Reservist

 Overview

In this poem, Kim Boey Cheng mocks his native government for their national service requirements and the annual commitments that follow. As the men are ordered to their annual training, we are giving a view of overweight, unfit and ageing men struggling into their gear and labouring to complete their marching. He dresses it up to make it seem like a medieval show or fantasy reenactment of warfare to demonstrate how ridiculous this requirement is and yet beneath this jokey layer there is some real bite and anger at what is presented as a tortuous and pointless ritual.

Mini-Glossary
joust – a medieval contest where two knights try to knock each other off their horse using lances;
clarion – a loud war trumpet;
court-martial – a military trial;
cavalier – youthful, romantic knight;
Sisyphus – in Greek mythology, Sisyphus was the deceitful and dishonest King of Corinth who was punished by the gods by being made to to push a boulder up a hill only for it to roll back down again when he reached the top. His sentence was due to last for all eternity (pretty harsh!).

Time again for the annual joust, the regular fanfare
a call to arms, the imperative letters stern
as clarion notes, the king’s command, upon
the pain of court-martial, to tilt
at the old windmills. With creaking bones
and suppressed grunts, we battle-weary knights
creep to attention, ransack the wardrobes
for our rusty armour, tuck the pot bellies
with great finesse into the shrinking gear
and with helmets shutting off half our world,
report for service. We are again united
with sleek weapons we were betrothed to
in our active cavalier days.

We will keep charging up the same hills, plod
through the same forest, till we are too old,
too ill-fitted for life’s other territories.
The same trails will find us time and again,
and we quick to obey, like children placed
on carousels they cannot get off from, borne
along through somebody’s expensive fantasyland,
with an oncoming rush of tedious rituals, masked threats
and monsters armed with the same roar.

In the end we will perhaps surprise ourselves
and emerge unlikely heroes with long years
of braving the same horrors
pinned on our tunic fronts.
We will have proved that Sisyphus is not a myth.
We will play the game till the monotony
sends his lordship to sleep.
We will march the same paths till they break
onto new trails, our lives stumbling
onto the open sea, into the daybreak.

Kim Boey Cheng (1965-)

Analysis
Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.
ContextThemesContentLanguage and techniquesStructureTone

Context

This is the second Kim Boey Cheng poem I’ve analysed on the site, you can find the other one here: The Planners.

Kim Boey Cheng was born in Singapore in 1965, a time when the country was rapidly modernising. ‘The Planners’ presents this process as being deeply troubling to many as the soul of the country was painted over. This was our first look at his anger/bitterness towards the Singaporean government, something that was to cause the poet to eventually leave and settle in Australia.

In this poem he lampoons the idiocy of Singapore’s approach to maintaining an armed force. In 1967 mandatory military service of between 2 years and 2 1/2 years was introduced by the government (it is still a requirement today, but with a limit of 2 years). In the UK we call this national service (but we don’t have it, thank God!) and something which tends to be deeply unpopular wherever it is in place around the world. However, what makes the Singaporean system special (if that’s the right word) is that even after completion of this service, every male has to serve as a reservist and attend annual training exercises to maintain their fitness and military readiness. You can sort of understand the justification for this as Singapore’s population makes it pretty impractical to have a large standing army, with numbers bolstered by reservists they have an armed force of over a million men. However, the reservist represent around 80-90% of this number and reading this poem you would be given for thinking they would not stand up to much of a test.

Anyway, this service is something that Kim Boey Cheng would have had to go through and it is clear that he resented the commitment, felt the reservists training was a completely pointless requirement and that the whole thing was really just dreamed up as a fantasy game by political leaders.

 Themes

It is a bit difficult to peg this poem into a common theme with others in this collection. Obviously it deals with some aspects of war, but is not what I would term a war poem. However, in its criticism of the role of politicians in armed forces and the futility of their efforts, you could link this poem to Anthem For Doomed Youth

It is also a poem about rebellion and standing up against stupid rules and the arbitrary nature of authority, in a vain similar to For Heidi With Blue Hair.

