Reviews / August 2009 (Issue 8)

Where We are Living in: A Review of Agnes Vong's and Alistair Noon's Poetry

by Pierre Lien


Agnes Vong, glitter on the sketch, ASM and Timber Publishing and Cultural Promotion Ltd., 2008. 85 pgs.
Alistair Noon, At the Emptying of Dustbins, Oystercatcher Press, 2009. 16 pgs.

I want to undo what I did
but I should have taken a picture
before I made the changes
– From "Sketch" by Agnes Vong

Of the things I've seen, the things I've claimed,
Which would you see? Which stairs would you climb?
– From "China (Reprise)" by Alistair Noon

Perhaps it is a question every poet must ask at a certain moment: why write? Perhaps it is also apparent that there never will be a correct answer. Some poets write to profess ideas, like how Wordsworth writes about nature; some simply enjoy writing; some never even have the thought of showing their poems to others, let alone publishing. The two poetry collections—glitter on the sketch by Agnes Vong and At the Emptying of Dustbins by Alistair Noon—share the same rationale: they would like to tell you where they are living in.

Asking someone to tell you where they live and where they live in are two very different things. To answer "Where do you live?", you must simply state the geographic location of your home. Answering "Where do you live in?" is more complicated. You have to describe a place in its full: the people, the environment, the politics, the sights and the sounds, the days and the nights, the propaganda and the superstitions. For Vong and Noon, their poetry collections are answers to where they are living in—they are about the scenes they witness, the people they meet, the inner struggles they have about what makes them a part of their country or city.

Vong's poetry collection is in a bilingual format—each poem has an English version and a Traditional Chinese version. It is very interesting to observe the similarities and differences between the two versions of each poem. Chinese words are known for their brevity—two Chinese characters can be the equivalent of ten or more words in English. However, just when you think you know what the characters in the Chinese poems signify, the English versions give you another perspective on their meaning, an insight to what they can potentially mean. Reading the two versions alongside each other in Vong's volume thus allows for a wider perspective of Macao.

Vong paints pictures in the mind with short and precise words. Entering the world of Vong's poetry, we are given a visual tour of "city macao". The tour begins where we see beautiful relics being blocked by the shimmering light of casinos ("a new bridge glows"). Then we hear the struggles of the persona's not knowing who she is. The memories of old Macao, where fishermen still sailed the sea and sought "Kun Iam" (the traditional Chinese goddess of the sea) for safe sailing, are fading. They are now shrouded by modernized bars like "Lan Kwai Fong Macao" that initially had nothing to do with Macao ("I pushed you away"). This struggle becomes more apparent as we go on to see that what used to be a simple and innocent city has been inundated with casinos, a change about which the people are basically "puzzled" ("three"). What used to be such an understated city has been irradiated by tourism.

Vong has a very vivid and sometimes satirical voice. Her humour makes us think. She writes about Chinese superstitions about astrology and how "good Buddhists" should not eat meat because they are meant to be vegetarians ("why the dogs are all wearing jade rabbits this year"). She compares an old farmer feeding his cow to feeding a slot machine in a casino, making us think about whether we have improved our lives simply by modernizing ("a good reason").

On the other side of the stereotypically positive and golden image of Macao we are used to, is Vong's version of the city, a puzzled, frustrated and even tragic side. It seems that we usually only focus on the camera-ready moment—a fixed time frame, which we think will always be fixed, ignoring the adverse changes that are actually happening ("the moment"). Vong writes that, if she could, she would have "taken a picture" of old Macao and feasted upon the goodness of the past while living in this modernized tragic new Macao ("sketch").

As someone who has lived in Hong Kong for twenty-odd years, I found myself understanding Vong more than Noon. This is purely a subjective response, however, probably because the culture in Hong Kong is similar to that of Macao. Still although I am not as familiar with the locations in Noon's poems, Soviet Russia, Germany, Macedonia and even Mainland China (I failed Chinese history in high school), Noon has a charm in his writing that lures readers into finding out more about these places. In other words, Noon makes us want to be there and see for ourselves what is in store.

Noon's depictions are vivid and full of endless surprises. He shows us the end of the Soviet Union; its brainwashing banners, the soldiers from the barracks. Among tense lines, Noon fits in this mocking denunciation of the corruption of the Communists: "the white clouds send down [bread] crumbs", referring to Lenin's slogan of "peace, land and bread" ("At the Emptying of Dustbins").

We also experience China through Noon's eyes. We see the natural beauty of "The East Lake" being covered by "heat, fumes and humidity" from "a smokestack and cement works" ("Wuhan Incidents"). An ironic tone creeps in when Noon says that "the water didn't look like a painting" ("China (Reprise)"). In a sense, perhaps, Noon is suggesting that China has lost its formal beauty.

Noon is best at depicting tension. "The Wolves of Brandenburg" offers a taut, tense description of Neo-Nazis in modern Germany, a frightening reminder of the country's past and possible future. I, however, thought the poem read equally well as a metaphor for East and West Germany during the Cold War. The characterization of soldiers as wolves in East and West Germany not only gives character to the soldiers, but to the Cold War itself—shows us that this world is but a forest full of wolves fighting endless cold wars.

There is one common rationale behind Vong's and Noon's writing: they do not want to forget. Perhaps this is why they write—to record memories. While Vong is perplexed by the unthinking modernization of Macao, Noon is concerned with the history of Soviet Russia and a changing China. They record events to tell us this—that we should never forget where we were living in. Be it a happy or sad memory, these recollections of history are what made us us.

Editors' note: Alistair Noon's creative non-fiction and poetry have previously been published in issue #2 of Cha.

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