Thursday, 21 July 2011

The poem “Monsoon History” by Shirley Lim

by Shirley Lim

Literal Meaning

Stanza 1 : The wetness of the air, shows that it sustains all forms of life. Even destructive pests thrive. For example “fat white slugs” A lot of reference to the air being filled with moisture shows that it is going to rain.
Stanza 2 : This stanza is divided into two parts. This is to show the shift from the garden to the place inside the home. That is, from outside to inside, as the poet mentions what it was like forty years ago. There is also a shift from the present to the past.

Part 1 :  The poet is referring to the change in the weather from the first stanza. The clouds are rolling in and darkness is setting in – “clouds and rolling darkness”.

Part 2 :  The scene is now inside the home. Forty years ago nyonya and baba are sitting at home drinking milo. The poet is in a safe, secure environment sitting at home.

The human element is now apparent in the poem as the poet refers fondly to her Baba Nyonya tradition and describes her ancestral home. For example:
“sarong wrapped they counted silver paper for the dead”
“Portraits of grandfather hung always in the parlour” depicts her strong leanings on her customs and tradition.
Stanza 3 : The poet talks about “reading Tennyson” which shows her western education. This is in direct contrast to her eastern tradition and upbringing as depicted in Stanza 2. There is the presence of insects in this stanza but these are in harmony with the environment. The human presence does not threaten their existence.

In this stanza, it has started raining “at six p.m.”
The author “…in pajamas
[is] Listening to down-pouring rain.”
The element of tradition and custom comes into the scene again:
“wash our feet for bed”

the poet also refers to the close-knit family scene where she sees her mother undressing: “uncoil her snake hair”, “unbuckle the silver mesh around her waist”.

The closeness is also depicted in “waiting for father”. The poet and her family members wait for their father to come home who is outside at the beach waiting for his fishermen to return from the turbulent sea.
Stanza 4 : The monsoon is over and everything is calm again. There is peace and tranquillity once again.

Symbolic Meaning

Life can be peaceful and secure if we have good family relationships, follow tradition and customs even if there are problems and hardships.

The poem takes the readers through the pre-monsoon period, the downpour, and finally the post-monsoon rain periods. With the rain as an effective backdrop, life in Malacca is described. The time depicted is about forty years ago when the Baba-Nyonya family traditions were closely observed.

The traditional family atmosphere spells warmth and security. The mother is at home. The family waits for the father, who appears to be the breadwinner of the family to return home. He is out there making sure that all is well with his fishermen. The poem ends on a note of peace and tranquility. There is a suggestion of a happy union.


“Monsoon History” is modern free verse. It reflects the free movement in time as the picture slips from the present to the past.

There is a use of similes as the air is compared to:
“fat white slugs”
“silver fish tunnelling”
“the damp linen covers”
“walking quietly like centipedes”
The air is finally “still, silent / like sleepers rocked in the pantun”

The heavy use of animal imagery such as ‘slugs’, ‘silver fish’, ‘centipedes’, ‘snails’, ‘gnats’, ‘spiders’, ‘moths’, ‘termites’ and ‘snake hair’ emphasise the dampness of the season. All the animals reflect the weather conditions rather than impose any kind of real danger or even discomfort. There is no violence in the poem. Even harsh words like ‘tunnelling’ and ‘clashing’ are toned down by ‘damp’ and ‘timid’.

The setting is modern, that is 20th century. The present tense form is used in the first stanza, and in the forth stanza.

Tone and Mood

It is a reflective poem. The poet is very nostalgic about her past, which are her traditions and customs. There is a sense of regret when the poet says: “This was forty years ago.”

There is a change of atmosphere from one stanza to the other. There is a sense of regret concerning the diminishing children, tradition and custom.

Point of View

The poem is in the first person point of view. There is a strong personal point of view shifting nostalgic to the past.

Theme and Message

Where your are in the world, you just cannot forget your roots, childhood memories and your tradition.


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