Content

We open with a scene that could be taken from the tales of King Arthur. A great medieval court with a king ordering his troops to pick up their lances and pretend to battle, in training or preparation against some imagined foe or another. However, this king’s knights are not in the best shape and struggle to fit in their armour let alone fulfil their duties. Take this scene into the 20th century and you’ll get the picture of how unimpressive this group of army troops is.

The reservists manoeuvres up hills and through forests are completed, but at a trudge, at the beginning of the second stanza. Here the poet moans that their requirement to do this every year will leave them too old to explore any of life’s other opportunities. The whole experience is compared to one man’s idea of a fairground ride that entertains the politicians, while the reservists have to endure the hardship, tedium and repetition because of the threat of harsh punishment and suffer the bellowing of commanding officers set the task of running this fantasy.

The final stanza is the most satirical and biting, although it initially sounds more positive. Kim Boey Cheng jokes that they may find a surprising victory not only in service medals awarded for showing up, but also through proving the Greek myth of Sisyphus to be a true story as the reservists have to do the same eternal and pointless chore. The poet suggests initially that the only hope for an end to this is that the Singaporean leadership loses interest in these silly games. However, the last three lines seem to hint at breaking this cycle by straying from the trails they are ordered to follow. Could this suggest revolution or simply changing political realities? Anyway, whatever leads to a change, would be seen as daylight and the opening up of rich, new opportunities.

Language and techniques

The title immediately gives us our perspective in the poem, but is notable for the fact it is not the official name of the role. Politically/technically these men (who have completed their 2 years military service, but are under 40) are known as Operationally-Ready National Servicemen or NSMen for short. We could consider the use of the non-official name, ‘reservist’, as a rejection of the government or a deliberate poke at them. However, it is commonly used in Singapore to mean the same thing, so I might be reading too much into that.

The opening lines uses a language associated with medieval warfare and kingship in sarcastic flattery of the Singaporean leadership. The imagery of an ‘annual joust’ that is greeted with ‘fanfare’ comes straight out of the old tales of chivalry and knighthood. Although this seems to convey a jolly feel to the proceedings, it also makes this element of the Singaporean military force (the vast majority of it) sound like a silly game or ‘fantasyland’ of leaders harking back to fictitious days of old. This is not a group ready for war, but rather for a celebration and make-pretend violence.

Continuing with this analogy, Boey Cheng presents us with an authoritarian king, who will not be crossed. They are called to action not out of loyalty or respect, but with the threat of ‘imperative letters stern’, which threaten the men with ‘the pain of court-martial’. Thus the poet creates a contrast between this jovial party atmosphere of the joust and the compulsion and threats that have compelled the competitors to take part.

The contrast helps paint a picture of a tyrannical and unreasonable leadership, which it is further suggested is off its rocker. Our reservists are compelled to ’tilt at the old windmills’, which is a reference to the Miguel de Cervantes heroic lunatic, Don Quixote. Don Quixote basically imaged he was a knight charging around being gallant and saving the world, while in reality he went from place to place being mocked for being a delusional idiot (albeit a loveable one!). In one famous scene he charges at a bunch of windmills in the countryside that in his mind are quite the most terrifying giants to behold. Boey Cheng’s reference here serves to link Don Quixote’s lunacy with that of the Singaporean politicians who are living in a fantasy. The windmills may specifically reflect the fact that any enemies they imagine Singapore to have are non-existent, while the reservists represent Don Quixote and as such are not a very intimidating military threat should it ever come to it.

As if to prove my point, the first stanza continues with a description of the condition of the reservists. Hopefully this imagery makes you chuckle: we hear the ‘creaking bones’ and ‘suppressed grunts’ of bodies that are increasingly unable to comply with the demands put upon them; ‘pot bellies’ are stuffed into ‘shrinking gear’/uniforms and bald heads mean ill fitting helmets are now ‘shutting off half [their] world’. To add insult to injury, they are given ‘rusty armour’ and reissued the same ‘sleek weapons’ as when they did their national service, potentially almost twenty years old and outdated. Imagine an enemy weighing up their opposition, I don’t think they’d be particularly nervous about their prospects. Obviously not all the reservists would be overweight, balding and unfit, but Boey Cheng wants to conjure this image to demonstrate their lack of suitability in general and also to illustrate their disillusionment with being required to take part in this. Interestingly, the men are referred to as being ‘battle-weary’, despite the fact that they have never actually faced a battle. The weariness comes from the annual call-up and training and demonstrate the level of resentment the poet feels is held for this practice.

