Naked bodies in a car driven in such a manner as to evade pursuit: such is the image that Wong May’s words conjure, leaping through the imagination, avoiding easy conclusion. Through her debut volume of poetry, Wong May, tailless animal herself, observes and catalogues the world with unexpected, practised swerves, hurtling flesh against flesh. The poems sometimes come to a stop against apparent dead ends, then, on further inspection, flee with you on foot into the slanting alleyways of meaning, hidden behind a dumpster, lurid with flowers.
A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals comments on the embodied self, and the contradiction of being, in a voice that steps lightly from shrewd and sardonic to wondering, steering clear of the mawkish. “As if life has zones!” (“On His 23rd Birthday”), she exclaims, indignant. Wong’s writing is characterised most by abrupt and surprising metaphor, and, deliciously, a wryness that belies her willingness to engage with the world in fleshy immediacy, while herself resisting categorisation.
Wong May is a figure of literary and personal intrigue—having been born in Chongqing in 1944 and moving to Singapore at the age of six, her literary and Chinese-educated upbringing precluded her work in English poetry. Wong May, fascinatingly, only started learning English during preparatory courses before enrolling in the University of Singapore in 1965, but has been compared to Vladimir Nabokov in the way she, a perceived foreigner, makes native Anglophone speakers “feel like beginners in [their] own language.” A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals, Wong’s stunning poetic debut, was first published in 1969. Now, reissued in Singapore 54 years later, A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals still surfaces urgent questions of the nature of Wong’s ties to and subsequent alienation from Singapore, a motherland which did not permit her to hold dual citizenship. In essence, Wong was forced to give up her Singaporean citizenship, one of the nations she calls home. She terms herself “persistently stateless, between suitcases, as between continents…”—even having settled eventually in Ireland, this quality of statelessness persists in her writing and person. As such, in nationality and literary cultural impact, Wong May does not occupy the same space in the Singaporean literary canon as an Arthur Yap or an Edwin Thumboo. But her work, so uniquely situated between cultures and notions of motherlands, contains an effulgence that cannot be denied—and that Singapore would do well to, if not claim, then give due praise and a seat at the table.
These 78 poems hold a certain erotic secrecy within them, jostling with contradiction and tactility. French essayist Roland Barthes asked, “Is not the most erotic portion of a body where the garment gapes?” And indeed it is so with Wong’s poetry, where the textual pleasure comes from witnessing—indeed, being allowed to witness—something private, fuelled by instinct, very much like observing an animal in its natural habitat. What is the body like when it is unwatched, even by the one who inhabits it?
In “A Letter From Last Year”, Wong writes:
There’s a corner of me I
cannot touch (I return to).
She continues ruminating upon the problem of loneliness exacerbated with her own presence, eventually ending the poem with:
Really, nobody can live
I want myself removed.
Paul – and you
You’re not even here. It gets
into my voice now. No?
You don’t think I mean
The vulnerabilities of A Letter lend an open, raw quality to Wong’s poetic persona. One gets the sense of watching something private be admitted, something difficult to hear, privy to a secret. This chopping-block vulnerability is underlaid by a keen awareness of both the fixtures of the flesh and the urgent need to be stunningly alive. This need is most strikingly defiant of classification, which is a pinning down, which is certain death.
Little wonder, then, that the innate charm of Wong’s writing, and indeed its brutal, tender strength, lies most principally in her vast range and willingness to engage with the body at its many stages of bloom and decrepitude. Wong remains clear-cut in purpose while immersing herself in what it means to be fettered to the body. In “Consolation Prize”, Wong writes:
Granted, there are wings soliciting bodies
and bodies without wings
breeding in a sty. But the 1” x 1” sky
stuck to the window is still
Seeming to acknowledge that the ineffable experience of being embodied is both liberation and imprisonment, she concludes the poem with “It certainly isn’t any worse / if you read the same lie.” In tying off the necessary messiness of production (of “milk”, of “ink”) and reproduction, Wong makes stark the contradiction inherent in trying to create a freedom in circumstances that can sometimes feel oppressive, even degrading. What is a 1” x 1” sky but hope? And what is the gift of life permanently ensconced between the four walls of a sty, but a consolation prize?
Wong’s animalic bodies, in protesting the boundaries they circle within, often straddle the line between the struggling and the sensual. In “Ankles”, she writes:
knee-deep in debt in darkness
under bed I’d not read on but
you on bed like a fish under
ice of pain
In this Wong describes the burden that is secrecy. She is singularly able to create a kind of shared intimacy between moments stolen and characterised. It is a voyeur’s delight to wander through her poems, catching snatches of conversation and marvelling at how bulky intimacy, thus gathered, might grow—a butchering, laid out, like fish gutted on ice. Her poems sometimes empty out into a fragility that is redolent of the delicate topmost buds of a plant bedecked in bark and thorns.
