Reviews / November 2011 (Issue 15)

Smoked Pearl, Paperdragons and Prayer Beads

by Viona Au Yeung

Akin Jeje, Smoked Pearl, Proverse, 2010. 117 pgs.
Jason S. Polley, refrain, Proverse, 2010. 67 pgs.
Mary-Jane Newton, Of Symbols Misused, Proverse, 2011. 86 pgs.


"I finally saw something good tonight"

Akin Jeje's poetry collection, Smoked Pearl, records his search for beauty and identity in Hong Kong. Living amidst the city's noise and witnessing its diminishing love for personal and local history, Jeje speaks in a distinctive voice about what it is to be human and an individual in such a vast metropolis.

Jeje's speaker is at times overwhelmed by the feeling of being infinitesimal among millions of city dwellers. In his poem "Smoked Pearl," he poses a question: "and I wonder how the hell, if at all/I add to its glow." It seems that the city will still be a pearl, with or without his poetry.

Jeje exposes the "smoked" patches that are found on the walls and tarmac in every corner of the city—pollution, racism, fashion piracy, unrestrained capitalism and the exploitation of sex and domestic workers are only a few of the diverse problems he addresses. In one poem, he describes an exploited domestic helper in moving detail: "a stoic teak-hued/Filipina or Indonesian helper doubling as pack mule for a privileged child, starched white, muted blues." In "T-shirts for Obama," he portrays a world that opts for vain showiness at the expense of originality. "Hustler's Prayer" presents the voice of a sex worker, who ironically describes her work as a circular and "almighty game." Yet these same words are offered as words of comfort to her fellow workers, and they exhibit much strength and a sense of solidarity: "but we will, my beloveds,/to thrive,/in the gritty city/of the almighty game."

At times, Jeje's attempt to find comfort in writing poetry comes to little avail. In "Mama," the speaker finds it impossible to conquer the distance between him and his mother who lives in another country: she is " old woman/separated from i/by/the setting sun/an endless ocean/and the vastness/ of the sky."

However, his ability to see beauty in the ordinary gives him strength. In "Mother and Child," the speaker, while riding on a tram, finds consolation in a loving mother: "A last glance/had mother in immutable calm,/Holding her wide-eyed lad,/ Ever so tight." Indeed, among the city's many "smoked" patches, Jeje also manages to find solace in its "pearls."

Jeje offers his own unique approach to sufferings and transient beauty experienced in the city. In 'Blessed Com...,' a sense of disorientation and the lack of hope at new year are revitalised by a modern rendering of the familiar symbol of the cross on which were 'etch[ed]] elaborate tattoos of lustillusion,/despairconfusion.' The speaker of "Festivals of Autumn" resists Hong Kong's decaying structures, its "faded porcelain tiles," resorting instead to the happiness of children playing with their lanterns: "eyes bright as lunar glow, cheeky grins richer an' sweeter/than lotus paste."

"happy with little,/wanted so much"

Mary-Jane Newton's poetry collection Of Symbols Misused provides us with a fresh semantic approach to topics such as relationships, dislocation and the matter of writing itself.

In their journey through Newton's poems, readers will experience instances of both surprise and discomfort, as the speaker negotiates a new way to portray the self and its encounters with people and things. "If You Are a Poet," for example, is a reflection on the calling of poetry, in which the speaker addresses fellow poets, asking them to be silent about their inner lives and to look towards the world: "If you are a poet.../lie still in your pain"; "If you are a poet,.../love better the weak."

Newton often surprises her readers by challenging their expectations of how traditional poetic narratives work. Just when one expects to see a pitiable female figure who has given all to the "Poor Beggar," the poem turns, and the speaker is liberated and free: "For you left me prosperous,/light and free."

Elsewhere, however, readers may be discomforted by Newton's realistic treatment of the limits faced by all human beings; their inability to be free from material and spatial-temporal constraints. The latter is found in her love poems "You Me" and "Time Like a Dress." There are unresolved conflicts in "You Me." Readers are prompted to make connections between sets of images which are in some ways similar but incompatible in others: "You Me/Tied together with the silky band of the Milky Way/Held apart by the marble bars of a volcanic epicentre." The word "tied" is problematic as she uses it to describe a pair of lovers who are in reality separated by insurmountable distance. It reminds one of Chinese mythology in which the Herd-boy and the Weaving Maid meet only once a year on a bridge formed by magpies.

