Reviews / February 2010 (Issue 10)

The Mischief of Word Play: Felix Cheong's Sudden in Youth: New and Selected Poems

by Martin Alexander


Felix Cheong, Sudden in Youth: New and Selected Poems, Ethos Books, 2009. 94 pgs.

Anthologies with this kind of title might be considered by a sceptic as an excuse to re-package old material and to bamboozle the reader with the prospect of more new work than actually materializes. Cheong, however, makes it clear from his very brief introduction that his purpose is a very different one: "I have arranged these poems thematically, rather than chronologically….It feels like curating a ten-year retrospective of my work."

He has got it exactly right. The arrangement of the poems to show different and developing perspectives of his central themes refreshes earlier and familiar material through its juxtaposition with more recent work. The benefit of hindsight infuses and enriches this collection: I especially like the way the younger poet's work is qualified by the older voice—more aware, if not wiser—of the mature Cheong.

His themes are grim, as is life: a God too often silent and a faith sorely tested; a marriage broken and a child taken away; a mentor dead and the dogged recourse to words; the cocky assurance of youth and, of course, the temptations of the flesh. For me, the title points to the sudden assault of these hard realities on the unsuspecting, eternal instant of youth. Cheong issues warnings that he knows will be ignored, because, as his own experience has taught him, youth must be oblivious.

But he is not the miserable sod that this might suggest: these poems are spare and terse, but there's lyrical beauty, humour, the sanity of self-deprecation and the wry irony of one who has both survived and unblinkingly recorded the relentless tragedies of life.

After that sentence, "Eyes" would be a good place to start. It's from the collection Broken by the Rain (2003) and contains much of what gives form to this body of work. It's helpless and romantic; it uses the conditional and the past tense subtly to separate the experiences of youth and manhood and then brings in the present tense in "tremble like a boy/about to man" in order to conflate the youth and the man into the same entity, outside of time. The tentative is contained in "a man could lay down a life/and let his poem unfold"; in "how he must have…/…once"; in the ambiguity of "a life" and the uncertainty of where "here" is. The poetry is in the little words and in the way a poem, as well as a woman can "unfold," in both the sexuality of the tongue and its role in selecting and sounding, as he struggles "to round words for such a moment." Throughout the collection we have a sense that it is "My first time here": in spite of repetition, each experience is new.

There is a lot of love poetry here, and part of its strength is that Cheong can't rid himself of wonder. In "I Watch The Stars Go Out" there's the melodrama

Of that strident moment
When light explodes
Into a million shards of heart

against the counterpoint of the wry and rueful humour of "The Only Mathematical Way To Woo A Woman" or "A Love Poem, By Way Of Wikipedia," which cleverly turns the clichés of innocence (or naivete) into the bitter truth of experience. Not, however, without making the reader smile, and this is the point: Cheong is adept at shaping language to his purposes, at word-play, at making his words bounce musically against each other in unexpected rhyme or echo and intensify through assonance. This, Cheong the poet, is what saves the man. Cheong's preoccupation with language is a delight that lifts experience from the struggle and uncertainty of an imperfect life and examines it against the spotlight of words, revealing beauty without diminishing pain.

There are poems about this process—all poets have them—but Cheong's dwell also on the necessity of craft, its service to truth, its relentless insistence on articulating experience. In "What Is It To Write" and "Cutting Edge," poetry "waits silent and sullen/In the dark"; "It is a vocation/that curses your life" and

when you move in for the kill,
it will draw blood
as sweetly as the meanest knife
poetry can ever wield.

Writing is a struggle, a compulsion and a bully, but in "In Praise Of Sloth" the joy of breaking the grip of "not writing" is brilliantly conveyed and we feel strongly the individual and the universal in this poem.

Sudden in Youth is clearly a confessional collection, but it has the discipline of all good poetry in that it senses how the personal conveys the universal. Part of my pleasure in reading these poems has been that of recognition, of having my own experience sharply articulated and also of being invited into the intimacy of another life that might have been my own.

This intimacy is most strongly felt in the poems about family and faith, bound together by loss. The most moving are those about his son, and the most anguished about the tenuous strength of his faith. There is levity in the titles, but power in the verse, and it's not possible to read this collection without being saddened and inspired, enriched and entertained, uplifted both by the beauty of language and the inevitability, in spite of it all, of hope. Cheong ends by reminding us "that the way back is never the way out." He has learned, very painfully, "what it means/to be lighter, adrift, like fire"; his "heart now unlocked" but also "unhinged." He has "kept/the word, but not outlived its sentence." This is a sombre final statement to the book, but even here, there's the mischief of word-play, of something that outlives and somehow triumphs over despair.

Website © Cha: An Asian Literary Journal 2007-2018
ISSN 1999-5032
All poems, stories and other contributions copyright to their respective authors unless otherwise noted.