Mary Oliver’s “Singapore” As a Pseudo-Liberal’s Manifesto

I stopped watching the Oprah show several years ago after I noticed how often it offered reports on some particularly gruesome atrocity suffered by women in Third World countries and followed it by Oprah’s remark as to how “we, the American girls, should remember how lucky we are to live in a country where our rights are respected and nothing like this can happen to us.” The shamelessness of using the suffering of others to make one feel good about one’s own life became too much for me to bear.

Mary Oliver’s poem “Singapore” takes this self-congratulating attitude even further. Before I read a discussion of this poet at Jonathan’s blog, I had never read anything by her. Now, however, I have encountered a perfect manifesto for pseudo-liberals everywhere.

Oliver begins the poem with a nearly concupiscent image of a third-world woman in the most degrading position this poet can find for her:

In Singapore, in the airport,
a darkness was ripped from my eyes.
In the women’s restroom, one compartment stood open.
A woman knelt there, washing something
     in the white bowl.

The nameless woman is on her knees in front of a toilet bowl. What can be more inspiring to a pseudo-liberal who goes through life motivated by the desire to find exploited, third-world people to feel sorry for? I can just imagine the author’s eyes lighting up when presented with such a vision. Of course, toilet bowls get washed everywhere on Earth (even though washing something in the bowl is a little less frequent). Who would want to write poetry about an American washing a toilet? That is not nearly as delicious as a person from Singapore – who by definition is imagined as oppressed and exploited – performing the action. It is also significant that the woman is not washing a purely Singaporean toilet bowl. Oh no, that would make her as boring as a Westerner who regularly gets on his or her knees to wash their own toilet. In order to be properly pitied, a third-world person has to wallow in the rich tourists’ excrement.

Disgust argued in my stomach
and I felt, in my pocket, for my ticket.

Unlike the miserable woman from Singapore, the poetic ‘I’ has the lucky means to escape from this horrible, horrible country where people have to deal with messy toilets. Unfortunately for them, Singaporeans do not possess airplane tickets that would take them away from their disgusting realities.

A poem should always have birds in it.
Kingfishers, say, with their bold eyes and gaudy wings.
Rivers are pleasant, and of course trees.
A waterfall, or if that’s not possible, a fountain
     rising and falling.
A person wants to stand in a happy place, in a poem.

The poetic ‘I’ is not only better than a Singaporean cleaning lady, it is also far superior to those other poets who have no social conscience and who keep blabbing about the beauties of nature instead of concentrating on the plight of oppressed toilet cleaners everywhere. Well, not everywhere. Just in those pathetic non-Western places.

When the woman turned I could not answer her face.
Her beauty and her embarrassment struggled together, and
     neither could win.
She smiled and I smiled. What kind of nonsense is this?
Everybody needs a job.

In one breath, the poetic ‘I’ assigns a feeling of embarrassment to the Singaporean woman and comes up with an apology for her engagement in a debasing activity.

Yes, a person wants to stand in a happy place, in a poem.
But first we must watch her as she stares down at her labor,
     which is dull enough.
She is washing the tops of the airport ashtrays, as big as
     hubcaps, with a blue rag.
Her small hands turn the metal, scrubbing and rinsing.
She does not work slowly, nor quickly, but like a river.
Her dark hair is like the wing of a bird.

Of course, “it is a truth universally acknowledged” that every Asian woman will be compared to a natural phenomenon whenever a Western writer attempts to describe her.

I don’t doubt for a moment that she loves her life.
And I want her to rise up from the crust and the slop
     and fly down to the river.
This probably won’t happen.
But maybe it will.
If the world were only pain and logic, who would want it?

As usual, the condescending Westerner is ready to ‘want’ things for the object of her munificent attention. The cleaning lady’s presence at an airport, a symbol of the Western civilization that is contrary to the authentic nature of a Singaporean woman, alienates her from her true role of a winged creature whose place is in a more natural setting. She needs to go back to her roots, which the Westerner imagines as being next to a river. And if a river has nothing to do with the Singaporean’s vision of herself, nobody cares for the simple reason that. . .

Of course, it isn’t.
Neither do I mean anything miraculous, but only
the light that can shine out of a life. I mean
the way she unfolded and refolded the blue cloth,
the way her smile was only for my sake; I mean
the way this poem is filled with trees, and birds.

. . . this woman’s smile and her entire existence are there for the sake of the poetic ‘I’ who uses the Singaporean woman to congratulate herself on being a superior poet and a wonderful, compassionate human being.

