After You By Cyril Wong
by Shakespeare Sim

Often recognized as Singapore’s first confessional poet, mainly because of the wistful, introspective quality in his poems, I have always been attracted to the poignant vulnerability and reflectiveness in Cyril Wong’s poetry. After You is Cyril Wong’s latest collection of poems, which discusses same-sex love, inevitable loss, and the fragility of testimony. What I find most delightful about this collection of love poetry is that it isn’t full of cloying sweetness, whiny lamentations or disconcerting cynicism. While the collection ruminates about death and focuses on the inevitable loss and eventual parting of lovers, a heartening sense of acceptance and joyful resilience permeates the narratives of loss and heartache. It is almost as if the poet’s focus on death and loss accentuates gratitude for present happiness.

In the poems Fire and Last Line, the theme of loss and parting due to the passage of time is outlined in the first few stanzas before the poem ends with a final stanza capturing the preciousness of the present moment of togetherness. The persona in Fire notes the decaying properties of time,

soon there will be
nothing to shave
our razers will burn
to rust beside the sink

and he ruminates about “dying alone is the worst thing on my mind”. Yet just as the poem appears to embark on this mournful trajectory of unavoidable loss and decay, the poem wrestles away from the linearity of a predictable end and celebrates the joy of the present moment:

the fire everywhere
we stand touch kiss
nothing we ask for
could be better than this

Similarly in the poem Last Line, the persona discusses the temporary daily partings and departure from their shared dream in the past:

that we might retire in time
you would read books on religion
I would write poetry full time

Even though the reader initially suspects that their shared dream of retiring in time and literary indulgence was unachievably impractical in the monotonous bustle of everyday commitments, “how impossible in Singapore although we hunt for time”, the poem undercuts this expectation of inevitable loss due to the insufficiency of time and the poem ends with a twist; the couple achieves their past dreams despite the time constraints of the present:

in a quickening dream of now
we turn away from the fringes of time
you read while stroking my nape
I slow your hand in my poem’s last line

This pattern of loss intertwined with an unexpected gratitude for the ordinariness is what I enjoy most in this collection of poems.

Another charming quality in this collection of poetry would be a humbling and pervasive relatability in the poems. There is something charmingly universal and relatable about the collection’s account of same-sex relationships, depicting a familiar intimacy (“every night our brows meet before we fall apart in sleep”), anxiety (“should we say goodbye now or when it is too late”), heartache (“with you gone we become almost inseparable now”) and joyful resilience (“another day to love would do us just fine”) that we know of relationships. This is perhaps best encapsulated in an excerpt from the poem, Sameness:

let’s go deeper
what about love

little difference
or comfort

Indeed, once we peel away the identity markers of sexuality or even race, gender or class, love is a universal human quality that brings the same vulnerabilities of “anxiousness”, “despair” and that at the end of the day, there is “little difference”. I believe this collection can make significant headway for LGBT discourse in Singapore. After all, if one can identify with the love, belonging and vulnerability in a same-sex relationship depicted in the poetry (that is no different from a heterosexual one), what can there be left of irrational homophobia?

Cyril Wong is undoubtedly one of my favourite local poets. In light of the recent NLB decable over the unwise pulping of And Tango Makes Three, The White Swan Express and Who’s in My Family, Wong had announced his frustration in a Straits Times article:

“As a queer writer, I think I have reached a limit of some sort, in the light or dark of recent events. I don’t know why I’m bothering anymore. By sometime next year, I’m just going to stop; yes, stop publishing, stop working with governmental organisations, even stop writing.”

I certainly hope that that is not the case, fingers crossed for future works from him anyway. In my humble opinion, NLB’s pulping of the books was ultimately a beneficial move for LGBT discourse in Singapore (even though it might not have been their intention haha). Rather than maintaining the status quo of apathy towards the LGBT community that we see today, NLB’s book-censoring decision sparked off indignance and created awareness. Honestly, I would not have known about the above 3 books if not for the banning decision and I am sure that is the same for many others.