Friday, August 07, 2009

Cyril Wong's "Let Me Tell You Something About That Night"

cover image from Transit Lounge website

After publishing seven acclaimed books of poetry, Cyril has written his first collection of fiction. Let Me Tell You Something About that Night is subtitled "Strange Tales," a label elastic enough for Western fairy tales and Eastern mythologies, both reworked in this eclectic volume. Here are stories about elves and knights, heavenly devas, a dreaming angel, and a dragon prince. The protagonists have names like Lin, Julie, Ram, Anuar, Van Phan, Enzo, Thomas, and the Old Man with the Golden Voice. They are straight, gay, and indeterminable. They are also animals. The turtle and the hare, for example. Or the butterfly that changed into a rabbit that changed into a bear that changed into a woman. In transforming these fantasies into strange tales, Cyril has availed himself a variety of sources in order to write about the core preoccupations of his poetry: familial and sexual love, memory and identity.

In the opening story "The Lake Children," Lin grieving for a daughter drowned in a lake was herself drowned in the same lake, and eaten up by creatures that looked like children. An allegory of a sort about grief's consuming power, the tale comes to life in its fully imagined details. The narrator describes the approach of the lake children in this way:

They looked the same age as Lan, but their skin was light grey, their heads, shockingly bald, their bodies utterly naked. Lin noticed that she could not see their private parts; it was as if they were sexless. As they swam towards her, she saw their little legs paddled effortlessly through the cold water, while their hands stayed by their sides. Then she noticed fins running down their backs starting from the base of their necks. There were also smaller fins on their wrists and ankles. Their eyes were milky and their irises were larger than usual. There were at least ten of them swimming towards Lin, whose body was floating in a way which suggested that she might be getting ready to settle into a comfortable chair.

The mother's observation of their sexlessness rings true; in an older time, a newborn would be examined for its sex. The gentle irony here is that these lake children are not newborn. Their number--at least ten--speaks of a more general grief. The master-stroke lies in the last detail: Lin's resting posture hints at the relief she finally receives from the hands of grief.

Mothers get good copy in this book. Two of them take loving care of Julie who is blind, and learns to talk to the moon. In another tale, after Anuar discovers his terrible gift for foreseeing people's death, his mother reassures him by revealing she shares his gift. Fathers do not get such kind treatment. They separate boys who fall in love with each other, as we learn in the dragon prince's rather self-absorbed letter to his dad. This symbolic revenge on a harsh father can spoil a story. "The Boy with the Flower That Grew Out of His Ass" is a beautiful and tender evocation of homosexual love. But when the father breaks the neck of the boy's lover, and drowns the boy himself, his violence is insufficiently motivated; the story assumes, a little too quickly, that fathers would kill their sons for just being gay.

These archetypes, Father, Mother, Lover, are familiar from Cyril's poetry. Writing about them in the form of tales, however, seems to give him a voice different from the deeply introspective one dominant in the poetry. He can be satirical, as in "The Sleeping Prince," or wise as in "The Turtle & the Hare." Sometimes that voice underlines its message too heavily, as in the moralistic story "The Monster." Sometimes that voice slips into overly familiar expressions that would never have appeared in the poetry (for instance, the train "plunged into darkness"). But this collection of strange tales is notable for expanding the range of an alluring voice. The last story imagines an old man so contented with his life that when he is given a magical wish he cannot think of anything to wish for. He finally wishes for "a beautiful voice I can sing with for hours and hours, so I may entertain myself on my daily rounds." That self-contentment, self-possession, is surely a new note of imagination in Cyril's songs.

You can buy the book from Transit Lounge. The illustrations by Jason Wing are beautiful and exact.

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