‘Prodigal’

Write a critical commentary on the following poem, considering in detail the ways in which your response is shaped by the writer’s language, style and form.

2020 JC1 June Common Test

‘Prodigal’ by Boey Kim Cheng explores the less-known side of death, in the situation of a son who has lost a father, yet feels no loss. He spotlights the son’s unfeelingness and the reversal of a norm. 

Boey shows the persona’s apathetic nature through the broadly neutral and self-focused nature of the poem in the first two stanzas. The first line, “When I made the flight back.” does not even start with the father, but with “I”, the persona. The first line already sets up a physical distance countries wide between a father and son, hinting at a distanced relationship. “He was three days dead”. The consonance of “three days dead” in the ‘d’ sound creates a staccato rhythm that is steady, in the neutral narration of the son’s lateness by three days. The persona does not treat this as a mistake, but as a fact. His emotions of “feared” , the first display, lay not to do with the father’s death but rather the “dreaded melodrama”,”the tearjerker of the son returning too late for the deathbed scene.” is a series of situations centered around him. The son does not care about the death, but rather how it would affect his image. The diction of performance, “melodrama… tearjerker… deathbed scene” highlights the superficiality of the son’s feelings, reinforced by the pulling together of these theatrical clichés. This diction also gives a tone of cynicism, in his usage of “melodrama” and “tearjerker” that in a verbally ironic fashion, contrast his lack of sadness or heightened emotion. Through the first stanza, Boey sets a scene of loss, narrated in a contradictorily placid, unfeeling manner. This is reinforced by the juxtaposition with “Prodigal” in the title, a reference to the Bible story of the unruly son, that create an impression of an uncaring and apathetic son. 

Boey demonstrates the distance between the son and his father in the second and third stanzas, as he utilises the same matter-of-fact approach in narrating the second stanza. The persona, in a moment of physical reconnection, “felt for the manic/depressive pulse,” the act of looking for life in the pulse check underscored by the descriptions of “manic” and “depressive”. He describes the father as “ruled violently”, “spasms”, “ruled” being a metaphor to emphasise his dominance over the father’s being. There are no heartwarming memoirs, as the persona remembers the father not in his good ways but by the illness that turned him into an angry, unstable man, in an unexpected manner. “Nothing/in that plastic sheen, the formaldehyde body”. The line break intensifies the effect of the absolute “Nothing”that pairs with “plastic” and “formaldehyde”, dictions of artifice that creates an unsympathetic tone from the persona. The persona likens him to a “plaster St. Anthony”, an inanimate object, and says the father is “removed/from life”, serving to emphasise the death, in also making the direct contrast to “life”. The imagery of a saintliness in “plaster St. Anthony” and “preserved saint” may allude to the father’s nature, but is ultimately undercut by the preceding words “master” and “preserved” that implies that they are not real, and negate their saintliness. The persona only seeks to express the father’s death as it is, with no elevation and emphasising the lack of life throughout. His description, “blank map,/arctic peace” are in diction of emptiness and coldness. All these create distance, as the readers observe the emotional separation between father and son, marked by an abnormal lack of grief. 

A twist comes in the last stanza, where it is revealed that the father was the root of the dysfunction, and the persona’s previous actions are seemingly justified. “No trace/of the errant ways”, the enjambment before the introduction of the father’s wrongdoings seek to intensify the suddenness, as it is the first and only clue of the father’s nature the persona has given. “Scarring the image/in the funeral photograph”, the persona expresses how looks are deceiving, in the destructive diction “scarring” that contrasts the harmless, good picture of the “funeral photograph”. “Under Anthony’s watchful eyes.” St. Anthony, brought back and personified, casually “watch(ing)” the father has a sense of surveillance and sinisterness, adding more to the poor impression the reader may be forming of the father. “He had left us for the last time/eluding us again.”, “the last time” and “again” allude to a repeated action, hints to the father’s abandonment of the sons. The sentence is also almost paradoxical, the first carrying such finality while the latter referencing a next time, and temporary hiding. This could be towards the father’s attitude of leaving and coming back that he may have subjected the sons to in the past. This is where readers realise the son’s lack of feeling towards his father’s loss is because the loss is nothing new, seen by the persona’s bitter recount of his father’s neglectful ways. He feels only jaded, as “eluding us again” conveys defeat, as the father escapes them like a game. The last stanza seeks to change the reader’s perspective, in Boey showing them how it is the father who may have been the prodigal one, and not the son, in a justification of all the inversions of a traditional mourning cycle before. 

In conclusion, “Prodigal” by Boey is an ultimately poignant poem, telling the story of a son who has lost, again and again, his father, to the point of pure desensitization. Boey subverts orthodox expectations of grieving and shows readers how death may appear to, but does not erase the wrongdoings of your living.

Nicole Lim (20-O1)