Shirley Lim traces the obsessive, secretive, tortuous love affair in Wong Phui Nam
By Shirley Geok-lin Lim
An Acre of Day's Glass: Collected Poems
Wong Phui Nam's Collected Poems is much more than a compilation of works produced over four decades and a lifetime dedicated to that elusive and subtle art. A handsomely published book, it astonishes the reader with its 375 pages, pages bearing the remarkable information that from independent postcolonial Malaysia has emerged an Anglophone poet whose poems testify not merely to a large ambition for work as a poet but also to the obsessive, secretive, tortuous love affair between the scribe and the muse that makes such ambition, all too easily held up for ridicule, legitimate and moral.
This review has taken some time for me to complete because I have been reading Wong's poems over the years and so felt compelled to check his earlier books lined up on a shelf in my study to study how faithful the new version has remained to the historical texts. William Wordsworth and Walt Whitman are noted for, among other things, continuously revising their poems, so that scholars, not to speak of simple readers, have had a challenging time grasping their poems across their multiple and layered transformations; and critics have not always judged the later versions new and improved. Like these poets, Wong has been unabashed in rewriting a number of his poems. Although the Collected Poems is organized chronologically, seeming to follow the sequence of appearance of his books, beginning with How The Hills Are Distant, published in 1968, to include the subsequent other titles, Remembering Grandma and Other Rumors (1989), Ways of Exile (1993), and Against the Wilderness (2003), in fact it takes liberties with the historical record of the poems' publications. For one thing, the collected volume takes the various translations of Chinese classical poetry out of their position in the original publications and gathers them in a separate section, under a new subtitle, "In a Bronze Mirror." And, as befitting a poet who has never ceased from striving, despite a confessed fifteen-year "interregnum" rising out of despair brought on by the language politics in post-May-13th Malaysia, Wong's Collected Poems closes with a significant mini-collection under an oxymoron noting that these are "Uncollected" poems. In between these re-arranged "books" are various prose texts: the poet's 1968 preface to the first book; an excerpt from a 2005 conference paper, explaining the fifteen-year silence accounting for the 21-year gap between the first and second book; the preface to the 2000 volume; and a concluding essay explicating the poet's principles in translating Chinese Tang poetry into English. This collected volume is clearly a necessary text for any library concerned with Anglophone, postcolonial, Southeast Asian, and diasporic Chinese literature.
Yet, comprehensive as it is, it should not be read on its own, for, in compiling his works, Wong chose to exercise his rights as author of these texts to revise, excise, shift, reformat, and in all kinds of ways, small and large, change the poems from how they once appeared in the original texts in order to articulate his more mature sensibility and vision of the universe, physical and spiritual. So, yes, the Collected Poems as is presents a current achievement. Read straight through, its pages offer what seems to be an unrelenting vision of a "stony rubbish" wasteland (phrases Wong used to signify the cultural and physical landscape, and inscape, of a colonized, post-independence, Chinese migrant, ethnic fragmented, place), whose selective (Malaysian) features are deployed as symbols to evoke, resonate, stir, echo, distantiate, distort, threaten, generate, shape, imagine, and express what is otherwise un-apprehensible: a profound disgust with that physical world, a metaphysical anguish over the absences of certain fructifying spirits and the presences of un-redeeming and hostile ghosts, and, over the majority of poems, the pall of all-too-mortal flesh, the ashes-in-the-mouth sensation to any possible pleasure snuffed out by the overwhelming universal affect of dying and death. From the poems, presented (composed?) in a kind of autobiographical sequence, the reader may assume that the poet's anhedonia, a chronic inability to feel pleasure, is psychically rooted in childhood traumas, with the deaths, sometimes closely, even clinically observed, of mother, father, grandma, stepmother, fat uncle, an amah, cousins, acquaintances, friends, even one's own body, decaying and ill.
