Sudeep Sen

Sudeep Sen read English Literature at the University of Delhi & as an Inlaks Scholar received an MS from the Journalism School at Columbia University (New York). His awards, fellowships & residencies include: Hawthornden Fellowship, Pushcart Prize nomination , BreadLoaf, Pleiades, nlpvf Dutch Foundation for Literature, Ledig House, Wolfsberg UBS Pro Helvetia (Switzerland), Sanskriti (New Delhi), and Tyrone Guthrie Centre (Ireland). He was international writer-in-residence at the Scottish Poetry Library (Edinburgh) & visiting scholar at Harvard University. Sen’s dozen books include: Postmarked India: New & Selected Poems (HarperCollins), Distracted Geographies, Rain, Aria (A K Ramanujan Translation Award), Letters of Glass, and Blue Nude: Poems & Translations 1977-2012 (Jorge Zalamea International Poetry Award) is forthcoming. He has also edited several important anthologies, including: The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry by Indians, The Literary Review Indian Poetry, World Literature Today Writing from Modern India, Midnight’s Grandchildren: Post-Independence English Poetry from India, and others. His poems, translated into over twenty-five languages, have featured in international anthologies by Penguin, HarperCollins, Bloomsbury, Routledge, Norton, Knopf, Everyman, Random House, Macmillan, and Granta. His poetry and literary prose have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, Newsweek, Guardian, Observer, Independent, Financial Times, London Magazine, Literary Review, Harvard Review, Telegraph, Hindu, Outlook, India Today, and broadcast on bbc, cnn-ibn, ndtv & air. Sen’s recent work appears in New Writing 15 (Granta) and Language for a New Century (Norton). He is the editorial director of Aark Arts and editor of Atlas [www.atlasaarkarts.net].

 

Kargil

Ten years on, I came searching for
                           war signs of the past
expecting remnants—magazine debris,
unexploded shells,
              shrapnel
that mark bomb wounds.

I came looking for
                                                  ghosts—
people past, skeletons charred,
abandoned
               brick-wood-cement
that once housed them.

I could only find whispers—
                           whispers among the clamour
of a small town outpost
                                       in full throttle—
everyday chores
                          sketching outward signs
             of normality and life.

In that bustle
              I spot war-lines of a decade ago
though the storylines
                            are kept buried, wrapped
in old newsprint.

There is order amid uneasiness—
                                          the muezzin’s cry,
the monk’s chant—
                            baritones
                            merging in their separateness.

At the bus station
                          black coughs of exhaust
smoke-screens everything.
                                           The roads meet
and after the crossroad ritual
                                                        diverge,
skating along the undotted lines
                                        of control.
A porous garland
                          with cracked beads
adorns Tiger Hill.
                          Beyond the mountains
                                           are dark memories,
and beyond them
                           no one knows,
                                                      and beyond them
no one wants to know.

Even the flight of birds
                                       that wing over their crests
don’t know which feathers to down.
              Chameleon-like
they fly,     tracing perfect parabolas.

I look up
              and calculate their exact arc
and find instead,                                             a flawed theorem.

 

Zoji La Pass

                               at 12,000 feet
slopes steeply.             Hard snow
                               cut into two
by winding tarmac—
                               a severe cold-slice
freezing to a stand-still.

A car shrinks
            through this open-air tunnel—
ice walls on either side—
                               a geometric strait
                                              resisting
the warmth of diesel’s grey metal.

Two yaks on the lower slopes
                               look up for colour
in this blinding white.
Their horns storing clues,
                                             anticipating
the mood
              of changing temperatures.

In this rarefied air
                                              lungs shrink—
breathtaking breathlessness—
              clarified oxygen is sparse here—
high-tone octane echo in the stark terrain.

 

Yuki
for Bina

In Japanese, Yuki is snow—
     unmelted and poised.

