Immeasurables: Four Ways of Writing about Cyril Wong’s Satori Blues
By Koh Jee Leong
So begins the chapbook-length poem Satori Blues by Cyril Wong, a Singaporean writer. Wong is better known for writing brutally frank lyrics about love and loss. Satori Blues brings to light the spiritual yearnings latent in the earlier lyrics, and anticipates the composition of larger structures in his later books. Brought up in a Catholic family, Wong found cause to reject his religious upbringing, for its easy consolation and homophobic intolerance, in favour of Buddhist philosophies.
Wong credits a number of Buddhist teachers at the start of the book, but he does not thank them for their teachings. As U.G. Krishnamurti insisted, "Tell them there is nothing to understand." In this, Wong shows himself a genuine disciple. The teachers are thanked, instead, for their "writings". The true disciple is a reader. The best disciple may in fact be a writer, just as the teachers were. One does not follow one's masters by taking possession of their thought, as if it is portable property. One follows their example by reading and writing.
Yet this writing must be conducted in a spirit of meditation. How is it to be done? Here one may remember the wise passiveness extolled by the Romantics. Influenced by Wordsworth, Coleridge in 'The Aeolian Harp' speaks of allowing "Full many a thought uncalled and undetained,/And many idle flitting phantasies,/Traverse my indolent and passive brain." It is a beautiful description of meditation by a Western author but it is noteworthy that Coleridge is not musing on tranquility in the poem but is actually conversing with his betrothed. One can make the case that Coleridge's greatest poetic achievement lies in his clutch of 'Conversation Poems'. Conversation, however, is not meditation.
In discussions of poetry, sometimes one hears that a poem is basically an act of communication. Thinking about a poem as an act of meditation, however, requires a different kind of relationship between the writer and the reader. Instead of sitting face-to-face, in a cafe, say, or in an interview, writer and reader are sitting side-by-side, facing the same direction, gratified when answers rose up in a field without questions.
Meditation takes time, just as writing a long poem does. But what kind of time is needed for writing or reading a meditation-poem? Epic poetry can leap forward 10 years or glance back a thousand years in just one line of verse. Poetic sequences can switch time frames and time scales without so much as a by-your-leave. A meditation-poem, however, cannot resort to these devices to make time malleable and convenient. In such a poem, as in a meditation, time must be lived through, second by second, minute by minute. There is no shortcut; there is no doubling back. There is only the unhurried succession of thoughts, and when the reader comes to the end of the poem, he may begin reading it again, but it will be another time, another session.
In living through time, with the meditation-poem, the reader grows not only more acutely aware of the world, but also more able to let such gleanings go. Shunryu Suzuki writes, "If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything, it is open to everything." This exhortation precedes and explains his more famous saying, "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's mind there are few." It is possible to misinterpret Shunryu Suzuki as saying that it is desirable to be an expert, even though expertise necessarily forecloses naive options. But he is actually arguing that the beginner has the advantage over the expert. The beginner has the advantage of readiness. Everyone can see a catastrophe when it is in full flood. The beginner, however, can detect the very beginning of it; in fact, he can detect the catastrophe even before it begins.
In another diary entry, Manu writes, "Let the world say whatever it wants."
3. Joy Visual and aural images prevail throughout Satori Blues, as its title already prepares us. Satori is the Japanese Buddhist term for enlightenment or awakening. Blues, as a musical genre, developed from the spirituals, work songs and ballads of the African American communities in the "Deep South" of the United States. Enlightenment in Satori Blues is figured through both visual and aural images. The relationship between the two kinds of images is suggested in the most intriguing manner in this passage:
Clarity, the visual reference here, is associated with making distinctions. We see the difference between self-hypnosis and meditation, between self-deception and awareness. We are ushered, "urged", however, into enlightenment by the tinkling of wind chimes. Like temple bells, the wind chimes strike the hour and call for attention. Unlike temple bells, the delicate chimes are set off by the wind, ethereal and unpredictable as spirit. The aural images in Satori Blues figure enlightenment as suprarational, irresistible and fleeting. The first aural image in the poem does not lead to enlightenment, however; quite the opposite, it is a "death-trap".
