Christopher Phelps reviews Satori Blues by Cyril Wong

Satori Blues

by Cyril Wong

Soft­blow Press, 2011

ISBN 9789810873615




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.