Cyril Wong is the author of nine poetry collections and one collection of strange tales.
His last work was Satori Blues (Softblow Press 2011). He lives in Singapore and is the founding-editor of SOFTBLOW, an online poetry journal.
The serpent glided into
an armourer’s shop and
scraped across a file.
In a grievous rage, she
struck her fangs
against it and both her
teeth fell out. She decided,
in the end, to swallow
the insensible thing;
it slid easily down her throat.
And as she slithered in pain
back to her cave to die,
the serpent reminded
herself that a worthwhile
failure was still a victory.
As for the armourer,
how his file had vanished
remained a stupid mystery.
Amazing how it takes the smallest things, like a bus ride,
to transport you to the important issues, such as death
and all its different manifestations. Approaching 7pm,
shadows are already climbing out of the sky to put out
the skyscrapers like candles, ink a river under the highway
to black opacity. You wonder about the years you have
emptied into your present job, the sameness of expression
with which your wife greets you in the evenings, sullen
face of your son at the dinner table, the taste of food
reduced to blandness on your tongue, while the television
in the hall blares forth winners of another game show.
You gaze out the bus window at the moon’s half-grin
and remember that film your colleagues hated, which
wounded you in some deep, unspeakable way, like
the scene when the male lead hesitated for more than
what was only a minute before pushing a knife’s edge
against the taut curve of his wrist, with that sharply
held breath before every attempt, its quivering release
upon failure. This process you are so familiar with,
each hesitation recurring to a lullaby of the same,
these repetitions the invisible blueprint of a life. Stars
perforate the sky, like the eyes of dead people
suspended outside of time peering in, the place where
your soul must have come from, yanked down by ropes
of pure longing. You wonder at the history of mankind,
calculating the sum total of your consequence in relation
to its yet interminable drama. Quickly, you drift on
to happier subjects, like your son, who pointed one day
at clouds rising into houses, pillars, collapsible cities.
You wonder what you were like at that age. In school,
a teacher commented that you had a talent for stories,
a startling gift for description. You recollect the praises
scribbled in blue across the bottom of a report card
that dad signed, then handed back to you without a word
of compliment. You tell yourself you are better towards
your own son: more tender, more inclined to praise.
None of you can account for the exact moment when
that cynicism flew into his face to lock itself in.
You attribute rudeness to his friends, your wife blames
you for spoiling him from the very beginning. You
glare helplessly at desert maps of your palms, at the
paperweights of whitened knuckles pinning you down
to the world. A poet said that all of us are searching
ultimately for our graves. You think about graves, how
your wife was a hole in the ground you crawled into
and remained for so long you forgot what love was.
You complain to yourself about how this bus is taking
too long to bring you home. The road stretches out
like your father on his bed the morning he did not wake.
He looked no different, and religion made you believe
another sort of wakefulness was prepared for him. You
stood there observing him, dwelling upon decomposition,
how the air would dissolve his body, reclaim the space
it once occupied. You glimpse at your watch, this gift
from your son for Father’s Day you found out was really
bought by your wife; this watch that never slows down
for the ecstatic instant, but for boredom’s uniformity.
Last week, you went grocery shopping with your family
at the supermarket around your block, and discovered
you had lost your wallet, or maybe dropped it somewhere
between the vegetables and the dairy section. You heard,
on the intercom, the voice of the one who had found it,
a girl mispronouncing your name again and again. And
you left your wife, your son by the trolley, both turning
to strangers with their unison expression of puzzlement
and mild irritation. You hurried down aisle after aisle,
so eager to retrieve the little you could have lost,
realizing instead you were unable to find the counter.
You kept walking and walking alongside rows and rows
of shampoo bottles pasted with women’s faces cracked
wide open by smiles and that barely audible laughter.
You became convinced there was no counter. That bitch
repeated again what was once your name. You halted,
much to the approval of tin cans of baby powder, images
of babies so cute you could smash a fist into every tin.
Fluorescent lights swelled inside your head to blossom
into a panic: at once unbearable, yet oddly calming,
as you never felt so close to alive, so potentially free.
What death may be: a slow, close-to-weightless
tilt, like a burgeoning foetus turning
slightly in the womb. The engine starts a low
growl like a stomach, the aircraft hungry to
land, to devour the space between its
falling body and the ground, followed by
the slow lick of its wheels against the runway’s
belly: pressing down, then skating forward,
only to decelerate, a sensual slow-mo,
and the plane makes a sound
like the hugest sigh of relief.
The seat belt sign blinks off for the final time.
We rise up from our seats like souls
from bodies, leaving bulky hand luggage
in the overhead compartments, then
begin a tense line down the aisle, awkwardly
smiling at each other, remaining few minutes
alive with all kinds of ambivalences,
or simply relief at having arrived, at long last,
in that no-time zone of a country
without a name except the ones we give it;
weeping, laughing, both at once.
I was a mouse waiting to sing
my poems for other mice to hear.
Another mouse approached me
to ask, “What is your poetry about?”
So I told him, “It is about cheese
or the music of our scurrying
from one hole to the next.”
“Then it is nothing we do not
already know,” he replied.
Perhaps he was right, and mice
have no need for poems.
After he scurried away, I was
left to retreat alone into my hole
and wake up from this dream.
The Men We Loved
The men we loved, the men we had, the men we wanted.
They pass us in the streets. They are going to the gym,
to the park, to the pub, to invisible rooms on the internet.