The speaker is meditating in his room, the radio playing some sad song. When he inhales, he takes in the world, including the radio music. We all know from experience the power of music to change mood. Here, the initial calm is unravelled, into fraying threads, perhaps. The word "unravelled" hides, however, a more benign meaning. To unravel a mystery is to make a situation clear. This hidden meaning is itself revealed in the next movement of the passage. When the speaker exhales, he hears not the anguish of the music but its arrangement. The poem persuades us that this is so through its own arrangement of vowel sounds or "notes". In an interwoven fashion, the predominance of the long "a" sound gives way, after meeting "e" and "o", to the short "i" sound.
The sense of arrangement is reinforced by sentence construction. The passage consists of one sentence divided into two equal parts of two lines each. Each part begins with an imperative verb, followed by a declarative statement. The parallelism underscores the point that inhaling and exhaling are two halves of the same action of breathing. The point is consolatory. If the "fissures in a life" are represented in the passage by the division between inhaling and exhaling, the fissures are also healed by perceiving the two actions as essentially one.
Enhanced by the musicality of the vowel "notes", breathing turns into a song. Sound is, after all, vibrating air. The steady breathing of the meditation practitioner becomes the poem of the poet, the song of the singer. But what kind of song is it? Though it is arguably "bluesy" in its mood, Satori Blues does not have the classic AAB form of the blues. It comes closest to the blues in its use of repetition as a structural rhythmic device.
Repetition in Satori Blues comes in many ways and places. A word may be repeated for the purpose of mockery, as in "Time, no time; no time to waste!" Or a root word may be joined to different prefixes to suggest variety: "To store the present: use, reuse,/abuse; compare, repair, despair." Most vitally, repetition could discover a fundamental Buddhist truth. For an instance, that is almost a koan, to strive for enlightenment is self-defeating; one should be, instead, "[a] votive without motives."
Satori Blues distinguishes between two kinds of repetition, one that keeps us from enlightenment, another that leads us to it.
One of the challenges of reading Satori Blues is its lack of discourse markers, such as because and therefore. The lack is intentional, of course, since the poem is not concerned to provide discursive clarity; in fact, it sets out to frustrate it. But the lack makes it easy to misunderstand the poem if one does not have at least a smattering of knowledge of Buddhist thought.
In the passage above, the conjunction "but" is missing. "To experience" is the opposite of "to do". The mechanical repetition of the heart ("to do,/to do") insists falsely, and futilely, on ceaseless striving. This urge to do keeps us from experiencing our present without trying to hold on to it, or allowing it to hold us back. If blatant repetition stands for the false blandishments of the heart, a subtler repetition, which requires attention to the moment, represents the better way. The latter repetition comes in the form of rhyme, a pair of them, as in "do/through" and "means/clean". That the rhymes are internal rhymes only reinforces the poem's counsel to go through and come out on the other side.
"Whistle-clean" is an interesting aural image. The provenance of the simile "clean as a whistle" is doubtful. Robert Burns, the Scottish poet, is credited with the first written appearance of something close to the expression. He wrote, "Her mytchkin stowp as toom's a whissle," which translates to "Her pint bucket is as empty as a whistle." The meaning of "clean" as "empty", or clear of obstruction, is relevant to Satori Blues. It has also a nice allusion to the Buddhist idea of emptiness. The whistle, in Burns' time, was the reed, a musical instrument strongly associated with poetry. The passage in Satori Blues is of general application, but it is also capable of a more particular one. The poet, especially one who would practice meditative breathing, should not only go through life whistle-clean, but be himself a clean whistle.
Repetition becomes transformative in one of the deftest passages of the poem. Transformation-by-repetition is the working of an immanent philosophy, just as transformation-by-removal is the working of a transcendental philosophy, such as Christianity. Aiming for mere happiness, the poet's mother, a Catholic, "was only interested in heaven," and so missed out on the here and now. Repetition attends to the here and now, but, through internal transformation, is not confined by the present.
