Reviews / December 2015 (Issue 30)

Unlocking a City and a Self We (Mostly Don’t) See: A Review of Foreign Skin and Unlocking

by Dragoș Ilca

Image  Image

Kate Rogers, Foreign Skin, Aeolus House, 2015. 83 pgs.

Mary-Jane Newton, Unlocking, Proverse Hong Kong, 2014. 88 pgs.


Foreign Skin, a collection of poems by Kate Rogers, brings together experiences from past Western contexts with those of Hong Kong and Asia. The bridging is many-folded, yet the major ones are geographical, stylistic and historical. However, at a first glance, the lyrical self does not feel alienated or nostalgic (save for whole-wheat bread) as one would expect; rather, it adopts the postition of the Baudelairian disinterested observer of the spectacle in front of it. The reflections of the self are discreet and almost muffled ("I take my resentment to Tai Po Kau forest"), as the emphasis is placed on painting the "crowded ocean" of Hong Kong we all know. The volume subjects itself to a reading that emphasises its cosmopolitanism, but this aspect is secondary to the foreignness of the environment.

Expectantly so, Foreign Skin takes us on a tour of the back alleys of the city, where cardboard picking women, security guards on the ground floors of buildings and men rattling trolleys are hidden from sight. As such, the Daipaidong and Sai Ying Pun market count among the places that tie Foreign Skin both to Hongkongers and foreigners, and presenting through that an image that is at once relevant and stereotyped in the West. Opposing this are names of exclusive areas such as Queen's Road in Central or luxury brands such as Jimmy Choo and Chanel, representing a side of the city that is at once inaccessible and too visible. The contradictory spaces that are presented in Foreign Skin do not move beyond their status quo, leaving the reader to interpret their relevance, either from a consumerist/capitalist perspective, or giving in to the almost fantastical depictions of a Hong Kong one might encounter in tourist brochures or documentaries. The stance of the lyrical self is not clear, preferring to be detached from either setting.

Love is something that comes to fill a need for products, in particular bread, that are not available in China. "You can't find good bread in China …" is one of the poems that emphasises the difference between East and the West, while distancing the lyrical self from the spectacle of the city at the same time. In a true Baudelairian fashion, the encounter is random, yet seems to come at the right time when "whole grain would come and go / at Wellcome and City Super." The two poems which follow portray the same man, an ex member of the air force, with a passion for baking "and feeding the crumbling hearts of those he loves."

As such, Foreign Skin presents the arch of a feminine lyrical presence coming to terms and finding some stability in a Hong Kong that is at once oneiric and stereotypical. However, one must ask in the last part of the collection, "Ah Ku Poems," whether Kate Rogers's pastiches of various Asian traditions reinforce traditional Orientalist views. The foreign skin becomes in this context a type of understanding that covers, completes, but that can also be discarded or renewed. Its amorphous nature reflects an ego that tries to define itself in a city that resists definition, even more so from "Western eyes." Perhaps that might explain why the last part of Foreign Skin tries to capture a certain mood that inevitably falls into well-known Asian tropes.

Editors' Note: Read Kate Rogers's response to this review here.


Attempting to legitimise itself through amorphous creatures from Dali's paintings and haunted by a sense of unrequited love, Mary Jane Newton's Unlocking tries to open itself through the numerous voices that dot the poems. However, aside from general remarks, these poems betray a style of writing that is reminiscent of an early modernism. Naturally, such a reading of the volume still raises the major ontological problem (even more so in contemporary contexts) of "Who am I?" While the style of writing might be an acquired taste, as it tends to fall into standard tropes, the overall statement of the "unlocking" cycles arguably makes it a worthwhile read.

With poems ranging from a few lines ("Sardines" being my personal favourite) to several pages, the setting is mostly centered on images and remarks on time, love, motherhood and unresolved paternal issues from numerous perspectives. Unlocking takes the shape of many characters and formats in order to deliver its message. One might be tempted at this point to place Unlocking into the categories that have been mentioned; however, I believe that there is a danger of being dismissive. There is no arch or attempt at creating a narrative like in Foreign Skin, but arguably one can notice that the character of the poems shifts from a dismantling of the self to reconciliation. The newer self that is reformed is nothing unlike the previous one, and through this, fragmentation becomes a key issue for "unlocking" this collection. While each poem can be taken on its own as there is no single linear way in which to classify or read Unlocking, the one that puts things into perspective is "Daddy." As mentioned before, there is no puzzle to be pieced together in this collection, there is no grandeur in the short poems that might have been scribbled on the last pages of a notebook. However, "Daddy," a poem which deals with the lyrical self's abusive father begs for a second reading of the cycles. To me it seems that the volume is a tribute to the father. It snapshots various moments, such as the "morning after," ways in which to write (and to make sense of the traumatic experiences as seen in "Poem No. 165" that wants "to remain forgotten"), as well as the small, childish thoughts of a sundial failing to show up for the dark hours as a means to cope with the absence. Coupled with the fragmentation that is the ars poetica of the collection, one could create a reading of the poems that suggests the confrontations of the lyrical self (now much older) that tries to move on from a familial dispute. The recurring themes of motherhood, lust, the danger of technology and so on could be traced to the same event in "Daddy's" basement and needle.

On one hand, I tried to look at two collections of poems that speak to each other in different ways; one tries to define itself through the city it lives in, the other (perhaps) through unresolved paternal issues. Certainly fragmentation and pastiche might be a common point, at least stylistically if not in establishing an identity. On the other hand, are the volumes worthwhile to read? There is a niche, of course, at least for Foreign Skin (however I don't see it having too much of an impact outside Hong Kong), whereas Unlocking might appeal to larger segments (could it be that the naïve style of writing might prove itself useful here?). In terms of the voice, both collections have a similar tone and atmosphere, the only difference here being that one is more localised than the other. However, Unlocking tries to define its artistic and stylistic premises (in rough lines, of course), and through that perhaps it weighs more than the other. The answer is at the discretion of the reader, or the reviewer in this case. To give a sense of closure regarding the worthwhileness of the readings, neither Mary-Jane Newton nor Kate Rogers will fill halls with audiences waiting to read their poems (who reads poetry today?). But for the select few, both volumes offer an experience that can be witnessed in a small room, on a chair, reading.

Website © Cha: An Asian Literary Journal 2007-2018
ISSN 1999-5032
All poems, stories and other contributions copyright to their respective authors unless otherwise noted.