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This review is taken from PN Review 260, Volume 47 Number 6, July - August 2021.

Cover of Infinity Diary
Jee Leong KohWisdom Literature
Infinity Diary, Cyril Wong (Seagull Books) £16.99
Cyril Wong’s first book release in the UK and the US invites reflection on his distinguished body of work. In addition to a volume of stories and two novels, Wong has written fourteen books of poetry, two of which won the Singapore Literature Prize. He is forty-three years old.

Infinity Diary, published by Cal­cutta-based Seagull Books, is a distillation of years of spiritual searching, away from childhood’s homophobic Catholicism towards an adult tussle with Buddhist detachment. The search has been conducted through rigorous self-examination, writing daily. Hence the many books. Not all of them reach the same level of achievement, but the quality is consistently high. The main reason, as I see it, is that Wong does not lose sight of all the tunneling forces that sap spiritual life. The writing is urgent, because, like Wong’s practice of meditation, it enacts ‘rituals of survival’ (‘Between Infinity and You’). Infinity Diary is programmatic (a fearful word!) in that it offers a living program, the poet himself.

Formally, the spiritual agenda manifests itself in the use of the sentence as the main unit of sense and music. In his earlier work, Wong has shown himself a master of the line break, most thrillingly and subtly in his book-length poem Satori Blues. He understands what he calls in Infinity Diary ‘the art of hope in the torque / of a line’. The love lyrics in this book are as tender and erotic as the Song of Songs, but they do not represent Wong’s improvement on previous collections. Instead, the sentence, singly and in paragraphs, searches for an eloquent plainness. It embodies the poet’s repeated injunction to himself and others to ‘carry on’ in spite of the distractions of decay and desire (‘Every morning, old ladies tread carefully between their flats and the market, keeping death from spilling from their bodies.’).

Sharply critical of ‘millennials’ who ‘bloat their novels and jostle for international agents’, Wong champions writers without literary pretensions who reveal truths encountered in the course of living. One such writer he highlights here is Bonny Hicks, a fashion model, whose autobiography Excuse Me, Are You a Model? (1990) outraged the morality police for its frank discussion of sexuality. In ‘Plainspeak: Holes, Lines, Bonny Hicks’, Wong quotes Hicks liberally for the resonance of her sentences, such as ‘Health is merely the slowest possible rate at which one can die.’

Infinity Diary returns over and over again to embodied truths. In ‘Vakkali Refractions’, the story is retold of the disciple Vakkali who loves the Buddha for his physical beauty. For this impure love, the Buddha orders Vakkali to leave him and the Sangha. In the poet’s own prose commentary on the story, he suggests that the Buddha’s order is not rejection so much as necessary guidance for this monk, who must transcend his love of mere physical form. The poet-commentator asks, ‘what is transcendence when there is nothing to transcend?’ Instead of rejecting the corporeal, we should ‘love our bodies and where they take us’. In the story of Vakkali, the distraught disciple throws himself over a cliff, but is saved by a few words from the Buddha and walks safely on air.

Wisdom literature is not all one reassuring note. Yes, it calls for salvation for one’s people, but, like the Psalmist, it also calls for destruction on one’s enemies. Wong takes bigoted straight people to task in the poem named for them, ‘Dear Stupid Straight People’. He plots vengeance on homophobes: ‘I hope your children grow up queer; I hope they write poems about you.’ Internalised homophobia is not spared the withering scorn: ‘To those of you proud of being “bisexual” or “post-homosexual” – please.’

Wong would be the first to confess that he is no Buddha. He enjoys hating too much. He is not a ‘serious’ Buddhist also because he sees the comedy in human affairs. ‘Tragic synchronicities are only funny to me,’ he claims. It would be wrong to take this laughter as a lack of insight and compassion. No, the laughter always contains a hint of defiance. After suffering acutely from a second herniated disc, he understands that ‘the absence of pain [is] a deception to be enjoyed ironically, with a mental sneer.’ Like Bonny Hicks, perhaps like some of us living through this pandemic, he understands that health is merely the slowest possible rate at which one can die. When Wong comes face to face with death, he wants to greet it with a laugh: ‘Is this all you’ve got? Is this all?’

This review is taken from PN Review 260, Volume 47 Number 6, July - August 2021.

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