Nicholas Y.B. Wong’s “Appetites” [Read the poem here]
(First published in Issue #13 of Cha)
-This post by Vineet Kaul was awarded one of the Highly Recommended prizes in the Fine Tea Competition 2011.
‘In every generation the least cultivated taste has the largest appetite.’ -Paul Gauguin
You will not get far with “Appetites” if you came looking for some light refreshment and glib talk. Nicholas Y.B. Wong’s “Appetites” sends an invite to those with a predisposition towards gluttony. This is not a mildly brewed Earl Gray that you are sipping, the opening lines themselves ring like a strongly concocted Wu Lung, without sugar. Syrup or a pinch of salt is left to your behest.
The opening lines set up the poem with a deep breath for soon to be landed plosive punches of verbal staccatos, disjointed with the restlessness of Wong’s own hunger. The first part equates lust with the natural craving for sugar. It speaks of what some (or maybe most) men are hungry for, with the anticlimax of a biological why. But while the visual of smooth thighs and a cherry dipped in chocolate enjoy the centre stage, a subtler implication hums in the background.
‘Scientists say one’s want reflects one’s lack’ (L1)
The poetry, too, is melodic and made more so by the principle of negation, its aesthetic emphasized especially when it goes silent. The association is nothing musical — you are simply afraid of the poet going silent. That is when you must contemplate his deliberation.
A deliberation that hints that man’s hunger for sex is an appetite, like lots of other appetites that don’t involve food.
Wong conjures images in the second part that remind you of dinners from the past — ‘the ones that you tasted / and tasted you’ (L13-L14). The plates of food you consumed only with the carrot dangling in your mind. Trading compliments for excuses, love is wanting to hold someone who can say what you want to hear — or in this case, cook what you want to eat. Wong seems to reiterate that love is, after all, a trick played by evolution on our species to ensure that we procreate. Absolute truth has neither scope nor span in two-star Michelin restaurants where the genders rendezvous to gamble hormones and take home their prize. In an appetite for savouring dinner (or more so the cooks than the dinner), men may gobble everything or anything put on their plate, realizing only too late that they aren’t enlarged by their feast but are diminished instead. The appetite established by author leads us to gluttony. An appetite that is insatiable; dinner is only a distraction that lasts until breakfast.
The third part explores his resentment, especially one born out of anguish. It speaks of a restless man in a daily chore, shaving. ‘I believe in the body’ (L21), he says. His act of cutting his skin and tasting his own blood trickling down his face is disturbing and not because of any grotesque manner that it is presented in. It reflects another sort of hunger and brings forth another appetite. The constant need for a man to acknowledge his flesh just to overcome the feeling of impermanency. It is a hunger to validate one’s own existence that makes you want to bleed. Bleed to feel alive.
Part four seems the most distant in tone and sticks out in the five parts offered. It seems too self-explanatory for a poet who had immaculately cruised over word-bridges with fluid ambiguity. It tries hard to keep pace with the rest of the writing and almost loses. It exiles the reader to an old age home and its thinning life force. Severed connections with the world, the abandoned and the dying labour with the trauma of celebrating life. Their energy is twice removed from truth but also twice as enthusiastic, enthusiasm in the most frantic sense of it. They aren’t sure how long they have left. Their pitiable plight almost validates what part three insinuates.
The flesh suffers the storms of the present alone; the mind, those of the past and future as well as the present. Gluttony here is a lust of the mind. Weighed down by years of feeding the hunger of the mind, the old folk mediate with hope and happiness — more than willing to take what is to be spared. Spread out between wallpapers contemplating what they want with soulless gazes, appreciating the sweetness of life in the bitterness of nostalgia. More so the life they gave up when tricked by, and for, those who left them to the nurses. Nurses who offered disjointed rounds of clapping on days when they cannot recall where, when and even why they were born. But the lines ‘let me live one more day / I want to see my children // I will give them up if only / I could live one more day‘ (L35-L38) portray a certain regret yet in a manner that lacks repentance. Almost as if each ageing heart in that old-age home wishes they could do it all over again, but with someone else. The human heart hungers for hope, the human mind cooks it (up) and the human life is a testimony of another insatiable appetite, the only time we can stop hoping is when we are dead (either on the inside or outside).
The fifth part leans towards the end with the aid of a confession and confrontation between a man and a woman. As the poetic dinner draws to a close with the dénouement, the knots untie and the poet’s intentions remain clear but understated. In love, as in gluttony, pleasure is a matter of the utmost priority. The crudely put insinuations about ‘other hungers’ reek like spices in lines such as ‘Her face / once hidden in her body /surfaced slowly’ (L62-L64) and ‘A woman’s lips – / he thought – / should chant for his hairy skin’ (L81-L83). A man confesses to a woman about his misdoing and the woman doesn’t concede to sorrow but instead turns ‘human’ (L66). She cooks him food to feed his appetite. A metaphorical dinner that results in silent pillow talk of mouths, which as Wong puts it, ‘are best concealed’ (L89).
It begins to appear that all throughout “Appetites”, the basis of this five discourse meal, was about gluttony. It highlights the human tendency to disregard the face that no matter how hard you try, contentment is something that will elude you. The only gratification available is in knowing that you are embroiled in a hunger that is insatiable. It may not enable you to enjoy the meal, but points out that you can savour it none the less, which is all most people do in most cases. Wong’s “Appetites” neither saves you nor spares you. It insinuates and then alleges humans to be guilty of appetites other than hunger for food. Each of the five parts takes aim at one such appetite without able-bodied metaphors co-relating it to food in one way or another. It just hints, also, that gluttony is an insatiable appetite and so is hunger. Neither mysterious nor mystical, the dislodged ambiguity is tied by stray strands that reveal an angst and twitchy narrative of five instances of appetites fed with food that feeds you and yet leaves you hungry for more, mostly because there is no other choice. Hidden in nearly every occurrence, even the most cluttered, is some shining centre. Nicholas Y.B. Wong’s “Appetites” sends an invite to those with a predisposition towards gluttony. The disclaimer in his invitation was flagrant — ‘To him, words lost what / they meant when said to those / who meant nothing’ (L84-L86).
Nicholas YB Wong [website] is the author of Cities of Sameness (Desperanto, 2012). Recent poems can be found in Drunken Boat, J Journal: New Writing on Justice, Nano Fiction, Platte Valley Review, The Portland Review and REAL: Regarding Arts & Letters. He reads poetry for Drunken Boat and teaches in the Hong Kong Institute of Education. [Also see Wong’s Cha profile.]