Found in Translation: A conversation with Eleanor Wong

Written by Wong Shu Yun
Dated 10 Aug 2016


Having written more than 12 plays, Eleanor Wong is more widely known as a playwright rather than a poet. Her poetry comprises two collections: y grec, co-written with Madeleine Lee (2005) and Life~Science (2010).


Wong says that a play, which takes on the form of sustained engagement and entertainment, is a good platform to hold conversations with the public on social issues. On the other hand, she describes her poetry as “smaller thoughts” that do not have that sort of stamina or dramatic effect. While her plays are like films, her poems are like a collection of photographs.


y grec documents scenes and moments from her 10-day trip to Greece with Lee. “Travel comes with a deadline,” Wong says. After the travelling is done, one returns home to reality. This is why travel compels Wong to document fervently, to capture the momentary. With their snapshot-like quality, Wong’s poetry in y grec has a diary-like quality, where her sprawling thoughts riff off a particular idea.


That particular idea—the thread running through her poems—is usually revealed in hindsight, she says. She does not plan for it, although there is often a starting point. In y grec, the starting point is Greece, and the idea that eventually emerges is the act of revisiting. Wong revisits Athens and finds that her memory does not keep up with the changes in the city:

Athens again is less repetition
than re-creation, re-iteration.
The girl is different.
The city’s grown up.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I try to re-walk, re-work, re-sit, re-visit,
but thoroughly unmapped, lose my way.
Imagining a charm clearer,
a character less manufactured, than
this dust jacket draping my memories.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The girl had not run through
her lovers’ lives and hearts
after losing, then recusing,
her own to the taker of
the photograph.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Back in Athens, lost around Amerikis,
I admit I need direction, unfurl a
new guide, turn from old city
and start climbing again.

(“Athens Again”)


Yet her revisitations are not only to destinations, but also towards insight; she travels to places so that they can transport her into the mind. In Greece, Wong witnesses the persistence of history’s ruins and arrives at the question of ideology:

Recognising immutability
or perpetuating dogma?
Multiplying the word
or factory-lining god?
Finding faith the same
or just reusing the face?

(“Same Saints”)


Wong never studied literature formally. Her love for words stemmed from a young age, when she was around 10, she recalls. She was studying in Australia at the time, and one of her classes was about free expression. The teacher encouraged the students to create anything—it could be a song, a story or a poem—to express themselves. “It was very freeing and fun,” Wong says. “There was freedom to create, where the end point is not mandated by the teacher’s exercise. The fun was in forming something up—anything really—rather than by fulfilling some function”.


Since then, Wong has always treasured the link between between freedom and creation, and continues to use words as her main material of expression. Free from the constraints of adhering to literary techniques, she thinks primarily in concepts instead. She comes to an idea intuitively and then forms a poem around it, tweaking it along the way during the writing process. In “Amnesiac Ponders Cardinalfish While Snorkeling” from Life~Science, Wong explores the stream of consciousness concept by relating it to the underwater experience, where the sea’s current is like the passing of time, with each sea creature symbolising a passing thought:

do the big fish tease the youngsters
“you yellow-bellies”
are they prone to joshing around the reef
while passing rites of
big cardinalfish?
the joke swerves off before
two swarms of
deep blue red-tooth triggerfish
now that thought too
ah, moon wrasse
unicorn, Kashmir, convict surgeonfish


Wong adds that biography does not interest her. “My poems play with concepts; they are not confessional,” she says. YetLife~Science is intensely personal—the primary emotion evoked in this collection is that of longing. The longing is for a lost paradise or a lover or a lexicon. The first poem in Life~Science, “Second Law of Thermodynamics,” is where the persona confronts her relationship with her father through an analogy to entropy:

I had always thought
the relative evenness of
our emotional topography
a sign of order
of as-it-should-be-ness.
A structured state
propped up, stopped in by
constant applications of filial energy.
Only to lately learn
(reading a pop physics primer)
that the direction of entropy
dissipates towards homogeneity
disorder emerges without visible mess
more heat being required
to fuel a beat of singular stand-out-ness
than a lifetime of regularity.


Wong says her father was a detached figure, and it is through the conceit of energy—the science of the calm after the storm—that she came to accept his emotional unavailability. It was not that he was unavailable, her persona realises by the end of the poem; rather, she had simply been witnessing his stillness after the “Chaos. Disorder. / My father. / Fiery after all”. The poem, as with many others in this collection, demonstrates how one can reimagine relationships by transposing a scientific concept to everyday life.


In “Zero Sum Pain,” Wong playfully expands on the aphorism, “love is not a zero sum game” through the mathematical concept. The damage from infidelity is illuminated through the logic of the non-zero sum: one party does bear the cost—the cost of having gained nothing.


In “Nat King Inconsolable,” the persona’s loss “might be spelt irreplaceable,” but the precision of the word “irreplaceable” in explaining the emotional damage offers little consolation: grief is visceral, not cerebral. Wong thus borrows from the language of momentum not because it comforts, but because it gives a feeling to grief that removes abstraction—the grief is then better understood:

in one second
at one hundred and fifty
kilometers an hour
i crash against the prospect
of your going
it slaps the windscreen
an after-you without-you-ness


That gut-punched feeling spirals into an infinite longing that endures as a hollowness in the heart, inhabiting “the same / cardio-cavity / as desolation”.


Still, science does not adequately describe or explain all lived experiences. In “Prague Space-Time Continuum,” shifting time is defied. That is, time stops when the persona and her lover “sit quiet within the Tyn”. In “Proximate,” the persona attempts to accurately describe her desire for intimacy through the proximate quality of “measly decimals,” but it is ultimately the lover’s embrace—which cannot be measured—that best explains the yearning. In “dx/dy,” what is seemingly formulaic becomes enigmatic:

integration introduces
a constant into our equation
its value unknown, our
initial conditions mysterious, even now.


Wong is unashamed of rhythm. “It’s okay to rhyme,” her short biography says in Life~Science. Her sense of musicality was cultivated from her childhood days of listening to hymns and her growing up years of exploring all kinds of music, from rock and pop to country. In several poems, Wong is more rhythmic than conceptual. For example, in “Quantum Entanglements,” Wong’s playful critique of Singapore, we experience a linguistic and rhythmic rather than conceptual tango. Lines return through the poem’s stanzas, such as the morphing of “quanta true entangle” to “quanta rue the tangle”. A single phrase is looped to various effects.


In “Stochastic Trade,” musicality is more characteristic of the poem than its idea, that of life as a random variable:

so we’ve been fooled by god’s demise
dressed the world in linear guise
past and fore but signs assigned
to thermic sums unaligned
ready the wings lights up right back
re-enter dharma, karma, buddha
life’s no tangent ride the sine
reside in cosine curve the line


Although Wong tries to distance herself from the biographical, Life~Science reads like the story of someone’s life, where the persona navigates her losses, relationships, emotions and travels. Wong is obsessed with science, and this is where she begins from in the collection. However, she successfully translates the science into personal stories, into lived experience.


This act of translation is the primary concept—in fact, the strategy—holding this collection of poems together. In Life~Science, Wong finds her place as a poet by performing the role of the middleman—the translator or communicator who interprets science to life and life to science. She shows how the creative act can converge two different languages, while revealing that one will nonetheless always elude the other.

Works cited

Lee, Madeleine, and Eleanor Wong. y grec. Firstfruits Publications, 2005.

Wong, Eleanor. Life~Science. Trans. Enoch Ng and Caleb Liu. Singapore: Firstfruits Publications, 2010.

Wong, Eleanor. Personal interview. 17 May 2016.