by Martin Alexander
Cyril Wong, Oneiros, Firstfruits, 2010. 64 pgs.
In Oneiros, Cyril Wong's eighth collection of poetry, one is thrust directly into the dream-world of its title. From the beginning, the reader experiences the urgency and disorientation of dreams.
The word, as erudite readers will know, is Greek. The Oneiroi were the sons of Night and the brothers of Sleep, Death and Old Age; Homer's Zeus sent an Oneiros to Agamemnon with the task of inciting him to battle through a dream. Later, in the Odyssey, Penelope wisely distinguishes between deceitful dreams and those which bear truths. Wong is in a long tradition of writers who have built on these literary motifs—Homer to begin with, and Virgil; then Spenser, Shakespeare and others; in the last century Eliot and le Guin; and in this decade, Gaiman, who brought his Sandman to the 2009 Singapore Festival. Wong's Oneiros was considerably more than a dream on that occasion, but not yet in print.
Cyril Wong inhabits also the liminality of dreams, that space between wakefulness and sleep which is neither dream nor reality; a hiatus, and a kind of transcendence:
A thin line between sleep and waking
and everything happens. Outside and inside
This state of suspense is suggested in the cover illustration, black and white, and spattered ink. There is the descent of predatory wings and a hooked beak encircling what might be a swallow; it dances on the tiptoe of its tail, attempting to soar, or to escape, and perhaps it will. Perhaps not.
Turn the pages, and you will find further uncertainties: there is no introduction and no Contents; each of the four sections is marked by a blank intervening page and a centred line of asterisks as if the name of something had been erased, censored or withheld; and none of the poems has a title.
But before the poems' dream begins, there is a brief dedication and an acknowledgement which seems to me to hint at Francisco's pleasure, at the beginning of Hamlet, in being relieved of a cold and thankless task. That sets the tone: this is no self-indulgent fantasy.
Then Poe and Yeats, in two lines each, repeat "dream" four times, and remind us, respectively, that dreams and reality may be interchangeable and inextricable, and of the intimate fragility of all our aspirations.
Poe resonates here:
Underneath this city is a dream of the real city
that I long to wake up from.
But beyond this dream there is another
dream and if I sleep for long enough,
I am there.
And in these lines, we're reminded of Yeats:
I wish I could dream now
of the people we could have turned
into if we had only left our hearts
switched on like dazzling
torches into our future, pointing
like resilient stars
into the nights to come, so that
we would not have to fear
losing sight of who we were,
or what we would finally become.
Cyril Wong is in good literary company, but he has a lot to live up to. There are few tasks more difficult in any art than the convincing portrayal of dreams: an account of a dream's events and features is easy, but that quality of displaced reality, that sense of alienation and familiarity, the discomfort of things not quite understood but vividly present and fraught with significance—these are what we struggle with in the telling. Few writers manage it, but like Naguib Mahfouz in The Dreams, Wong succeeds wonderfully in capturing these elusive qualities.
How he achieves this dazzled me at first, and I couldn't work it out, but I think it's illustrated by the passages I've already quoted and in some of the spare but intensely vivid imagery he uses. Firstly, Wong avoids extravagance. Everything is described precisely and plainly, as he sees it in the dream, without the daylight rationality, and yet he is delicate in combining observation with comment:
The past shatters like a dream.
Its pieces fly in from everywhere,
A jigsaw taking shape, but never
complete, not even in sleep.
Here's where displaced reality happens, with "shatters" and then the impossible reversal of the next line. Then look at how the line break separates "never" and "complete," and at the internal rhyme which subtly connects "complete" and "sleep." A lesser poet would have broken the line too neatly at the rhyme and missed the more powerful emphasis of the less obvious contrast. This prepares for the intensifier "not even," which perfectly distinguishes between sleep and dreams.
Another poem takes us into daydreams with a wistful meditation about lost opportunities at school; and imagines that
When the ringing stopped, the school would slowly
vanish, followed by the field, and finally, me,
leaving just a sea of blue to glow to a blinding white
like a memory repaired, then put away forever.
Here, the poet gives us the intensely visual in the surreal disappearance of the school (with a lovely suggestion of "grow" in "glow"), and then ends the poem with a direct and uncompromising line from the wide-awake world: something repaired is never quite restored, and there's a subtly subversive hesitancy in the weak syllable at the end of "forever."
Powerfully and simply, there's this—compact, comprehensive and photographic:
I dream of being reborn. Already
the city I must enter is in sight,
the darkness receding at my back.
This is the prospect of Death, with an echo of Marvell's "winged chariot hurrying near".
Death and parents (Old Age, of course) are perennial themes, but their ubiquity makes them no less central to the human condition. The poem on Wong's father is poignant and personal but resonates with us all:
Father sweeps the floor again,
clearing the mess that the past left behind.
We have not spoken for twelve years.
"Why are you back?" he asks,
only talking in my dreams now.
Many of us live the might-have-been in daydreams, and in one of these his mother takes his unsmiling photograph as he catches her with words:
I dreamed the impossible:
my mother was on holiday
with a busload of friends.
I had never seen her happy.
Smiling when she saw me,
she said, "Isn't it nice
that we can meet like this?"
My favourite of all these poems is the one about not committing suicide with Anne Sexton: the poem is a vortex which begins in the banal and is sucked down the nightmare plug-hole of the last word (45). Read it.
The surreal and the unexpected, and multiplicities of meaning: I mentioned the cover illustration at the beginning of this review and by the end of the book, perhaps the soaring bird is more than a swallow—in the last poem of the collection the poet refers to
… the dark cross of my body
framed against that epic sun,
its static, unfeeling luminosity.
How flight can become an analogy
for love, joy, unburdened time.
Even in sleep, I close my eyes again.
I tell myself that one dream
dovetails into another; the end
of this story is a wall I may fly through
like a finishing line, and keep on
flying without ever having to stop.
The double meaning of that ordinary word, "flight" shows the complex simplicity of Wong's craft.
And how wonderful: in dreams, absolutely anything can happen. Everything is brilliantly real and compellingly metaphorical; dreams recast the past and shape the future or, at the very least, make its reckless potential possible. They also make us confront every aspect of ourselves—our failings as well as our fantasies. In sleep too, there is always death, as well as dreams.
Like Hamlet, Wong is eager for it all, either good or bad, and, like Hamlet, he might have said these words to the messenger from his underworld:
Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damn'd,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou comest in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee.
The ghost of Wong's father—and of his life and dreams to date—is just as irresistibly questionable as Hamlet's. In this book of dreams the poet's life is questioned and it responds: through Cyril Wong, Oneiros brings us dreams that tell the truth, and thereby make us more alive.