by Michael Tsang
Nicholas Wong, Crevasse, Kaya Press, 2015. 80 pgs.
Nicholas Wong's sophmore poetry collection, Crevasse, is the second poetry collection published by a young member of Hong Kong's English writing community in 2015, after Tammy Ho Lai-Ming's Hula Hooping (also reviwed in this issue of Cha). Here is another volume not to be missed from one of the most important figures in the city's newer generation of English-language poets.
After reading Crevasse, I reread my review of Wong's debut collection, Cities of Sameness. I wrote that his poems were like statues of Greek gods, sculpted without a spare ounce of fat, and I stand by this observation. Wong's works combine free verse with rigorously carved stanzas, often in couplets and triplets, meticulously versed. This, however, does not mean there has been no development in Wong's poetics. While Cities exhibited experimentation with poetic forms, Crevasse shows more preference for certain forms and motifs. There are three poems named "Private Parts," three named "Self-Portraits" and three structured as one-line stanzas, each starting with a Ginsbergian fixed base (such as "how" or "if"). Wong's diction is as precise as ever, although in Crevasse he often uses somewhat dated vocabulary to add layers of meanings to his language.
Not only are the poems top-notch, but even the book's design is so impeccable—the cover, colour scheme, typeface and editing all seem right—that it is like holding a work of art, an elaborate manifestation of aesthetics.
Compared to Cities, in which urbanity serves as an overarching theme for examining intersections of sexuality and language, Crevasse is slightly more conceptual. Wong's poetry is as fiery, but in different ways. Cities is forceful, while Crevasse is enigmatic and lures readers to dive into its fissures. If Cities seethes, Crevasse bubbles. It is up to the reader to search for what is hidden in the cleft.
For me, what I find consistent with his first collection is the sense of the abject—the unclean or the other that we try so hard to expel but still remains—and the conundrum that it is constantly in the background of our reality. The poem "Orientalism" serves as a good example. We are presented with a speaker who seems to have escaped from North Korea, telling us that "the country was a mute that had lots / of words to offer" and he and his first wife watched the only TV channel on their honeymoon. The speaker then escapes to China and "barter[s] my kimchi // away for a second name: Sam Song." The nub of the problem, however, lies in the title, as it reminds us that all the witty allusions and references are nothing but orientalist assumptions. The references to TV and Samsung moreover warn us not to believe the misleading images of North Korea presented by capitalist media. Even the authority of the speaker is undermined and made unreliable. This poem speaks to the ethical demands, which arise when engaging with the othered world beyond the crevasse.
In "Self-Portrait as a Cubicle," a toilet stall speaks for itself:
On my body,
there are words,
phone numbers. And
through it, a fecund
for a face-
cordoned off by me.
Through the self-confession of the toilet cubicle, which obviously has witnessed a great deal, privacy is compromised, sexual undertones exposed.
If this is not unsettling enough, try "Star Gazing," where we are given a glimpse into how Wong's poems typically operate: by punning and making use of metonyms to induce a clash of senses—or synaesthesia—in a way that is unapologetically candid:
The porn star died the day the Yen dropped,
lots of iku / kimochi / kinky chin chin and noun-
and-verb confusion between his legs.
That's hand-made happiness,
the hands aware of themselves. ("Star Gazing")
Here, the act of looking at a star becomes a metaphor for fans looking up to a gay Japanese porn legend, hence the wordplay on "star" and "hand." The graphic descriptions of the carnality of his videos suggests how fans would commemorate their favourite porn star's sudden death and honour the legend he leaves behind.
Associations and allusions also form a key part of Wong's poetics, and he has a knack for bridging dramatically different contexts via the hinge of a single word, such as with "love" in the following excerpt:
Sportsmanship is promiscuous: each flick serve flings a curve to love-
all, one-love or love(d)-one. A topspin sometimes under-
spins, the shuttle falls outside the sideline. […] ("Match Point")
Badminton terms are doubled to contemplate different scenarios in homosexual relationships (indeed, love and sportsmanship are alike in the sense that they both need to be pursued). But the word "promiscuous" is used deliberately, even if "love-all," "one-love" and "love(d)-one" don't necessarily suggest promiscuity in themselves. Instead, what is "promiscuous" is the diverse possibilities of love, and yet in this respect, there really is no difference between gay or straight relationships.
But Wong does not employ wordplay and double meanings simply to sound witty; he uses them to create paradoxes where the other, or the abject, is impossible to ignore. "Museum of Anagapesis" gives a good example:
A normal heart weighs 350g. Consider living
without one. Organs migrate, have new roles.
Kidneys pumping blood, pancreas counting
pulses, fluidity of grief sluicing forth and
back with lymph – it's called evolution.
The beginning of the poem is already contradictory in many ways. The heart as a bodily organ and a metaphor for affection is used to explain the meaning of "anagapesis"—moving on from past affection. The poem continues with the theme of organs, ironically calling the act of living without a heart "evolution." The work also reminds us of the impossibility of completely forgetting previous loves, given that its title, "Museum of Anagapesis," is already an oxymoron. On the one hand, "anagapesis" is a word that means the erasure of the past (even if the existence of the word in itself already suggests the futility of complete erasure). On the other hand, the title suggests that the very act of collecting and displaying "anagapesis" in a museum is self-defeating—how can we forget something when it is kept in an institution devoted to remembering? Or maybe the title suggests that collecting and displaying a feeling that no longer exists is simply impossible. Either way—and as is suggested by the poem's transformation of the organs—it is certain that forgetting (or not forgetting) past love is painful.
City University of Hong Kong's recent decision to terminate its Creative Writing MFA programme, of which Wong was a student, has caused controversy and protest from writers around the world and in Hong Kong. There is little doubt that the MFA has made an immense contribution in shaping English writing communities in Hong Kong and Asia. I would have wanted this collection to include more poems explicitly about Hong Kong, but if one wants to know what kind of writers the programme has nurtured, read Crevasse and be awed.