Essays, Recent

“No country but our century”: Wong May, Poet of Lostness

by Daryl Lim Wei Jie and Tse Hao Guang | Contributing Writers

In March this year, Wong May received the Windham-Campbell Prize honoring her body of work. Her reaction: “This is a complete surprise . . . I have gone underground with my poetry for 40 years.”

Born in the wartime capital of Chongqing, China, in 1944, the poet and artist Wong May moved to Singapore with her mother in 1950. This relocation was the first of a series of migrations and leavings that have marked the language, images, and rhythms of her poetry, constituting an intriguing body of work that is belatedly being recognized in the Anglophone world.

Against the Cosmopolitan

After graduating from the University of Singapore in 1966, Wong May left to attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the inaugural International Writing Program, winning two consecutive MacDowell fellowships in 1968 and 1969. Returning to Singapore briefly in 1970 before accepting a fellowship at the DAAD Artists-in-Berlin Program in 1972, she lived in Grenoble and elsewhere in France from 1973-8 before moving to Dublin with her husband, physicist Michael Coey, where she continues to reside. With such a peripatetic biography, scholar Joanne Leow characterizes her and her poetry as “transnationalist” or “cosmopolitan,” going so far as to read her poetry as “a universal space, devoid of a cultural compass.” In the words of scholar Richard Angus Whitehead, “Wong trains . . . a cosmopolitan poet’s lens on an increasingly complicated world.”

While cosmopolitanism implies being at home everywhere (or at least having many homes) Wong May is better understood as a poet of, in her own words, “lostness.” Wong May’s early work is specific and concrete, intensely interior, shot through with discomfiting images. In A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals1A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals will be reissued in 2023 by Singapore’s Ethos Books. (1969), Reports (1972) and Superstitions (1978), all published in the US and long out of print, her speakers are often manic, frenzied, and ill at ease. 

In later work from Wong May, such as Picasso’s Tears (2014), the speaker is perhaps more engaged with global affairs, but there is little sense of a conscious “movement towards [a cosmopolitan] ideal.”2Joanne Leow. “Towards a Cosmopolitan Poetics: The Poetry of Wong May and Boey Kim Cheng.” Unpublished Master’s thesis, National University of Singapore, 2010.

Her most recent work is a collection of translations In the Same Light: 200 Tang Poems for Our Century (Carcanet, 2022; The Song Cave, 2022). The book is the product of a sustained engagement with her Chinese cultural inheritance and the “exile-poets” of the Tang dynasty, and its publication presents an opportune moment to re-examine “lostness” and the location of her poetry. Any such account must also reckon with Wong May’s fraught relationship with her mother, who looms large, a formidable yet ghostly presence.

One day I shall have no home

There are few overt references to Singapore in Wong May’s poetry, with a notable exception in Superstitions. The poem “Kampong Bahru, 1975” seems to have been occasioned by one of her visits to Singapore. It begins with the call of the muezzin3This might have been the Radin Mas mosque, which was demolished in 2001., building up to a reverie that leads the speaker to contemplate the passage of sunlight from another planet to Earth (“the same ray, half- / serene, half- / terrible as over an ancient battle-field”). The muezzin’s voice is universal (“not a corner / not his minaret”), it “looks in all nooks & / crevices.”  As we come to the last stanza, we realize this is the same sound of the muezzin that the speaker had heard as a child, to which, “promoted by / that voice, & partly / in answer,” she responded: “one day I shall have no home.” It is a refrain the speaker has heard for much of her life: 

                                                                now it is said
                            over     &      again
echoing everywhere, creeping like lizards 
             the lostness that   20   years later has  
                                            fetched me here.

Kampong Bahru was quite possibly where Wong May grew up. In a moving foreword to her mother’s posthumously published book of Chinese poetry, Wong May mentions that her mother would take sewing classes at Tiong Bahru and frequent People’s Park Complex to purchase cloth. School was at Gongshang Primary, then located on York Hill. These places are located within or peripheral to Singapore’s Chinatown: a natural area for a migrant from China and her daughter to settle in. 

Fittingly, kampong, a Malay word for village or settlement, is also a byword for home. Even more fittingly, bahru means “new.” This connotation further draws out the poem’s finely balanced ambiguity: “lostness” has brought the speaker back to her childhood home, yet the muezzin echoes as loudly as ever, building up to an infestation “creeping like lizards.” 

That prophetic injunction which Wong May heard as a child seems to have resonated with her innermost desires. In “Going,” found in the same book, the speaker states:

I long to be nowhere.
I long to be merely
going.    But not

Some-Where.     Please No. 