Boey Cheng describes initial national service as the ‘active cavalier days’, which suggests that when men are young there is some enthusiasm for this military role as a kind of romantic adventure, but one that is long behind them as a result of their bodies beginning to age and ache and at the same time because they have matured mentally and recognise the futility of their efforts or dreams of adventure.

In the second stanza, the training begins and we see the reservists jump through the hoops by ‘charging up the same hills’ and ‘plodding through the same forest’. ‘Charging’ might suggest a level of enthusiasm or compliance, but ‘plodding’ indicates that they are struggling to keep up a good pace and reveals their physical inadequacies. Although they comply, in the face of the threats issued in the first stanza, there is a sense of bitterness as the poet laments that by the time they are allowed to stop they will be ‘too old’ for ‘life’s other territories’. This means that at 40 they will no longer have time, opportunity or physical capabilities to have their own adventures or explore their own interests.

We begin to feel the bored frustration of the reservist through the poets repetition of ‘same’ four times in reference to the hills, forest and trails they march up, through and along. At the end of the stanza Boey Cheng describes the whole process as ‘tedious rituals’, emphasising the pointlessness, but also contrasting the perspectives of those creating the ‘rituals’ and those forced to endure them. This jarring contrast is further established with the description of their training as a ‘carousel’ and a ‘fantasyland’, which are presented as being the perspective of the leaders and make this military service again seem like a children’s game rather than a serious exercise. The contrast demonstrates how out of touch politicians are with the feelings of the general population.

Worse than this though, it is not just a harmless delusion or game, but one that is based on the ‘masked threats’ of prison sentences and fines and is enforced by ‘monsters armed with the same threats’, which are presumably the ever over zealous drill sergeants leading the training.

The third stanza seems like a bit of a softening of the poet’s stance as he considers the possibility that the reservists will eventually feel like ‘unlikely heroes’. However, this is based purely on endurance and ‘braving the same horrors’ of having to turn up and do the same thing each year. Gaining a medal for being forced to turn up rather undermines any actual feeling of heroism and thus this is another jab. He compares this feat of endurance to the suffering of Sisyphus and proves that his mythological suffering was ‘not a myth’, even though it was. You get his point. The myth involves Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill and then watching it roll back to the bottom and then having to start again and repeat over and over for the rest of eternity, which puts into perspective just how terrible an experience Boey Cheng feels the years of having to be a reservist.

Although Boey Cheng hates this service, he seems to have no hope of its ending or change being made. His ‘monotony’ will over be ended by ‘his lordship’ being bored to sleep by it. This mock deferential phrasing (as with ‘kingship’ earlier) is something that I do with my young son when he is behaving as if he is God-elect and as if their every instruction must be instantly obeyed. Other than this, there is maybe a tentative suggestion about rebellion and revolution as another way of stopping this, if the ‘paths break onto new trails’ this suggests some sort of forceful deviation from the rules he is complaining about. Only when this change is brought about will there be any cause for optimism and enthusiasm from the Singaporean people as they will then reach ‘open sea’ and ‘daybreak’, which represent freedom and individual opportunity to determine your own adventure.

Structure

Just two quick things I would comment on here.

Firstly, the semantic fields of terms relating to an amusement park and to medieval courts that are used to mock the thought process of those who have decided to implement this system. I would term this as blowing smoke up the arses of the leadership: deliberately making this grander than it really is to show the absurdity of the system.

The other thing you might mention is the consistent use of caesura and long running sentences. These reflect the sense of frustration in the poet and also mimic the length of service required by reservists through the poems structure. I’ve not explained this very well, and will try to revisit this.

Tone

The poem is consistently satirical, but begins in a more playful manner before giving way to signs of real frustration and bitterness at this overly demanding system.

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