Orbit of Private Desires


IT MIGHT be considered blasphemous in literary circles to regard anyone but the prodigious and celebrated Alfian Sa'at as the premier poet of this generation.

But I venture this heresy: that in 24-year-old Cyril Wong, Singapore has found the pre-eminent visionary love poet of our age.

While Alfian has mastered the rhetoric of performed ideology, it is Wong who has more earnestly probed the trickier terrain of the unmasked self.

His latest volume, The End Of His Orbit, evinces the phenomenal maturation that has taken place since his first book. Wong's poetic craft is no longer the jittery knife-edge of Squatting Quietly (1999), but a more precise, surgical instrument. Orbit is not so much a sequel as a meatier coda to Squatting Quietly, extending and deepening the same constellation of themes: family, loneliness, sexual angst and love.

Not surprisingly, critics have placed Wong in the confessional mode of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. There is evidence to support their claims, given Wong's favoured tropes and his insistence on an intensely personalised point of reference.

The first person 'I' dominates the volume: Wong is not a poet of sweeping social mores and political landscapes, but of deeply private moments, illuminated keenly, even harshly, by heightened awareness.

But as Alfian - who pens the volume's Preface as a verse offering in his inimitable style - asserts, Wong's poetry transcends the trappings and excesses of the Confessional school, such as their penchant for solipsism, borderline hysteria and self-indulgent declamations of suffering.

True, the best poems in Orbit are taut with intimate metaphors, often resembling wounds sutured and scarred into patterns of loss.

But it is archaeology, not history or psychology, that may prove the most helpful discipline in unearthing the embedded freight of Wong's poems, in which bodies and selves are so often rendered transposable with furniture and objects that their meanings blend and blur.

The success of Wong's poems lies in the way they manage to infuse perfectly ordinary actions with intensity and meaning. Human actions are rendered artefact: defamiliarised yet sharpened to significance by Wong's relentlessly detached free-verse line.

Hence, a dish of cooked crab, 'chest in pieces,/spooned and well-dug,/emptied' becomes a metaphor for his mother's inner grief in one poem; in another, the veins in a man's arms become 'tightened strings/over a parcel that would not open'.

Wong's poetic orbit remains, with an almost voyeuristic fervour, around the human form in its hitherto unwitnessed routines. It is as if he is convinced that insight and authenticity is to be found entwined within the husk of daily lives and everyday routines: from cooking to dressing or simply the way a cup is carried from one end of a room to another.

Yet his poetic gaze is not clandestine; instead, the private body, transfigured by associative meaning and emotional context, becomes:

at once nothing and
everything you can possibly take.

("to meet your sky")

In other words, it becomes both re-humanised and forever out of reach to an outsider, at once testimony and disproval of testament.

This could also be the reason why the latter sections of Orbit, "A Bishop From Another Century" and "Red Riding" - his most self-consciously meta-poetic - are also the least convincing in feeling and scope.

These poems, dealing with issues of authorship, the art of writing, and reworked (but well-worn) myths from Red Riding Hood to King Kong, are competent enough but lack the emotional heart and unflinching torn veil of vision that power the rest of the book.

Good poets share the secret knowledge they have gleaned from the world. Only the best poets teach us how to see as they see, that we may witness the world's - or the heart's - inner tickings, for ourselves.

Wong has already demonstrated clear signs of such mastery, and has years of writing ahead of him.