“A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals” by Wong May

A Bad Girl's Book of Animals, Wong May (Ethos, March 2023) A Bad Girl's Book of Animals, Wong May (Ethos, March 2023)

A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals was first published by Harcourt, Brace & World in 1969, when there were very few Asians with a poetry collection out in the US—and has now been put out again by Singaporean publisher Ethos with an excellent foreword by poet Tse Hao Guang. 

Born in 1944 in Chongqing,Wong May was taken to Singapore by her mother, where she first encountered English at the age of six. Her teacher at University of Singapore, British poet DJ Enright, pointed her to the Writers’ Workshop at University of Iowa.

Wong May was only twenty-five when Animals was published. This was a time of considerable political turmoil, not just in Singapore and Malaysia, but globally from the US through Europe. As the world order has been turned upside-down once again in recent years by the rise of nationalist authoritarianism, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Covid-19 and the collapse of global financial systems, the reissue of A bad girl’s book of animals seems remarkably prescient.


The randomness of preoccupations in “On His 23rd Birthday”—sardines, consciousness—speaks of this collection’s countercultural era. This verse is wilfully free, reactively so in its random line breaks, while an ampersand starting a line recalls the Beatnik poets:


That is, if
Consciousness is
in streams.
He gets up,
eats a can of sardines
& buries himself


Wong May amazes the reader often, and not only with unselfconscious language. In “The Judge”, we are entranced by the circuitous logic of a drunken sestina fragment, that has the reader checking whether repetition has actually taken place:


Do dogs sleep with eyes closed,
I wonder, the bed being
the only white thing in the house
I wonder


Do dogs sleep, the bed being
the only blank thing in the house
& will not sleep


Redolent of Wallace Stevens and occurring several times here, the repetition of jumbled phrases establishes the narrative protagonist as an estranged witness. The poem’s contested facts—eyes open or closed, sleeping or not, the blank or white bed—picture a random world. In one review of Wong May’s work, poet Shirley Geok-lin Lim referred to her willful misdirection, which is in evidence throughout.


This collection sings of the nineteen-sixties throughout; poems such as “Point of View” fizz with absurdities that emerge as though through dope smoke:


There are transparencies between time & space,
Pork rinds which when held against light


Yield to sight pores thru which a pig
Once perspired. A pig is on fire!


Its ending recalls Cummings:


Death, I am
(I am afraid)


The phrase asserts the fact of existence (I am) twice within six words, evoking the insecurities of a society in thrall to its burgeoning therapy/analysis scene. “Shadow” tags the new American obsession with happiness:


            Just how
or happy do you
want yourself to
be. (and me)


Wong May clearly is not happy. “A Letter” details her mother’s death:


             After yours


Or anybody’s funeral,
the world is not made


Ugly for me, it is.


Further on, “Dear Mama” is vulnerable mixed with awkward; wordplay steps in where grief is difficult:


By the same token I leave you,
I leave myself (with you). The
going forth
henceforth a grafted green


The next tranche of poems here rages against all semblances of power; racism as in “Consolation Prize”:


             Black on white


or white on black?
It certainly isn’t any worse


if you read the same lie.


She seethes against the dominant gender in “Small Thing” and others:


Man, I say, for


The lack of a better
word, let’s call it


a rat


In other poems May seems to use her rage as fuel for surprising or clarifying turns. Meaning seems to be absent from the poem “Absent”:


I can’t even drive you to Glenwood Springs
not even that
                    far a distance
of seven times seven miles, for you’re not
Here to be There


Until we hit the last three lines, that is:


                                We are not
Getting anywhere I got
to go now to fuck my wife


“Here” might be used to illustrate the potential power of poem endings, which is where she often shines:


You are. Not even
ignorance works here


In “Spring comes to Kresge Co.”, sinister observations build inconspicuously amid mundane town store realities:


nothing is greener
than the cut-throat lotion
this year, green like some


This could be the absurd humor of stoned students but for the shock of its open, unpunctuated ending focused on the elderly shopkeeper:


her mouth is chicken-blood fresh


Like many works of art issuing from the sixties, the work is difficult but essential. Wong May was drawing lines in 1969 which are still being crossed and recrossed today, on feminism, inclusion, subjectivity versus facts.

While much of humanity tumbles into descendancy in Wong May’s view, she is the journalist at its funeral, as with the family doctor in “Morphine”:


To watch somebody
    dying as in a painting
when the cool green grapes are
contemplating bruises, & the
window-panes glisten like a pool


Before the dark humor of:


To remark afterwards
      if the sea throws up
      please clean the carpet


“Spring Song” opens with startling defamiliarized imagery:


Those days the jays
hit the sky
like dumb & deaf
children learning to sing


It turns macabre at the end:


A smell in the room
all day with the blind down
the jays sound fierce
And you
there’s no name for it
even my eyes
are nocturnal


Wong May’s course director at Iowa said only Wong May and Vladimir Nabokov can defamiliarize us to our own language; at several points including the above quotes, it feels like she is articulating the loneliness of human inarticulacy. Wong May herself has observed: “My poems are about wordlessness rather than words. I feel that we must recognize our ultimate wordlessness.”

Following the publication of further full-length collections in 1972 (Reports), 1978 (Superstitions) and a coaxed comeback in 2014 with Picasso’s Tears, she was awarded the Windham-Campbell Prize in 2022 for her lifetime’s body of work. If the world has caught up with Wong May now, it’s as the foreword suggests: what was relegated for being difficult to pin down is now treasured for the same reason.

The collection’s penultimate piece, “Remember” reads importantly, with incantatory qualities:


Remember my right hand to your right hand
Remember my eye to your eye
Remember what I could not have
                          to what you have kept


The imperative pressure of its title’s repetition comes close to religious feeling, even as multiple strands work across each other as balancing ambivalence. The penultimate stanza nails the poet’s seething rage against North America’s bloated individualist project:


Remember my flesh to your flesh
all our pores listening like muffled ears
Remember to each our essential selfishness
the bridge that isn’t anywhere


It is difficult to see how this collection’s authorial voice is that of “a bad girl” even ironically, other than by conjecturing a mid-century female South East Asian being drilled as a child in politeness—or worse, to withhold her voice completely.

For all this remarkable collection’s defeatedness and rage, its author comes good at the end in seeking resolution and connection:


Remember my breath to your breath
for no reason                       this rhythm
                                              this perfection

Lawrence Pettener is a poet and editor living in Subang Jaya, Malaysia.