Speaking Against

From the archives (November 17, 2016):

Review of Cyril Wong’s The Lover’s Inventory (Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2015)
by Andrew Howdle

Since the biennial Singapore Literary Prize expanded into categories, it has favoured joint winners in the poetry section. In 2016, the poetry award (for writing in English) was given to Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingde and Cyril Wong. This doubling is intriguing. In 2014, it was interpreted controversially as a reinforcing of traditional privilege as both poets were male. This year, as if anticipating an issue, the judges were keen to stress “outstanding quality” as the reason for a tie, making merit the justification for the paired win. They were also eager to point out the different styles of the two poets and, it would seem, the eclectic and inclusive nature of their final judgement; and by implication, the scope of poetry in Singapore. (This year witnessed the largest number of submissions for the event, 235 across all categories, though poetry submissions did not increase). Certainly the variety within Singapore poetry is supported by the two winning volumes: one is loquacious and expansive and extrovert; the other is introverted, intense and measured.

Cyril Wong’s reputation is based on his confessional poetry. So, maybe “measured” sounds like a strange word of choice. “About the Author” at the close of The Lover’s Inventory quotes what is often quoted: “the brutally candid sexuality” in his work (Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry, 2013, p.662)—a description that has allowed him to be labelled a Confessional poet without too much questioning. And yes, Cyril Wong himself does not back down from that view: “I mostly write Confessional poetry” (Book Launch for After You, 2013). It has to be said, however, that the term Confessional is a reductive one for a poet with such a tempered technique, balanced lyricism and natural sense of storytelling. There is a danger in attaching the term Confessional too easily to Cyril Wong and The Lover’s Inventory—if that term is viewed from an American perspective. Place Cyril Wong against Lowell’s Life Studies (1959) and it is not the dense, conscious and vaulted metaphorical language that echoes, it is the undercurrent of isolation and spirituality. Read him against Sharon Olds’s Odes (2016) and the term Confessional dissolves into nothing meaningful. Olds’s strenuous verse does not connect with the natural incisiveness of Cyril Wong’s vocabulary. If Cyril Wong is Confessional, it is from a different perspective. His confessions are born from an “I” living within a society that represses difference and masquerades equality. Removing the mask is an act of truth-telling and honesty. Personal openness is made into a defiant act against cultural hypocrisy.

The Lover’s Inventory opens with a quotation from Emerson’s Parnassus (1880):

“Poetry teaches the enormous force of a few words…”

Such is a view that would be repeated many times by Pound as the foundation of Modernism and vers libre and the correct path towards the Muses. Dichten=Condensare (ABC of Reading, 1951, p.92). Tight speech relies on concision (an hermetic seal). Emerson’s belief is exemplified by Cyril Wong’s poetry. Emerson’s defence of poetry also moves in a direction that has even greater relevance for Cyril Wong’s poetical achievement in The Lover’s Inventory: “Great thoughts insure musical expressions”. Musicality and diction are inseparable. And it is at this point that Confessionalism takes a personal route for Cyril Wong for the stress of emotion is felt in the musical phrase: in the musical strains of his work the strains of existence are encountered. Song is a vital part of how his world is experienced:

And I thought: I’ve never wanted
a man who doesn’t understand
the brokenness in a singer’s voice;
who has never woken up
with shards of a melody in his head.
(TLI, “Karaoke”, p.6)

Indeed, “shards of a melody” well describes a technique that melds smoothness with a cutting-edge in this volume of reflective notes and letters to extinguished desire.

Inventory is a rich word, a noun that plays in so many directions for the author. It picks up an echo from Unmarked Treasure (2004) with which Cyril Wong first won the Singapore Literary Prize, for an inventory is a collection of treasures, the valued objects possessed by estate owners. In this vein, inventory suggests the personal possessions/memories that remain in the mind and are marked. An inventory is an opening out, like a ledger, and laying bare the objects of a human life—a private world becoming public, a kind of confession, for who knows what might be discovered. The term inventory also connects to invention, things that are fabricated, like poems, or how poetry is textured and handed on, as Renaissance landowners bequeathed their textiles to the next generation. An inventory is a list, so the 10 list poems that conclude this volume. And last, but not least, bearing in mind that Cyril Wong has described himself as a poet concerned intimately with Love and Death: an inventory is often made of those loved objects that survive death. The Lover’s Inventory is an accounting and re-counting of past human experiences and what insights have been learnt from them.

The first poem in Cyril Wong’s The Lover’s Inventory is entitled “Cathedral”. This is a poem that finely attunes the reader to the volume as a whole. The “cathedral” is not a building, rather the structured form created by two bodies as they approach “the oblivion of pleasure”. The two lovers absorbed by touch replace the repressive structure of religion. As hands extend to “support/our pounding persistence”, a reader might glimpse Rodin’s Cathedral of hands and its connection between touch, sensuality and the spirit. Moving down the page, through line turns that constantly check perceptions, the ear is held in suspension between the rhymes of “wall” and “fall”, for this is the Fall of Man re-imagined as a vertiginous act of sex.

and we’d fall
from this hotel to crash
naked [.]