She sits askance
     in front of a wine-tinged door

whose paint flakes
     to expose its wood-raw skin—

pale, seemingly snow-flecked.
     Her hair rambles all over

her face, eyes, and neck,
     as she stares shyly—

sideways into the distance.
     There are secrets locked,

bolted securely
     in a shut non-descript studio

in Mumbai,
     tucked away somewhere

in Prabha Devi—
     as the industrial estate

temporarily quietens
     at the allusive

thought of snow herself.
     Fantasy instils in

factory-workers, passion—
     just as for me—

peeling curls of paint,
     a circular chromium lock,

a rusted dis-used bolt,
     and breeze that affects

a woman’s hair and lashes,
     inspires visions

of snow—
     thaw, compassion, desire.

[inspired by a photo by Rafeeq Ellias]

 

Mediterranean

1

A bright red boat
Yellow capsicums

Blue fishing nets
Ochre fort walls

2

Sahar’s silk blouse
gold and sheer

Her dark black
kohl
-lined lashes

3

A street child’s
brown fists

holding the rainbow
in his small grasp

4

My lost memory
white and frozen

now melts colour
ready to refract

 

Choice

drawing a breath between each
                sentence, trailing closely every word.

           — James Hoch, ‘Draft’ in Miscreants

1.

some things, I knew,
                 were beyond choosing:

didu—grandmother—wilting
                                               under cancer’s terminus care.

mama’s mysterious disappearance—
                                               ventilator vibrating, severed
silently, in the hospital’s unkempt dark.

an old friend’s biting silence—unexplained—
                 promised loyalties melting for profit
                                               abandoning long familial presences of trust.

devi’s jealous heart      misreading emails
                                               hacked carefully under cover,
her fingernails ripping                 
unformed poems, bloodied, scarred—
my diary pages weeping wordlessly—
my children aborted, breathless forever.

2.

these are acts that enact themselves, regardless—
               helpless, as i am,
torn asunder permanently, drugged, numbed.

strange love, this is—                                    a salving:
                                                                          what medics and nurses do.

i live buddha-like, unblinking, a painted vacant smile—
                            one that stores pain and painlessness—
someone else’s nirvana thrust upon me.

some things I once believed in
                                                                      are beyond my choosing—
choosing is a choice unavailable to me.

 

 Matrix
for
psc

Birds fly across the pale blue sky
cross-stitching a matrix in Pali—

a tongue now beautifully classical
like temple-toned Bharatanatyam.

Dialogues in the other garden
happen not just in springtime. Yet

you stare askance talking poetry
in silence, an angularity of stance

like a shot in a film-noir narrative
yet to be edited down to a whole.

What is a whole? Is it not a sum
of distilled parts, parts one chooses

to expose carefully like raw stock—
controlling patterns in the red light

of dark, a dark that dutifully dissolves.
There emerges at the end,

nests for imaginative flights to rest,
to weave our own stories braving

winds, currents, and the elements
of disguise. Fireflies in the grove

do not belong to numbered generation
they only light up because line-breaks

like varnam keep purity alive—
enigmatic, disciplined, spontaneous.

Let the birds fly tracing angular paths,
let the dancer dance unbridled,

let the poet write unrestrained—
natural as breathing itself.

Matrix woven can be unwoven—
enjambments like invisible pauses

weave us back into algebraic patterns
that only heart and imagination can.

She walks porcupines—as you do—and
listens to the sound of the sea in a conch.

 

Grammar

she has no english;
             her lips round / in a moan ….
calligraphy of veins ….
Merlinda Bobis, ‘first night’

My syntax, tightly-wrought
   I struggle to let go,
to let go of its formality,
   of my wishbone
desiring juice its deep marrow,
   muscle, and skin.

The sentence finally pronounced

   I am greedy for long drawn-
out vowels
, for consonants that
   desire lust, tissue, grey-cells.
I am hungry for love,
   for pleasure, for flight,

for a story essaying endlesslywords.
   A comma decides to pr[e]oposition
a full-stop … ellipses pause, to reflect
   a phrase decides not to reveal
her thoughts after allellipses and
   semi-colons are strange bed-fellows.

