An Enclosure Not Of Imprisonment

Alex Wong, Poems without Irony

Carcanet, 136pp, £9.99, ISBN 9781784103040

reviewed by Alex Assaly

Alex Wong’s Poems without Irony demands an uneasy amount of ‘intelligence’ and ‘care’ from its readers. The collection never panders. Nor do its poems ever indulge readers’ idle tastes, sentiments, and ideas. Poems without Irony, rather, invites and challenges. Its poems ask their readers to ‘enter into’ the self-governing worlds created and communicated by them; and to come equipped with the literary and the experiential knowledge to navigate them. To accept these invitations is often to find oneself in an elaborate and labyrinthine ‘enclosure’: in a complex of poetic form, on the one hand, and human thoughts, emotions, and perceptions, on the other. Once inside, the poems offer no means of escape. Instead, they guide one through various nooks and crannies – contradictions, ambivalences, and paradoxes of form and sense – without pronouncing any obvious telos, solution, or explanation. Some consolations come in the form of curiosity, pleasure, tenderness, melancholy – but, with what effort? Do such comforts really make these peregrinations worthwhile? Why take on such demands from a first collection? Does one simply trust the poet blindly?

If the inclination is to mistrust, the feeling may come as a consequence of the intimidating ‘artificiality’ of Poems without Irony. Its poems are intricate statements of the pressures of poetry as a medium. Each poem, in other words, clearly signals its ‘art-ness’ or ‘conventionality’: the formal structures demanded by the medium’s traditions, on the one hand, and the thematic orthodoxies demanded by the medium’s genres, on the other. The strain of having to navigate the collection’s diversity of art-forms is a challenge to readers’ patience, care, and knowledge; for, Wong not only pulls up and applies a wide range of historical forms and themes, he also manipulates and destabilises them – a practice which requires a whole other degree of familiarity with poetic convention.

In ‘Elegiac (II)’, for example, Wong adapts a Latin form to suit the English language and, while doing so, manipulates the form’s conventions: he ‘tightens’ (so as to mirror his subject – the ‘tightening’ of day into night, the present into the past) the hexameter and pentameter lines of the traditional elegiac, giving caesuras metrical weight (thereby allowing for fewer than the required syllable count) and breaking the form’s couplets in half (thereby creating four short lines). Wong makes a similar, though more playful, gesture in ‘Idyll’. Here, the speaker’s pastoral reverie, brought on by a woman brushing her hair, is not sustained, as in a traditional idyll, but amusingly interrupted by a call for brunch. While ‘Elegiac (II)’ and ‘Idyll’ are technical and playful, Wong does occasionally lapse into cold technique. ‘The Disappointment’, for example, reads more like a poetic exercise than it does an honest poem. Its form is made clear in its subtitle: ‘asclepiadics’—a Greek and Latin verse form consisting of a spondee, two choriambi, and an iambus. The form’s place in the poem, however, seems unjustified and the poem itself leaves readers with little more than an impression of the poet’s formal dexterity.

In one of the finest poems in Poems without Irony, the artificial appears as a poetic subject. 'Pietà' is a moving study on the nature of art:

The emotion of the stilled pietà
Is of control:

Animal sensation present
In structures of the soul—
The signs arisen
Out of framed feeling, edified dolours.

Control of the facial musculature,
And of the vocal cords—isn’t
That the beginning of culture?
Dignity follows;

The first accomplishment
Is sangfroid

The poem suggests that, in the context of art and culture, ‘emotions’ do not come ‘unmediated’ or without some element of the ‘artificial’. If emotions were to come unmediated, art would devolve into careless (and, perhaps, formless) self-expression. What art needs, then, is control and structure over its subject; it needs to maintain an ‘ironic’ distance from it (by shaping it into form) rather than to speak of it directly. In ‘Pietà’, the emotions of the speaker as he or she responds to the pietà not only come framed, but also come as products of that very frame – feelings ‘arise’ out of it. Like its subject, the emotional content of Wong’s poem appears via (and in many cases out of) its formal elements: its rhythmic iambs and trochees as well as its rhymes – ‘sangfroid’ and ‘pietà’ being a particularly impressive one.