The speaker abhors places where “the pear trees may be / depended upon to flower,” where

. . .    the gulls 
squabble overhead
in unchanged voices telling
how a place will always be

The next and last line is simply “I cannot,” a firm and startlingly contemporary rejection of rootedness. 

The Yellow Plague

This professed desire to be at home nowhere is complicated by indications that China’s cultural and linguistic inheritance continued weighing on Wong May. In “On Leaving Berlin,” the speaker feels that her “[f]orm   verges / on a blur” as she leaves Berlin in sub-zero winter. She is “leaving what would be / too strange to go into / &   too familiar.” So far, so itinerant. Yet the poem turns sharply, remarking that 

The blur is like
China,    &   could be
Home.

Two equivocations here–“like” and “could be”–hint that the speaker feels conflicted about this premonition of home. China was certainly on Wong May’s mind in Berlin; she collaborated with the writer Hans Christoph Buch to select and translate a selection of essays on literature and revolution in China, by the seminal Chinese writer Lu Xun, which came out in 1973. (Wong May also found herself teaching the Chinese language while living in France in the 1970s.) Close readings reveal that China recurs as an entity Wong feels some obligation to, provoking anxiety and dread:

I accept the offerings
Of one who died for me
In the Tang dynasty. I do not know him.
I do not know him. (“Blessings,” Reports)

“I do not know him”–the first time a statement, the second perhaps a disavowal. 

China appears too in code, in Wong May’s references to “5000 years” at least four times across Animals and Reports. (China’s five thousand years of history is a trope used to account for all manner of claims about China and Chinese culture, from its ancient wisdom to its resistance to change.) In “The Yellow Plague,” the speaker feels acutely the suffocating weight of history: 

History Mistress to you I come
Before you I hang down my head
For 5000 years . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
History Mistress get off my back (“The Yellow Plague,” Animals)

With her translations in In the Same Light, some fifty years after this poem, Wong May nonetheless returns to China, culturally and linguistically. In an interview with The Times, she says, “[These translations] return me to my origin in my old age; to drink from the source. No matter how far you stray, your origin beckons you.” 

We who have no country but our century

Both grounded by China and displaced from it, Wong May’s exilic condition leaves its mark everywhere in her biography, her poetry, and her sense of identity as a writer. (In this regard, it may be instructive to compare her to another neglected Anglophone writer of Chinese ethnic origin hailing from South-east Asia: Wong Phui Nam, a pioneering Malaysian poet who died a few months ago. There are interesting parallels: Wong Phui Nam has spoken of his own exilic condition, and has found poetic inspiration and affinity in translating Tang dynasty poetry.) In an interview appended to Picasso’s Tears, Wong May says of her mother and herself: “We were foreigners exiled from the mainland (China) to an island (Singapore).” In the long declamatory poem, “The Making of Guernica,” directed towards America, the speaker states: 

When asked from which country you are an exile
I’ll always answer,    with little hesitation 
“America”.

Her study of the Tang poets has led her, too, to declare, in her extraordinary, meditative “Afterword” to In the Same Light, that “In China . . . the image of the poet is indissolubly linked with exile.”

Like the exile-poets of the Tang dynasty, homesickness features in Wong May’s poetry, as witnessed in her uncertain yearning for home (which may or may not be China). Another word for homesickness is nostalgia – its original meaning described the madness caused by homesickness in Swiss mercenaries. Yet again in “The Making of Guernica,” Wong May writes: 

           With  Nostalgia  there’s  still  light
To navigate & trade

                    (Ask your Chinese
America

Nostalgia is time & place
                                    to leave 
. . . 

Nostalgia

I      profess,    with no licence   I’d    preach

“The Tang poets, with homesickness, concomitantly exalt and cherish friendship,” says Wong May. This applies also to Wong May, who finds kindred souls through her travels, those “who have no country but our century,” who “turn to literature / to forget the world.”4Phrases from “On Crossing the Century” (Picasso’s Tears) and “The Rule” (Superstitions) respectively. These friends make their appearances: Hilda Morley, “Mistress of the / Unhallowed Art, Master / Whose student I also am,” Nicholas Born (to whom “The Rule” is dedicated) and Hans Christoph Buch, the latter two subjects of “Friends in Berlin.” An exile is most at home with friends. 

Other migrants and exiles appear too, treated by Wong May with deep sympathy: be it Algerian immigrants in Grenoble; the Tsarnaev brothers in “The Making of Guernica”; an Iranian jeweler in “Buying Camels in Dresden,” described as “My migrant, / errant friend”; or “Sleeping with Tomatoes,” a moving and furious tribute to fifty-eight Chinese nationals who died of suffocation while being smuggled to the United Kingdom. Wong May herself, of course, is a descendant in spirit of “the migrants and exiles of the Tang dynasty,” whose work she translates in In the Same Light. “Homesickness becomes for the dispossessed synonymous with home. In this they belong together, when little else holds,” she says of the Tang poets. 

