I Think I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings
by Loh Guan Liang
(Photo credits: The National Archives UK)
Of the Same Feather
Little bird, little bird, why do you sing
over rooftop, vale and sea? Your quill shakes
with so much fury. Foul tidings you bring
to the neighbours below for complaint’s sake,
soiling your cell with the spitter spatter
of long letters. Nobody sees your chicks,
your debts, your pay gone to seed. No matter
the fuss, no one here cares for politics.
Little bird, little bird, why do you sing?
The monkey’s gone packing and the rooster
goes pecking for whatever’s worth crowing
this year. Pay my talking cock no utter
heed. Keep singing, the day is far from done!
The door swings open, gone is the jailor
but we’re watching the door, watching the sun.
Cagey bird, cagey bird, time to be heard!
Other than the faint echo the theme “Why does the caged bird sing?” bears to the title of Maya Angelou’s autobiography, I find it apposite to be writing about my poem “Of the Same Feather” in the Rooster Year. Given recent developments in politics and society, it has become all the more pressing—not to mention depressing—for poetry to engage with world affairs.
The first half of “Of the Same Feather” is an exercise in cheerlessness. The opening line’s singsong quality hardly mitigates the protagonist’s bleak life. We are no strangers to his situation. There’s even a figure to denote those of his ilk: 99%. In Singapore there is a tendency for the 99% to fly off the handle at the slightest provocation. A fishball skewer on a footpath. Foreigners. Curry-cooking neighbours. Sex education. Chickens. Kicking a ball at the void deck. Singaporean discontentment finds release in disseminating pictures, stomping on keyboards and lobbing missives at media outlets. (The Straits Times Forum page is a case in point.) Alas complaint letters do not a revolution make; the battle cries we hear are but squawking birds rattling their cages.
Feathers get ruffled because there is the prevailing sense that no one cares a hoot about the lives of common folk. Economic sentiment is grim. Wages are stagnant even as living costs are soaring. Workplace morale is at an all-time low. The cage shakes but no one listens.
Sometimes positive things come out of all this shaking. Take the French Revolution for example. Pink Dot. The Umbrella Movement. Black Lives Matter. The Women’s March. Organised action demonstrate the power of numbers in the fight against inequality and injustice. Behind every protest sign or pink hat is an unflappable flock.
But the reactionary heart is dangerous. It is a powder keg capable of deflagrating into mob action with a well-timed fact. Liberal sensitivities take offence too readily, and social media only serves to fan the ire. Heartstrings risk becoming puppet strings in the hands of a select few. How can the heart lead the charge in a post-truth universe when it is susceptible to manipulation? Little wonder that the body part responsible for protecting, and entrapping, the heart is the ribcage.
That said, let us return to the poem. The tone shifts from gloom to hope. The door opens, unmanned; liberation is within reach; all is not lost! Yet the protagonist remains doubtful. Are you sure there are no government agents outside? Let’s wait and see. Singaporean society organises itself around that which is safe and respectable: racial quotas, CMIO, heartlander, heteronormativity. The list goes on, of course, but the point remains that institutions reinforce the status quo so the masses are free from danger. Nobody gets hurt because the cage they are in is so strong they forget that they can transform their circumstances. For it is not the material cage that bars the bird, but the treacherous one the mind keeps.
Like Barack Obama said, yes we can. Change will not come from a single tweet. Change needs to be sustained and resolute in the face of harsh headwind. Why does the caged bird sing? It sings for a far nobler purpose beyond the confines of the cage. It sings for the world.
Loh Guan Liang is the author of two poetry collections, Bitter Punch (2016) and Transparent Strangers (2012), and the co-translator of Art Studio (2014), originally written in Chinese by Singapore Cultural Medallion recipient Yeng Pway Ngon. Winner of the 2011 Moving Words poetry competition organised by SMRT and The Literary Centre, his work has been featured in the Singapore Memory Project and The Substation Love Letters Project. He updates at http://lohguanliang.weebly.com.
This piece was written as part of #Whydoesthecagedbirdsing inspired by our new book, Payoh by Jim Tan.