Reviews / May 2009 (Issue 7)

Poetry Wrapped in Beauty: A Review of Three Poetry Collections

by Cecilia Chan


Steven Schroeder, Six Stops South, Cherry Grove Collection, 2009. 70 pgs.
Viki Holmes, miss moon's class, Chameleon Press, 2008. 98 pgs.
Kate Rogers, Painting the Borrowed House, Proverse Hong Kong, 2008. 68 pgs. 

"You just have to see that it's wrapped in beauty and hidden away in between the seconds of your life. If you don'’t stop for a minute, you might miss it."
     – From the movie Cashback (2007) 

There are so many touching moments passing us by. Sometimes we stand in awe, praising their beauty, at other times we lament at having missed them. Just as we cherish the passing moments of beauty, we treasure works of art that represent and re-create beauty. The poets Steven Schroeder, Viki Holmes and Kate Rogers have captured these moments in their poetry collections, Six Stops South, miss moon's class and Painting the Borrowed House.

Schroeder is good at portraying movements in nature. Each poem is short, concise, and full of life. If we compare his poems to photographs, his works surpass still images, for not only do they capture a single static moment, but also the changes taking place. The flowers in his poems would not wait for the bitter winter to pass. Rather, they endure and hope for the warmth of spring ("Peony"); the trees do not stay still to bear the wind, they bend with it, and slide past the adversity facing them ("Again"). These vignettes of nature we may take for granted, and let them slip past our notice; but Schroeder invites us to revisit them, not to gaze at how pleasing they may look, but to experience their vitality and dignity.

The vignettes also convey a new vision of the seasons. We may have forgotten how chilly it was a few months ago now that the summer heat and humidity is upon us. In Schroeder's poetry, through the voice of some unassuming sprouts or buds personified, we are asked to re-experience the seasons. The poet demands us to "see it with your ears/ before your eyes open/ to the possibility of Spring." ("Blue"). He shows us how a daffodil is "shaking off the last tenacious/ memories of Winter's chill." ("Promise").

Nature as depicted in Schroeder's poetry is refreshing because it is given personality. In each short poem, objects of nature come to the foreground. Snowdrops would "huddle close and/ keep their heads down/ against the cold inevitability/ of March wind." ("Early"); "a dog cannot be/ anything other than hopeful,/ anywhere other than now." ("And the Day After"), and sparrows in snow would "consider cold feet far/ too dear a price for a crumb wrestled/ in a crowd from a crust of bread." ("Circle").

Schroeder also extends his sensitivity to the urban landscape. To sum it up, he says, "every poem is/ a city singing." ("On Rush Street"). Art is another field he engages with. Schroeder elegantly shares with his readers the works of art that touch him—the music of Mozart and Beethoven, the paintings of Ba Da, and the poetry of the Russian author Yevgeny Yevtushenko. His erudition shines through his insightful observations and crisp expressions. And his sensitivity to beauty illuminates his collection of poems in Six Stops South.

Our journey of recollecting beauty continues with Viki Holmes, whose various female personae take us on adventures. The collection opens with the section, "writing", with the quote "this verse was written to make you feel smitten". Readers encounter the voice of intimacy and sensuality. These are private words spoken to the persona's significant other, or they are about intimate interactions between two people as revealed by a narrator. At all times, we are given an opportunity to look at something hidden; we are privy to private desires which are rendered striking through delicate and poignant language. 

While Schroeder transforms elements of weather into animate objects, Holmes transforms them into sensual encounters. The personae of Holmes' poems learn of the world through touch. In the poem "kinesthesia", a kiss is "like raising a hand to the sky/ a real sky", or it is compared to "holding a candle to the temple walls/ lit from within" in the poem "illumination", or even "nine thousand mushrooms bloom" in the poem "narcissus learns to kiss". Delicate moments linger, not just in forms of touch, but more so as a new sensation; the metaphors are a testimony to powerful experiences.

Quite a few poems take place in domestic settings. The poet writes that "home is not home/ but a place/ you haven't found/ until you leave" ("movement"). Yet the poems are neither lamentations of memories unfulfilled nor nostalgic celebrations of a presently inaccessible location. Domestic places provide the settings for a contented life. Home is where calm, habit, and stability are fostered. The domestic setting in Holmes' poems is a comforting background for touching episodes to take place.

All through the collection of miss moon’s class, we see beauty in the relation between the external surroundings and the internal landscape of the mind. Apart from the calmness discussed above, there are also underlying upheavals altering this internal landscape. In the poem "temperate zone", inner turmoil is stirred in a cup of latte. In the poem "creation myths", the male persona is transformed into a marine landscape of sea, fish, corals and tides. Words are collected and placed and they are executed "swift as petals fall" ("a cuisle").

Kate Rogers displays another form of interplay between the external surrounding and the internal landscape of the mind. In her poetry collection, Painting the Borrowed House, the landscapes portrayed are specific locations in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Taiwan. In her poetry, we sense a disorientation and a bafflement with unfamiliar customs, but we also see how they are overcome with the universal language of beauty and affection. In this way, often-neglected beauty is re-introduced to readers.

The poet has an acumen for heart-warming vignettes. Her disorientation is acutely expressed in "Pajamas in Shanghai", a poem which compares the occasion of her wearing the wrong attire with an embarrassing incident concerning her grandfather. These two incidents are juxtaposed in an unexpected manner, only to move the readers more. The issue of identity is actively examined in Rogers's poems, among which "Being Pale" strikingly articulates her isolation. By the end of the poem, she knows her place and she finds a way to blend in. 

Another connection between her self and her surroundings is established through the portrayal of her home. The persona enriches her new home with intricate stories, just as she paints a borrowed house with subtle shades. In "A Book of Birds", the persona recalls her past; her relationship with nature is revived in a field guide of birds in Hong Kong. "Ice House Street" provides another example of how identities coexist. The persona finds equilibrium with her two homes through a poetic vision of the unique environments of Canada and Hong Kong. 

Like that of her fellow poet Viki Holmes, Kate Rogers's poetry is acutely sensuous. She describes her new residence with such lines as "the beds and chairs are all without springs" as "a lean mother, with no lap to sink into" as well as "Shanghai, reinventing itself outside my window 24 hours a day". The intricacies of pain are revealed in the poem "Pain", where physical suffering is transformed into a vital butterfly, with a mind of its own. Rogers's poems are more narrative-driven and her sensitivity and poetic language takes her readers on a journey of the senses.

The three poetry collections have given us access to beauty we would otherwise miss on our own. Their varying styles and subjects do not overshadow their common vision of beauty. We try to take photographs, make voice recordings and videos, but as Rogers expresses in "The Acolytes", "I want to raise my camera,/ capture the colours of their flight,/ but will not startle with the flash./ Sitting on a low concrete wall,/ I begin this poem".

Editors' Note: Steven Schroeder's and Viki Holmes's poetry has been published in issue#5 and issue#3 of Cha respectively.

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