By Lawrence Pettener

Review: Deborah Wong’s poetry chapbook, ‘Autopsy of Sentiments’ (Working Desk Publishing, Pulau Pinang, Malaysia 2020)

This chapbook collection is a rollicking, life-affirming read. It would also be appreciated by anyone dealing with the deaths of family members or relationships, validating our own reactions.  

Deborah Wong’s poetry is subjective and impressionistic. Reading this chapbook in one sitting, seductive disorientation mounts. The logical mind surrenders to the onslaught of impressions of the senses.

In Wong, it’s tempting to say we have a local Sharon Olds; Plath perhaps, Selima Hill certainly, plus uniquely Deborah Wong herself. Wong has spent time in Canada and the UK, and here she looks Westward for inspiration, though Asia’s role in her mix is strong and grounding as well.

Most Malaysians communicate effectively in three or four languages, often seconds apart. While inconsistencies in non-standard English can stifle the flow, in Wong’s work they actually actively enhance it. Asian-English slippage apart, in Wong there’s experiment, delight in word play and stretches of grammar’s limits that might never occur to monolingual native poets: bar punters “inundated with bottles of Heineken”; the use of ‘futile’ and ‘juggernaut’ as verbs.

A wealth of imagery here would see most poets proud. In the final poem, “the typeset is forever in century schoolbook, / happiness is within us”; in To My Vanished Self, she admires death’s beauty “as if canticles were sung / in the congregation of lattice ruby.”

If there are misses in this play of language, they can be counted by the fingers of one hand: mis-labellings (‘the least’ for ‘at least’); the occasional poetic anachronism (‘til); some superfluous commas at line-ends. We’re only left guessing at logical/logistical meanings on occasion (in ‘Craigslist’, for example). People love poetry for the same reason others hate it; some passages here are cryptic, leaving more to find at each re-reading.  

While all writers bend their life experience and observations into their work, poets are uniquely patronised by readers assuming the protagonist or ‘I’ person is the real-life poet. Wong’s PR is clear that this is a protagonist – a shake free from the limiting freedoms of mere self-expression towards universality.

There’s a vitality in Deborah Wong’s work missing from that of many contemporary Malaysian poets with the exception of Chloe Lim; present, no doubt, in the work of many spoken word artists, but honed and anchored by Wong in her commitment both to this as her characteristic edgy voice and to the sheer hard work of continuous submission and publication in journals.

Throughout this work, sentiment is worked into a pervasive eroticism. There are occasional accusatory lines; some of them are playful. Each hyper-sexualised poem is led by the poet herself taking a celebratory distance – amused even: “your pretentious orgasm”.

Surfacing occasionally, religion doesn’t threaten to overwhelm either the message or the collection’s heightened erotic ambience. It’s the other way round: in the poem Recuperating, erotic reality ironically assumes the shape of religious observance: “I spend the following sixty-nine days/inviting orgasmic remains”.

There’s a vitality in Deborah Wong’s work missing from that of many contemporary Malaysian poets with the exception of Chloe Lim; […] honed and anchored by Wong in her commitment both to this as her characteristic edgy voice and to the sheer hard work of continuous submission and publication in journals.

Lawrence Pettener

In Past Participant the spectre of a former lover appears in the same stanza as the protagonist’s father’s funeral; The Sushi Postcard is one long stanza in similar vein, the conflation arriving fully in The Heart Still Beats Without You, addressed to a lover: ‘I smile like a child to her father/cuddling his daughter for the first time.’  It recalls critic Alicia Ostriker describing poet Sharon Olds’ work as tracking the “erotics of family love and pain.”

Father/lover elements interweave more distantly throughout the collection, on alternating pages at some points. The absence of page numbers calls for our undivided participation, as though we had brought ourselves to it naked, mentally at least, as to a therapy session or an autopsy. Naked emotion here is honest and specific rather than cloying with sentiment. 

With ongoing publication in poetry and sci-fi journals and intermittent presence on Malaysia’s spoken word scene, Wong is a serious writer; nineteen of the thirty-five poems in this collection have been published in online and/or print journals – a far higher ratio than those in most renowned poets’ full-length collections.

Though Wong may be an Instagram poet, these are no greeting-card homilies. With so many sociocultural issues for South East Asian popular writing to address, here is one celebratory catalyst straddling the page/stage divide with humour and erotic verve intact.

Along with Chloe Lim and Yanna Hashri, Wong leads the new wave of Malaysian poetry; an ISBN and some light editing would help this chapbook in that direction. Deborah Wong’s next step is surely a full-length collection.                           

Find out more about Deborah Wong at her Twitter.                 

About Lawrence Pettener

Originally from Liverpool, Lawrence Pettener works full-time in the Klang Valley as copy-editor, proofreader and writer, specialising in helping solo authors (including mentoring poets). He facilitates poetry-writing workshops, the most recent of which was for LevelUp. As Kwailo Lumpur, he writes comic material about Malaysian life, food especially. Following the success of Voices From the Bag of Quiet Chaos and May All Beings Rock, four more original poetry collections are due out in 2021.
Find him at: https://www.facebook.com/lawrencepettenerwriter/
and http://www.lawrencepettener.com