Dr Anne Lee’s latest collections of poems and personal sharings give the reader an insight into her remarkable journey of faith
Reading Singaporean poet Anne Lee Tzu Pheng’s latest works is akin to witnessing an artist’s spiritual journey as she shares her reflections on faith, literature and various other matters.
“Of late, I’m very much conscious of … the working of the Spirit through words,” the parishioner of the Church of St Mary of the Angels said during the launch of her three latest books at the church’s St Clare Hall.
“I do see words as angels, messengers of God … When you put them in a group, like a poem, all kinds of things can happen, things beyond your control.”
Dr Lee, 66, a candidate in the Secular Franciscan Order, launched Short Circuits, Catching Connections and Sing a Song of Mankind on Dec 8.
Short Circuits, a collection of essays, is clearly the most autobiographical of the three. In it, she shares her at times intense spiritual experiences and musings on her Catholic faith, as well as the connection between spirituality and literature, mainly poetry.
In one essay, the former associate professor of English Literature at the National University of Singapore, who converted to Catholicism in 1989, shares that her faith journey began even before she was baptised.
Listening to a reading of a poem by the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins at the age of 23, “a curious receptivity had been preparing me for some sort of revelation about my life”.
Then in 1987, she experienced a transfiguring moment when she “saw” the “suffering Christ” in the face of a university student. This happened even before she was baptised.
From 2008-2010, she underwent what spiritual writers would describe as the “dark night of the soul”. God seemed “silent” then and “prayer seemed useless”, she recalls.
However, “the light began to penetrate bit by bit” when she began to write creatively again and rejoined the parish’s lectors’ ministry.
In addition to reflecting on her pilgrimages to places associated with St Francis of Assisi in Italy, Dr Lee also makes a spiritual connection with poetry-writing:
“Poetry, as I have come to see in my own practice, is a way to tap into the very life of this Mystery we call God, through His own holy gift of words. God spoke Creation into being.”
Catching Connections, a collection of poems with a few short stories at the end, continues her reflections on life, ranging in subject matter from poetry, nation and religion to love and cyberspace.
The poem All Crooks reflects her love for wordplay:
we are all crooks
caught in the hand
of the Chief Shepherd
he uses us as hooks
to bring the strays back
Poems such as Little Flowers From The Rieti Valley see the poet reflecting on the life of St Francis during a pilgrimage to Italy:
Francis, little brother, your heart was larger
than this open country ...
Brother Wind, you carry Brother Crow on your back
that he may feel his Creator’s sustaining breath ...
This collection also contains several short stories – what Dr Lee calls “fictioning with a Catholic flavour” – which describe characters’ painful spiritual experiences.
Thanks Be to God, for example, tells how the protagonist sees something in a sacristy he would have preferred not to see, and which haunts him for the rest of his life.
In Close to the Saints, a woman remembers how a religious-fanatic teacher tried to perform an exorcism on her.
The last book, Sing a Song of Mankind, contains satirical treatment of traditional English nursery rhymes, providing commentary on social issues from the 1960s to present day, such as space exploration, the Vietnam War, racism and drug-taking.
Dr Lee is also the author of the following collections of poetry: Prospect Of A Drowning (1980), Against The Next Wave (1988), The Brink Of An Amen (1991) and Lambada By Galilee & Other Surprises (1997).
Short Circuits ($18), Catching Connections ($13) and Sing a Song of Mankind ($18) are available at MPH, Kinokuniya, Books Actually and Select Books.
By Christopher Khoo
‘Discovering God’s hand in everything in life’
Excerpts of an email interview with Dr Lee:
Q: Short Circuits appears to be the most autobiographical of your three latest books.
A: It was a form of self-interrogation – about my faith, and my writing, and how the two are completely connected in my living. I was trying to find out if what I believed about myself, what I was living, was authentic.
From a more personal perspective, too, there have been ideas which I have not found any Catholics around me to discuss with in any real sense. Many I work with are very good Catholics but inarticulate and/or uncurious about such things.
Much of these random reflections involved trying to get things clear for myself.
I found that as the writing proceeded, the sense of randomness diminished; it was overtaken by a growing conviction about the richness of God’s dealings with us, not only in terms of variety but of connectedness of everything in us and outside us.
So when I invite readers to go on these “short circuits”, it is really to get them to see a little of the divinity in the minutiae of life that our faith could help us see.
For me discovering God’s hand in everything in our lives is nothing short of a miraculous eye-opening.
If all this makes my Catholic reader see his faith as potentially opening up the world to him, thus showing him/her how much more interesting/enriching life could be, I would see that as a bonus.
Q: How do you hope these sharings will impact the non-Christian reader?
A: Perhaps such a reader will come to insights about our faith, and also realise that the Christian’s world is as large as anybody’s and not limited to pious talk and “churchy” subjects.
Q: How do you hope Catching Connections will impact the reader, considering its wide range of subject matter.
A: I do not write to create an impact except that which any communication to another human being creates. But I can say that I hope this latest clutch of poems opens up the reader’s sense of the “world” of poetry; that just about anything under the sun may be the subject for poetry.
Q: The short stories towards the end deal with painful spiritual experiences. What is your aim in writing these stories?
A: Fictioning is fairly new to me, so my first thought, really, is to see if I could write a story!
Perhaps I drew upon my own practice, which I have been aware of for some time now, a kind of interior running conversation with God. I imagine that if someone, a Catholic like me, were in some pain or facing some trouble, she/he might have a certain running conversation with God in which Catholic phrases and prayers are a natural part of their speech.
I have also come to realise that most people are broken people in one sense or another; healing and serenity if arrived at, are arrived at usually after much difficulty and often in the later years, if at all.
Conflict and pain are, as most people know, the pulling point of most fiction; so I choose subjects who are troubled and suffering.