Calligraphy of veins and words
   require ink, the ink of breath,
of bloodcorpuscles speeding
   faster than the loop of serifs …
the unresolved story of our lives
   in a fast train without terminals.

I long only for italicised ellipses …
   my english is the other, the other
is really english she has no english;
   her lips round / in a moan ….

her narrative grammar-drenched,
   silent, rich, etched letters of glass.

 

Eating Guavas Outside Taj Mahal

The heavy drunken aroma
     of fresh guavas

is too sweet for me to bear.

Instead, I drink its nectar
     not as liquid-pulp
but as raw unsmooth fruit.

I bite its light-green rough skin
     the way I used to
approach a sugarcane stalk

as a child
     crunching every fibre
to extract their juice.

There are memories—
     memories attached to food
and their consumption.

There are memories
     about the rituals of intake—
how certain foods

are allowed or disallowed
     depending on God’s stance
and their place

in the lofty hierarchies
     they create.
How misplaced these stations

are—God, Emperor, Man
     all mistaken—proud errors
of selfhood, status, and ego.

Even under prayer’s veil,
     there is something about
eating guavas with unwashed

hands, tasting its taste before
     masala,
lemon and rock-salt
turn them into sprightly salad—

seed’s bone-crack intentions
     slip, cloaked—
buried before they fruit.

 

Banyan

As winter secrets
   melt

with the purple
   sun,

what is revealed
   is electric

notes tune
   unknown scales,

syntax alters
   tongues,

terracotta melts
  white,

banyan ribbons
   into armatures

as branch-roots
   twist, meeting

soil in a circle.
   Circuits

glazed
   under cloth

carry
   alphabets

for a calligrapher’s
   nib

italicised
   in invisible ink,

letters never
   posted,

cartographer’s
   map, uncharted

as phrases fold
   so do veils

                                              

Cyril Wong

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.

   


Serpent
after aesop

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.

 

Blueprint

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.

  

Landing

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.

 

Mouse

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.

 

Practical Aim

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 everyday?
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?

 

Fox
after aesop

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.

 

Seventh Month

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?

 

Crane
after aesop

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.

Christopher Phelps reviews Satori Blues by Cyril Wong

Satori Blues

by Cyril Wong

Softblow Press, 2011

ISBN 9789810873615

Reviewed by CHRISTOPHER PHELPS

 

 

Symmetry Breaking in Satori Blues
 

Phrasally, “satori blues” is a sort of tonal totality that balances enlightenment with catharsis, high with low, insight with outsight. Blue is a color, as well as a state of mind. Satori is an inner lens, as well as the light it focuses. And satori is a bright word, while blues are naturally noctilucent. Cyril Wong’s Satori Blues is a book-length poem that sites the sights it cites, in sound—that concentrates balance, straddles its own meditations, follows its own suggestions, and lodges everything quietly between loud vowels.

The poem begins with five lines that set the table smartly and neatly. We know we’re about to sit, Socratically, at a philosophical love poem:

The way is every place. Love appears
as nothing when we begin to know it,
nothing that is not its opposite, or
whatever opposites mean, in this case—
coming and ebbing, a kiss and heartache.

By a slow collision—spaced by a full stop—the Dao hits love head-on when love “appears” (apt, as a ball in Piaget). Love appears as the nothing we know, then a suddenly new nothing, a kind of koan that characterizes or defines “nothing” (and anything that might partake of nothing): “nothing that is not its opposite,” a key and chord unlocking echoes in all that follows. Nothing that is not its opposite: Doubling the negation back positive, everything is its opposite—nothing’s opposite, and love’s nothing’s opposite—because it is nothing: because every something stands, across the line of existence, as nothing’s opposite; opposed to nothing. “Whatever opposites mean, in this case,” and a dash to say, perhaps more. In any case, the heart’s case of ache is clearest (apt, as an arhat’s bell): what comes ebbs as what kisses finish.

