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
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
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
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
once nothing and
everything you can possibly take.
meet your sky")
In other words, it becomes both re-humanised and forever
out of reach to an outsider, at once testimony and disproval
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.