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Review: When the Barbarians Arrive, by Alvin Pang

Alvin Pang's When The Barbarians Arrive mixes new work with poems from three collections published in Singapore, where Pang is a vocal proponent of contemporary urban poetry. His poems are at once witty and dreamy...

Pang sweeps through the registers, but he returns often to a particularly effective tone of economical compassion which applies to lovers, the dead and - beyond such obvious targets - to Singapore itself, perhaps the whole world. Some of his best poems, such as The Scent of the Real and What it Means to be Landless, have a renunciative quality which is subtler than elegy, while The Burning Room, a lyric gloss on the unlikely topic of spontaneous combustion, seeks to model self-annihilation in poetic filigree: when my lover returns, the speaker says, I am already the ash he wonders at.

When the Barbarians Arrive, the title poem, concludes the book and compresses Pang's poetic concerns (authenticity, agony, love, the telling and retelling of history) into a striking primer on packaging resistance in capitulation's dress, Pang develops an interplay of submission, display and torture which implicitly answers both Cavafy's famous Waiting for the Barbarians and J.M. Coetzee's novel of the same title, as well as staking the territory of his own defiantly tender postcolonial poetics.