Reviews / March 2016 (Issue 31)


Three New Poetry Collections from Math Paper Press by Cyril Wong, Gaston Ng and Lee Jing-Jing

by Collier Nogues

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Cyril Wong, The Lover's Inventory, Math Paper Press, 2015. 60pgs.

Gaston Ng, Patchwork and Cigarettes, Math Paper Press, 2015. 68pgs.

Lee Jing-Jing, And Other Rivers, Math Paper Press, 2015. 52pgs.

 

For the first few poems, the "inventory" in question in Cyril Wong's The Lover's Inventory appears to be one of objects and spaces associated with a particular former lover: the cathedral, the mouth, the movie, the book, the restaurant. But progressively the "you" addressed in the poems unfolds into multiple exes, distinguished from each other by their faiths, their habits, their failures, their particular warmth. The book's poems recollect many former encounters, both enduring and casual, and the collection becomes an inventory of the various faces, and facets of intimacy. The book tracks the speaker from a young man still unfamiliar with the careful language of social and sexual relationships—as in the poem "Milo" ("when you came back / to sit across from me, a sign in your face / (a sign I was too young to read)"—to an older man fluent in the complexity of that language, its gestures and silences, as in "Hotel" ("On the bed, bodies stay unentwined / in rest because love belongs to a different room / in a faraway country").

Some poems are elegies not only for former relationships, but also for the poet's own youth, and for youth itself, as in "Cathedral," the book's opening work, which I'll quote in its entirety:

As we fucked, standing
up, our bodies
formed a cathedral
to the oblivion of pleasure,
but only for the final
few minutes, as just before
I was worried that the glass wall
my hands pushed to support
our pounding persistence
would fold outwards
and we'd fall
from this hotel to crash
naked, a singular mass of flesh
or felled tree, and being
lonely and deluded,
as only the young and stupid
can be, I hoped
that if we did plummet,
our spirits might be yanked
in the opposite directions,
conjoined and sucked
into a cosmos of ecstasy,
merging with that oneness
awaiting us all
and moaned when I thought
of how ridiculously
perfect that would be.

Any reader who has been in love will recognise the desire to be swept out of oneself and into the other, and together be swept right out of the world into something transcendent. Of course, that yearning is not one we leave entirely behind once we are no longer so "young and stupid"; love, and even sex, stay mysterious and tinged with hope of merging into some ecstasy beyond our grasp. In its tenderness and its structure, the poem acknowledges that this desire is not so naïve: the lover's bodies form a cathedral only in the final moments of the oblivion which has won out over the overthinking self; the speaker's moan of how "ridiculously perfect" the crash and fall and swoon would be is, itself, the means by which oblivion is reached. The poem is still called "Cathedral," lovers are still lonely in their solitary bodies and the cathedral is still worth reaching for, no matter how much wiser the speaker has grown.

That first poem haunts the rest of the book: its desire for transcendence, and its question of just what it is we seek from each other's bodies and each other's words or silences. Throughout, the poems' tone is elegiac, both for relationships which have ended and for lives once full of promise which the speaker has lost track of or seen go downhill. But there's a refusal to settle into any comfortable nostalgia; in "Book," for example, the speaker remembers a long-distance partner he might have committed to, imagining the life they'd have had if he'd "fled Singapore to live / with you" in an English town. He concludes "how restless and unhappy we'd have been."

The cumulative effect is that of walking through a hallway hung with portraits which, upon closer look, reflect back as much about their maker as they do their subjects. The book is a self-portrait built out of an inventory of intimacies, as the last few poems of the book begin to make explicit. "Landscape" turns the poet's lens inward: "Whoever says / that art's not necessarily about the artist / is lying." And "Complementarity" shares a story of Niels Bohr using Hokusai's One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji to explain the scientific concept of complementarity: "only together" do all the different angles "give the full and impressive picture," the physicist asserts, and Wong adds, "the men we were not distinct from the men we are … We are touching. We are moving apart. We are a part of each other." The book's final poem, "Thanksgiving," is a miniature inventory itself, addressed to all of the book's lovers, expressing thanks "for your disillusionments / and denials of buried hurt; for showing me / how not to be" as well as for "keeping us safe" and for "asking, midway, if I was hungry" and for "turning on every lamp under the skin."

Ultimately, the book is a critical and tender exploration of how love and sex both help and prevent us from fully understanding ourselves and each other, and it's well worth spending real time with.

***

Gaston Ng's Patchwork and Cigarettes is his first book, rather than his fifteenth or so as Wong's is, but it, too, is a kind of self-portrait through failed or incomplete interactions, and focuses similarly on lovers, on aloneness among casual or potentially more intimate encounters and in its nostalgia for youth. The book has many strong points; the poem "Paper in Pockets" achieves a lovely tension in its language, channelling a plaintive loneliness:

Nobody cries for me anymore
Nobody cries with me anymore
 
Here is an open door.
turn and walk away like an old wave,
so there may be a visual softness
about you.
 