The love for attention is full of desire and so leads to suffering. "Love, but attention" posits the two qualities as opposites; we can have one or the other, but not both. It is an advance on the first attitude in that love has been detached from attention. A further advance is made in "Attention to love," which turns in the right direction. "Love then attention," with its chronology, suggests a deepening in time. And finally attention is identified with love. Love between two people is not just an emotion, not even an action, but a quality of attention. As is one's love for the world, the here and now. The concatenation of words across the verse lines is appropriately graceful, lyrical and climactic.
The theme of love in Satori Blues finds its most beautiful expression in an aural image, which is also a non-image. The poet and his lover have just spent a day together, perhaps near a beach, as suggested by the presence of rocks and shells. They have talked much throughout the day, playfully, seriously, dreamily, and now fall silent, full of thought and emotion. They have to return to their car to drive home, but they linger in enjoyment of the last moments. Then they hear a child laugh, perhaps from the beach that they have just left behind, and the laughter unites their hearing, just as the child embodies the union of two people. The laughter also unites the past and future, just as the child reminds them of who they were and predicts what they can be.
After the aural image of the child's laugh, the oxymoronic "inaudible music" and the paradoxical "Listening is its own silence" both set up the laughter's counterpart, the non-image of the rocks and shells having nothing to say. By asking the question "Why not pay attention anyway?" the poet clears away any preconceptions of rocks and shells so as to make space for new perceptions. Rocks and shells may speak while not speaking. The non-image turns out to be an aural image, after all.
Clearing away preconceptions is the vital function of meditation and other Buddhist techniques. Elsewhere the poem says, "Time is a murderer of perception." Time murders perception by forming habits of perception, so that we cannot see what is before us, but through the accumulated crust of habits. Koans like "Why not pay attention anyway?" break up such crusts so that we can see anew. Or in the aural terms of the poem, to hear that which has nothing to say.
What we hear from non-speaking rocks and shells is that we are "that which is sound." This may be glossed by another part of the poem, in which the poet explains that "The observer and the observed [are]/but twin poles to a singular event." The hearer is not just united with the sound, but he is identical to the sound in the singular event of hearing. Transposed into the terms of love: the lover is identical to the beloved in the act of loving. The lover is that which is the beloved. The poem has moved a very long way, in a very short span, from the "bridges" called down by a child's laugh.
The passage is clearly marked as an epiphany, but it is an aural epiphany. This, I would suggest, is one of the imaginative achievements of Satori Blues. A new perception of reality is usually conveyed in visual terms: epiphany, revelation, insight, enlightenment, spots of time. The Christian Feast of the Epiphany commemorates the manifestation of God, in the baby Jesus, to the Magi, who stand in for all gentiles. Satori Blues does not shun this visual language, but sings convincingly too of what might be termed an epiphony.
"Listening is its own silence," the poem declares in the middle of its epiphony, and so directs us to listen for the silences in the poem. We will attend to two instances, one explicitly stated, the other powerfully silent. In the first instance, the poet sees an old woman pushing a heavy cart, and asks himself what he can do to help her. Pushing her cart for her lifts the burden of a moment, but not the burden of her age. Then he sees, like a young Siddhartha, another image of suffering, this time of youth pressed prematurely into middle age.
In Singapore, migrant workers, mainly from the Indian sub-continent, work in difficult and dangerous jobs in construction and like industries. They are met with a range of attitudes from derision to sympathy. When they appear in poetry, they are often depicted simply and sentimentally as heroes or victims. The silence of the migrant workers in Satori Blues is more complicated. They are too "tired" to talk. They prefer to daydream, either about the homes that they left behind or about the families that they will build once they get rich. Their daydream is the escapist self-hypnosis that the poem distinguishes earlier from meditation, that which enables "a settling into clarity." Unsettled, the migrant workers do not attend to the present, and so the present is only "like a sieve between past and future" for them; they are incapable of satori. Of course the poet does not blame them for their condition, but neither does he gloss over the deleterious effects of their lives. They share the same problem with all workers, local or migrant, who give up their lives, either out of necessity or choice, to mindless work.
In contrast to the daydreaming silence of the migrant workers, the silence of Thich Quang Duc is spiritually powerful. In 1963 the Vietnamese monk set himself on fire to protest the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government.