They cast their lines of hunger for other men now.
The men we wanted who wanted nothing to do with us.
The men we hid our names from and crept away.
They are disappearing into their work, into the rest
of their lives, picking up their phones to answer
another man’s voice and putting them down again.
The men we had now plough the ache of other men.
Time flips them over each other and abrades them
to the bone. These men who taught us to be bridges
on the way to somewhere else, something better.
The men we loved who wiped the disappointment
from our lips with a thumb, a tongue down a throat.
A promise to call again and the promise fulfilled.
Long before the accident, the illness, the overseas job,
a touch turned cold, the averted vision, the other man.
The men we loved, the men we had, the men we wanted.
They have done far worse than fail to miss us –
they have forgotten us. Each is slinking into a cab
with another guy and does not wave goodbye.
These men who once taught us of ourselves
crane to hear the call of new lives now, the call
that is always waiting to be answered, a boy crying
wolf, or maybe the truth this time. This truth
we leave our better selves for, only to find them again
when we least expect it, a face rising like a moon
in the night’s long window, a night we are scaling with
our hearts in our mouths. Then when we reach the top
of the stairs, what luck – the moon has become a mirror.
After great pain, what would the body
learn that it does not already know
of relief? When that fire-truck has raged
past, what do I rediscover about silence
except that I would always miss it?
Do trees mind if it is the same wind
that passes through their heads every day?
After the mall is completed, must we
remember the field it now inhabits
where we raced each other as children?
If my lover forgets to wake me with a kiss
a second time this week, should I worry?
Does solitude offer strength over time, or
is denial of it the only practical aim?
After the earthquake, would it matter
if no one saw two dogs from different
families approaching each other
without suspicion, then moving apart?
As the workers wash their faces hidden
by helmets that beam back the sun,
should they care about the new building
behind them beyond a fear of it falling?
If my mother cannot see how else to be
happy, is it enough that she may lie
in bed, convinced God watches her sleep?
After deep loss, what does the heart
learn that it has not already understood
about regret? When all light finally
forsakes a room, do we take the time
to interrogate the dark, and to what end?
Grapes draped the fox’s mind
till there was nothing but velvety
grapes to consider, nothing but grapes
turned eventually sour, so that this fox,
who was not necessarily stupid,
could rip them from her thoughts,
misery abandoned, and other
fruit to be considered. Years later,
she passed under that same
collection of grapes. By now,
her mental faculty had broadened
considerably, such that grapes
hung in her vision like Christmas
decoration. Even after they
dropped like gifts from a tree,
the fox did not approach what she
had only been able to see.
And began to despise the shape
of her desire, not the grapes
she had so admired. And closed
her eyes while under that tree,
certain there was a place
beyond hunger she would rather be,
outside the window of a fox’s
mind; erase the window
and there is no more mind…
Other foxes came and wondered
if she was asleep. Eyes closed,
she was almost smiling, so
still beside the grapes
rotting at the foot of the tree.
Dead or alive, one of them
prayed, I hope that the lucky fox
will one day be me.
Why I Sing
At the end of an open road
of a teacher’s instruction, I began
to achieve some perspective, able
to pull every possible breath
to the centre of my body, gathering
of strength before that sustained
blow of a note punched free
from between my eyes, angling
a clean path through the air,
as if air was all
the world was made of, or, at least,
the treacherous fog of its concept.
And vision rises out to meet it,
stepping forward into what I dare
call enlightenment – respite,
more like, even mercy –
and those with ears that run all
the way into the emptied
core of them would creep out too
and join me up that track
through air, wide as the crack
loss draws across the back
of a mind, each word in a song
taking us so far from what we are
we find ourselves again,
become lighter than air.
August: time of death, a path opens
to the past like a wind through grass,
the way lit by sparks, flaming paper.
Yet rituals only displace our desire
to mourn. Let us remember the dead,
but more importantly, persuade them
to ensure no harm may visit us.
We leave a row of chairs for the ghosts
to take our places for just one night.
Wayang actors hide their exhaustion
behind painted faces, dusty cymbals
trailing the bright arc of their voices.
We think how the dead would take this –
foibles of a life sung by archetypes,
reduced to grave, inflated gestures.
Would they grumble to each other
in their seats, complain of a lack
of synchronism between the music
and the action, the noise of traffic
eating into their illusion of narrative?
When it is finally over, would they
linger to gossip amongst themselves
about those who moved on to the life
to follow, sighing upon the mention
of the ones who have chosen to stay?
The crane, unashamed of her
ashen hue, rose to the firmament
she had bragged about to the peacock
of the garish plumage and the dunghill.
Yet there was no one here
to echo her song at such an altitude.
Clouds took on the shapes
of other birds, as if to mock
and deepen her solitude. One night,
stars seemed to her like tears
instead of the eyes of celestial cranes
peering in. A moon was nothing
but a dead man’s grin.
And yet the crane knew she could
do no better than to dip and soar
and fall between an airless heaven
and the stony earth below,
a middle-space that was also
its own monotony. Taking it slow,
she leaned into a groove
of air, achieving an amity
with a feeling of void she could
no longer avoid, an emptiness
that was more an acknowledgement
of terror than the arrival of
peace; to call this happiness
would be a certain error.
And yet the crane allowed the feeling
to fill her. It seemed more honest.
Dying would surely be a different matter.