Reviews / December 2014 (Issue 26)

The Immateriality of Home: A Review of Desde Hong Kong

by Henry W. Leung


Germán Muñoz, Tammy Ho Lai-ming and Juan José Morale (editors), Desde Hong Kong: Poets in conversation with Octavio Paz, Chameleon Press, 2014. 123 pgs.


Desde Hong Kong must be the first of its kind: a Hong Kong poetry anthology in English which is not topically on Hong Kong. The book celebrates the occasion of Octavio Paz’s centenary, putting its poets in conversation with his work and legacy. Conversation: not perspective, not reportage, not sightseeing. This means a book with almost no trace of gawkers writing in a shop-worn East-meets-West English-with-an-accent diversity rhetoric. This means English poems which channel-switch with Cantonese and Mandarin as much as with Spanish, Tagalog, and Hebrew. This means a turn in Hong Kong poetics, in which no apology is made for its existence and the landscape becomes inner.

Paz’s place in the anthology and what bearing he might have upon a Hong Kong literature are worth further exploration. He was eminently cosmopolitan, yes, and the influence of “Eastern” poetics on his work was profound (consider how his prosody benefited from Bashō’s choza de sílabas), yes, but moreover he was a writer keenly aware of the unwarranted imposition of national histories on literary histories. Some of his essays speak especially to language’s necessary reinventions of itself. English and its literary traditions occupy a peculiar space in Hong Kong, a post-colony with clear borders and some definite national characteristics but which is not a country of its own. These words from Paz’s 1964 essay “The Siren and the Seashell”[1], might illuminate the politics of a Hong Kong English literary tradition:

To be a contemporary of Goethe or Tamerlane is a coincidence, happy or otherwise, in which one’s will plays no part; to desire to be their contemporary implies a will to participate, intellectually, in the actions of history, to share a history that belongs to others but that one somehow makes one’s own. It is an affinity and a distance—and an awareness of that situation. The Modernists did not want to be French: they wanted to be modern.

Mani Rao’s multitextual poem, “I Talk to Myself — I Talk to You,” opens Desde Hong Kong and speaks exactly to this affinity and distance. The poem is an arrangement of quotations which puts several writers into conversation across eras and languages. She begins with Paz:

Man is inhabited by silence and space
How to escape my own image?

The Marquis de Sade answers, via the accounting of Madame de Saint-Ange, via another layer of translators:

By repeating our attitudes and and postures in a thousand different ways, they infinitely multiply those same pleasures ... these images are so many groups disposed around those enchained by love ...

Celan then enters the dialogue, and then others, and others. The poem closes on a wistful note from one of Hong Kong’s beloveds, the recently deceased Leung Ping-kwan, just as the lines begin to break open into white space. Rao gets the last word, in a footnote, in which her remarks on the sources directly address the reader:

And PK Leung who no longer meets you and me for dinner in Hong Kong joins us in the response.

The poem is thus an elegy of voices long gone and recently gone, an intimacy by invocation. It sets a gorgeous tone of inwardness for the rest of the anthology, in which the subject is both and we, yet neither fully I nor fully we.

* * *

What is marvelous about these poems is the way they start to trace a common language. By this I don’t mean English. An idiom develops from the lines of Paz’s “Between Going and Staying”, “Sunstone” and others, which are obvious inspirations to the poems at hand. Consider Michellan Alagao’s poem which begins in universals,

Your forever arriving
is my never-ending goodbye:
y llega siempre, walang hanggang paalam;

only to backpedal with a warning: “both with things lost in translation.”

But, in each case of Alagao’s smoothly slipping into other languages—none of them estranged by italicization—we see how much is also gained in translation. Consider, as another example, Tammy Ho Lai-Ming’s sonnet whose “I give, and I give, and I give” leads into the refrain, “the pattern’s not undone”, which crescendos in a final unraveling: “Of primitive earth, pealed bare.” The homophone there (I’m inclined not to read it as a typo) gives us the sense of a bell pealing: layers of sound contracting inward in order to expand outward, which resonates deeply with the poem’s intimations of motherhood. Peeling, but also pealing. Consider also Jason Eng Hun Lee’s poem which replants Paz’sárbol adentro in a Romantic’s urban sea:

Here, each tree comprises its own island,
and each man is his own castaway.
Yet I harbor a secret that none
shall take away from me –

Paz wrote, in a 1961 essay calling nationalism “an aesthetic fallacy”, that “Literature is broader than frontiers.” When we read Nicholas YB Wong’s “If We Are a Metaphor of the Universe”, an anaphoric list poem trapped in the first part of the subjunctive, do we read the “we” as representing what appears to be Hong Kong? Or an anonymous city? Or citizens? Or modern humanity? It is a poem of deep ambivalence, helplessness, and pride, and it speaks multitudes:

If a frog in a well knows it has swum in creeks as a tadpole, unashamed
If the well suddenly wants to travel but what to take with its hollow torso

These are images coming from a deep privacy. I cannot avoid mentioning that Desde Hong Kong’s publication coincides, extraordinarily, with the city’s ongoing protests which have also seen an efflorescence of artistic expression. What does poetry, in English, in conversation with a Spanish poet of a gone generation, have to do with this urgent local crisis? Profound questions of national identity have been raised and refracted by the protests, and this poetry offers one answer: not the development of a national language, but rather of a private language, plural, to render the inner life rich with meaning.

* * *

What I see Paz teaching the poets in this anthology is the immateriality of home. Trish Hopkinson’s poem asks:

Is this path the poem — the journey
hat dissolves into nothingness?

Such a nothingness is not absence, nor is it mere subtraction. It is the way

the shadow of Splendor recites verse
more naked than herself.

It is James Shea’s “Firsthand Account of Myself” in images of stillness, his tracing backward to find that

single forgiveness
built into the sin.

It is Douglas Robinson quoting Paz on the translation of a foreign tongue into one’s own

to restore
the unity
of the beginning.

As concerns the perennial identity politics of Hong Kong’s literature in English, the makeup of this anthology’s poets is especially inclusive, embracing this notion that translation—an outward-moving positive creation—doesn’t take us farther from the source but closer. Indeed, the anthology’s closing poem is the translation from Chinese of a Wang Jiaxin poem, whose

emptiness and ash —
all crackling in a fire
come late in life

is one of the most poignant images of Paz and his legacy.

Not all the poems included are mature, and some of the poets may be more identifiably “Hong Kong” than others. But to my reading it is significant that, for the most part, the poetics is cohesive.

It should be no surprise that many of these poems allude to or cite Paz’s “Between Going and Staying”. The anthology’s poetics is bound up in longing, loss, and drift. Would you expect otherwise from a city-state which has no citizenship, only a residency status quantified by years? What we’re presented with is not just “Hong Kong” but desde orfrom Hong Kong—a preposition already on the move. Read Jennifer Wong’s poem to see what I mean, and Madeleine Slavick’s, and Hao Guang Tse’s, and many others. Better yet, read them all.


[1] All translations of Paz’s essays are by Lysander Kemp and Margaret Sayers Peden.

Editors' note: This review was first published in Asian Review of Books.

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