First published at Singapore Unbound's SP Blog.
In his newest collection, Animal Season, Cyril Wong, Singapore's most celebrated poet, draws on Aesop's fables to create his own world of myth and meaning. His quirky, thought-provoking storylines lend insight into the human condition from a distinctive perspective that is at once challenging and comforting. Through their use of the animal characters from Aesop’s fables, the poems cast light on the diversity and complexity of the human experience, as well as on the interconnectedness of all human and animal lives.
Also known as the Aesopica, Aesop’s fables revolve around the making of decisions and their often undesirable consequences. Many of the fables follow a common action-reaction structure in which the characters’ faulty judgment or lack of foresight leads them to learn what Aesop deems as valuable life lessons. In other fables, Aesop praises the animals’ willingness to do good, but even then, his worldview is that of fair exchanges and just punishments. Each fable produces a lesson supposedly applicable to the struggles of human life. From the fox’s disdain for the grapes he couldn’t eat, Aesop reminds us, “There are many who pretend to despise and belittle that which is beyond their reach.” He likewise uses the peacock’s envy of the eagle to instruct us, “Do not sacrifice your freedom for the sake of pomp and show.” In contrast, Wong’s Animal Season attempts to turn these morals on their heads and, more often than not, succeeds in replacing them with less straightforward fates.
Wong's poems are whimsical and multi-layered. Most are fewer than twenty lines long, but each tells a complete story. Many of the collection's best poems subvert themselves and end on ambiguous notes, leaving the reader to find their own meaning. The opening poem, "Serpent," is a prime example: the titular serpent swallows a file in an armorer’s shop and slithers home to die. The poem juxtaposes the serpent’s suffering with the armorer’s annoyance:
the serpent reminded
herself that a worthwhile
failure was still a victory.
As for the armourer,
how his file had vanished
remained a stupid mystery.
Aided by the end rhymes of “victory” and “mystery,” Wong shows how every fable, myth, and legend offers multiple interpretations. The serpent is at once helpless and brave in bearing her suffering, a combination that often eludes humans, including the armorer. Going a step beyond the original fable, "Serpent" challenges us to see courage and ignorance together in the same frame, and to picture the possibilities that traditional narratives pass over.
Wong finds particular strength in his explorations of the relationships between his animal characters. Although these often-queered relationships go beyond the “natural” or expected order of things, they are normalized in Wong’s narratives. In "Leopard," a leopard and a fox fall in love with each other, and the other animals watch the leopard grieve after the fox's death. After a time, instead of looking after the leopard, "The forest went on/ with its usual business, rapt in another story/ of its own making, then another story after that." Just like the forest that moves on with its “usual business” of “stories of its own making,” human communities construct narratives about their members that may bear a semblance of truth. Rather than propagate the belief that myths are absolute and unchanging, Wong approaches them at a slanted angle: even myths will fade into the background over time, regardless of how much influence they once held. Aesop’s fables, including the original tale of the dispute between the leopard and the fox over which of them is more beautiful, are no exception. It is this inescapable pattern of mythmaking that Wong draws from Aesop and subverts with his unorthodox interpretations.
The theme of queering myths returns in the poem "Mouse," which reinvents the fable of the lion and the mouse. In Aesop’s version, the relationship between these two animals is that of a simple quid pro quo in which the mouse “repays” the lion for not eating him. In Wong’s poem, however, the lion and the mouse become best friends after the mouse sets the lion free from the hunters' trap. Although the lion and the mouse achieve happiness by tuning out the other animals’ suspicions and focusing on their love for each other, this happiness comes at the cost of being ostracized:
An unholy union, the others
whispered in private. Jokes were made:
The lion who had a mouse for his lover...
The couple retreated deeper into the forest.
Queer couples, like the lion and the mouse, face accusations of “unholiness” and must live with the knowledge that others whisper about them in private. Yet their love for each other—and their courage in choosing to be with each other despite social disapproval—is no less deserving of acceptance. Wong implicitly challenges the belief that this union is “unholy” by contrasting it against the act of judging others behind their backs, which is in itself unholy. Through his poems, Wong reminds us that we are part of a world much larger than ourselves and our ideologies, and that relationships—human and otherwise—are complex, delicate, and easily misunderstood.