This picture remains incomplete, though, and revisiting lostness clarifies, fills in the gaps. “Kampong Bahru, 1975” is not the first time this word appears in Wong May’s work. In an earlier poem called “Letter to the Dark,” from Reports, the speaker mentions “my lostness / where chromosomes dance like small bent nails.” There are ominous references to her family. There is something genetic, ancestral, and perhaps inescapable about her situation: “Each time I try to break out of my form / My blood flows back.”

She won’t, can’t swallow entire; nor let me go

The Chinese phrase 心结 xīnjié (“heart-knot”) describes problems of the heart which cannot be easily untangled, and could very well characterize Wong May’s knotty relationship with her mother, Wang Mei Chuang.

Wang, a classical Chinese poet and teacher, played a formative role in Wong May’s literary education. Some of the education was done through a sort of osmosis, with Wong May listening to Wang chanting “verses on the balcony in moonlight,” imbibing the poetry of the Tang and Song dynasty. Wong May first read Chekhov, Maupassant, and Turgenev in Chinese translation with her mother.5Wong May, “From an Interview with Wong May.” Picasso’s Tears, Portland, Octopus Books, 2014, pp. 289-301. In an introduction to her mother’s collection of Chinese poems, Wong May extolls her achievement as a teacher, writing that “I too am my mother’s student!” She then reflects on the Chinese term for student, 学生 xuéshēng (“learn-life”): 

If you think about it, the word “student” is immensely meaningful. From a teacher’s life, we learn how to live. A teacher lives first and knows first, her life teaching us that only by creating can we live. I tell this to my two sons, and require only this from them.

Wang was Wong May’s exemplar and pioneer. Indeed, Wong May’s first three books are dedicated to her mother. 

Yet accounts of her upbringing also contain considerable tension. Wong May recounts, in relation to a Li Shangyin poem, that her mother said to her, “If you don’t get this, you can forget poetry.” (Wong May was only seven then.) In “Plum”–the Chinese word for “plum,” 梅 meí, is the second character in Wang Mei Chuang’s name, and “plum” was a nickname Wong May used for her mother–Wong May writes:

             Mother,

My 

Late

      (punctilious

       as

              ever

M (other  (“Plum, ”Picasso’s Tears)

 Elsewhere, Wong May offers a resonant, haunting image of Wang as a “tiger mother”: “My mother always held me in her mouth, like a fiercely maternal animal – but just so that she won’t, can’t swallow entire; nor let me go.”

In Animals, written and published soon after Wong May’s departure from Singapore, there is palpable anguish at separation from her mother, as if she were detaching a vital part of herself. The speaker of “A Letter” says, “I cannot live with / Out you, yet I do.” In “Dear Mama,” the speaker compares her “going forth” to “ a grafted green / fit to live / or die.” There is guilt here too:

By the same token I leave

you living, 
                  Dying, or 
unfit for both, waiting

for my return

This psychological turmoil continues into Reports, where the mother figure is strongly identified with pain in “To My Mother”:

All right pain
is what connects me to myself
but your pain is yours

It separates us
as it goes on I realize
perhaps it only means to prepare us 
each separately 
for death

That rawness of separation cools, with the passage of time, to a more detached and knowing reflection in Picasso’s Tears, as the speaker remarks, in “I Dream of Saying Good-bye to Mother” that “I’m still falling / bag & baggage from that childhood’s / Corridor.” Yet the mother figure still haunts the speaker’s dreams: “I dream of saying goodbye to mother / In all airports of the world.” Across her oeuvre, Wong May describes her and her mother as necessarily separated, the pain and difficulty of this separation endured in order to spare them the pain and difficulty of being together: 

I behave like a salt-cellar next to pepper-pot
My regrets are mine, her regrets hers.
I cannot look at her. No, I would rather not.
& she cannot look past me, & not see salt.

Even as we are with Wong May at her mother’s deathbed in Taiwan in the poem “Regardless,” this relationship is unresolved. The speaker contemplates asking the Buddhist nuns visiting the ward to help her mother and herself convert to Buddhism, imagining somewhat dryly: 

Having asked for forgiveness
& been forgiven
(For leaving & being left) 
I’d leave the room a convert.

Unfortunately, the nun concludes that the speaker’s mother is “not ready” to be a Buddhist,“[i]f she is not one already.” The poem ends: 

If ever there was a chance
As I believe there was, once, –
“Forgive.”

