Jennifer Wong’s “Companions” [Read the poem here]
(First published in Issue #5 of Cha.)
–This post is co-written by Tammy Ho and Yip Wai Shan.
Reading Jennifer Wong’s poem is a discomforting experience, not least because the “Companions” of the title refer to misshapen dolls created by a nameless and troubled artist, whose story we learn from a largely dispassionate persona.
The first stanza tells us about the doll-maker’s art, method and psyche. Like many artists, she is obsessed with her creations. The persona observes that she has made the dolls ‘plenty of times’ (L2) and that she is highly focused: ‘For days she’d sit / Cold on the newspapered floor’ (L5-L6). While ‘newspapered floor’ gives us some idea of the interior of the makeshift workroom, ‘cold’ is ambiguous: is the artist physically or emotionally cold? This strikes one as odd – shouldn’t one’s art make one warm? Or is this perhaps a reference to Pygmalion‘s cold marble Galatea? We are also told that the artist recycles garments such as ‘Tights, lingerie, lumps of cotton’ (L3) to make the dolls; these materials evoke a sense of intimacy and femininity. However, the ‘scissors’ and ‘strings’ (L4) she works with introduce a sense of danger to the poem, and by the end of the stanza, it is clear that the character’s activity is actually rather sinister. She ‘fervently’ (and sadistically?) twists (L7) and wrings (L8) the materials into dolls, even though the result of all this, the persona assures us, is ‘beauty’ (L9). The question here is, perhaps, can beauty arise from violence?
The second stanza gives us more information about the doll-maker’s creation and treatment of her ‘companions’: ‘Another version you had them / splashed with paint or / stapled with sequins’ (L10-L13). Here, the character’s movements seem to be neurotic and impatient: splashed (not painted) and stapled (not sewn or stitched). The dolls are even tossed into the washing machine – spun and drown (L13). And yet strangely, and perhaps unconvincingly, we are told that this is ‘A loving act’ (L14). Why ‘loving’? Can you love something violently? Or is this an ironic remark? The two words that end the stanza, ‘bruised’ and ‘domestic’ (L14), may suggest a possible explanation for the artist’s psychology. Together, they lead us to interpret the artist’s behavior as a re-enactment of domestic violence. Perhaps the character’s ungentle handling of the dolls mirrors her unhappy family?
The family metaphor is strengthened when in the following stanza, the character is compared to the ‘mother’ (L19) of her dolls, each bearing her name (L21). However, it seems that these dumb ‘companions’ do not live up to the artist’s expectations. She is not at all proud of her children, as the dolls are not displayed, but are forcefully hidden away, ‘crammed’ inside a leather trunk under her bed (L17). These dolls are ambivalently described: ‘they live and hiss and forget / Their mother’ (L18-L19), as if they are ungrateful for being created, but they are also ‘innocent’ (L20). If the dolls could respond, we might hear something similar to this: ‘Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay / To mould me man’?1
Up to this point, it is still possible to interpret the artist in the poem as a God-like figure who creates and manipulates, and the materials she uses (tights, lingerie, cottons) are perhaps suggestive of her gender. More concerned about the process than the product, the character seems to have little emotional attachment with the ‘children’. She is obsessed, and cannot stop making: even though there are ‘so many by now’ (L15), there is ‘no signs of stopping’ (L16). While the world is allegedly created in seven days, the artist sits for days (L5) to build her world peopled with dolly companions, which are to a certain extent her likeness – they are after all made from her intimate clothing and bear her name.
However, the mention of the artist’s parents in the following stanza suggests a more biographical interpretation of the poem is in order, although the God-artist analogy needs not be completely dismissed:
Your parents would never admire
Those legs you made.
They have such faith you are
On your way to Christie’s, if not,
At least a very decent gallery.
Earlier, we see that the artist is dissatisfied with her dolls and they are banished to darkness (‘crammed inside your dark leather trunk under bed’ (L17)). It is now revealed that she herself has failed her own parents’ expectations. Instead of succeeding in the art world by having works auctioned at Christie’s or showcased at ‘a very decent gallery’ (L26), she makes countless dummy companions which even she, the ‘mother’, cannot warm to.
Knowing this back story illuminates her treatment of the dolls. They are a product of her own frustration and she obsessively produces them as a means of release. However, once completed, she feels that her dolls are inferior, and secrets them away. This done, the cycle starts again and she begins to make more dolls. In this process, the dolls become both an expression of her failures and her secret accomplices in them. We are reminded of A.S. Byatt‘s poem “Dolly Keeps A Secret” in Possession (1990): ‘Dolly keeps a Secret / Safer than a Friend / Dolly’s Silent Sympathy / Lasts without end’. However, in Wong’s poem, the dolls also provide a silent yet deafening judgment: their very existence announcing her unlimited limitations.
The final stanza asks, slightly heavy-handedly: ‘What’s there to be afraid of? / Just a bag of bad dreams / And a specimen of life’ (L27-L29). Here, the poet plays on a common nightmare or horror movie premise of a doll coming to life to haunt its victims. For the character, this animation, although more figurative, is just as scary. Her failed efforts take a human form as dolls; they are ‘specimen of life’ stuffed with crushed dreams. No wonder she tries so hard to bury them as soon as she has brought them to life.
Jennifer Wong [website] is a writer from Hong Kong and her poems have appeared in Warwick Review, Iota, Coffeehouse Poetry, Aesthetica, Mascara, New Writer, Strong Verse, Open Wide Magazine, and The Oxford Reader, among others. Her first collection, Summer Cicadas, was published by Chameleon Press. In 2008, her poem “Myth” was long-listed for the UK Plough Poetry Prize. She read English literature at University College, Oxford and completed an MA in creative writing at the University of East Anglia.