Inside the head of Cyril Wong
By Jeremy Tiang
The End of His Orbit
Cyril Wong has been labelled a "confessional poet", although Alfian bin Sa'at's verse introduction to The End of His Orbit asserts that he is rather "a poet of witness, and hence, / Resistance". This is only partly true – while Wong's writing is often observational, it is not detached. The poet is deeply present in his verse, as is his milieu – a product of the same searching eye being turned both in- and outwards.
These poems are concerned as much with the process of self-examination as the results thereof, sometimes giving us a blow by blow account. For instance:
Here the poet looks in a mirror at his physical self, before allowing his gaze to penetrate into the body past bone and muscle to the heady world of emotion and "the truth". What lies within ("grief") is as important as its contrast with his unmarked body, which the poet exploits to show the symbiosis between public and private worlds.
The sub-adolescent angst ("From a dispassionate view / you are merely / flesh") that tinged Wong's first collection, Squatting Quietly, is less present in this more mature collection, which is also more personal. Specifically, the homosexual sensibility that stirred beneath the surface of his earlier work is more explicit here, in particular when the poet wonders "what my lover is doing // without me. Wonder about his boyfriend too" ('news update'). Another poem is "dedicated to the closet", as if to remind the reader of the concealment of the innermost self which many cling to and which the poet has bravely eschewed.
The trope of deficient parents reappears from Squatting Quietly – the father with "his vow of indifference to my life's stubborn course" ('consequence') and the vacant mother whom we see, in a startling and effective metaphor, "spooned out and well-dug, emptied" ("caving in, white, salted flesh") like a scooped-out crab shell. The absence of love in this family is striking, especially when drawn so unflinchingly, but the necessary subjectivity in Wong's approach makes us wonder whether he is exaggerating their emotional nullity because it has so deeply affected himself.
The malign urban landscape is another favourite theme – a world of tarnished skyscrapers and technology that makes zombies of its inhabitants: "caged faces peer out of windows ... asleep,/ but with both eyes wide open" ('traffic'). The moral and emotional decay of these residents is, at times, overstated – a man at a train station is presented in burlesque when he sees a cosmetics advertisement: "The model in it is really pretty, you tell yourself" ('urban requiem'). As with the female commuter in "number ten this morning" from Squatting Quietly who speaks in "rotten English from rotting mouth", this smacks of condescension. Rather than invest the lives around him, however pathetic, with human dignity, Wong often diminishes them close to the point of caricature.
Wong is best when not trying to generalise about the larger picture. While his personal revelations are disturbing and pellucid, we are let down by what he has to say when he turns his eye on the world at large – a poem centring around a meeting between Bush and Putin is only successful because we are inside the poet's head as he describes this event, while another about a drowning accident ('zoukout, sentosa, 02 dec 2000') tries to be wise about the inevitable, elemental nature of human mortality, but comes across as merely trite. What stands out in this collection is Wong's ability to capture detail in a few brushstrokes. Brief cameos of light splintering as it hits a glass, or the taste of fried fish, leap off the page with a vividness that is the hallmark of good poetry – making us see the familiar in unexpected ways.
The least successful section of this collection is 'Red Riding', a revisionist approach towards aspects of myth and popular culture. Apart from 'eve', a potent statement of the loss of innocence, there is nothing here more innovative than simple inversion of viewpoint – it is not particularly illuminating to be told that King Kong has hurt feelings, or that the sea witch in The Little Mermaid may not be as bad as we've made her out to be. The attempt to rework the Little Red Riding Hood tale in the title poem has been made before, and with more success, by Carol Ann Duffy amongst others.
Where it does not stray from familiar territory, this volume is both lucid and revealing. Wong's strength – the confessional mode – is, however, also a weakness in that it often verges on solipsism. If he is to remain one of Singapore's better young poets, he must ensure that his voice remains anchored in the self, while guarding against its becoming self-absorbed.QLRS Vol. 1 No. 2 Jan 2002