Reviews / November 2011 (Issue 15)

A Verse for All Seasons: Travels and Trials in Pui Yi Wong's Yellow Plum Season

by Akin Jeje

Pui Ying Wong, Yellow Plum Season, NYQ Books, 2010. 92 pgs.

Pui Ying Wong's Yellow Plum Season is the work of a modern-day Romantic who brings nuance and passion to everyday lives, places, people and occurrences. She is an intrepid traveller, a sufferer who grieves for things lost and faded, yet a celebrant who rejoices in what remains. Pui Ying Wong's poems connect with human commonalities—fear, love, pain, loss, alienation, hope and endurance. Her quiet verse is both ecstatic and mournful; it spans landscapes urban and rural, personal and cultural, European, Asian, American and Australian with unflinching clarity. She wields words with exacting scrutiny and uncommon compassion as she grapples with themes of emotional connection and distance, and the malaise within herself as she tries to find peace through physical and emotional journey. As Wong states herself in the deceptively simple, poignant piece "Egg Woman": "I wasn't looking for decay. I was looking for a cure."

The first poem of note in the collection is "Montorgueil," about the Rue Montorguiel in Paris, in which the narrator preserves five vignettes from her time on the famous street. Each instance is a communion of quiet respites and frenetic energies: in a laundromat, "a single washer buzzes like a trapped bee"; a gypsy woman's soaked flowers still conjure "a fire of birds frenzy in heat"; a baker's shop becomes "a world raining white." Conversely, that which is outwardly exotic is revealed to have its mundane aspects; employees of a sex parlour share a quiet moment as "they stand side by side watching the rain pass." The everyday elements of Montorgueil are what Wong treasures most, pleased that "outside there's no cry for blood and the guillotine, just light dying on the cobbled street." On Montorgueil, simplicity is the greatest of pleasures.

Wong moves far from the streets of Paris in "China after Mao," but keeps the motif of shedding the weight of history in favour of the significance of individuals. In the poem "red still dazzles," but not Communist Party red, Little Red Book red or the brazenly patriotic red of a newly emergent China. Instead, the captivating crimson is found on a traditional wedding gown on a mannequin, and comes to represent the aspiration of a village woman who sees love and marriage in a redness that speaks to her personal desires rather than political allegiance, who longs not for the heavy hand of the state on her shoulders, but the tender unclasp from a lover as yet unknown. While the young woman's aspiration does not encapsulate the longings of an entire nation, the poem has a sense of the zeitgeist of the present time, in which the future of ordinary Chinese is not strictly determined by the domination of the state, but by their personal desires. "China after Mao" waits, like the young village woman, for a time when "the mandarin collar becomes unfastened by a hand not yet known."

Onwards, and down under in "Visiting My Sister in Australia," disconnection and reconnection are juxtaposed. Wong engages with her sister, a familial face in a strange place where a "bushfire (is) burning outside the city" and the "constellation has changed." However, the alien landscape becomes a place of healing where "Years peel off like old skin" and shared memories between sisters are like the fruits of the walnut tree between them—cracked, shelled and savoured in a bittersweet rite that is at once tender and painful. December in Australia reverses the seasons in the sisters' temporal relation, and a new springtime for Wong allows her to partake of the harvest fruits of memory. The gruelling process of counting recollections, "moments long enough to freeze a heart-ache," gives way to appreciation of the flavour of the present: "Cut one open, the meat is babyish." Shared memories prevail over the distance of time and space.

Memory has the power to haunt as well as well as comfort. Wong's travels continue in the titular "Yellow Plum Season" to Hong Kong, "my rainy city, no longer a colony, its heart not quite Chinese, but never British." Wong moves through the places once remembered, under a cloak of melancholic nostalgia, to the harbour where "Sounds of engines and long sirens, ferries and sampans crisscrossed the chaotic water"; to "back streets twisting like weeds in the crevices, the best herbal shop still brewing sweet soy"; to "the stationery shop, my small joy, filled with calligraphy brushes." Wong quotes an unnamed local poet who states, "Memories are moistened with tears." Indeed the poem is awash with tears from the world around her—"moisture so thick that you could part it with chopsticks" and "Days of sweaty floors and crying walls." Wong herself weeps to the notes of the blind musician, reminded that her childhood no longer resides in the physical locations she once recalled, only in longing for that which no longer exists.

