George Oppen published his first book, Discrete Series, in 1934; his second, The Materials, emerged 28 years later, in 1962. The comparatively speedy Basil Bunting (who had been writing since the 1920s) waited only 15 years between the publication of his 1950 Poems and a passel of books around 1965 and 1966, among them Briggflatts.
Either of these poets stands as a rebuke to our fretfulness toward print, our feeling that to refrain from publication would indeed be to perish as poets. But even Oppen and Bunting were raring to go in comparison to Wong May, whose third collection of poems, Superstitions, came out in 1978. It’s taken her 36 years to release her fourth, Picasso’s Tears: Poems 1978–2013. No indication is given as to whether the Chungking-born, Singapore-raised, Iowa-educated poet has been writing steadily all along, or whether there was a hiatus in there somewhere. Nor are we given a chronology for the poems included in the book — were the ones toward the beginning written earlier than those that come last? But the poems’ relative consistency of style — if not of quality — renders these issues moot.
Just as Bunting’s belated return to the poetry scene cannot be discussed without mention of his young admirer Tom Pickard, whose interest encouraged the elder poet’s mid-’60s renascence, an intermediary who incited the publication of Picasso’s Tears should be mentioned here: Zachary Schomburg, one of the editors of Octopus Books. His enthusiasm for Wong is undoubtedly the reason Picasso’s Tears is in our hands today. My own attention was drawn to her back in 2004 by a piece Schomburg wrote in praise of her first book, A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals (1969). “Every word Wong May writes in this, her first collection of poems, is important,” Schomburg wrote, “because she writes as if she has few to spare, as if she’s going to die before she gets to the end each of poem.” He went on to simultaneously deny and explicate a potential connection between Wong’s poetry and haiku, calling her work “an experiment perhaps in Haiku that has unraveled itself, has become completely undisciplined, but retains that core minimalism from when it was once tightly wound.”
The extraordinary passages from Wong’s poetry included in Schomburg’s essay, along with the passion and critical exactitude that her poetry had wrung from him as a reader, led me to order her three books (the second, published in 1972, was Reports) from various used book dealers. (I recommend you do the same, but only until Octopus Books takes my next recommendation, to gather their contents into a new collection of Wong’s early work as a companion to Picasso’s Tears.)
Among the passages he quoted from A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals was the entirety of a poem called “Point of View,” which begins with the striking lines — “These are transparencies between time & space, / Pork-rinds which when held against light” — and concludes: “Death, I am / (I am afraid) / Fascinated.”
Needless to say, I was fascinated too. In any case, it was presumably Schomburg who tracked down the “almost completely undocumented, unphotographed, and unreviewed” poet and convinced her to publish the work she had done in the intervening years.
Which brings me to the book at hand. At nearly three hundred pages, it can hardly convey the sense of sparseness that Schomburg aptly evoked in writing about A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals and which can be equally felt in its two immediate successors, but, line by line, what he called the minimalism in her work is still there, and even more, so is the indiscipline — in the best sense, much of the time: You can never tell where the poem is going to go next, what turn it will take; Wong refuses to stick to the point, or even to acknowledge that there is or could be a point. The poet herself, in the prose passages “From an Interview with Wong May” that close Picasso’s Tears, speaks of the “license & extreme economy” that “poetry affords,” that last word being freighted by her previous observation — discreetly contradicting Yeats, an important figure in this book by a poet who has lived in Ireland for many years — that “Poetry is always & everywhere quarrelling with the world. The quarrel is whether we can afford poetry, what kind of poetry we can afford.” In her sly, colloquial way, Wong seems bent on a poetry that lives beyond its means.
The kind of poetry Wong affords us is consistently inconsistent, always off-balance and usually hard to hold in mind as a contained gestalt. More perhaps than in her earlier work, its texture is hard to convey through brief quotations, because any given line or two or four can read as a bit of fairly ordinary conversational chat, relaxed, ruminative, perhaps a bit self-indulgent; only the difficult, sometimes even perplexing juxtapositions between one passage and another reveal, obliquely, the strange and demanding implicit logic of feeling that threads through the whole, the poem’s way of disagreeing with itself in order to disagree with the world. Her tone can be almost clipped — then suddenly rhapsodic. One poem is called “How I Too Hate Subject Matter,” which turns Marianne Moore’s “I too dislike it” back from poetry onto whatever a poem might be about, onto “the alarming world,” as she calls it in “Zhi Liao.” In Picasso’s Tears, it can be about something as banal as a visit to the optometrist or a driving lesson (“’The real world is not a paper map,’” she is warned); as solemn as an homage to fellow poets, writers, and artists (Wong also paints) such as Hilda Morley, Lu Hsün, or (of course) Pablo Picasso: or as somber as the loss of a parent:
We are each of us buried in multiple graves.
In at least 3.
I am one of these.
There may be other—unnamed,
As yet unnamable ones.
There is not
One of hers
My days on Earth
: to walk away from
Thirty-six years ago, Wong dedicated A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals to “DEAR MAMA” —also titling one of the poems in the book similarly. The mother remains the recurrent figure of her poetry, its basso ostinato. Addressing “my relationship with Poetry since 1978” in “From an Interview,” she begins by alluding to her relations with her husband and sons, yet by refiguring those relationships as sibling-like rather than parental or conjugal — she describes them as “three very clever men [who] live with a slightly retarded sister: the question is how slightly?” — she clears the way for the profoundest of relationships: “I had a poet, a classical poet for a mother.” And therefore “Poetry IS my Mother Tongue.” I can imagine a more thorough — but also more speculative — reading of Wong’s work via the ideas of psychoanalysts such as Melanie Klein or D.W. Winnicott, for her sense of the maternal in language or of language as maternal is hardly idealized. Rather, it includes all the violence of which the psyche is capable along with a nurturing, sometimes painful fullness of feeling. There is also a strangely calm emptiness, as in the final poem in this book, “Translating Mother”:
I came to the door.
Twice ordered back.
How bright the moon.
As bright the void.
Speaking of the book’s last poem might have been a good way to end this review, but at least a word needs to be said of its penultimate poem, by far its longest at nearly seventy pages. In “The Making of Guernica,” Wong pursues a wide-ranging meditation on the “Tears of this world” by way of a strange cross-cutting between the aerial attack on the Basque town in 1937 and the bombings at the Boston Marathon in 2013, veering wildly to encompass much else, including a long passage on Emma Lazarus and the Statue of Liberty. This effort “to translate Picasso / To Boston and vice versa” is admirable for its daring, but finally incoherent, and involves Wong in much bathos, otherwise rare in her writing:
America I have always defended you
I said no-one has the right to excoriate America
Unless they love America
— and so on. Through over-extension, “The Making of Guernica” reveals the limits of Wong’s aesthetic of close focus, of the minimalism and indiscipline of intimacy. In dealing with the horrors of terrorist violence, such intimacy becomes inapposite. As she observes:
In Guernica no one wants to remember “Guernica.”
No one would be embarrassed by history.
It is like remembering not homicide but incest.
Poetry does, must, remember, but somehow without breaking the taboos that protect the dead from defilement. Indiscipline is risky here.
But like it or not, a poet sooner or later has to be taken whole—as in a marriage, for better and for worse. I would have preferred that Wong’s fourth book had been a slimmer volume, omitting “The Making of Guernica” and, for good measure, a handful of other poems. But mainly, I’m pleased that the book exists at all. There are things in it I’ll be keeping with me.
Wong May’s Picasso’s Tears: Poems 1978–2013 (2014) is published by Octopus Books and available from Amazon and other online booksellers.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.