Answering an abstract absence
By Koh Jee Leong
Two intertwining theses string these melancholic poems of below: absence together into a dark choker. The first argues that life is fundamentally meaningless and so the search for meaning, hand-in-hand with hunger and loneliness, must be its own reward. The second posits that the power of art lies in its deliberate indeterminacy, and so it will never provide an ‘answer’. These bleak ‘truths’ about Life and Art are the discoveries of the downward gaze of the poet into the abyss of absence.
Expository language like ‘theses’, ‘argues’ and ‘posits’ are not the usual words associated with Cyril Wong’s poetry. Wong’s poetic voice has been described by many readers as ‘confessional’. The ‘confessional’ mode of poetry entails the dredging of a highly personalized psychological swamp to un-palm secrets too dark to face the sun except in fragile and intimate poetic forms. So, in Squatting Quietly, Wong confesses his hatred and disdain for his father while in The End Of His Orbit, he confesses to his homosexuality. But even in the latter collection, the confessional label becomes a limited way to describe the poetry which also celebrates friendship and love.
Understanding Wong’s capacities as a man and a poet to celebrate such moments in life and art must make the reader wonder why Wong would turn his gaze away from such felicities to dwell upon doom and gloom in below: absence. The answer, perhaps, lies in the fact that while his happiness seems peculiar to himself, his despair seems universal; everyone, at one time or another, will have shared the same feelings of meaninglessness and loss. The project in his third collection is to declare our common experience of ‘absence’.
Never before has Wong been so insistent on the universal ‘truth’, a word he repeats three times in ‘mnemonic’, twice in the following lines:
He would have us learn ‘the greatest lesson’ we could ever learn, how
The same impulse to proclaim ‘the point about life’ is found in many poems – ‘Love/Without need/Is mere/Compassion’ (‘love poem’), ‘this should bring you no peace’ (‘three conches, tiananmen’), ‘a lesson of beauty’ about ‘the very nature of beauty’ (‘sonoma country california’). In terms of language, the declarative sentence finds its way into the poetry like never before.
Also in terms of language, abstractions, those sleight-of-hand tricks to depict universals and fundamentals, crowd the poetry: ‘a chorus of void’ (‘white of the paper’), ‘reflection of sky’, ‘careful configuration of clouds’ (‘the drowning’), ‘shade of opacity’, ‘density of irises’ (‘tanjong katong’), ‘nirvana’s eye’, ‘an aftermath of forgiveness’, ‘potential to sustain itself’, ‘an earlier transcendence’, ‘soil caged roots of the everyday’ (‘this calm’), ‘long histories of conditioning’, ‘familiar lull of repetition’, ‘illogicalities’, ‘truth’, ‘tautologies’, ‘the basis for an entire life’ (‘because it is wrong’) and ‘an extreme proximity/ to a pure disappearance erases all doubt’ (‘pure disappearance’). Abstractions are not bad in themselves; in Wong, they are highly unusual, and in Wong, they usually lead the poem down a sorry path:
What to make of such lines, enfeebled by clichés of thought and language? They would never have appeared in ‘the end of his orbit’ where Wong demonstrates his growing mastery over the particular and the peculiar. They would also never appear in that collection because Wong was self-absorbed then. Here he tentatively, though awkwardly, attempts to universalize an aspect of his own experience.
Besides experience, Wong tries to make statements about art too. There are more poems in this collection whose explicit theme is poetry itself: they range from the tender and insightful ‘posing for namiko’ to the turgid ‘fixed positions’, with such self-conscious lines like:
These are lines written by a writer for other writers. Its literariness destroys the vital connection Wong usually maintains between his body and his text. Theory with a capital T also makes an appearance in the poem, as a gloss on a quote:
The theoretical gloss deconstructs the poetic effect of the quote: it shows how the sense of achieved insight relies entirely on what cannot be said in a discursive manner for it amounts to nonsense.
Now that the machinery of poetry has been laid exposed, what next? Crucial to a poetry of revelation (the Romantic tradition to which Wong’s poetry belong) is a sense of mystery and wonder embedded in the natural order of things itself. If revelation is found to be a mere effect of a fortuitous combination of words, what does it mean for a poetry founded on revelations? The sense of spontaneous and energetic discovery, so strong in Wong’s previous poetry, is severely undermined. Words and images become mechanical means of evoking certain emotions.
