Into The Abyss We Go
Glimmers of hope illuminate dark ruminations on human nature
By Amos Toh
Cyril Wong's latest collection of poems plays out across a vast field of dreams. Despairing revelations about human nature are interspersed with flashes of dry wit, invoking the "darkly glittering" landscape of Louise Glück's Averno. At the same time, this is a poetry that locates a calm in the storm of everyday life, much like Mani Rao's spiritual journeying in Ghostmasters.
However, Oneiros resonates beyond poetry and words. These dreams are also subtle music; a collection of sounds that unearths the lush, steady pulse of life. Dreams close with the "murmurings / of thunder, the windows / preparing to bring news of rain." (p. 11). The soft footsteps of a "dwindling rain" exhaust the last dregs of a troubled friendship (p. 12). Struggling down the side of a mountain, the poet revels in the deafening quiet of solitude, "[n]ot caring if I'm cold, or if my voice receives no echo. / Not caring if there's still much further I'll have to go." (p. 49).
Wong resists the alluring static of a city crammed with messages of how we should behave and what we should become. Retreating from a "dream of a real city / that I long to wake up from", he watches ambivalently as "cars smash into each other and the aged / are run down for looking like death." (p. 16). A boisterous National Day Parade suddenly reduces into an eternity of quiet (p. 17). The "colours, buildings, and people / I almost recognize" (p. 8) come to signify departure; "the cold / country of the past I am leaving". (p. 48). Even as Wong is "carried along / by a Lethean current of each / passing day", he is already unlearning his old life and the "repetition / that is its very core" (p. 15).
Nature's repertoire consumes Oneiros like Thom Yorke's haunting, unbroken falsetto in the Radiohead song 'Reckoner'; both celebrate and realise the earth's capacity for uncomplicated beauty. A kiss between two male lovers topples "[c]hurches, flats and malls" in its wake until it arrives deep in the ocean ("a galaxy of plankton" the poet admires), "where no person or building / may fall at the spectacle of our embrace" (p. 21). This embrace of the elements is not unlike Radiohead's ethereal vision of humanity "separat[ing] like ripples on a blank shore". Even in a nightmare that resembles "every horror film I had ever known / seared into one", the reassuring current of a breeze soothes the frantic imagination (p. 23). Deep within a dream beneath another dream, the collective calm of sunset offers redemption: "sidewalks /...of people til[t] their faces / to sip the last of the retreating sun." (p. 16). Like 'Reckoner', these poems are "[d]edicated to all you / all you human beings": they remind us of what we can see, hear and be, if only we would pause to watch and listen.
This paean to nature is an eloquent testament to how Wong's oeuvre has evolved. From squatting quietly to unmarked treasure, his poetry burned with the angst of someone coming to terms with his family's rejection and the tribulations of homosexual life. The intervening collections matured in form and craft, expanding the scope and depth of the personal and confessional in his work. His most recent − like a seed with its singular purpose and tilting our plates to catch the light − took a more abstract plane as their trajectory, but retained the urgency and restless energy of his previous work. There was always a sense that Wong was searching for something elusive: a perfect love, despite or because of its imperfections, or closure that would nevertheless leave a piercing void.
This time, however, Wong strikes new emotional territory. He surrenders to a "vast field of nothingness" − where there is "no one / to greet me, nothing to forgive, / no anger, grief or a transcendent bliss" − and asks, with Zen-like calm: "What would be so terrible about that?" (p. 55). Rather than searching for a way out, the poet now revels in a dream-like state. Several poems barely emerge from the threshold between sleep and awakening, reality and dreamscape, embracing the uncertain transitioning:
If it is concrete destinations or a conventional sense of closure that you want, Oneiros is not the poetry for you. That is not to say that Wong has grown impervious to the vagaries of existence: that would simply be pretentious. Instead, a conversation with a dying Anne Sexton reminds the poet that he "cannot leave those who matter" and, inevitably, those who matter little:
Thus, the departure of a lover still leaves the poet trembling with wanting:
At the same time, the father he is continuously purging maintains a wordless but intrusive presence; "a personification of death / with no reason to forgive / and every reason to forget" (p. 30).
However, these recollections and experiences ultimately resist the fatalism and bitterness that lurk at every corner. Although Father is made to "watch us doing it from behind", his reaction is carefully hidden from the reader (p. 31). The sing-song rhyme sets up an air of comical horror, but who is to say that it is not self-regret, or a desire to reconnect?
There is, therefore, a sense that Wong is coming to terms with the precarious balance between love and loss, desire and hopelessness. His newfound ambivalence, coupled with the endless possibility of dreams, carves out a space for the dreamer to contemplate the indeterminacy of the self, and the enduring silence of a vague and uncertain future. What is so terrible about being "an indistinct shadow / and then not even that" (p. 40)? Or transiting "[b]etween nowhere / and everywhere", waiting for "the future taking its time to arrive" (p. 48)?QLRS Vol. 10 No. 1 Jan 2011
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