By Laura Jane Lee
A Bad Girl's Book of Animals
When Wong May's debut collection A Bad Girl's Book of Animals was ﬁrst published by Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich in 1969, she was 25. Now in 2023, A Bad Girl's Book of Animals has been reissued by Ethos Books. I am exactly 25. Like Wong, I as a poet identify with the exilic condition, a citizen of the state of being in-between. As such, you may ﬁnd that this is perhaps less a review, but more a reﬂection – what a younger reader ﬁnds in Wong some ﬁve decades later.
As a younger (female) reader – you might say, a girl – I found myself in a uniquely favourable position to read the collection boldly titled A Bad Girl's Book of Animals, entering the text through the side door of girlhood. Chieﬂy amongst questions posed by past reviewers is the issue of the title: A Bad Girl? A Book of Animals? Two women have oﬀered their take: Elizabeth Su, in Commentary, dismisses "the choice of the interesting title as a personal whim". Jennifer Chang, in New England Review, writes that "(she) looked for the animals in A Bad Girl's Book of Animals, eventually realising that the poems are the animals". Whilst animals most certainly feature in a number of poems in the collection, I would like to suggest that the title be read as an analogy for girlhood. Girlhood is by nature a strange circumstance. It is by no means a comfortable predicament. Girlhood is narrow and restrictive in that one is instructed prescriptively and prohibitively – deviation is frowned upon. Is it not inconceivable then, that for the transnational writer of irreverent poems, girlhood is a thorny matter? In any case, she is a self-proclaimed bad girl, in the sense that she perceives herself to be devious; wild, in the sense that animals are to humans. In an email reply to Jennifer Chang, Wong herself writes: "There must be – certainly a perverse streak in me." To this Chang writes: "She was – by nature – irreverent."
It is this irreverence, this wildness and deviousness, then, that punctuates Wong's verse. One eﬀect of this is sensuousness. The other is strangeness. In 'Narration', the poem starts oﬀ with "All my beautiful young men going / down the drain: the bats, trout, / goats, the grinder sink…" and later on in the poem "myself recovering fur, ﬁn, / fangs, claws. All my / beautiful young parts / dance together". Whilst one clearly reads quiet malevolence and sensuality in the grinding down of "beautiful young men" in the "grinder sink" and the bodily sensuousness of "the beautiful young parts" all dancing together, the strangeness here is two-fold and rather elusive. The essential strangeness observed here is in the restless poetic logic that jumps in fell swoops from men to animals, and again to the drinking of whisky; as various reviews (Paul Scott in Ploughshares, a review in PEN America) have rightly noted: "Wong's poems… observe a logic of their own… and (are) unpredictable in her concerns and procedures." The secondary degree of strangeness lies in her imagery: the recovery of dismembered animal parts from a grinder sink resulting in a dance down the drain – as Joanne Leow writes in Towards a Cosmopolitan Poetics, "Wong's poetry is fragmentary, disorienting… a diﬃcult, 'laborious', impeding language… that produces a new way of looking at the world."
And what of this strangeness, this poetics of constantly making strange? The state of being, feeling strange, and simultaneously making strange is well observed in 'Dislocation'. Returning to the thread of girlhood discomfort, the persona in 'Dislocation' is ﬂustered, embarrassed: "Spring catches me in that coat / and I sweat. What a disgrace / to be caught like that". At ﬁrst glance, the discomfort and embarrassment – feeling strange as ever – seems to be a matter of inappropriate attire (a common girlhood occurrence). Upon closer inspection, however, we realise that the persona is in a winter coat because she does not realise it is already spring. The dislocation is essentially one of time – a disorientation and general lack of awareness of the passage of time: "By afternoon girls already sleeveless", "by winter / by then already abstract". This giddy dislocation of time is then furthered by a dislocation of place – "the whole ground ﬂoor gone / and you on the ﬁrst ﬂoor / drifting distrustful" – quite literally the ground beneath one's feet is dislocated, leaving "you" drifting distrustful and unsure. Dislocation made strange. Perhaps that is what it feels to be permanently dislocated in place, or as Wong herself puts it in her email to Jennifer Chang, "persistently stateless, between suitcases, as between continents". The strangeness – strange feeling of being transnational, strangeness in poetry, then, arises from the state of being a permanent stranger. In his 'Critical Introduction to Wong May' on poetry.sg, Richard Angus Whitehead writes that "Even after three decades, Wong May regards herself as an 'alien' in Dublin." In fact, Wong herself admits to being resigned to remaining a stranger, to inhabiting the strange transnational space of in-betweenness. In an interview with Believer Magazine, she states that "As is my temperament, I have never worried about 'staying connected' – and remaining alienated? That is probably even harder."
The truth is, however, that Wong's poetics of strangeness is strange precisely because it by deﬁnition precludes explanation. In 'The Truth', the persona confesses that "…When the temptation / to explain is the strongest, / I wake up." The strangeness of Wong's poetry is both intentional and irreverent, oﬀering neither explanation nor apology. In a 1970 issue of Poetry, the reviewer Mona Van Duyn levelled the following non-committal eurocentrism upon Wong's verse: "Undeniably, she avoids the trite and conventional in English verse. Is this because she is protected simply by unfamiliarity with it? Or does that matter?" To this, Wong May has given her reply in 'The Truth': "I seek to prove nothing". It would seem that, while honesty generally remains an ideal state to aspire to, the irreverent poet has abandoned all objective truth and attempts to make all strange instead. Even the persona's admission of this fact reads as a riddle: "Trying to be honest is like trying to be sad, / and now I am trying to be dishonest: (sad)." This is perhaps where Emily Dickinson would say to "Tell all the truth but tell it slant". Wong May says, to just lie. That is what makes her poetry so utterly bewitching. Where other poets might take a pinch of poetic licence, she completely denies the truth in pursuit of the essential strangeness that underpins her poetry: "Anybody would think that the truth / is a virgin and I'm denying it you." And so for once, the self-proclaimed bad girl of A Bad Girl's Book of Animals truly and coyly plays the part proper.QLRS Vol. 22 No. 3 Jul 2023