In "Time Like a Dress," a lover is juxtaposed with time: "When I was with you, I wore time like a dress." The speaker is aware that she could not fully enjoy her lover while keeping time from slipping away, and the same also applies to the lover: "But you could not/bear my solitude;/like the Greek gods,/you became human." The lines "But you could not/bear my solitude" carry double-meaning: the celestial god-like figure becomes a human lover to end the speaker's solitude, yet finds himself unable to end it forever.

Like Akin Jeje, Newton also speaks of the pain of living in an unfamiliar city, possibly Hong Kong. Her poem "Cardiac Arrest" uses the symptoms of heart disease to describe an agitated and unexplained state of the soul: "that is our usual life, the flight of birds." The theme of living away from home also recurs in "Vaterland." While addressing the poem to the Germany where she grew up seems to offer the speaker some consolation for her life abroad, the poem is in fact full of tension between her confidence in her perfect knowledge of the place and the anxiety of losing her hold on the place she considers home: "You are my realm of eagles/that never endured./When I think of you,/you vanish like a compliment."

In Newton's poetry, there is an ongoing struggle between taking pleasure in the material world and grasping for the heavenly. There is an ungraspable aspect to all the things that a satisfactory life can provide. In "Blissful Oblivion," despite the concrete companion of a human lover before her, the speaker's life remains elusive: "Your beauty: whitewashed/ by daily life"; "we sleepwalk in oblivion." Similarly, "A London Winter" presents a moment of innocent and profound longing for a spiritual relationship to materialise.

"its all desire and suffering"

Jason S. Polley's poetry collection, refrain, is a rhythmic narration of his stay in India. Not long after they enter the world of Polley's poetry, readers will detect a recurrent chorus: repeated scenes from the daily chaos of street life and an English language that has been adapted to local usage.

The poem "textbooks yelltell truth" is about a male Caucasian adapting to the life in India. His fantasy of the city instantly becomes untenable upon arrival: "...long youve longed for goldentemple and tajmahal/and brahmin uppercaste priestlyscholarly/sannyasis ultimately renouncing wordliness of it/nonall." Instead of having his idealised expectation of the place fulfilled, he is rather thrown into moments of crime and danger: "and no dacoit stole your padded endlessly/righthandpatted westernworld wallet yet." He cannot linger and enjoy a time of quiet reflection, for he has to constantly be on alert for potential fraud and robbery.

Polley seems self-conscious of his role as poet in India. While adopting the position of a spectator who finds comfort in stepping back from the chaos in front of him, the speaker is also reminded from time to time that he is in fact part of the spectacle: "read while reading/ recognized while orientalizing." Elsewhere he tells us how it feels to read and write in a country like India, and how he can no longer read familiar works of fiction the way he did at home: "and in india at someones humblehouse and noise/nullifies senseandsensibility amplifies/prideandprejudice."

Although referring to other writers helps the speaker articulate his sense of strangeness and disorientation, it does little to alleviate it: "...confined to delhis kafka castle weaving bleeping/slipshawing starving slowfast past lorries lorries lorries." This type of chaotic scene, in which people from different walks of life make their way through constant disorder, appears repeatedly throughout the collection and adds to Polley's and the readers' sense of disorientation. Readers follow the speaker as he journeys dizzyingly from outdoors to indoors, between public and private spaces and from urban areas to the suburbs.

There are, however, rare moments of order, usually towards the end of a poem, which signify the speaker's attempt to regain control and restore comprehension to his readers. In "darjeeling distance dream" the speaker looks to nature for hope and support: "and mountain cold steep twisty walk enlivens/and lazy sunset lingers long/a happy crimson forever fever." In "as sure as," the speaker relates his experience with more clarity than elsewhere in the collection; words are no longer combined into unintelligible strings but are presented with conventional spacing and spellings. However, readers soon realize even the poem's correct spelling and neat layout do not do much to clarify India. It is as if Polley is telling his readers the truth about the country: it is impossible to understand it through writing. If a book is meant to be a mirror of society, then it is impossible to apprehend a society simply by holding up the mirror, because the reflected objects are constantly changing and on the move.

Similarly, for the critic, it is difficult to write about Polley's poetry as quoting from and describing it does not tell readers much about its content and meaning. His fast-paced use of culturally loaded words, unusual combinations of words—with colloquial and local speech added in—and the thrusting of discordant ideas into single lines are only some of the many devices he uses to bring his readers into an incomprehensible yet exciting world. His poems resist quotation but invite experiencing. Unlike the figures on Keats's Grecian Urn that are struggling to escape from the frozen and unreal world of art, Polley's speaker is one who is "struggling for [an] escape" from the heated furnace of reality, a furnace where golden temples and rickshaws are being melted down.

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