Nevertheless, the poet’s task is not only to structure his or her subjects, but also to maintain an honest relationship to it: to paradoxically speak about his or her subject ‘sincerely’, while being forced to speak of it indirectly or ‘ironically’. In ‘Consolation No. 1’, this paradox – the gap between subject and artifice – is performed as a love-drama. The poem’s speaker addresses an unnamed love (the ‘you’ of the poem). In expressing his thoughts, the speaker occasionally approaches the prurient, but, before doing so, pulls himself back into academic coldness. ‘Hell’ is forced to become a ‘thick facsimile’ and ‘euphoric disorder’ is ‘check[ed].’ On the other hand, ‘feeling cakes against [the speaker’s] thinking things’ and the speaker notices ‘you’re back with struggle in my mind; / Far from my reasons in the knowing day.’ The speaker tries to negotiate these opposing pressures, but arrives at no proper conclusion: the speaker’s words (the poem itself) return to him as an echo – his love has not responded.

Poems without Irony gets its strength from these sorts of labyrinthine situations: from emotion and mind in perpetual conflict, for example. The collection’s maze-like construction is made clear (in a different form) from the beginning. The collection opens with this instructional note:

poems are
designed to be
read using the mouth

The note’s instruction seem obvious enough: Poems without Irony needs to be read aloud, or, at least ‘using the mouth.’ Nevertheless, the note’s pyramidal shape suggests something different: that the reader should give weight to the poems’ visual aspects as well. The attentive reader begins to notice dashes used to balance line lengths, misspellings used to achieve a mimicking effect, or medial spaces used to emphasise the line’s position in the poem. To put too much pressure on the voice alone, then, is not only to lose sight of a constructive element of the poems, but also to miss one of their thematic dimensions: their interest in ‘things’ and the responses of the ‘body’.

Poems without Irony encourages its readers to be emotionally, intellectually, and – lastly – physically involved in its labyrinth of forms and themes. The physical involvement of its readers is encouraged by a number of descriptive poems. “Roadside Choreography,” for example, glorifies the movements of a pheasant, badger, and a pigeon into a choreographed ballet. ‘Concerning the Weather’ and ‘Pastoral Observation’ are equally beautiful in their near-imagistic depictions of a rainfall and a mythical woodland, respectively. While nature – and sometimes architecture and art – make up some of the loftier pleasures of the collection, Poems without Irony does occasionally describe pleasures more vulgar. In ‘Cupid and the Fool’, the vulgar quickly becomes the obscene; but, in ‘Protection’, the vulgar is treated with careful subtlety:

Relieved myself with a handful
     Of tractable situations;—
Dressing the room in vanity
    To mask a reluctant pleasure.—
     Unreassuring night-lights,
     Your far eyes tell on me,
And spoil my poor, but various, new endeavours.

At first glance, the opening lines of ‘Protection’ describe a speaker revelling in imaginative pleasures. Yet, ‘handful’ suggests something more: it hints at imaginative pleasures becoming bodily ones. Is the speaker masturbating? Perhaps not, but his intellectual and emotional abstractions are now figuring as physical entities. Before the trimeter lines of the stanza come to a pause, the speaker gets caught in the act! The speaker and the unnamed observer find themselves converging upon the physicality former’s pleasures. The speaker hides – he seeks the protection of a mask; but, how does the observer respond? Will he or she ‘submit [the speaker] / to a more aggressive scrutiny’? Will he or she engage?

So, does one simply trust the poet? Does one enter the worlds of his poems and begin to peregrinate? Yes, one does – or should. For, though the collection does not gratify, explain, or solve, it does ultimately ‘respect’. Poems without Irony never devalues its readers; its poems rarely speak from the perspective of someone who has ‘something to say.’ The poet does not treat his readers as unlearned, unwise, or – as is common in much contemporary literature – either entertainment-hungry or coldly academic. Instead, Wong tries his best to give himself up to the disinterested (but complex) zone of art and culture. Though labyrinthine, this zone of art is a possible site for ‘humane’ interaction: a real sympathy or even empathy between writer and reader. To fail to return the efforts of the poet (so clear in his poetry), then, seems like a moral misstep.