Cyril Wong’s latest book of poems, The Lover’s Inventory, begins with an epigraph by Emerson: “Poetry teaches the enormous force of a few words, and, in proportion to the inspiration, checks loquacity.” That this is the last book Wong may be publishing for a while is a pity but hopefully something that will prompt readers to turn back, in the light of this quote, to his existing body of work that deserves repeated readings.
His poems are among the most discussed in 21st-century Singapore poetry, and for a long time it didn’t seem that his publication would soon be checked. The experience of reading a Cyril Wong poem for me is that of picturing a scene with people and settings in clear physical relation to each other, their interactions, and most importantly, how they are framed and positioned by the speaker’s train of thought that is not always simple but always crystalline. When readers call his poetry “confessional,” it often seems uncertain whether they are placing such poems in the US literary tradition stemming from the ’50s, or simply rehashing their surprise at poems about personal and private experience as if they were a novelty in contemporary poetry. Is lyric poetry new to these readers? The cerebral challenge of reading his poetry seems to be forgotten once the label of confessionalism is tagged on, but we should attempt to take this rare offer up.