Wong May and her mother–and we, hapless readers accompanying bedside–hang in the balance. 

Translating Mother

Wong May is not, after all, an exile from a specific place nor some rarefied notion of China, its culture or language. Separated from Wang, choosing to write poetry in a language learned late, she is an exile from both mother and mother tongue. “My relationship with my mother has a great deal to do with my relationship with my mother tongue,” she says in an interview included in Picasso’s Tears. In the poem “I Share,” she writes, “My mother’s language with its 62 dialects / is also pain.” 

Poetry, mother tongue, and mother are inextricably linked, by way of Wong May’s intensely learned upbringing.  In “The Making of Guernica,” referencing Picasso having “made a study of / Tears,” the speaker says she also has learned about tears, with her mother, through study of Tang dynasty poetry:

                                                     . . . in classical Chinese
I have studied with Mother
With Mother, Tears of Things / & / Things 
Of this world, much of it
Poetry from 619 AD

Wong May’s mother is deeply identified with her understanding–and apprehension–of home: 

For so long I was lucky
                 To have a mother

: to come away from.
                 “All my

Life,”
     If you ask me,
“Home
Abroad”. (“Notes Towards Late Poems,” Picasso’s Tears)

While Wong May seems to have been unconcerned with countries, remarking in an interview with The Irish Times that “I have no idea of nationality. I have no countries,” the places where she grew up with her mother–China and Singapore–have had particular resonance for her. “In Manitoba also the 7-Up tastes of Singapore,” the speaker says in “I Dream of Saying Good-bye to Mother,” before imagining her mother complaining about the incoming draft from a revolving door. According to coverage in The Straits Times, Wong May described her inability to retain Singaporean citizenship (Singapore doesn’t permit dual citizenship) as “a severance which still pains me.”

Wong May’s mother looms in her poetic imagination as a totem of immense significance, like the mythical Mount Tai6Wong May writes, “My mother must have missed the mountains greatly when we left China for Singapore in the early 1950s. There are hardly hills to speak of on the island.” (In the Same Light), representing culture, language, but most of all, an impossible mother figure. In the poem “I Dream of Saying Good-Bye to Mother,” Wong May characterizes her mother’s love as “Asiatic & excessive,” as opposed to one that is “Temperate and tempered to a fault.” Elsewhere, Wong May says of her mother that “She was too thick, her whole life full of passions too real and too thick, which disadvantaged her, but equally made her strong.”7Wong May (Writing as Wang Cong). “Preserved Plum.” She was altogether too much (“I cannot”), and Wong May, in her own words, “got away,” in necessary exile–an agonizing move that would reverberate across the decades, leaving an indelible mark on her poetry. 

Yet reading In the Same Light, one senses that perhaps it is also poetry, which Wong May has described as “something I do so everything else makes sense,” that offers a sort of resolution, a merciful coda. The genesis of the book was a spell of illness in Beijing, in November 2015. Wong May lay in her hotel bed “too afraid to fall asleep.” Then, she heard her mother’s voice: “a fragment of Li Shangyin came to me, in my mother’s voice, word by word, untranslatable — to which,  Yes I say, Yes I will do this — as a dare.”

This dare, this homecoming, seems to have been prefigured by the final poem in Picasso’s Tears, entitled “Translating Mother,” which immediately precedes In the Same Light in publication:

Twice again
I came to the door.

Twice ordered back.

How bright the moon.
As bright the void

“The moon was not banal in the Tang Dynasty. In poetry it was primarily the exile’s moon,” writes Wong May in the afterword of In the Same Light. The same moon that shone on Wong May as she listened to her mother reading aloud the Tang and Song poets. The same moon in that famous poem of Li Bai’s, in Wong May’s translation: 

Lifting my head
I see the moon,

                      Looking down
         I remember home.

– 

Tse Hao Guang (谢皓光) is the author of The International Left-Hand Calligraphy Association (Tinfish Press, 2023). He edited the new edition of Wong May’s A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals (Ethos Books, 2023). His poems appear in Poetry, Poem-a-Day, Dreginald, New Delta Review, Big Other, and elsewhere.

Daryl Lim Wei Jie (林伟杰) is a poet, translator and literary critic from Singapore. His latest collection of poetry is Anything but Human (2021), which was shortlisted for the 2022 Singapore Literature Prize. His work has been featured in POETRY Magazine, Poetry Daily, The Southwest Review and elsewhere. He edited Food Republic: A Singapore Literary Banquet (2020), the first definitive anthology of literary food writing from Singapore, and is now putting together an anthology of new writing from Malaysia and Singapore.