Toward the beginning of his most recent (and thirteenth) collection, Singaporean poet Cyril Wong writes: “I’m a poet of intangible things, so the audience doesn’t quite exist.” This latter assertion is belied by numerous awards, steady book sales and high output over the last twenty years.
The prospect of “infinity” in the collection’s title and that of its longest poem is one which might easily put the prospective reader off. However, there is no real danger of infinity being stretched too far by Wong, who turns instead to terse observations in the opening poem “Clementi”. On seeing a toddler being carried down some steps, he says:
You always exclaim how cute he
is—the child, not the man—but I can only see what he’ll look like
in his dotage.
The collection’s title, along with poems relating to infinity, reflect the death of the poet’s long-term male relationship partner.
With that in mind, the high point of the collection may well be “Between You and Infinity”, its short lines ratcheting up the tempo,with iambic blocks averaging thirteen lines, interspersed with formal, nautically themed haiku, which comply initially with the strict 5-7-5 syllable count before easing off toward the end of the piece. This is an interesting approach to poetic form. Its main stanzas loosely reflect sonnets, though one stanza seems to awkwardly dodge the form’s fourteen lines. Wong’s sudden intermittent placing of fully rhyming stanzas into non-rhyming free verse after the middle of the piece jars slightly.
Heightened romantic moods lead to delightful transpersonal moments, such as this perfect haiku:
When we love like this,
we’re all the broken boys and
our own religion.
The poem’s final stanzas view the transpersonal via the question of self and non-self:
… the mind is not a house now, but its own metaphor
of selfhood to fracture
Over a considerable period, Wong’s poetry has dealt with issues of self and non-selfhood through the lens of Buddhist practice. If self-absorption were present in this work, the poet’s celebratory love for his partner and the universe might begin to allay it. Instead, dissolution of self here results in connection, reaching bodhisattva territory with:
I think I cried because it wasn’t just
for me that I was sad, but for everyone
forgotten and alone.
The title poem comprises further assertions on relationships, in prose poetry, interspersed with shorter italicized domestic scenarios. Wong rails passionately against the sort of dualistic vision which Buddhist meditation practice aims to eradicate:
We are not separate from the movement of desire; no we distinct from want, which has never been a door waiting to be opened but wheels within wheels.
The “wheels” imagery will trigger multiple associations for Buddhists, that religion’s forms comprising part of Wong’s inherited culture. This, however, is an emphatically post-religious sensibility echoing fifties’ and sixties’ American Beat poets Snyder, Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg and the rest; Wong’s insights arise from meditation practice rather than religious trappings.
In this, Wong could be seen to be following in the footsteps of American TS Eliot prizewinner Mark Doty, whose collection Atlantis (1995) especially, also charts the death of the poet’s male partner and is similarly focused through the lens of Buddhist teachings and practice.
Both poets build their stanzas slowly; whereas Doty details colour and light, Wong conjectures as a secular Buddhist without any whiff of preachiness. Far from it; whereas he questions and asserts widely in prose form, “everything to do with the mind”, Doty is lyrical and ludic. Whereas both poets circle back repeatedly on the tenderness of their respective relationships, Wong weaves Buddhist emptiness teachings into these reflections to good effect, here from “False Labors”:
Our life together… hobbling free
of freedom, self, emotional fixities.
While many poets address life’s grand themes elliptically, Wong repeatedly focuses on love and death head-on, as here in “Between You and Infinity”:
telling me to discard your ashes
at Changi beach; I reply that I’d
eat them instead.
Not many poets can sustain that level of intensity, let alone over the hundred and fifty pages this book contains.
That said, the sheer length of this poetry collection might put some readers off. Some parts of the middle poems—”Vakkali Refractions”, “Plainspeak” even—could probably have been left out without incurring much if any damage to the whole.
“Dear Stupid Straight People” goes directly to the point, eviscerating its title’s ambiguous demographic, their unexamined prejudices and othering of gay people and experience:
Stupid straight people killing stupid straight people: you must admit, that’s poetry.
Wong’s work has divided opinions in Singapore, where gay sex is criminalised. In a similar vein, the poem “Plainspeak” is a collage of declaratory pronouncements, including:
When society tells you what you are is wrong, it does something to you.
Fifteen uninterrupted minutes or more with Wong’s work can bring the reader directly into its moment through heightened, concentrated feeling. This worked for me in reading the title poem and “Between You and Infinity” in particular. Wong stays true to his experience in these, to produce work which is by turns brittle and tender, resonant and compelling.
Unusual in contemporary published poetry, Cyril Wong’s exploration of the mind and notions of self are thoroughgoing and tireless. What is more, he is unafraid to withstand real emotion as a means of seeing clearly.