SINGAPORE - Reading Arthur Yap in 2014 is both a challenge and a privilege.
In a Singapore literary scene replete with more poets and poet-wannabes than ever, he remains an enigma, copied but seldom bettered.
Seven years since the intensely private Singapore poet died of cancer in 2006, his poetry defies easy pigeonholing, try as you may. While the reputation of various canonised contemporaries has waned over time - some of their works now appear quaintly dated - Yap's standing is undimmed.
If anything, his stature has risen. His poems are strikingly modern and untethered to trends; ceaselessly interpretable according to a reader's own set of presumptions. Difficult, quiet, non-nationalistic, even ambivalently sensual (as is the valiant conclusion of poet Cyril Wong who teases out a homosexual subtext in Yap's poetry in a recent essay for Axon journal) - you can apply any of these epithets to him, and you're still far from comprehending the whole picture.
Perusing The Collected Poems Of Arthur Yap - containing an impressive oeuvre collating four collections and assorted poems in various journals - one sees the allure of his poems for a younger generation of writers.
Technically, he is a master. His sentences are so concise, each word is definitive. You feel you have been X-rayed, dissected, reconstituted, yet no one could quite figure out his thought process. Emotionally, though, his lowercase discreetness means he would not make a song and dance about issues, or, worse, point a finger or wave a proselytising flag.
Instead, he'd assiduously take things apart like a surgeon, then make you see them anew. The first lines from fair youth, among a handful of poems offered to Quarterly Literary Review Singapore in 2001, are telling: "they are handsome, perhaps had there been/a different set of good looks in any of them,/s/he would have stood out."
The linguistic precision belies a complex of possible reactions. Does one detect an admiration, or a tinge of jealousy, for youth's arrogant attractiveness? Or is there a tacit acknowledgement that beauty has its own cruel hierarchy? Later in the poem, Yap slips in a line so casually, the effect is shocking in its clarity: "on the sand, the loner averred in anguish: i have AIDS."
Youth isn't invincible after all, the poet realises - and that rare use of capital letters is glaring testimony. This piece, plus those latter-day poems which appeared in The Straits Times Life! books tabloid in 2001, show that Yap, a linguist by training, had sharpened his sociological scalpel. One such poem, in search - about one's pursuit to find a pet for a small flat, skewers the deeper human need: "one searches/ for oneself in another guise, whatever traits/in mirror-image empathy."