This series of lamentations, rather like the macabre funerary poems collected on the occasions of the deaths of famous people, in the Latin tradition, is oppressive for the modern reader. We look for the desired consolation, what some critics have called the transcendent in Wong's poems, and frankly there is very little of either. Instead, the poems repeatedly bare the hollowness of any consoling illusion. Where they grope for "a germinal use in violence," they are questioning, not affirmative; and finally, for the human denuded of his desires and passions, there remains only the exhaustion of elemental forces:
There is no sound
Wong's vision of the human condition, and of what art can and must do, caught in this realm of the dying animal, is very different from, one might say even directly opposed to, William Butler Yeats's vision of "the young in one another's arms," and the tattered stick that must more loudly sing for every tatter in its mortal dress. In this way, Wong's poems are a strange form of lyric poetry. Replete with images from an abstract nature, of wind, river, dawn, trees, they infrequently offer a small repeated range of local references: hibiscus, lallang, laterite, frangipani, for example; and, particularly in the early poems, names of local city streets and sites: Batu Lane, K.L, Bukit China (in Malacca). The later poems, while still embedded in landscapes vividly and obsessively abstracted as suburban decadent, earthly corrupted, painful and threatening, swampy, oppressive, etc, have moved beyond the western, Eliotic discourse of the "wasteland" to a more nationally and locally engaged narrative of migrant histories where the wasteland becomes imaginatively re-symbolized as the tropical "wilderness" that enveloped and transformed the waves of immigrants to Malaysia. Many of the poems in Against the Wilderness are rhetorically controlled by both their sonnet brevity and the syntactical sinewy-ness of unrhymed, frequently end-stopped hexameters, resulting in a kind of gravely lengthened blank verse that is contemplative yet capable of rising to dramatic and graphic sternness. The characters the poems narrate - the pioneers, miners, their descendents, and various historical figures — are imagined from the inside, contained within an intensity generated by repeated image and obsessive sensations inseparable from pain. Thus, in the character of the "China Bride," bought/brought to the country for breeding a family, sexuality is not only not celebrated but it is disturbingly identified with physical disgust, disease, and death:
But he never found me even as he rifled, sieved
Indeed, as an interesting sub-text, the poems in the collection at different times are dedicated to diverse literary figures. On one level of allusive stylistics, Wong explicitly names Western literary influences such as Rimbaud, Rilke, and the Egyptian myths of Osiris, and implicitly references T.S. Eliot, Tennyson and so forth; on another level of Malaysian/Singaporean literary history, Wong dedicates poems to specific local editors, critics, and authors, beginning with T. Wignesan, editor of Bunga Emas (1964), and including well-known authors like K. S. Maniam, Kee Thuan Chye, Lloyd Fernando, and Edwin Thumboo. These acknowledged figures are generally male, central defenders in the literary quarrel over identity, English language choice, and national status that Wong had fingered as the factor for his mid-life abandonment of poetry, whose articulated positions have clearly contributed in a major way to Wong's post-crisis intellectual and cultural development. Through these dedications, the volume allows us to glimpse the postcolonial context in which the poems are embedded, even when the poet is as reticent on the politics of Malaysian Anglophone poetics and as adverse to dogmatic rule as Wong professes to be.
Swerving from statement and topical engagement, the poems are nonetheless the product of and themselves overtly address the disjuncture between the choice of English for poetic expression and the lack of an organic relation between that language and the poet's emotional, cultural and social world. How to write a poem in English that can authentically manifest a non-English culture and interior life? This question is the agenda that has driven Wong's poetic practice over the years. In his original preface to How the Hills Are Distant (but oddly omitted in the Collected Poems version), Wong concludes, "I have written these poems for those who truly understand what it means to have to make one's language as one goes along." While his fear that unlike Western poets his use of English does not enjoy possession of those historical cultural sources that give the poet's language its "authenticity"—I think he means the capacity for symbolic interiority rising out of or based on referential exteriority—appears belabored and inconsequential in the twenty-first century context of global English, his defiance against this wilderness, leading to a substantial oeuvre despite such ontological anxiety, places him as the premier Malaysian English-language poet of his generation.
Ironically, it is when Wong turns to a third language, outside the contest between English and Malay, the national language, to Chinese, the language of his migrant ancestors that I find him most precise, most authentically released from material circumstance to transcendent and tender sensibility. His renditions of Tang poetry are often breathtakingly gorgeous and memorable, when the genius of the Chinese poet is channeled through his patient, careful, and caring translation, to a lucid flaring of English lyricism:
; ...Covert in the grass,
A slender moon is setting among tree-tops
It is when Wong forgets his losses, his Malaysia, his colonial language and devotes himself to the poet's task of "making one's language as one goes along," translating one language-world into another language in which that world is not yet imagined but will, that his achievement as Anglophone poet of Malaysia's polyglot peoples and histories is most persuasive.QLRS Vol. 6 No. 2 Jan 2007