Wong May's Poetry of Exile

In search of a language of unbelonging

Hao Guang Tse (谢皓光)
Credit: Paul Napo

In 1969, Wong May, age 25, published her first book of poems, A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals, with Harcourt Brace & World, a major New York press. The amount of good fortune and effort this required is hard to appreciate from our present vantage: as Juliana Chang points out in Quiet Fire, her anthology of Asian American poetry, at that time Wong May was one of only twenty or so people of Asian descent who had published a solo book of poetry in the United States. Its publication ignited Wong May’s unusual literary career, which has been defined by her remarkable relationship with the English language. Through the shifting registers and modes of her poetry, Wong May made English hospitable to those who find themselves between cultures and languages. A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals, which will be republished by Ethos Books in March, dazzled and puzzled its initial critics in equal measure. But over the years readers have come to more fully appreciate the sly tone and form of her poetry, which swings wildly from title to provocative imagery to deceptively affecting lines.

Wong May was born in Chongqing, China, in 1944 and moved to Singapore with her mother Wang Mei Chuang in 1950. After growing up in a literary Chinese-speaking household and attending Chinese-medium primary and secondary schools, Wong May enrolled in preparatory courses at the University of Singapore that were designed to ease the Chinese-educated into the university’s Anglophone paradigm. Providentially, my father-in-law, who was her classmate in these courses, recalls that she was “very good at poetry already,” an assessment echoed in the critic Richard Angus Whitehead’s observation of her “belated, but rapid mastery of English,” which she did not formally learn until the age of 17. In a later interview, Wong May would remember that as a schoolgirl “with very little English” she had chanced upon T. S. Eliot’s poem “Ash Wednesday,” its “Lady of silences” leaving her “entranced.”

Wong May majored in English literature, writing and publishing early poems that were significant enough to be mentioned by fledgling efforts to contrive a canon of “Malayan” poetry. As David Ormerod, a West Indian academic who had taught at the University of Malaya, wrote in 1967, “She seems to have discovered, quite unselfconsciously, a style of considerable power for which I can think of no precise precedent or parallel, and which results in artifacts of great formal beauty.”

The term exophonic was coined by Susan Arndt, Dirk Naguschewski, and Robert Stockhammer to describe creative writing outside of one’s “mother tongue,” and in this technical sense Wong May is an exophonic writer. But it feels more truthful to say that Wong May has at least two mother tongues: the Chinese of her birth and the English of her rebirth. Over the course of our occasional correspondence over the years, Wong May told me that British academic and poet D. J. Enright, who taught her at the University of Singapore, had clued her into the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. She applied, was accepted, and left Singapore. In the three years between her graduation from the University of Singapore in 1966 and the publication of A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals, her poetry had become darker and more pointed, inflected with but taking care not to be infected by the American idiom.

As George Starbuck, director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop during the late 1960s, breathlessly and somewhat backhandedly said of A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals:

One incidental amazement is that an Oriental, learning English under British tutelage, should not merely master the American language, but should play elaborate jokes on it which only a member of the family could get away with. In this respect, there is Vladimir Nabokov, and there is Wong May—I can think of no other foreigners who make us feel like beginners in our own language.

The question of how language comes to belong to someone, especially one who makes art out of language, still haunts Wong May’s poetry.

1969 was a tumultuous year
for the United States. Nixon was sworn in as president, the Stonewall riots broke out, Apollo 11 landed on the moon, and, in service of the Vietnam War, the first draft lottery since World War II was held. It had only been a year since University of California Berkeley graduate students Yuji Ichioka and Emma Gee named their student organization the Asian American Political Alliance in the wake of waves of civil rights and antiwar activism, marking the first public use of the term “Asian American.” On the other side of the world, the May 13 ethnic riots in Kuala Lumpur spilled over within the month to Singapore, still barely half a decade into its independence from Malaysia.

The question of how language comes to belong to someone, especially one who makes art out of language, still haunts Wong May’s poetry.

Wong May is not and has never been “Asian American.” She used to be but is no longer Singaporean, having had to relinquish her passport after Singapore stopped allowing dual citizenship, which she recently recalled as “a severance which still pains me.” She has described herself as “persistently stateless, between suitcases, as between continents,” an exilic condition that fundamentally shapes her poetry: “it permits me to say certain things.” Poet and critic Daryl Lim Wei Jie and I have elsewhere described her exile from every home she’s ever known, including even the homes of “mother and mother tongue.”

I only encountered Wong May’s poetry properly in 2013. Before then, I had read a few of her poems in Writing Singapore: An Historical Anthology of Singapore Literature (2009), but I was not able to find her own books until I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, when I located a copy of A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals in the university’s library. I was first disoriented, then revitalized by the way her lines swerved their sound and sense so deliberately, so playfully: “Death, I am / (I am afraid) / Fascinated” (“Point of View”). Jane Wong reads this tumult as a manifestation of dislocation, quoting the poem whose title is that very word:

Imagine you

could not imagine
the whole ground floor gone
and you are on the first floor
drifting distrustful

giddy like a bird
indoors outdoors

Wong rightly notices the parallels between giddiness and “the surprise of being between places and nations.” Reading the poem while caught in Chicago’s “polar vortex” winter of minus-40-degree temperatures, I immediately saw a persona unused to the seasons, disoriented by the very climate: “Spring catches me in that coat / and I sweat. What a disgrace / to be caught like that” (“Dislocation”). I remember slipping and falling repeatedly on a Chicago pavement completely covered in melting ice. Giddy like a bird.