I strongly believe that it would be very useful to put up a poster saying “We do not need your pity” at every international airport of every Third World country.

27 thoughts on “Mary Oliver’s “Singapore” As a Pseudo-Liberal’s Manifesto”

  1. Here from Feministe. Just…wow. I’ve seen a lot of vacuous poetry, but yikes.

    Good job picking it apart. I’ve done some low jobs before in my life; I don’t need to other-ize that to make me feel better.

    Again, wow.

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  2. Can Singapore really be considered a third world country by some people? Singapore is one of the cleanest, most modern, technologically advanced countries in Asia, comparable more to Japan or Sweden than the typical third world country people moon over (Though they keep that cleanliness in check through draconian police state politics and strict limits on individual actions and freedom, which is another subject entirely)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have acknowledged on different occasions that my definition of a third-world country might be considered unorthodox. I include both Russia and Japan into the category, which, I know, surprises many people. A poem like this one could be written about Ukraine or Singapore. But can you imagine it being written about Sweden?

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  3. Do you know “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”? “And emptied the ashtrays on a whole other level….”

    I still feel a minor perplexity over what Oliver means us to make of the detail that the janitor is washing the ashtray in the toilet. (Noted by a commenter on Nicholas Liu’s blog.) Is this intended to heighten the pathos? It doesn’t strike me as pathetic — if the toilet is up to Singaporean (or international-airport) standards of cleanliness, why not use it to wash ashtrays, if that’s expedient? Either MO didn’t notice she’d let a quirk into the poem, or it’s another failure of imagination.

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    1. I suck something fierce when it comes to analyzing poetry but my explanation is that this is something that really happened. The writer saw a woman washing ashtrays in the toilet and chose to patronize her.

      Maybe we’ll get somebody who knows how to analyze poetry make an assumption that will be more intelligent than mine?

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      1. Maybe the observation triggered a revulsion in Oliver because she hasn’t thought clearly about the classification of shit as the ultimate dirt. We teach our kids not to touch what’s in the toilet, but guess what, somebody has to touch it, however cautiously, if it’s to stay usable. So the naive prohibition has to break down, even in Provincetown, MA. But Oliver seems to have responded as if the janitor’s expedient — possibly unusual in an American context — made vivid her supposed degradation.

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        1. I think she needed this woman to be on her knees in front of the toilet bowl. However, janitors don’t clean toilets in public places by kneeling in front of them. They use a mop for that. Kneeling has both religious and sexual connotations for Westerners while dunking a mop into the toilet has none. So this might be the reason for the ashtray washing.

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  4. I was too lazy to look up the actual poem/click the link when I first saw it mentioned on Jonathan’s blog, but wow. Now I will. Or maybe go wash an ashtray in my toilet. What on earth? I don’t think posters will help though, unfortunately. They will be “quaint”.

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          1. No argument from me. “Content aside” is a little tricky. True, the average Oliver poem doesn’t tread on queasy racial/class/imperialist issues quite like this one. But they often dramatize the sensitivity of the speaking “I”, perform a kind of emotional clairvoyance, and while that’s “content”, it’s relevant to the general criticism.

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  5. Echoing nominatissima, Singapore is between the third and fifth richest country in the world by purchasing power per person (the US is between sixth and ninth). I can see a Singaporean getting offended at their country being called “third world.” Can you elaborate on your definition of “third world country”?

    Of course, there will be cleaning ladies anywhere. I had a similar experience the other day when I was in the toilet stall, and a cleaning lady came in, because they have to sort of sneak in when they think there’s no one there. As soon as she heard me move, she apologized and left.

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    1. Not just ladies. Many janitors are male.

      As for Singapore: “Women hold only 4 of the 83 elected parliamentary seats and 2 of the 9 Nominated Member of
      Parliament seats. There are no female ministers.
      This low representation of women in Singaporean politics reflects the highly Confucian nature of the Singaporean so-
      ciety, which is very paternalistic. According to Association of Women for Action and Research:
      “Singapore is possibly the only country in the world where the male dominated ruling party is also an avowed patriar-
      chy. The policies of our country are made with the patriarchal view in mind.
      A patriarchal system obliges women to be at the receiving end of privileges that may be handed out, or withdrawn, at
      the will of men who are the designated leaders. In this system, women are granted privileges not rights. A right is some-
      thing that is inalienable.
      In addition, the patriarchal system puts pressure on men to perform regardless of their ability and circumstance, and
      limits the potential of women regardless of our ability and circumstance.””

