Math Paper Press, 2018
Reviewed by Alison Clifton, StylusLit
Felix Cheong’s B-Sides and Backslides takes its cue from The Beatles’ three-part album, Anthology, which he describes in the foreword to his collection as “this grab bag of outtakes, throwaway songlets, mimicry, parody, instrumentals, and archive material” (1). Indeed, this is a collection of juvenilia, poems that didn’t make the cut to published volumes, as well as new work. Cheong’s trademark wordplay is on point right from the start – the title of the prologue is “Foreword Looking.” And, although this is a retrospective, most of the poems do look forward – they anticipate the death of the author, and not in the manner of Roland Barthes. Rather, these poems take mortality as their theme.
The vibrant wordplay and the theme of death coalesce in “Days” (10), one of the juvenilia poems. “What are days?” asks Cheong. “They are dumb routines of work and play, / a quiet amber / between dawn and dust” (10). Of course, the anticipated word is “dusk,” but “dust” is where we’re headed, and Cheong’s poems urge us to livebefore we die. “A Surreal Dream” (7-8) continues with the theme of our finite existence, as “dying ants lick the wounds of faceless trees” and “paint brushes limp silently” (7). This poem is, as Cheong notes, rather outlandish – he refers to its “sheer verbosity” (5) – but there are glimpses of magnificence in the hoarder’s pile of imagery. “Still” (13-14) is a meditation on a failed attempt to seize the day, in which he describes his “loved ones framed at table’s edge / and reading yesterday’s dust / swept into newspaper columns” (13). This moment is one of the finest in this collection.
The “Outtakes” follow, persisting with the theme of the transience of human life. The second section of the poem “Attitude Problems” (19), “II. An Optimist Speaks,” is worth quoting in full for its succinct wordplay:
Unlike some fools boring holes
just to let worms out
I take the apple,
as it comes, wholesome
and full, knowing
that something must last
beyond the core
of a bitten past.
Cheong clearly showed virtuosity from an early point in his writing. He continues with the contrapuntal themes of the certainty of death and the desperate search for solace through the concept of carpe diem. In “Compromises” (31), he asks whether life just boils down to this: “an anguished choice / between a worthless life / or worthy lie” (31)? How do we go about spending, not wasting, our days? These poems are heavy with the certainty of our own mortality but lightened and enlightened by Cheong’s ever-present wordplay.
In “We Are the Salarymen” (32-33), an homage and a riposte of sorts to T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” the salarymen write back to their artistic and philosophical detractors, asking: “Just because we do not swagger, / Chew and spit words like cigars, / or crease an attitude /on a swearing face /… / you think we possess no guts / in the bowels of heart” (32)? Although they see life as devoid of meaning, they “have the means to fill / and fulfil this emptiness” (32), and call their counter-culture critics “little more than moans and bones” (33). Having made peace with the emptiness of their lives, they intend to enjoy the ride before the inevitable end – as Philip Larkin said in “Aubade,” “Death is no different whined at than withstood.” The theme that we are merely marking time till death continues in “Because You Asked for a Poem” (34), when Cheong writes: “the world can swivel / on a word, a whim or prayer / and these meanwhiles are only / a stopgap till then” (34). Death can come at anytime, and what we do “in the meantime / in between time” – as that 1920s anthem of wryly-despondent youth, “Ain’t We Got Fun,” suggests – matters little to the world. Our actions are merely a “stopgap” until that point “when age threatens / to unravel us from ourselves” as Cheong so neatly puts it in “Dylan in the Wind” (42).
This early work is good – very good – if somewhat dry. It seems to lack corporeality. It is as if the poet’s concern with death is distant and distanced, dissonant and disquieting, but never quite palpable. However, from the turn of the century onwards, Cheong’s work grows more visceral while still maintaining its cerebral concern for wordplay. Highlights of Cheong’s latest work, steadfastly focused upon the approach of death, include the beguiling “Obituary” (76), the lovely “Sending off the Starman” (74) – an elegy for David Bowie – and “Go, in Peace” (75): a truly beautiful elegy for Dolores O’Riordan. In “Once More, Auld Lang Syne” (77), the speaker expresses regret while looking back on a life lived reticently: “Did you give up, give way or just give in / To the nothing in-between” (77)? Some solace is to be found in partnership, as we learn in “Up in the Air” (80), when Cheong addresses his beloved with the words, “Find in me hope, rope, a robe / To drape the dates yet to come” (80). Here, at last, is a breathing space: the promise that there are “dates yet to come.”
The wordplay comes to a stunning crescendo in “When We Are Old” (82):
Someday, when your eyes are dim, the rim
Of the world down to just four paces
You can make, your pacemaker beats
The fear of the Maker out of your heart… (82)
Rhythmic, playful, this tour-de-force finishes with the image of stars and “A sudden thought: How much dark it took / To make them, us, glow” (82). Of course, there can be no concept of light without the concept of darkness. Here is a mysticism the earlier poems seemed to hint at but always evaded. Do we lose fear in our old age as death approaches? Is it the feeling of fear itself that we fear more than the finality of death? This is a difficult subject and Cheong proffers no answers.
What he does offer is the rich beauty of verse that tempers its weighty concerns with delightfully light-hearted wordplay that is at times poignant and pointed. This unusual collection of rejects and misfits is certainly not definitive of Cheong’s considerable range and scope as a poet. There is the odd piece that seems flimsy or inchoate, yes, but there are many poems here that speak urgently to our mortality, each short verse as brief as our time on earth, and as rich with potential; some seemingly unfinished, others brimming with so much vigour that they threaten to overspill the page. Cheong continues to dazzle with his trademark wordplay and his insistence on the invaluable, inviolable nature of the human.