Reviews / September 2012 (Issue 18)

Innovations: Three Collections by Kate Rogers, Gillian Bickley and Vaughan Rapatahana

by Michael Tsang

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Gillian Bickley, Perceptions, Proverse, 2012. 78 pgs.
Vaughan Rapatahana, china as kafka, Kilmog Press, 2011. 51 pgs.
Kate Rogers, City of Stairs, Haven Books, 2012. 108 pgs.

The three collections under review here, Perceptions by Gillian Bickley, china as kafka by Vaughan Rapatahana and City of Stairs by Kate Rogers, have one thing in common: they marry content with aesthetics. Each of these collections includes a variety of poems that contemplate social issues or muse on simple scenes of daily life; they each also explore the craft of poetry in unique ways.

As the "Author's Introduction" explains, Gillian Bickley's Perceptions not only consists of poems but also "short pieces" or "poem-like essays." If you are looking for fresh imagery or cutting-edge diction, Gillian Bickley may not be for you, as her poems do not feature intentionally ambiguous word choice, challengingly arranged stanzas or clever line breaks. Indeed, at first glance, her style may seem too straightforward, but read more, and one realises her pieces contain honest and direct renditions of daily life.

Bickley often describes moments which demonstrate the harmonious connections between individuals of different backgrounds or between humans and animals. For example, in "An Almost Human Voice," she describes the amusing interactions between parrots in a Hong Kong park and their feeder:

—company . . . boredom relieved . . . more food—
"Ah Siu, Ah Siu!" 

Red buckets, blue bowls,
tin bowl put in a tree.


"Chou-san" ("Good-morning"), she said
to the parrots, cranes, hoopoes;

blue-footed among parrots,
calling, calling, "Ah Siu!"—her name.

And in "'An Action Produces an Equal and Equivalent Reaction'? (Newton's Third Law)," Bickley writes about the reciprocal greeting she received from a stranger in Albania:

What less could one do, trooping past you—
presumably on your home turf—but see you,
show you one saw you, acknowledge
your prior rights?

But you—so generously and kindly
(respectfully?—no, not that word—lovingly, almost)
rose to your feet
and bowed deeply,
with your right hand on your heart.

As the book title suggests, such poems offer perceptions. The speaker observes, then repaints the scene with an artistic touch.

Other poems in the collection offer more depth. In some of her longer pieces, Bickley turns her sharp observations to social criticism. In "Added Value" she muses that

Advertising even
(in some strange way its twin),
does not hope to make us
covet cars, cookers, or clothes
for themselves,
but for the possibilities
they may facilitate
for spiritual solace, emotional joy.

Then in "The Aim of Life" she address the existential of implications our modern society:

But now Society has forgotten God,
no longer views as actual
immortality of the individual
(for man may soon destroy
the whole human race for ever) ....

These passages invite the reader to reflect on the issues raised by connecting directly with Bickley's perceptions. This sense of having open access to the poet is heightened when one listens to the CD that accompanies the collection and which contains Bickley's own reading of all the poems. Few collections come with CDs, and one appreciates the extra time and effort that went into recording, especially as Bickley's poems are truly meant to be read aloud. For example, the alliteration in "Added Value" can be more readily discerned and appreciated when heard. And when listening to Bickley's interpretation of the poems in her well-paced British accent, one feels as if one is listening to the musings of a close friend or to a gentle sermon. Rather than diminishing the effect of the collection by limiting the possible interpretations of the works, the audio tracks bring the whole collection closer to the reader's heart.

If Bickley's verse is best to be listened to, then Vaughan Rapatahana's poems in china as kafka must be read from the page to be fully appreciated. (Indeed the book—with its white, wavy lines chiselled onto a maroon hardcover and title and author's name printed vertically in black—is itself a stylishly designed piece of art.) Flipping through the pages, what catches the reader's eye first, before any single word, are the unique line arrangements:


symbiotic – yet

a   p   a   r   t.

snorkeling for      experience

                             less     taken


t o w a r d the light       ("scuba-ing for colin wilson")

Through experiments with different typefaces, font sizes and spatial arrangements, Rapatahana stretches the boundaries of a poem's architecture and explores how textual arrangements create meaning. For example, in the excerpt above, the phrase "dive into," printed diagonally across five lines, speeds up the pace of the poem and simulates the motion of diving, while the last three lines, especially the dispersed spacing of "toward," slow down reading, as if we too were swimming.

