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Lions Roar : September 2007
About a Poem: George Elliott Clarke on Cheng Sait Chia’s “Death” DEATH If it’s there it’s there If it isn’t It isn’t so there Why talk of God and all those things that chafe me I’m not a child afraid to go to bed If it’s time it’s time If it isn’t it isn’t that’s that Why carry on with prayers and all those words that gut my peace I’m not a woman afraid to face her mirror Tell me it’s there I have to prepare my bed Tell me it’s time I have to leave — Cheng Sait Chia from Turned Clay (1982) CHENG SAIT CHIA’s poem, “Death,” published in her on- ly—posthumously issued—collection, Turned Clay (1982), is not my favorite poem; I am for life, unreservedly, and I find this lyric too morbid. But it is a supremely powerful poem, a piece of superb lyricism that attains hugely haunting ef- fects of stoicism, acceptance, and renunciation in a form that mimics the skeletal: pure, stripped-down, enormously simple. Perhaps one reason why the poem is so unadorned, so unpretentious and touching, is that the poet composed it as she was dying. Born of Chinese parents in Singapore in 1941, Cheng Sait Chia studied in Singapore, France, and Canada, moving west to east in Canada before settling, in 1978, with her husband near Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia, where she per- ished of cancer on January 31, 1981. Cheng Sait Chia is a beautiful poet, and “Death” is one of her finest poems. It is shorn of frills, of prettiness; its dig- nity arises from its casual elegance. Death? “If it’s there / it’s there.” But the poet’s also carefully flippant: “If it isn’t / it isn’t / so there.” “So there” rhymes with the previous repeti- tion of “there,” even as it contests the earlier, matter-of-fact acceptance of mortality. These stanzas possess the grace of a ballad—just saying what needs be said—but also their com- plexity, I mean, sudden shifts in meaning or direction, like a Bob Dylan song. Exemplary also is the aphoristic style: “Why talk of God and all those things / that chafe me...” Humanism is recog- nizing we are but animated humus? Given its enviable distillation of feeling and thought, Cheng Sait Chia’s “Death” merits immortality. Read her— and she is resurrected again, again... ♦ GEORGE ELLIOTT CLARKE’s newest book is the dramatic poem, Trudeau: Long March / Shining Path (Gaspereau Press, 2007). 120 SHAMBHALA SUN SEPTEMBER 2007 SEPT 100-120.indd 120 SEPT 100-120.indd 120 6/25/07 5:09:05 PM 6/25/07 5:09:05 PM