The protest was silent, even still, as the poem underlines through the use of negatives. He did not cry out, and so his cry on behalf of his co-religionists was heard around the world. On the other hand, his tormentor, represented here by the First Lady, was full of action: "offered/to supply." Her cruel taunt "barbecue", noted and preserved in the poem and elsewhere, condemns her forever.
Thich Quang Duc shows by personal example that Buddhist philosophies may be quietist, but they are not quiet. They have the power to transform the world, not through changing its institutions, but through changing minds. "The dream of a harmonious world," the poem declares, "is the reason that I'm always on fire." This dream is different from the migrant workers' silent daydream; it is a dream of harmony. Aptly, the word "harmony" comes from a Greek root that means concord. This dream preserves the link between individual enlightenment and world transformation. Against reformers who would change structures in order to influence behaviour, an idea always insulting to human dignity, the poem opposes change in individuals first, "one enlightenment after another and another" in a catchy tune.
He was tall and skinny. Boyish face. Thin hair. He was seven years younger than I was, but he seemed older, not just touched by experience, but scarred. His book of poems bore witness to the wounds. Probed the wounds of family and love with such lyrical honesty that I was transfixed in the Times Bookshop where I picked up the slim volume. The book was called Squatting Quietly. In Singapore, people squatted in toilets to shit. Ah Bengs, young toughs, squatted on sidewalks outside shopping centres, puffed their cigarettes, cursed in Hokkien and teased the girls strolling by. As I stared at Cyril Wong reading from the back of the cafe, I thought I could detect the squat in his stance. It had something of defensiveness in it, as when one squats to make oneself a smaller target. But it had a greater measure of defiance.
Conciliatory by temperament, I was drawn to this public display of shamelessness. In the months after the reading, we went out for coffee a couple of times and I plied him with questions about writing. He was the published poet, I was the wannabe. We talked about his coming-out as gay to his family, his experience cruising for sex in public restrooms, his opinions of other poets. Hiding behind these questions, I came close each meeting to telling him that I too was gay, that I didn't have a clue what to do about it. It must have been obvious to him, but he didn't hurry me. He allowed me to tell him at my own time.
It was some years later, and half a world away, when I did. I had moved to New York, fallen in and out of love, started publishing. I sent Cyril a copy of my first book. He had been sending me his books, written with enviable regularity. Then one special volume came in the post one day. It wasn't published by his usual publisher, but by a press that he set up for the book. Satori Blues had a very pale yellow cover and wide French flaps. Inside was inscribed "for Jee Leong, with love & respect." I was pleased and flattered. By that time, however, I didn't want his respect for declaring myself gay; I wanted his respect for my writing. I wanted affirmation that, late starter that I was, I had caught up.
I read Satori Blues in a complicated spirit of rivalry and adoration. As if the poet and I were a couple looking for a threesome. If the reader flirted with him, I felt proud of my lover but disappointed for myself. Worse if the stud sweet-talked me, for I couldn't enjoy the attention, knowing that my lover was overlooked. The gay domestic trope wasn't irrelevant to the book. By that time, Cyril had happily settled down with his partner. My boyfriend and I had just moved in together. I was looking forward to a new phase of life and was casting about for a way to think about it.
Woven from Buddhist philosophies, Satori Blues provided, still provides, such a way. It is a way of joy. The poem traverses the terrains of pain, sorrow, pity and outrage, but all 337 lines of it are suffused with joy, concentrating and dispersing in this epiphany:
The poem is cast in the form of a meditation, "a stream of consciousness," says its blurb, but it is ultimately, I believe, a love song. "This number is for you," Satori Blues concludes. In this number, the squatting young man in the poet stands up. I climb to my feet too, for the poem asks me to "sing along".
Note: Section One of the essay was first published in At Length, as part of a series called Short Takes on Long Poems. The Four Immeasurables – benevolence, compassion, joy and equanimity – are Buddhist virtues to be cultivated if one is to be reborn into a Brahma realm. They are neither hierarchical nor sequential. They may be compared to the four cardinal directions.QLRS Vol. 13 No. 2 Apr 2014