      Click to access sg.pdf

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      1. More on Singapore: “For the most part, Muslim marriage law falls under the administration of the Muslim Law Act, which empow-
        ers the Shari’a court to oversee such matters. Those laws allow Muslim men to practice polygyny.  Both men and
        women have the right to unilateral divorce; however, women face significant difficulties in initiating unilateral divorce
        proceedings, which often prevents them from pursuing proceedings.”

        That’s my definition of a 3rd world country.

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        1. The term “third-world country” is generally understood to refer to a nation’s overall economic status and level of poverty, and to the country’s lack of modernization (universal indoor toilets, etc.). By that standard, Singapore is one of the most advanced city-states in the world.

          Nazi Germany was barbaric in its treatment of certain classes of people, but it was hardly a third-word country.

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      2. Pakistans parliament has20% women.That doesnt make it better than usa which has less percent of women.Your definition of singapore a third world country is weird

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  6. An interesting and insightful analysis.

    Before discounting Oliver, check out her nature poems. They are beautiful and creates a spiritual connection through awareness and nature appreciation.

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  7. This is a very interesting interpretation of this poem. This is actually one of my favorite poems, and I never saw it this way. I wanted to share some other interpretations with you in the hopes that you can see where Oliver was coming from. I truly believe that her intention was never to condescendingly other and pity the woman, as you seem to be saying. Oliver’s poem’s are almost never as simple as they appear.

    My original interpretation of the poem was, as would probably guess, a bit naive. I saw it as a poem about reserving judgement on others, and seeing the honor and beauty in a job that some would consider lowly. Oliver is conscious of her own disgust, which she does not want, and therefore forces herself to see the woman as a more complex person, a person who can both experience beauty and be beautiful. In other words, a person doesn’t need to do something grand to be beautiful. There is a beauty in all people, in all positions. It is less about the person herself than Oliver’s view of the person, which she wishes to transform from ugly to beautiful. If it were about the lady herself, then it would of course be rude and presumptuous.

    When I read this poem in English class, my teacher further complicated this original naive and simplistic view by arguing that Oliver does not for a second find any beauty in the uncomfortable, “lowly” status of this woman. But she really wants to. Now that I am older and less innocent, I think this view does a better job at not othering the woman. Oliver knows that this woman has a complex life like any other person, and therefore writes lines like “I have no doubt that she loves her life”, when really of course Oliver has no way of knowing this, and only believes that the woman does not hate her life. But she plays devil’s advocate, telling herself that there is beauty where she is tempted to see uglyness. In a way, I think this approach is a lot braver than simply forcing uncomfortable topics out of one’s brain. And even if Oliver doesn’t succeed, if she strays too far in the other direction and is overly condescending and exoticisizing, then I think this is an intentionally presented flaw, one she knows is problematic. However, as always, Oliver want to see beauty in the world, even if she doesn’t. As writes says in her poem “The Ponds”, “I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing —
    that the light is everything — that it is more than the sum
    of each flawed blossom rising and fading. And I do.”

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    1. “I saw it as a poem about reserving judgement on others, and seeing the honor and beauty in a job that some would consider lowly.”

      You’ve got to see that this is a contradiction, though, right? She can’t simultaneously be against passing judgment on others while she’s passing judgment on others who she decided must feel contempt for this job. This is a holier-than-thou attitude where the “thou” is invented to make the author feel self-righteous.

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  8. I think there are other ways of reading this poem. The poem isn’t “filled with trees, and birds”, as Oliver asserts in the last line – or at least, not literally. The woman in the toilet cubicle is the tree, the bird, and her smile is the moment of connection and illumination that occurs time and again in Oliver’s poetry. Compare her poem ‘Picking Blueberries, Austerlitz…”, where the encounter that leads to a moment of illumination is with a deer rather than with another woman. For that moment, the poem’s speaker can see “light… [shining] out of a life”.

    Have you been to Singapore airport? It is the most ostentatiously wealthy airport I have ever visited, and there is certainly nothing about it that suggests Singapore is a part of the “third world”. I don’t think there is any consciousness in this poem that the woman is uniquely disadvantaged by being from Singapore. She is just a woman doing a mundane task who suddenly, in a moment of inspiration, becomes beautiful in the eyes of someone who takes the trouble to “pay attention” (as Oliver is fond of putting it). I think this poem is just about the way we sometimes encounter beauty by chance, in the most mundane of situations, and when our minds are on something else entirely.


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