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Vol. 3 No. 3 Apr 2004

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Death Is A Ceremony
Robert Yeo goes looking for unmarked treasure

By Robert Yeo

unmarked treasure
Cyril Wong
Firstfruits Publications (2004) / 99 pages / SGD 14.00

This substantial book of poems, Cyril’s fourth in five years, is best read with reference to two sentences at the back of the book and a page of contents listing the poems in it, which is not in the book.

At the back of the book are the two sentences: “A ghost steps out of its body after a suicide and looks back at it in wonder. The poet wonders at his own existence and struggles between actual living and the desire to die.”

Link these to the contents page, which the poet sent me upon request, and the whole book containing fifty-three pages begins to make sense. Thus, the list of poems, to take just the first ten poems, looks like this:

End Song
Invisible Snapshot
A Rush towards, then to perch
First Home
Turning Back
Flight Dreams
Notes to a Suicide
It is a choice
The Affair

The majority of poems, with unitalicised titles, appear to be doubly framed: one, by the voice of the ghost, and two, as photographic references to people who have killed themselves – these are the invisible snapshots. There are six invisible snapshots and the first alludes to Leslie Cheung, the late Hong Kong movie star.

By framing, I mean that the out-of-body experiences of the ghost introduce and link the rest of the poems thematically while the invisible snapshots reinforce instances of death, whether literal or figurative. Figuratively, the death referred to is that of the non-existent love between the poet’s parents, which leave them, and the poet, distraught. As an example, poem 2 of ‘mother’s steps to sanity’ has her monologue:

I am walking on a tightrope
and behind me is a long

line of women
who were never loved
by the men they married.

While many people are mentioned as dedications, especially in the invisible snapshots (‘For Leslie Cheung’, ‘After Jason Wee’) the main characters in this book are the poet, his sister, father and mother. They are a dysfunctional family, as the father is in denial about his son’s homosexuality, which alienates him from his wife, daughter and son. Mother struggles and continues to love her son, while her daughter cannot care less and symptomatically goes to pubs and dates angmoh men.

The poet has given the best lines to his mother. The bond between mother and son is so strong that the voices of both fuse in a joined monologue as a gesture of their inseparableness in ‘mother doesn’t get it’. She says:

I don’t know why I don’t know love.
I don’t know why my sister sleeps with white men and likes it.
I don’t know why I don’t like sex.
I don’t know why I turned into my mother no matter how hard I resisted.

Despite his atheism, he is forced to recognize the power of her love and the result are among the best poems in this collection, in particular the three-part poems ‘god is our mother’ and ‘mother’s step to sanity’. These are tender lyrics that pay homage to mother as godlike in her loving omniscience and infinite love.

Maybe we gave up
too easily when our mother
never stopped trying.
maybe we are the sinners too.

He combines this with touching domestic details from the same poem:

God is our mother
Who creeps into our rooms at night…

At the root of mother problems is the fact that her son is gay and her husband’s rejection and its corrosive effects on the family is the consequence. Naturally there are poems that explore the father’s denial: as these lines from ‘letter to araya rasdjarmrearnsook’ show:

                       He is watching
the news again, Araya. If I had been
born a girl and my sister a boy

it would have made more sense, as
then he would have no problem
loving us, Araya.

Nonetheless, the poet is not about to change his sexual preference and there are candid love poems like the one just quoted, ‘promiscuity’, ‘holiday cruise’, ‘a kind of hush’ and ‘heavy sleeve’ that explore this, sometimes with a lingering sense of guilt and shame, as these lines from ‘a kind of hush’ show:

All at once, ripples would flee
in a singular, outward direction

these questions of guilt or blame.

More often, there is a consciousness of the bodily contact that finds expressions in discreet honesty that reminds me of the poems of Thom Gunn in The Man with Night Sweats (1992).

Put this passage from Gunn’s ‘The Hug’,

I dozed, I slept. My sleep broke on a hug,
                   Suddenly, from behind,
In which the full lengths of our bodies pressed:
                   Your instep to my heel,
My shoulder blades against my chest...

Next to Wong’s ‘heavy sleeve’,

Your shirt now opens
wider around your neck,
as if from the sheer
weight of sleeves, disclosing
further then unsunned
white of your shoulders,
broadening the vision
of your collar-bone -

and similarities become apparent. Both poets have made stylistic choices in their preference for the bare understatement that is in sharp contrast to the in-your-face “pressing his cock to my thigh approach” of Allen Ginsberg in, say, a poem like ‘Many Loves’.

If I have given the impression that these are gloomy poems about death and denial, then I am wrong. Many poems are shot through with two positives: the first is the attempt to transcend the breaking of love by building bridges (there is a poem called ‘bridges’); the second is the manner in which the poet manages to fashion poetry out of these searing circumstances, almost like Philip Larkin who wrote, “Deprivation is for me what daffodils were to Wordsworth.” There is a self-consciousness about this that is apparent, for example, in this quotation from ‘almost’:

                       My existence is one of sweetest
boredom, buoyed along by reasonable desires and
such calmer dreams as locating the next mental
door that would open into another poem...

Two other features need noticing and that is the fact that the poets wonderment is his own existence often takes him back into dream-like states of childhood and in these instances the poet hovers between body and the spirit that lifts him above the material into a tranced state. The image of flying is intended. One instance will suffice and this comes from ‘last dream’:

And I wondered if I would always
be dreaming, and whether the greatest

Dream had yet to come, the one
we may all step out into, leaving

behind the seated houses of our bodies...

This volume represents an advance on his second book end of his orbit. (I have not yet found the time to read his third book below: absence). In the second book, poems about parental displeasure and homosexual relations are addressed directly but in this collection, the framing devices I talked about enables him to deliberately blur distinctions between the real (Cyril Wong) and the persona (the poet who “wonders at his own existence”.) The result is a distancing that layers the poems and renders them more fraught and complex and encourages, indeed demands, repeated reading.

QLRS Vol. 3 No. 3 Apr 2004


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  Other Criticism in this Issue

Light As Ash
Cyril Wong reviews Heng Siok Tian's Contouring.

A Wilting Bloom
Paul Tan reviews Eunice Chew's The Sea In Blossom.

Sky In A Hundred Puddles
Toh Hsien Min reviews W.B. Keckler's Sanskrit of the Body.

Related Links

Cyril Wong's homepage
External link.

Cyril Wong profile
External link to the NBDCS.

Poem by Cyril Wong
Vol. 1 No. 2 Jan 2002

Poems by Cyril Wong
External link.

Poem by Cyril Wong
External link to Cordite.

Cyril Wong goes to Edinburgh
External link to the British Council.

unmarked treasure
External link to Select Books.


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