In Wong’s fragility, it is sometimes tempting to romanticise the frail, the hollow-boned, but be assured that to assume that Wong’s poetry is a kind of frangible beauty is to miss the edge of the blade for its pretty glint. In the same poem, Wong continues:
Leave my ankles
alone you (who have
tossed me on your
knees) said probably
to Death or was it
Perhaps it is in trying to reject such notions that Wong’s poetry trades often in contradiction and a certain disavowal—of the self, of select ideas, of death itself. The ease with which Wong looks mortality in the eye is at once refreshing and reassuring. Often, in trying to lessen the immutable psychological bulk of death, it is tempting to veer into flippancy. To a casual glance, perhaps Wong’s poems about death may seem glib, or to affect a coolness where trespassing on the sacred is concerned.
But there are bones in the way Wong writes of the precarity of the body, where she grasps them true and unflinchingly wrenches them apart from each other. It is almost a practised artlessness one strives for here, in part because longing can be ugly, and to write about emotion that is overwrought is to paint it inauthentic, but in Wong May’s capable hands, even the corruptible flesh is brilliantly lit and given its own elegance, laid out in stark, considered strokes, then book-ended with surprising—electrifying, even—metaphor.
In “Dialogue”, one of my favourite poems in the book for its disarming charm and tactile materiality, Wong describes the corporeal form—
Form is a bottle of bones
Form pure, incorruptible.
the jelly where flies
To Wong, there seems to be an inescapable divinity surrounding the flesh, both construed as incorruptible and promising certain decay. She speaks of it, not with fear as such, though perhaps characterising other forces in nature as fearful of decay as an extant form of life. Later, “Dialogue” ends with:
would have come in
had it not been
a sun, terrified.
Wong offers no easy answers or prizes to the questions of an endless display of life-death-life being a force that terrifies even the sun. Rather, her relationship with death and the corruptible flesh plays out like one approaching a familiar, yet still mysterious, figure. Something so matter-of-factly observed seems as if it would beg clinical detachment, and often does, in other treatments of the subject matter, but Wong manages to maintain a frankness in her encounters with Death that is at once absolute and stunning. Most emphatically, in “Point of View”, Wong writes: “Death, I am / (I am afraid) / Fascinated.”
I, too, am enthralled by the way Wong’s almost-fondness towards mortality weaves inextricable through her verse. The fact of her being is often tossed out or tossed aside almost as an afterthought, a real instinct to erase and start the self over, perhaps in loathing, but in which is, fundamentally, a refusal to even wallow—in “Be”, Wong opens with “Since I could no longer be— / I didn’t want to be” which is less about wishing violence upon the self, than exposing a genuine desire, however trivial in the passed moment, to undo the fact of one’s being. This extends beyond a mere philosophical impulse, however. “Be”’s most powerful quality, lovely in its starkness, is in following through, by palpating the messiness that comes with un-being—but only as an aside:
The weather continues to be
fine. The body will be
Warm for hours after
It is a pleasure to witness Wong’s killing of her ego, her runaway thoughts, caught and displayed like specimens, yet very much alive, both reverential in how they delineate the moment, and audacious in how they refuse the boundaries of easy conclusion. There are many contestations in A Bad Girl’s Book, underlaid with sharp and jutting defiance.
In “Shadow”, Wong inserts the self at the last minute, seeming to exhort her interlocutor at the start:
or happy do you
want yourself to
be. (and me)”
This switch of focus, again, exhibits the candour that characterises her writing. Where other self-inserts seem indulgent, Wong’s audacity here works to demonstrate how willing she is to expose the soft underbelly, to roll over and show the reader how much her own happiness is tied to another’s, regardless of how much the sentiment reveals her as the subject of yearning. In these lines, I read a certain resentment, confusion at another’s choices, and yet, a deep-seated desire to be seen against the weighty notion of choosing happiness.
Wong May champions this defiance throughout. She is contagiously unafraid, shrugging at the face of conflicting concepts, even bulwarking herself against definition with poems such as “Half Asleep”, where she declaims:
I glow &
purr till stupidity
Flares up in my
eyes: I look almost sexy. I
“Half Asleep”, even in its title, reads to me like a prayer against classification and towards liminality. One cannot help but think of Wong’s time in the United States, as someone not local to the country, as an outsider, as Asian, as female, as Anglophone writer despite or because of all of the other things she is. It is in poems such as these that the titling of the collection A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals becomes lively and rife with the meaning of disobedience. And it is when Wong May is at her most disobedient, her most intractable, that I, as reader, feel most at ease. As someone deeply and personally invested in disobedient women’s writing, and writing that defies, in general, I feel safe when Wong takes the reader by the wrist and confronts them with the messy truth of her being. Whether being walked or forcibly pulled through a many-faceted gallery of Wong’s lived contradictions, I am reassured that I bear witness to something authentic, something I can too point to and say, there in this spilt unbound mess, so am I.
This is Wong’s natural habitat, where her impulses take deepest root and are displayed most flagrantly. The erotic makes a return, as does the cutting quality of her commentary: only when stupidity flares up in her gaze does she look “almost sexy”. One imagines Wong striding across a room, the unasked question flaring: Is this what you want? Subservience?
