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Vol. 1 No. 1 Oct 2001

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Unsettling Ways of Exile
Page 2

The unhomely cannot rest for long. The very nature of his articulation denies him rest. It compels him to seek out new literary terrain, thereby extending the site of his poetry. One sees this in the poet’s relentless engagement with the Middle-Eastern myth of Osiris. This occurs as early as in Toccata on Ochre Sheaves, Wong’s first significant sequence of poems, published in 1958. One finds the myth alluded to at the beginning of the sequence as follows:

Osiris who was tricked into lying in a leadlined chest by his brother Set died inside. His body, recovered by Isis, was put by temporarily when she went to Buto to see her son. Unfortunately Set stumbled onto it while hunting and in his anger ripped it into fourteen pieces. These pieces, gathered together, were deposited by Isis in various parts of Egypt, and they became transformed into river reeds.

In his introduction to the sequence of poems, Tan Han Hoe observes that Wong utilises the myth of Osiris as a “structural scaffolding” so as to explore the physical landscapes of Malaysia. I wish to push the point further by arguing that Wong appropriates the strategy of articulation embedded within the myth. We see the same strategy at work in many of Wong’s later poems. The imagery of dismemberment, of the displacing of one’s body into the landscape and the subsequent transformation of the body into river reeds persists even in poem i of How the Hills are Distant, published ten years after Wong’s initial encounter with the Osiris myth. The poem is worth quoting here in full:

When I am dead
and the old man, the river,
after a night of rain among the hills
should come upon me,
I shall only stir
like stones that drag the muddy bed.

When I am dead
should the old man rage
and relieve himself upon the fields,
my heart shall no more
be taut with kneading
that works from silt, green, tumescent heads.

The old man grows,
lives from subconscious hills,
sentient in fishes and reeds that slant
towards eloquence of words.
The waterfowl cry
his flowering of vowels on the wind.

If like you, old man,
I should never die
but learn my way about the hills,
I should be glad
always of rain
till the bunds of my body break and are washed in sand.

The persona identifies himself with Osiris, who is silenced and who subsequently manifests himself in the form of river reeds. The myth of Osiris’ body being transformed into river reeds is made into an issue of articulation in the above poem, where the reeds are slanted “towards eloquence of words”. As such, it is clear that the myth in this instance is adapted to Wong’s immediate cultural context and is conflated with images of the physical terrain of Malaysia.

The unhomely depicts in his poetry the physical landscapes of his birth country, and this is part of a larger concern to explore and articulate the conditions that has rendered him inarticulate. In a study entitled Towards a Semiotic of Post-Colonial Discourse, Anne Brewster observes that in many of Wong’s poems, the self “is defined within two domains, namely the landscape and language”. It is as if to say that Wong authenticates the language of his poetry by way of probing the physical terrain of Malaysia for words. “The process”, Wong tells us, “may be described as involving a flooding out of English words with one’s own immediate apprehension of the world to clean out their traditional English connotations whenever they intrude”. This process can best be seen in poem v of How the Hills are Distant:

Out of the coming and passing of the words
my tongue finds for longing, from tangle of this dying,
there is but a little falling of damp earth
and a slight cold wind against the trees,
savagely intent upon their separate interior lives.

Keeping its days and seasons,
the land yields no speech to us
even through intercession of imagined ghosts
who would make it easier for the tongue.
Against the rain, nothing of the memory of the dead
is caught and held on among the roots.
The merbak in the shift of weather in a passing cloud,
makes for the mute stones and trees
                                                   their words.

In the poem, the landscape is depicted as being apathetic to its inhabitants, and it is only by employing the pathetic fallacy as a strategy of articulation that the physical features of the land give voice to Wong’s exilic conditions. The line “the land yields no speech to us” carries with it a sharp tension between the apathy of the landscape towards the human condition and the way in which the landscape is made, paradoxically, to articulate the persona’s inarticulate condition.

Wong’s predicament emphasises the fact that one need not be physically away from one’s native country in order to be culturally displaced. A person can be an exile while still physically located within his home country, as the boundaries that outline the nation have already defined him as an outsider. There are many writers like Wong who negotiate between different cultures as a strategy of articulation. One can easily think of V. S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie and Derek Walcott, who forge literary connections between different cultures to clarify the plurality of their selves and to negotiate a way in the world. In the case of Wong, the identity as depicted in his poetry is constructed out of a plurality of cultures. Wong’s poetry investigates, defies and unsettles canonical enclosures erected by proponents of Malay nationalism. By interrogating and negotiating between boundaries from the interstices of political spaces, his poetry is of home and yet unhomely, Malaysian and yet not in Malay, in English and yet not English, Chinese and yet not in Chinese, a testimony to the cultural hybridity born out of the exile of the mind.

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QLRS Vol. 1 No. 1 Oct 2001


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  Other Essay in this Issue

In Search of the Lotus Land
Tan Hwee Hwee gets spiritual.

Related Links

Ways of Exile
External link to Skoob Books.

Selected bibliography of Malaysian authors
External link.

A commonwealth of writers?
Kee Thuan Chye on divisiveness in Malaysian literature.
External link.


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