The open door is your way out.
After that, your way out
will be my way out.

There are beautiful lines throughout, as in "Temple," which describes the familiar sense of one's childhood landmarks seemingly much smaller in adulthood. The poem avoids overfamiliarity with its powerful ending: "I don't have to crane my neck / when offering incense now. // To compensate, I kneel."

The most complex payoffs for a reader are in the poems about family, about the more fully textured relationships which come only from years of being known and unknown to each other. The book's first poem, "Fetching You Home," explores the mixed grief and distance of returning to China for an absent father's funeral, a father whose new family quarrels "over / how much my mother was to be given, / how much they could keep." The compact poem "A Stubborn Memory" which soon follows is a poignant counterpart:

Mother offered a smile today.
I stalled, witnessing
age clawing at her eyes.
Light flooded her wrinkles
too loudly for a boy
not ready to be orphaned.
I did not blink
until it was too late.

Readers should look forward to seeing this poet's eye turn to new and further experiences in work to come.

***

Lee Jing-Jing's And Other Rivers is also a first poetry book, though Lee has published one novel and is working on another. For this reader, And Other Rivers is the most exciting book of the three reviewed here. The poems trace historical, generational, geographical and personal relationships, braiding narratives together across poems and crafting surprising turns within them. The book's first poem, "His Wishes," describes the speaker's father as he gradually declines, failing finally to properly carve the duck for the lunar new year meal. In his age and embarrassment, he dismisses his daughter, and perhaps his wife as well: "This is why you'll be nothing, / he said, starting on a bit of neck / as my mother brought in the other dishes / one by one by one." The poem ends "I smiled at the duck / with its oiled mouth and I thought of the air / my feet would tread that night, the long drop, / the hiss of gravity against my wings." It's a lovely and poignant transformation, and one that's picked up and turned in the next poem, "Flight," which begins "There are many ways to tame a bird / without first killing it." And in the next, "Samsui," which tells the story of women who did fly from Guangdong province to Singapore in the 1920s–40s, looking for industrial jobs. The poem is voiced by a plural "we," by the women who arrived to find labour and thin broth and hands bent permanently around their iron shears, but who also in this poem exhibit an iron defiance: "They spoke / from the sides of their mouths, / the men. Telling us / the work will be hard…They forgot we came from Samsui. / Grew up falling on rock, / watching our mothers wither away … This? This black mud /weighs nothing."

Sometimes the poems are first-person accounts of family history, as in "His Wishes" and in the beautiful late series about the poet's tailor grandfather. Sometimes they are persona poems reframing historical Chinese figures or movements, as in "Samsui" or "Guifei" and sometimes they are brief scenes whose surface impartiality belies their personal and political resonance.

"Dragnet" is an example, and may be the best of many good poems in the collection:

1
Think of nets cast darkly, snaring catfish
and sole by their gills.
 
Watch them twist,
strewing scales and flesh overnight,
 
knitting a blanket
of teeth and silver.
 
 
2
They separate fish from scrap: bycatch
to be scuttled over, tossed back.
Water beetles big as tongues, mud eels
and fragments of girls.
 
Not their fingers, lost
to the smallest thieves, or newly ossified bone
quickly undone. Nor femur or pelvic,
rolled downriver and spat out at sea.
 
What is left:
a jaw bone, green with weed.
Cuttlefish nesting withing fossa,
Keeping guard through empty eyes.
 
3
Take her out into the scrub, the trees,
the river. She is nothing
but a waste of milkwater, nothing more
than her mother.

The poem is impressively graceful, with its sharp handling of the sections' ordering and restrained but beautifully tuned language ("blanket of teeth and silver," "smallest thieves," "milkwater").

In other poems, Lee presents a keen illogic as given truth; take this line, from "Split Twins": "I wondered about the other. If she was still Chinese, / since it is a thing you can peel off, your skin." Throughout, the poems fill and overfill their shifting containers; they braid and wander in a complementary, additive way. The "And" of the book's title frames the book aptly, implying as it does incompleteness, otherness, movement and fluidity. The final poem, "Afterword," closes the book with a direct reference to its mode: "Braiding the ends of sentences, // keeping them tied up with a velvet ribbon, / or left loose // to unfurl slowly in the hours after." Here the poet refers to the final syllable "lah" common in Singlish (and in Hong Kong English as well), but the image bends back over the book as a whole beautifully. The slow unfurling of these poems is a pleasure that shouldn't be missed.

 

 
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