It makes utter sense that she would fiercely delight in the mere fact of life. It is only in acknowledging one’s base wretched nature that one might also recognise the divinity in the self. At once astounding and earned, Wong imagines herself as a “Contemporar[y] of God” in “Salt”, reminiscent of Anne Carson’s Glass, Irony and God, (“On the day He was to create justice / God got involved in making a dragonfly // and lost track of time.”) in both the way she assumes an authoritative description of what God thinks, desires, and is fuelled by, as well as her stark, unyielding diction, saying:
God needs us badly.
God keeps us busy,
God licks our sweat
God licks our sweat for salt. In this way, God is dependent on us, scavenging scraps of bio-waste for nourishment, feeding off of the bodies God created. Not, then, merely contemporaries: Wong elevates the human experience to something that transcends even divinity.
Sensual, underlined by an understated style, Wong May takes evident joy in the bodies this world has to offer, thinking of “All my beautiful young men going / down the drain: the bats, trout / goats, the grinder-sink // gargles:” (“Narration”), or fingers “pink, curled, gentle / like shelled shrimps” (“Dialogue”). Where there is precarity there is also basking, and Wong’s work reminds us that, yes, unobserved—or even documented—there is violence between beasts, but there is also unapologetic play, and there is also the pursuit of pleasure.
When one speaks of pleasure, one often thinks of fecundity, of excess. However, Wong’s expressions of delight coyly draw back from decadence, only momentarily lingering on the fascination of the experience of the flesh. Where I have described Wong’s touch as understated, she is also light-handed but accurate, especially with texture in both form and syntactic expression. Her poems come to us as geodes already broken ajar, inviting us into the gap between superficial and sanctity, guided by her sharp, ever-present sense of tactility. This joyful engagement with the textual and sensuous wends its playful way through most of Wong’s descriptions, but is most avid and apparent when she is in keen observation.
Again, from “Point of View”, Wong May wonders at a piece of crackling-pork:
There are transparencies between time and space,
Pork-rinds which when held against light
Yield to sight pores thru which a pig
Once perspired. A pig is on fire!
Again the life-death-life states of being, interspersed against each other like a shimmering latticework through time, again the viscerality, questing, sinking her gaze through the pores in pigskin. Wong transcends the quotidian—in this case, a piece of pork-crackling—to traverse universes, metaphysics, a vision of fire behind overlapping realities of time. A pig once was, but through the transparent nature of the material, we see through all time all at once.
Wong’s writing is most powerful when it re-imagines the pedestrian and the familiar anew. There is a deep loneliness that permeates much of Wong’s work, a dedication that says “Dear Mama”, and much on love. Wong’s deft brushstrokes delineating the loneliness of the female experience strike me particularly, and are often underlaid by accusations (whether self-administered or otherwise) of selfishness:
From “A Man”:
I float like a hole in the
will gladly include you
in my selfishness.
Draw me a woman (me)
before you leave.
In these bare-boned stanzas, Wong draws parallels between womanhood and disease, between yearning and loss. She refuses to soften her imperative, all while being hyper-aware of how she comes across—a sick hole, gaping, asunder, needy, wanting. To be woman as void is to articulate how she is left bereft, and in this, recognise that even desire is portrayed as selfishness. She adopts this selfishness and reclaims it.
In another poem, “Remember”, Wong again positions the attempt towards connection as selfish:
Remember my flesh to your flesh
all our pores listening like muffled ears
Remember to each our essential selfishness
the bridge that isn’t anywhere
Between these poems, I get the sense that to be unabashed with one’s needs and desires is to be called “selfish”, repeatedly, and that one must make one’s peace with this, or run the risk of denying oneself necessity. This is one of Wong’s most naked descriptions of visceral connection, and in it, the motif of pores and flesh emerges again, as if physical contact between two bodies, flesh against flesh, skin against skin, is not enough to assuage the yearning for connection. Wong’s fascination with pores and porosity belies a search for a crack in the armour, a pointing to the fiction that the skin is a barrier that envelops us. When we see the minute holes in the membranes that separate us, we connect through a co-mingled existence that, in the end, points again to a shared selfishness, a self propelled by self-interest, a ‘bridge that isn’t anywhere’.
Crucially, it is Wong’s willingness to engage with deepest specificity what it means to be a girl, what it means to be bad, and most of all, what it means to be an animal of flesh, that pulls me—and her beloved readers—into a universality of experience, beyond words, beyond staid social scripts, and beyond any attempted taxonomy, into a clear and undeniable emancipation of being.
Wong May’s reissued A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals (1969), which won the Windham-Campbell Prize 2022, can be bought online here.
Marylyn Tan is a large-beasted, supple, queer, female Chinese Singaporean writer-artist whose proclivities are promiscuous and appetites indiscriminate. Her work aims to subvert, revert and pervert, and works to disrespect respectability and reclaim power. Her first child, GAZE BACK, is the lesbo trans-genre grimoire you never knew you needed, and made her the first woman poet (woet) to clinch the Singapore Literature Prize.
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