Wong's "Yellow Plum Season" is past, and then returns, as she has it, "as a child of divorce, pleading allegiance to no one." Homecoming is not a joyous reunion, but a further alienation from a formerly familiar place, a former self. Wong has to reconcile herself to the fact that what once was, like herself, is fated never to truly return. This is one of Wong's most emotional poems, for she addresses a disconnection prevalent in the contemporary world, the feeling of exile experienced even upon returning to the place of one's childhood. Wong's love for Hong Kong is evident, as is her separation from the world of her early upbringing. However, her present status as a "child of divorce" is one that informs her work, as is the rupture between the past and present the impetus that propels her narrative of the transnational, a saga of those betwixt and between, reaping the fruits of a season "not quite spring or summer."

Wong continues to straddle spaces between affection and grief in "Yesterday Morning," a day when she first dreams of her dead son. Wong welcomes his arrival in her dream "because that was something he could still do." His presence gives an eerie comfort, as living mother and deceased son keep a companionable silence until he startles her by calling out to her. Even this instance gives Wong succour, for then she is reassured "he was there with me. It was as if he has never died." Unlike the place of her birth, where the separation is seemingly complete, Wong still has access, however tenuous, with the beloved deceased:

Then I thought the passage
back to this world was not impossible
He was going to do it, to crossover
whenever he could.

Despite this curious relief, this momentary acceptance of limited contact with her dead child, themes of bereavement and sorrow do become more prominent later in the collection. The apex of this desolation lies within "Tsunami." Wong, referring to herself in the third person, compares her experience of grief "to carrying a heavy box up the stairs." She struggles to explain her grief, finally dismissing elaborate similes as inadequate, rejecting glib images that cannot even begin to express the depth of her pain:

Grief is not like carrying a heavy box,
or being on a roller-coaster,
or riding a tsunami wave.

Her final pronouncement is blunt and forceful, yet perhaps the most touching line in the poem: "Grief is grief, and dead is dead." However heart-wrenching, however painful, Wong is unafraid to confront the truth about the reality of her emotional agony.

There are other poems that are equally potent in Yellow Plum Season: the gorgeous "My Poet," Wong's paean for (presumably) her husband and fellow poet Tim Suermondt, or Wong's "found" poem "Beslan," a bittersweet recollection of a Russian father for a beloved daughter, murdered in the infamous 2004 Beslan massacre. In general, Wong's poems are excellent. Her scope is vast yet intricate as she extracts pain and beauty from a variety of experiences. Her voice is uncompromising, unafraid to speak of things that are difficult or painful. Wong's adroitness with words, images and emotions is undeniable. However, not every poem in the collection has this effect.

On one of the few occasions where Wong attempts a long piece of poetry in the itself lengthily titled "Looking out to Java Road on A Cloudless Day" her intensity, which is normally a great strength, becomes overwrought. She attempts to convey the suffering her grandparents endured during the Cultural Revolution, but ends up overloading the work with a profusion of images and a cacophony of conflicting memories that end up obscuring her intentions rather than enhancing the richness of the history she attempts to access. Wong's emotional honesty comes through in most of her works, but she is at her best when she allows her shorter poems to use their relative sparseness of phrase to heighten the images and feelings.

Nevertheless, as a collection, Yellow Plum Season is a fine balance of the bitter, sweet and sour of lives lived and places seen, from Wong's observant and compassionate view. Yellow Plum Season is indeed neither spring nor summer, but a heady combination of all seasons. Wong's debut is an impressive collection of work.

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