Rapatahana's unique techniques are particularly effective when a piece provides a critique of political and social issues, as in the title poem, "china as kafka." It offers a brilliant take on the horrific political oppression in China, described as "limbo land," suffused with dark humour:

if you are not yet
you soon will be;
no sane survivor
from 'psychiatric'
staffed by
suited goons,
      sporting truncheons as heads,
10 on 1 flaying into
'political opponents'
who spoke the truth –

The rhyme of "goons" and "picaroons" is comically nonchalant, as is the refrain:

cadre Wong
Is never wrong.
remember that
you fool.

Yet such lightness, by humorously undermining the Chinese regime, only underlines the seriousness of the poem's political message. Anyone who knows of the brutality of Chinese authorities will shiver at the cruel truth this wordplay contains, even while smiling at their absurdities.

In another poem, "kwai chung mtr," the speaker describes a common scene in Hong Kong's Mass Transit Railway:

the droll banter/the drone blather
as glops of hyperlingo,
programmed special for such
prolix journey.

Here, too, Rapatahana's technique serves his social observation. The reordering of syllables in the first line, a literary device referred to as metathesis, expresses the banality of the average MTR commuters' experience—the sounds in the poem blending together, just as the hours and days for the people on the train. Later in the poem, the riders' eyes are described as "siamese twins/sans connectivity," with extra-wide spacing between each letter in "connectivity" used to illustrate a sense of disconnectedness. Through such techniques, Rapatahana forces readers to mull each line carefully, to go beyond their superficial appearance and to extract the meanings contained within.

Kate Rogers' latest collection, City of Stairs, does not rely on technical pyrotechnics; hers is an aesthetic based on voice and form. In "Sai Ying Pun Sestina," for example, she rejuvenates the sestina to sketch life in Sai Ying Pun, an old district of Hong Kong:

Sai bing gei leans into the mountain, bends men low
under gas bottles, over carts that know no boundary
so Mercedes climb slowly behind. Exhaust pools under the banyan,
shimmers a mirage. King's College bursts open. Meaning
escapes uniformed boys in 7-11. The dai pai dong sinks
under their weight. The quilted grandma turns to stone.

The unrhymed stanzas within this traditional poetic form echo Sai Ying Pun's juxtapositions of the old and new, the rich and poor.

Whereas the other two collections provide a strong impression that many of the poems may be at least partially autobiographical, Roger's book features a section called "In the Dark Theatre" written in voices clearly not her own, including those of a Japanese geisha and Greek mythological figures such as Daphne and Galatea. Rogers' poetic gift is on full display throughout the section, as she convincingly draws the reader into her tales.

In many poems, Rogers also manages to delicately blend scenery with experience. In "Long Distance Courtship," for example, romantic courtship is compared to climbing:

Movement is mostly effortless
and I can even climb mountains in the heat,
though I still must remember to slow down.
When you arrive
to climb my stairs,
shedding layers and illusions as you go,
I will bring you first, to my roof,
so you can be skin-to-skin with my sky.

"Reign of Ice," my favourite in the collection, is a moving poem that weaves together a Montreal winter landscape and several women's experiences of disasters, including the Chernobyl nuclear incident. Recently, I had the privilege of listening to Rogers present this poem. She read with compassion and a tinge of helplessness, the poem perhaps taking on new-found meaning in light of the events at Fukushima.

Rogers' best poems are solemn and contemplative and capable of eliciting the most naked emotional responses. One such example is "Vigil in Victoria Park, Hong Kong" which describes those June Fourth Tiananmen demonstrators who died:

[…] Pressed against
pavement like flowers, they were petals
thinner than paper.
Paper, which can blow away,
can burn, can also speak. Blood
is more permanent than ink.

Not necessarily. Perhaps the ink will one day fade, but so long as it is still dark and strong, it will continue to remind us to honour the blood of those brave souls. Another way to look at it would be to acknowledge the power that words, both written and spoken, have to offer powerful messages, innovative aesthetics and fresh meanings—all of which are evident in these three collections.

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