Cyril Wong has been called a confessional poet, according to The Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry, based on his ‘anxiety over the fragility of human connection and a relentless self-querying’. He is the Singapore Literature Prize-winning author of poetry collections such as Unmarked Treasure and The Lover’s Inventory. A past recipient of the National Arts Council’s Young Artist Award for Literature, he completed his doctoral degree in English Literature at the National University of Singapore in 2012.
False Labours: Eight Immortals Passing Through
Knuckles on chest, leg under heftier leg:
how we get trapped under and cannot move.
I seem to weigh less every morning.
My tibia is Han Xiangzi’s flute
whittled from golden bamboo
and played with a broken heart; his lover
imprisoned by her father at the bottom
of an ocean. My bones are hollow music.
That owl-hoot of an old woman
breathing beats during qigong
is He Xiangu between gulps of vomit
discharged by mendicants; suffering
without suffering at the hands of her mistress.
A meme of a baby swaddled by a mother’s shirt
and calming down mightn’t be about love
but about the bliss of repetition:
tenderness for what feels like nothing new.
Lan Caihe floats between genders over a basket
of flowers down a river of flux, a shoe
fallen off. Neither young nor old. Perpetual
child on the inside. Spirituality is a state
of mind as timeless, selfless affection.
You tell me how Sufis danced, rooted to the source.
My fingers do the flamenco across your waist.
After riding for a thousand li, Zhang Guolao
folds his donkey into a box or one of his pockets.
He declined invitations from emperors. I sit
all day at home beside you, staring into space.
Han Zhongli is like Budai with a fan,
fanning stones into gold and into stones again.
I imagine poems are pebbles in my skull
unloaded onto these pages, where they become
pebbles of gold. Lü Dongbin, multi-hyphenate—
Guanyin re-animated, re-emanated. I’m not
handsome like him, but I’m your baby in the dark.
Together, dim shape our bodies make is protean:
bag of rocks, mountainous terrain, discrete forms again.
In daylight, I remember you as ex-civil servant
but with only a towel to wrap your nakedness
before your gods on the altar, rudraksh beads
dripping from your wrist; covert prayers
chasing each other across your lips. What you
remind me of on a dry-iced stage inside my head:
Cao Guojiu in officious robes, even as an immortal;
after handing his riches to the poor for a brother’s sins.
Giving everything and gaining more than everything
in return. The stories the same: everyone flew
post-hermitage and upon private cultivation;
once realising that what they had to give up
was nothing at all. Truth as practice as awareness
as heavenward departure from cloudy conditioning.
I’m keen to fly beyond flying, like Tieguai Li;
suffering temptation, reborn disabled, a tramp.
(Are you surprised I relate to him most of all?)
Squatting quietly, irascible, mincing feelings
under a tree (I assume) before this recognition:
“All is farce, fuss-free, appearances, nothing
more.” Your stomach as resting gourd—replete
with medicinal serenity. Our life together
an iron clutch or vaulting pole I employed for lift-
off from shaky ground; hobbling free
of freedom, self, emotional fixities. Eight
immortals as eight-for-infinity; perhaps, Sufi-like
circularity. No more effort beyond love
without labour. How far from you I’ve been taken
towards Elysium without ever having moved at all.
How beauty, as we come to know it, is shaped by our circumstances is something men (gay men even more so, I’d argue) are more likely to forget than women. What does this mean for our sense of self? Self-belief is so overrated we don’t register that what we feel we feel against our will when we desire or love. Even as we recognise the cliché in this, we remain subjugated by circumstance nonetheless. Knowing or seeing clearly is not freedom, not at first.
Other things shape us—our moods, our capacity for intelligent thought, our actions—and not as a result of when we perceive ourselves as pilots in cockpits, calling every shot. Move a chair here, unfold a screen there, paint three lines overhead, wear more blues or reds, remove plants, place a bowl of water in the corner: create the conditions for a better life, a more beautiful mind. Not that there is no autonomy whatsoever, but where does it end and the pinball machinations of circumstance begin?
Then even when we’re happy, is it our happiness (neural alignments, dopamine production, serotonin levels) that speaks or is it us? Since nothing we feel or do may be because of us, then everything can be manipulated to grant us what we need. So call our feng shui specialist today, so we can be cleverer, happier, more in love, healthier, etc. Or do nothing and just watch as everything falls apart or comes together—watch without judging ourselves or the circumstances that will ultimately pack our bodies into neat little boxes and tilt us into the crematory fire.