Kirpal Singh (review date 1978)
SOURCE: “A People's Poet,” in World Literature Written in English, Vol. XVII, No. 2, November, 1978, pp. 598-603.
[In the following laudatory review of Gods Can Die, Singh deems Thumboo “undoubtedly the most powerful voice of literary consciousness in his part of the globe.”]
Those of us who are familiar with the literary scene of Singapore will applaud the appearance of Gods Can Die. Edwin Thumboo is today undoubtedly the most powerful voice of literary consciousness in that part of the globe, and it is gratifying to note that after a lapse of twenty-one years he has once again decided to put his poems together in a book. Rib of Earth (1956), his first collection of poems, revealed a poetic talent rare in one using an acquired language to express himself. Over the years Thumboo has not only ably fulfilled the promise so clearly shown in that first volume, but has greatly refined his style to offer a mature poetry which depicts forcefully the environment in which he writes. In these days when almost any literature coming out of former colonies is greeted with aplomb, it is necessary to be able to discriminate the really worthwhile from the merely impressionistic. This is a point which cannot be over-emphasised: as Lee Tzu Pheng (herself an eminent poet) writes in her Foreword to Gods Can Die,
Much of what passes for poetry nowadays, even though offered with the most genuine intentions and zeal, does little for the state of the art, and even less for its reception by an unconvinced public. The situation is especially permissive in those countries now recognised as possessing an emergent literature in English. Confidence in the authenticity of English as a literary medium where English is the second tongue has bred attitudes which equate this authenticity with a general license for admitting almost anything attempted in English as “creative.” Indeed, in our enthusiasm, we have perhaps neglected to be critical.
Thumboo's poetry is, perhaps, best defined as being a poetry which sensitively expresses what the rational mind reflects upon. Nothing is taken for granted; even words, the very materials with which the poet fashions his thinking, are critically examined and commented upon:
Words are dangerous, especially The simple kind you leave behind for others, For undesirable relatives and assorted purposes. They are understood simply, edited, Taken with a kind of air, a careful disregard: Their plainness complicates.
(“Words,” p. 1)
When the critical eye turns itself to issues of a social/political nature, the resulting commentary is poignant with the awareness that the existing state of affairs leaves much to be desired:
These days are taut, suspicious. Uncertain of itself, the air Blooms in mis-shapen brown. My trees turn green without relief: Soft and black, your hair Is now the colour of the town.
In the room they speak of social harm, Talk deep into the night, Beneath the surface of a modern calm, Prejudice sits tight. Evening rides upon a pin Of light, congeals.
(“Colour,” p. 21)
And when it comes to questioning the ethics involved in a culture-exchange designed for the betterment of the recipient country, Thumboo can be severe in his rebuke of those who adopt the superior pose. In “Fifteen Years After,” written upon the death of his own teacher-friend Shamus Frazer (the author of The Crocodile Dies Twice), Thumboo admonishes those expatriates whose involvement with their work is superficial and laments the loss of those who, like Frazer, had the interests of the natives at heart:
But teacher and friend, white man, What are...
(The entire section is 1572 words.)