The next ten lines are just as preponderant:

The place where no love waits
is also love. Legs uncrossed, benumbed
but tender, tenderly. Gratified when answers
rose up in a field without questions.
Eyelids lifted like hoods or wings,
then a mise en abîme of eyes
flying open, endless hoods and wings.
Still, a moment’s suspicion that existence
churns on without a doubt, without
significance or beauty. […]

The first course comes as a lyrical feast! Indelicate legs, numbed, but this no-love is also love. One wonders if this statement is also a question—just before the speaker’s address shifts to a past when answers outgrew or precluded questions. Or perhaps the address doesn’t shift; it just illuminates where we’d already been. A flash of love or sex or both that had tasted infinity (or the abyss, which in this French expression connotes the same): This is difficult territory to balance, without falling into sentimentality on the one side, or declaimed but swollen importance on the other. Wong avoids both traps on his path, in his way. Rather than hitting us with a new image, he fledges the same flesh: “hoods or wings” becomes “hoods and wings.” And just as well, by sound alone, “without a doubt” echoes (and countersamples) “mise en abîme”—angel food meets earth salt. Finally, it is not eyes that lifted, but merely their lids. Enlightenment begins with a lift; eyes open on the scene before looking up toward exaltation. Then how long does it last—is it really only a moment’s suspicion (as brief as love or sex) that existence churns on without significance or beauty?

In the coming pages, we discover how the mouth feels mulling that question. Wong’s lyrics turn prose-poetic, and to mentors (like Jiddu Krishnamurti and Shunryu Suzuki), in an effort to challenge the song to find its melody, its prosody, its probity, its self-questioned lack of lack:

until the body registers its extremities again—
almost everything lost but that airy room
of memory. That one expansive room.
All knowledge is but a raft—zoom up
and out—on a sea of the unknown.
The poet focused on the nail-biting void
when a whole rainbow of interpretations
was always nearby. Leaning into air, uncertain
what air is; the body knows, inhaling
its secrets—air is everything we do.
Inhale and that radio is a death-trap,
melancholy unraveling this morning’s calm;
exhale, at last, and melodies are notes
arranged to mimic fissures in a life. Love
has no opposites, after all. How alarming
the impossibility, when reconsidered.

[…]

What have I been saying? Fire, windows,
thought, repetition, hardness and love. […]

[…]

[…] After immolation, the monk’s heart
stayed intact and was displayed as a relic.
The trouble with things is that we believe
they are ideas made permanent—
bed to my bed, cheek to my cheek.

Love’s nothing having turned into something (capable, despite itself, of opposites), soon the poem turns strikingly into the world we recognize as contemporary. We know the brands of this food (the trans fat, the tribulations):

[…] The revelation stayed
long after the high was gone, that there
is a way to observe each chiseled body
as something foreign or terrifyingly
new. I took part in the orgy, but instead
of being ploughed by lust, I wanted
all of you to abandon self-hatred
for joy. Sometimes love is unfulfilled
vanity: touch me, hold me, fuck me.
He kept checking his iPhone to see if
there was another party in the other room.
Since nothing lasts, let’s rehearse
by saying farewell to this bed;
these curtains that kept nakedness
from view; not forgetting you, you and you.

Here “nothing” changes its play, gestalting between a solid-not and a not-solid, between noun and negation. And starting at “new,” that long u is the sound of a sieve for what is already lost in what is found anew, finishing where that second pronoun—at once singular and plural—repeats, for emphasis, a you that hardly matters which; for want, perhaps, of a you who could bear such emphasis.

Wong’s long u continues for another three pages, catching on “do,” eye-rhyming with “go,” then swan-singing (“To experience means to go / through”) back to “you”:

Stop swinging and the world swings
like a gate into you; the trick
is to move with the gate. […]

And here he does, by a brilliant stroke of sound, in the key of long a:

Rocks and shells have nothing to say?
Why not pay attention anyway?
I think Shunryu Suzuki was trying to explain
that you are that which is sound.

