as well as a sense of balance. The metaphors are precise and unexpected, and Goh's incorporation of a myriad of languages into his poetry allows us glimpses of the cultures he describes. Through his poetry, Goh reveals himself to be a scrupulous polymath in the Modernist tradition, and the knowledge and sensitivity this imbues to his work is a strength rather than an anachronism. The final poems, written in his new home in Vancouver, display an appealing spareness to the lyric line that leaves the reader wanting to read more from this mature and confident poet."
-Mark Libin, Canadian Literature

The Antigonish Review
"As a book, even though it is basically a "selected poems," The Girl from Ermita is remarkably cohesive. The poems belong together, not because of any narrative or thematic link, but in the more fundamental sense that they appear to have been generated by a single vision. . . [a] powerful poetic imagination."
-John Fell, The Antigonish Review

Volume 5, Issue 2
Goh Poh Seng, playwright, poet, and novelist, was born in Malaysia, received his medical degree from University College in Dublin, and practiced medicine in Singapore for 25 years. He now lives in Vancouver. The Girl from Ermita, his first book to be published in North America, is made up of selected older material and newer work written since he settled in Canada, His poetry, as might be expected, has an international, multi-cultural outlook, featuring Vietnamese, Tahitian, and Canadian characters, with references ranging from Greek to Maori myth, and the incorporation of Indonesian, Tahition, and Tagalog words. (Fortunately, there's a glossary in the back.)

The common theme running through Seng's poetry is one of celebration of the natural world and humanity's place within it. Whether that place, that world, humanity, is bad or good is ambiguous, at best, but Seng incorporates that ambiguity into the celebration. In other words, people may be screwing up the planet and/or themselves, but we can take solace in the fact of recognizing that. Seng is a realist, yes, but, in a sense, something of a magic-realist, capable of seeing the extra- in the -ordinary.

The title poem begins with a fairy tale-ish tone which is quickly undermined; "But you don't really want / to hear the same old hard-luck story! / There are no new legends anymore," The hardluck story? The title character's abusive childhood and descent into prostitution. But it's no big deal - there are no new legends; "Now I fuck for a refrigerator / or for my daughters school fees." Prostitution is just another ordinary-enough-aspect of life to deal with, as is the abuse the girl received from her step-father, as is the 'love' she sells; "Come, lie with me / and I will be your love... / it's good therapy. / I'll give you good value for your money." There's no meaning to love, yet she speaks lovingly of her daughter. Is there meaning in that love? Is life a fairy tale? It is and it isn't, Seng seems to be saying, but it is,

The poem 'Dublin Revisited - 1985' perhaps better illustrates this contradictory celebratory notion. Returning, after a 32 year absence, to Dublin to visit his son, the speaker/Seng becomes nostalgic for his student days; "dreaming young of the good times / and how it felt / to be totally free." Celebratory lines - immediately undermined; "There was no such thing, of course [as freedom]" and he chides himself for his wistfulness; "Enough of this misting of the eyes / like an old goat / afflicted with selective memory," Seng continues in an attempt to wam his son of the vagaries of life - "We are all ignorant of the past, / doubtful of the future / ... nobody's life is perfect" - sobering enough, pessimistic enough phrases, but Seng ends the poem with the heartening command, "my son, do not be afraid." The celebration is undercut by pessimism, the pessimism undercut by optimism; life sucks but it doesn't.

It's a realistic argument, down-to-earth, and hard to deny, though I'm not sure whether I find the notion and Seng's poetry depressing or not. Every time he leads you down a despairing path, he brings you back to cautious joy or, at the very least, optimism. No doubt this is his intention, swinging the emotional pendulum, and he is largely successful.

The poems I enjoyed most in The Girl from Ermita numbered among the later ones, the ones written while living in Canada. They are, generally shorter, sparer in tone, language and wordiness, and their impact more immediate. 'Our Back Garden, Victoria Drive', for instance, reiterates his theme in nine short lines, Although more whimsical than the much lengthier 'The Girl from Ermita', 'Our Back Garden...' - about the fleeting quality of summer days and the necessity of allowing them to be fleeting - has more intensity, perhaps because the shorter structure is better suited to his theme of cautious optimism, cheerful pessimism.
-Aidan Baker, Word