Although the imagery of Animal Season is diverse, it offers a clear and consistent interpretation of the ways in which the natural world interacts with its inhabitants. While nature itself seldom adopts a distinct persona in the collection, Wong uses its presence to illustrate the contrasting personas of his human and animal characters. In "Fish," Wong recalls the fish who asks the fisherman to "'Please take me/ when I’m bigger!'" After the fisherman ignores this request, he finds himself futilely begging an oncoming tsunami, "'Please take me/ when I’m older!'" This ironic parallel reminds us that we are far from invincible; our actions towards other people and the planet have repercussions. Compared to Wong’s “Fish,” Aesop’s original fable, in which the fisherman captures the fish without remorse, feels outdated and cruel. In Wong’s version, nature builds itself up and tears itself down, and humans—like the plants and animals upon which they depend—will always be part of this process.
Similarly, in "Grasshopper," a grasshopper who has spent all summer dancing instead of collecting food for the winter, asks a colony of ants for a spare morsel. The ants reject his plea, and the grasshopper struggles to death beneath a pile of snow:
A tremulous claw kicked
skywards in a defiant, almost
balletic gesture. The ants
stopped eating and watched
with interest, speculating
how long he would take to die.
Here, nature splits open its dichotomies of independence and communalism, freedom and discipline, romance and sacrifice. The poem balances both sides of the dichotomies scrupulously, never leaning to one side or the other. The grasshopper’s defiance is not simply a reflection of his carelessness, but an artful, “almost / balletic” aspect of his personality. On the other hand, the ants balance out their rational planning and foresight by “speculating” cruelly about the grasshopper’s death. Wong’s language is sarcastic, calculated to show that though individuals may be associated with a particular quality, we are all composites of various idiosyncratic roles.
Wong’s topics are often grave, but he still finds humor in them. His characters are often flawed: at times selfish, haughty, even unrepentant. Yet, their stories are consistently charming and full of contradiction. "Gnat" relates the story of a gnat who burrows into the ear of a bull in an attempt to annoy him but "found himself unable/ to find his way out of that ear/ and understood how in his resolve/ to annoy a bull, it was the bull/ who had become his burden." Although the gnat learns his lesson, he cannot escape from the trap he has made for himself, and therefore cannot apply the lesson learnt. Wong's poetry makes light of this grim outcome. In "Eagle," Wong adopts the first-person perspective, but this serves as much to characterize as to deconstruct characterization. A short poem of just three lines, Wong’s eagle diverges from stereotypes of the predator. Wong’s eagle laments: "Pierced by an arrow/ winged by my own feathers: how/ fitting." This eagle quietly accepts the irony of its fate and makes itself the judge of its demise. In moments like these, Wong's animals are at once powerful and vulnerable, mystifying yet undeniably relatable. Their fates encourage us to rethink our preconceptions about the world around us, and about ourselves.
Although Animal Season encompasses a diverse cast, a series of poems inspired by the fable of the crow who fills a pitcher with pebbles in order to drink the water at the bottom is a highlight. In the first poem, the crow wonders, "how does one begin to drink the sky?" The next poem begins by answering this question: "By tasting its tears, of course." It is unclear if these are the same crow or different crows, but perhaps this distinction is beside the point. The crow is significant not simply because, as Aesop suggests, it stumbles upon a clever trick in a time of need, but because its discovery leads it to further questions and hypotheses. The series of crow poems uncovers the inherent consciousness of the natural world and the inquisitive personalities of animals, which too often go unnoticed in the fast-moving, human-centered modern world. They, much like Animal Season as a whole, upend traditional perspectives on identity, belonging, and the environment, and present age-old problems from new yet undoubtedly logical angles.
Animal Season is beautifully illustrated throughout, with each poem accompanied by a drawing of the animal whose story it relates. Following recent decisions by Kenny Leck, Math Paper Press’s publisher, to experiment with new and more intentional publishing formats, Animal Season’s design reflects the immense attention to detail involved at all stages of Wong’s creative process. At the heart of Wong's collection is the reality that living beings, including humans, depend inextricably on each other for their happiness and survival. In "Hound," the titular animal asks his master, "what kind of hound/ would he be without him?" In turn, his master wonders what kind of man he would be without a hound to love. Surreal as they sometimes are, Wong's fables remind us of the relationships and connections on which the world, natural and built, depends upon.
by Maggie Wang
Maggie Wang is an undergraduate at the University of Oxford. Her writing has appeared or will appear in K'in, Shards, the Literary Nest, Rigorous, and APIARY, among others. She has also won awards from the Poetry Society's Young Poets Network and the Folger Shakespeare Library. When not writing, she enjoys playing the piano and exploring nature.