[…]

Wind chimes urged us into a sudden
state of knowing. After saying the word
Buddha, the monk rinsed his mouth
three times. An earthquake between
idea and reality. […]

[…]

Look away and the way is everywhere.

Is this line the main course, the great way, the Mahayana? If it is, it’s handsome to the eye and pleasing to the tongue.

What follows is a medley, salads and cheeses:

Forgive the past for repeating for it knows
not what it does. No one truly vanishes,
which is the root of every crisis. […]

[…]

[…] The difficulty of entering
the oasis of a familiar tree, the sky as sky.
We impose our straight lines upon nature
which is squiggly. Alan Watts describes
Euclid as possessing a weakened intellect
for his simplistic geometrical shapes.
String theorists themselves cannot agree
on which theory best describes
the universe. U.G. apologized for having
“no teaching here, just disjointed, disconnected
sentences.” And emphasized, “There is
nothing to understand.” If you must burn,
burn away every preconception and see
what happens. […]

How our best efforts to straighten order fail; to floss before we’re finished? If science has remade the world, we remain to see it happen?—to note its presumptuousness and notch our own? Wittgenstein’s first proposition in his Tractatus is statically translated as “The world is all that is the case,” and more loosely if dynamically as “The world is what happens.”

Wong continues to retune his examples now; he resets the table with his pastiche-in-progress, using both long u’s and the air from “everywhere”:

[…] Deep breath now,
deeper, even deeper still. Your heart
sails to that old woman pushing her cart,
but what can you do to lift her burden?
To store the present: use, reuse,
abuse; compare, repair, despair.

[…so—in a…]

Don’t overrate your holiness!
Put down the prayer book and gaze
upon your innermost want without shrinking.
Listen, why won’t you listen
to everything that I have to say?

If this is dessert—come early—it’s delicious in its pleading, and in its bittersweet desperation, and in how its self-knowledge self-overhears:

The molester who was arrested had
asked victims to place their hands
on his chest to “feel” his heart.
The hardest part is admitting that no wrong
has been committed. Thank you
for loving me in spite of yourself.

And you wonder anew (all) who “you” is. Then which “I”s:

[…] Eyes saw the leaf
because of that light, but light and leaf
were possible because of the eyes.
Push or pull, the wheel doesn’t stop turning.
What sound does the ego make upon departing?

Soon to these portals’ port! This brandy’s wine:

The dream of a harmonious world
is the reason that I’m always on fire.
Love is not enough when the self
adheres to its core. What I cannot
retrieve mocks me from behind time’s
two-way mirror. […]

[…]

me; no time; no time to waste!

[…]

What we talk about when we talk about loss
are the catastrophes: walls collapsing
and the terrible flood. What we forget is what
we fail to detect: the line opening like an eye
from one end of a dam to another;
a startled look and the averted vision
at a wrong word at yet another wrong time.

The lids that once lifted singularize into an eye that has both glimpsed and glared. Emerson said that the glance reveals what the gaze obscures. One wonders if he was wrong to choose sides…

Near the poem’s final agon, in the midst of a Whitmanic flourish, Wong asks and answers:

Who says we cannot compartmentalise
heartbreak, break it open and employ
its parts?

[…]

Stars faint from lack, freefalling into
deep graves of themselves, from which
no light may lean away. The future
revealed like an afterlife, which we fight
to occupy and exit with equal
courage and delight. […]

Suddenly, finally, black holes appear as one-way mirrors, anti-beacons: eyes so hungry for light, they take it all. The reciprocal romance of a mise en abîme singularizes into a solitary trap we must acknowledge if we’re to survive with light left in us. Eyes heard, symmetries both broken and reformed, the book ends, a few lines later, with Cyril Wong’s challenge and charge to sing along.

 

CHRISTOPHER PHELPS originally studied science and philosophy before falling in love with the oldest version of both. His poems appear in The Awl, Meridian, The New Republic, PANK, and in the anthology Collective Brightness: LGBTIQ Poets on Faith, Religion & Spirituality. He works in a small acrylic-sculpture workshop in Venice, Florida.