In the background to Cyril Wong’s poem there is Donne’s metaphysical play on to die/orgasm and the finality of Death. But whereas Donne in “The Flea” transmutes sucking of blood into a religious marriage, Cyril Wong has no such interests. His “conjoined and sucked/into a cosmos of ecstasy” is nothing more and nothing less than a celebration of the body’s sensual responses. There is no desire to sacrifice the body to some greater spiritual glory. Though “Cathedral” reaches outwards and upwards, this is a poem written by a poet with his feet on the ground—and the extremity of passion is constantly undercut with reality: “being lonely and deluded”…”how ridiculously perfect that would be”.

The Lover’s Inventory scrutinizes “the cupboard” of the self in which “bare hangers are skeletons/for future selves” (“Hotel”, TLI, p.25) and it does so through a tone that is bittersweet, at once aware of pleasure and despondency. Cyril Wong lifts the traditional mood of the dulce amarum to a level of heated melancholy where profanity and sanctity are fused. He is a twenty-first century Shakespearean Jacques. In “Book”, he wittily combines phone sex with an Arden inspired pastoral: his lover mails him Pablo Neruda from England’s Blakeian “green hills”, the interchangeable “I” of Neruda’s heterosexual sonnets serving as gay foreplay. The projected bliss is held by finely placed possessive pronouns that move towards union, “your village”, “my arms”, “our garden” and evoke a harmony under a “less unceremonious sun”. That “unceremonious” sun is finely chosen, the pomposity glancing back in time to Donne’s “unruly Sunne” in “The Sunne Rising” and gently mocking the love alba and the decorative diction of the English rural class. The closing lines of the poem undercut the illusion completely:

How predictable this narrow book of a life
left thankfully unopened; and how restless
and unhappy we’d have been.
(TLI, p.31)

Early definitions of Confessional poetry described the persona/mask as a falsehood that had to be removed so as the speaker could be, in M. L. Rosenthal’s words, “unequivocally himself” (The Nation, September 19, 1959). Based on negative Jungian views of the Persona as an imposed outer face, a Confessional poet strives to speak of the personal beyond the mask. But there is a sense in which the Persona need not be negative. An actor’s mask, say in theatre, acts as a medium through which sound is heard—it amplifies. The poems in The Lover’s Inventory have a sense of musical persona, a manner of singing, of intonation and expression, and are fully aware of how they confess through masks and make others reveal the masks that they wear. “Crucifix”, “Exorcism”, “CD”, “Porn” are masterpieces of honesty and social commentary.

Musical metaphors and themes run throughout The Lover’s Inventory. There are around fifty references to connections between love and music. One memorable phrase that holds true for the whole of this volume is “the bewildering polyphony of our lives” (TLI, “Leash” p.2) and how well that captures the effect of love as it brings different human individuals and experiences together and how wholeness is shattered as it fragments into separate stories. Reviewers of The Lover’s Inventory have attended to the elegiac and cynical element within the poetry. But this is to seriously miss the complexity and humour that Cyril Wong is capable of gently introducing. The poetry ranges from haiku on erotic objects (like underwear) to lengthy, lyrical portraits:

Us: a memory–
taut around my crotch, my waist–
your excellent taste.
(TLI, p.12)

And just when you have one cultured meaning of taste another earthier one slips into mind. In a poem like “Literature”, voices sing against one another and meld; and it is worth noting that it is the voice that measures, which exposes falsity in the once beloved. The clowning voice of Cyril Wong exposes the absurd truth:

Good Muslim boy and Mathematics teacher
with a voice lowered a few notches
by day; vain, ketamine-high slut-bottom
by night?
(TLI, p.33)

And what a wonderful pun on the unifying symbol of Yin and Yang, erotic unity and division together:

In a “69” position.
(TLI, “Thanksgiving”, p.42)

The final sequence of poems takes off from Satori Blues (2011):

Thank you
for loving me in spite of yourself.

“Thanksgiving” echoes the biblical praise-songs in The Book of Psalms and reads like a modern version of Christopher Smart’s Augustan inventories, yet the rhythmic variations here give thanks to the minutiae of existence, not Godhead. As the book opens with an allusion to the cathedrals of Catholicism, so it closes with a new version of the Catholic Eucharist, which translates, of course, as thanksgiving:

Thank you for your laptop on which I checked
emails during breaks from foreplay… [.]
(TLI, p.41).

In The Lover’s Inventory, Cyril Wong demonstrates an emotional and intellectual understanding of voice. Against the tenor of a poem and the main tonality, he creates the countertenor that introduces contradiction—a speaking against that brings depth. The result is a volume that confesses without dreary interrogation, one in which masks slip on and off in pure, poetic theatre. This latest volume is that rare object in contemporary poetry, a book to keep reading and enjoying and a book on love worth loving.

Andrew Howdle is a retired educator. He worked for thirty years as an English and Arts co-ordinator and as an Educational Theatre consultant. He now has the time to indulge his graduate interests in Renaissance and Contemporary Poetry, to draw, to photograph and to write creatively and “rightly spell/Of every Star that Heav’n doth shew”.