Bearing Witness Beyond Despair

The art of dislocation in the verses of Wong May

Wong May’s reader needs to be ready to dream a little. Her poems unfold with the intensity, the abrupt shifts of focus, and the uncanny, enigmatic quality of our dreams, even when she is writing about ordinary sunlit experience.

Take the poem titled “The World.” Here we’re in a taxicab in an unfamiliar city. The “Much exercised” driver is “exasperating.” He seems lost, yet the poet trusts him. They “have a special understanding”; they are both as “foreign” as the world they find themselves in. “How did we get here?” Neither one can say. The car stinks of vomit. “The radio is carsick / With human speech.” “Ho—Ho // Ho—Hell,” the driver says when they finally pull up at her hotel. A hotel—the appropriate home for the dislocated, transnational consciousness of Wong May’s poetry. “The World” is a fable about the temporary bonds we form as we try to find our way while sensing something terrible just ahead or behind us.

Yet however hellish our world might seem, Wong May confesses still to “sometimes like” it. After all, “Our world is this world / There is no other.” “The Painting of Hotels” carries on this argument. Now the hotel is on fire, and “hostages” are being taken. The scene is a nightmare, although Wong May’s matter-of-fact tone makes it seem unsurprising: this is the kind of emergency we hear news reports about every day.

Poetry, she remarks in an interview, “puts me ‘on the spot,’ ” positioned and obliged to bear witness to catastrophe. In this way she is like the worker who is painting the burning hotel. He may be no help, but what else can he do? “Go on painting,” the poet urges him.

Wong May, who lives in Dublin, is a painter as well as a poet. She was born in China in 1944 and grew up in exile in Singapore. She wrote short stories in Chinese before studying English literature with D. J. Enright at the National University of Singapore and attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Between 1969 and 1978, she published three books of poems in the United States. Then she stopped publishing poetry, opting for Stephen Dedalus’s “silence, exile, and cunning,” until her Picasso’s Tears: Poems 1978–2013 appeared in 2014. In 2022, her translations from classical Chinese poetry—a 2,000-year-old literature written by exiles and refugees—were published under the title In the Same Light: 200 Tang Poems for Our Century.

Wong May’s mother, Wang Mei-Chuang, was a poet writing in the classical Chinese style. Remembering her childhood, Wong May comments: “So a lot of work was done for me—when you imbibe Tang & Sung poets with a mother who chanted verses on the balcony at midnight.”

“The Chair” is a poem about that education. Here, poetry is a vocation passed down from mother to daughter, from one woman to another. In a temple dedicated to the “Tears of Things,” Wong May’s mother is present to her. Her mother knows “poetry ruins lives,” or at least women’s lives. So she instructs Wong May in what she must do: sit in the “more than humanly tall” chair in which her mother sat; “Remain in that chair / Be a seated woman”—a patient, witness-bearing woman—“& despair.” But despair is not the end of poetry. It is a place to start.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Langdon Hammer, the Niel Gray Jr. Professor of English at Yale, is the poetry editor of the Scholar and the author of James Merrill: Life and Art.


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