This is precisely the feeling one gets after reading this collection. Words and images that were fresh and forceful in the two earlier collections become tired and familiar in this third one. We read again the turns of phrase that rely for their effect on comparisons yoking the human, the organic and the inorganic:
The phrasing is still pleasing but one cannot escape the nagging feeling that it has been done before, by the poet himself in earlier books.
Then, there is the over-reliance on certain worn metaphors:
(a) lock and key – ‘invisible locks fall away/from walls swinging open’ (‘fixed positions’), ‘unlocked from deep under/the troubled face of a lake’ (‘this calm’), ‘Your heart became that lock’ (‘boats’)
(b) wings and flight – ‘night raises its broad wing’, ‘night’s broad wing’ (‘scraping the arched roofs’), ‘languorous flying towards numbness’ (‘posing for namiko’), ‘a wing of word’ (‘a bluer sky’), ‘flight of seconds’ (‘pure disappearance’)
(c) shadows – ‘leg of shadow’ (‘path across the green’), ‘leaden shadow’, ‘my face turns into another shadow’ (‘fixed positions’), the houses ‘withdraw their shadows’ (‘headlights’)
and numerous references to walls, window, curtain, wind, clouds and sky.
The tropes that had seemed so individual, and so uniquely suited to describing his intensely personal experiences, here become method. In below: absence, Wong shows how easy it is to wave the wand of words and produce revelatory and, at times, surprising effects caused by indeterminacy. Put two Wong-words together, say, curtain skin, and you get an effect without ever going through the experience.
The pursuit of the twin theses about Life and Art has hurt the poetry more than enliven it. It represents, perhaps, an attempt in the wrong direction to break out from the confessional mould to something more philosophical. Life and Art prove to be too vast an expanse to be encompassed in Wong’s verse, at the moment.
Perhaps the universal still must be sought through the particular and the peculiar. Poetry is not a world map drawn to a conventional grid; it is more akin to a sketch, as in this powerfully idiosyncratic drawing of a scene from Tanjong Katong:
What strange eyes would see the men’s bodies holding down the smoke, or the women’s cigarettes holding up their fingers? What peculiar ear would hear the melody and counterpoint between ‘held down’ and ‘holding up’? What bizarre sensibility would imbue a billiard game with such pathetic sexual tension? What weird mind would create this little world of sexual politics, complicated by the Americanisation of social and sexual mores? This short section represents, for me, the true advance the poet has made over previous collections. The observations of the world are powerfully shaped and conveyed by a unique sensibility which also gives of itself to the world it observes.
Of sexual politics, Wong has potent things to say. In the sign language lesson given by a hearing impaired date, he found the ambiguous impulses of desire.
“Like’ involves both the spinning of a tenuous bond and the unraveling of the self, in as mundane a manner as a loosened thread from a shirt. “Love” is a more dramatic action, though described by the poet in weaker language, signaling simultaneously the contradictory desires to be safe and to be found. The concrete details of the incident provided the springboard for an empathetic portrayal of the tensions of love. In that individual leap of imagination, Wong achieves something like universality.
A different picture of sexual politics - at work in the home front – comes from Section 3 of the poem ‘grandmother’. Sections 1, 2, 4 and 5 are undistinguished. Section 3 which relates how the men in the family extinguish the voices of the women is penetrating and touching:
The subservience of the woman to both the dominance of the older man and the needs of the younger is ritualized into her gender role. The neat turn of phrase ‘the throat of a cup’ is wonderfully appropriate here as we imagine the woman swallowing her own voice in order to perform her wifely duty. One wishes that Wong did not succumb to the temptation of siting the woman by the ‘parted/window’ and ‘watching the stars’ like so many of his characters but the weak ending does not destroy the sympathy we feel for this woman, her cups, her tea, her tears. As in ‘tanjong katong’ and ‘arrival’, where Wong often succeeds in moving the reader is when he shares his poignant observations of sexual politics in its daily aspect.
In below: absence, Wong takes a wrong turn in seeking fundamental positions in Life and Art before he is ready. Professor Edwin Thumboo’s advice, in the introduction to Squatting Quietly, is still relevant: “It is hoped that as he broadens and deepens his experience, he will continue to develop what is a probing, unusual sensibility that will help us see more than we do in what we take to be the ordinary.” Except for outings to San Francisco and California, posing for an artist and visits to art and photo exhibitions, the poems in this collection reside within familiar territory. And why I, for one, am so interested in Wong’s poetic development is my belief that he can help us see so much more.QLRS Vol. 2 No. 2 Jan 2003