Write a critical commentary on the following poem, considering in detail the ways in which your response is shaped by the writer’s language, style and form.

2019 JC1 Mid-Year Exam


You and your photographs of boats;
that repeated metaphor for departure,
or simply the possibility of a voyage?
What you cannot tell me you tell me
with a vessel and its single passenger,
eyes fixed on some skylit conclusion.
Set apart and starkly upon a canvas
of tractable waves, brought to still
by the trigger-click of your camera,
like the sound a key makes when it
releases the lock. Your heart became
that lock; these images how you have
always articulated distance, a withdrawal.
Darling, there are just as many ways
of saying goodbye as there are ways
of letting you go. The boat is narrow
like the width of my heart after
impossible loss, cruel resignation;
this heart you ride in. Love, if this is how
you choose to leave me let me let you.                                                                                            

Cyril Wong (born 1977)

In ‘Boats’, Wong elucidates upon the influence of a lover’s departure on the emotional distance between the speaker and his lover. Through the ideas of departure and vulnerability, Wong allows the reader to gain insight into the relationship between the speaker and his lover.

Wong highlights the solitude of departure throughout ‘Boats’ by calling attention to the loneliness and distance between the speaker and his lover. In ‘a vessel and its single passenger’ and ‘set apart and starkly’, the speaker shows how the photographs of boats that the lover utilises to hint at their urge to depart are symbols of loneliness and solitude. As the boats are only carrying one passenger and are set apart from everything else, this shows that the lover wishes not to go on a voyage together with the speaker, but wishes to embark on a solo voyage. As such, there is distance between the lover and the speaker due to the nature of the journey that the lover wishes to undertake. Furthermore, in ‘your heart became/ that lock’, the vulnerability and inability of the lover are presented as they hide their thoughts and wishes away from the speaker, as if behind lock and key. This shows how the photographs of boats have put distance between the lover’s intentions and their relationship with the speaker.

In ‘Boats’, Wong expresses the finality and inevitability of departure in a relationship. The speaker addresses the persisting yearning of the lover to exit the relationship through the metaphor of ‘photographs of boats’ and shows the phases of hurt that the speaker experiences afterwards. From ‘eyes fixed on some skylit conclusion’ and ‘always articulated distance, a withdrawal’, Wong highlights the inevitability of departure as his lover has consistently maintained emotional barriers between themselves and those who are seemingly close to them. The aspirations of the lover towards something that does not exist in their current circumstance is persistent and their departure would have been inevitable.

Furthermore, the speaker expresses various responses to his lover’s departure, which begin with absolute grief and then calm acceptance. This can be seen from ‘narrow/ like the width of my heart after/ impossible loss, cruel resignation’ and ‘if this is how/ you choose to leave me let me let you’ which illustrate the difference in the speaker’s response as they gain more acceptance. Initially, the speaker is deeply heartbroken and unconsolable but as he gains acceptance towards his lover’s departure, he manages to understand and discern his lover’s wishes and intentions. The speaker manages to allow his lover to leave the relationship out of his love and concern towards his lover despite their failing relationship.

Throughout ‘Boats’, Wong proposes the idea that of disjointed communications within a relationship. The speaker continues to express his lack of true understanding of his lover’s wishes for departure as there is ‘withdrawal’ from the relationship by the lover. The lover is unable to express his desire to embark on a separate journey from the speaker and resorts to emotionally withdrawing and putting their emotions and vulnerabilities behind multiple ‘photographs of boats’ which hide their true intentions. For example, in ‘what you cannot tell me/ with a vessel’ and ‘your heart became/ that lock’, the speaker depicts the lack of communication within the relationship as his lover chooses not to be candid with his expression and relies on metaphors to convey their hidden intentions. This allows us to derive understanding from the speaker’s inability to come to terms with the initial loss of his lover. As the speaker cannot see why his lover has chosen to leave, they struggle to cope with the loss and resort to reflecting upon the vacancy of communication and emotional depth of the relationship.

In conclusion, ‘Boats’ conveys the nature of departure in the context of a relationship and the impacts that the parties involved face as a result. ‘Boats’ also reveals the probable causes that can lead to the disintegration of an emotional connection within a relationship which can lead to an insurmountable emotional distance between the two parties in the relationship who struggle to understand each other.

Natalie Goh (19-A2)