I was captivated, too, by the ways in which A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals lived up to its title. Jennifer Chang says, “the poems are the animals [. . .] driven by the heat of instinct.” In them, I found human nature compared to beastly nature: “all your five senses / five animals who / demand to be fed” (“Song”); “myself recovering fur, fin, / fangs, claws” (“Narration”). I saw depictions of feminine violence and power: “Her bigness topples / Him” (“His Excellency”); “Amazons cut off their / breasts to bend the bow / better” (“A Senseless Crime”). And sometimes I saw both in one image: “her mouth is chicken-blood fresh” (“Spring Comes to Kresge Co.”).

Even though I felt that Wong May’s poetry had retained its power and freshness through the years, her adoption of English, as Starbuck’s “incidental amazement” suggests, made that same poetry vulnerable to dismissal. An early review of A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals in Poetry magazine—written by Mona Van Duyn, who later became the first female poet laureate of the United States—turned Wong May’s surprising use of language into a question of fluency: “Her poetry, a kind to which I am not attuned, causes me to ask questions which may be irrelevant. Undeniably, she avoids the trite and conventional in English verse. Is this because she is protected simply by unfamiliarity with it? Or does that matter?”

Wong May’s unique command of language displaced her from both of her literary communities, American and Singaporean.

In Singapore, A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals was reviewed by poet Arthur Yap, who found Wong May “skillful,” her poetry “surfacing from the depths of her wordlessness in similar, sharp and somewhat brittle strokes.” Edwin Thumboo, often described as Singapore’s unofficial poet laureate, preferred the poems from her University of Singapore days, selecting them for his 1970 anthology The Flowering Tree as well as 1973’s Seven Poets and 1985’s The Poetry of Singapore (in which he also featured a later Wong May poem referencing Singapore). Although he included three poems from A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals alongside her older ones in 1976’s pungently named The Second Tongue, he did so with reservations. In his detailed introduction to the book, Thumboo first says that A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals “reveals a personality distinctive in its combination of whimsicality, adultness [. . .], innocence, charm and ironic sympathy,” but he later criticizes the poetry for being overly “refined”: “A certain charm, an ability to express surprise, and a more open, less contrived power available in poems written before she left for the U.S.A. appear to have been refined out of her poetry.”

Wong May’s unique command of language displaced her from both of her literary communities, American and Singaporean. To one poet laureate she appeared unfamiliar with English, to another, overfamiliar. While Wong May would go on to publish two more books of poetry in the United States—Reports in 1972 and Superstitions in 1978—their critical reception for many years remained mixed. That may be partly because after Superstitions, Wong May stopped publishing for thirty-six years. She left the United States in 1970, moving to Singapore, Berlin, and Grenoble before finally settling in Ireland, where she continues to reside today. She never stopped writing, though. This was the one thing she could not be exiled from. As she would later insist, “Poetry is my mother tongue.”

It has been fifty-four years
since A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals was first published. In the intervening period, the occasional anthology (including Chang’s Quiet Fire) has included Wong May’s work, preserving it as a thing of the past before it ever got a proper chance to be reckoned with as an unsettling artifact of the contemporary.

This began to change with the publication of her fourth collection, Picasso’s Tears, in 2014, after the publisher Zachary Schomberg tracked her down and, with the help of C. D. Wright, convinced Wong May to share some of the eight hundred pages of poems that she’d been writing all the while. In 2022, she published a book of playful translations titled In the Same Light: 200 Tang Poems for Our Century and was awarded the Windham-Campbell Prize for her body of work in poetry. In a testament to the ways in which her style and concerns have become compelling instead of suspect, the Prize singled out the aspects of her work that had baffled early readers like Van Duyn:

In her omnivorous engagement with the world, Wong May fractures the line not just between the personal and the political but between languages, nations, and traditions. Again and again, she writes herself into places where certainty frays. In so doing, she expands our sense of what poetry might be, and do.

Twenty-first-century scholars and critics like Angus Whitehead and Joanne Leow have begun to read her “cosmopolitanism” as worth celebrating and learning from. Some use other critical terms to understand her personal, linguistic, and poetic dislocation and to argue for its value, such as “transnational” and, of course, “exilic.”

Perhaps her critical reception has been buoyed by the current state of our world, which has been remade and ravaged by globalization, cheap tourism, and mass migration as well as by a recognition that her poetry demonstrates a dislocation—that word again—we increasingly see everywhere, in ourselves and our surroundings. Where Wordsworth saw that “The world is too much with us; late and soon [. . .] for everything, we are out of tune,” but said so in rhyme and regular meter, Wong May’s very syntax presses us up against the muchness and the clashing chords of existence.

In other words, her work continues to unsettle us, but instead of rejecting it, we have come to crave the deeper truths about the world it expresses. In “Concordance,” a man watches nervously as a woman laughs with abandon. “Lacking, / He finds himself on the brim / waiting”—just as I, too, hold my breath before reading any Wong May poem.

Adapted from the foreword to A Bad Girl's Book of Animals by Wong May, forthcoming from Ethos Books in March 2023.

Hao Guang Tse (谢皓光) is the author of The International Left-Hand Calligraphy Association (Tinfish Press, 2023). He edited the new edition of Wong May’s A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals (Ethos Books, 2023). His poems appear in Poetry, Poem-a-Day, Dreginald, New Delta Review, Big Other, and elsewhere.
Originally published:
February 6, 2023


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