Reviews / May 2009 (Issue 7)

On Being Blunt: Louise Ho's Incense Tree

by Eddie Tay


Louise Ho, Incense Tree: Collected Poems of Louise Ho, Hong Kong University Press, 2009. 174 pgs. 

Launched recently at the Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival 2009, Louise Ho's Incense Tree consists of poems from her three previous collections as well as new poems. I have always enjoyed the more political of her poems, such as "Remembering June 4th, 1989" from her 1994 collection, Local Habitation, and "A Good Year" (a poem about the 1997 handover of Hong Kong) from her 1997 collection, New Ends, Old Beginnings.

Ho's latest offering allows us to sample poems from her entire body of work, for indeed there is a broad thematic range to her writings. I am beginning to discover that there is a whimsical aspect to her writings, as evidence in the somewhat disturbing poem "Babies and Mothers (at Tai Po Station)" which ends with babies falling to the ground, and "Of Strawberries (From D. to A.)" in which a male persona waxes lyrical about a woman's breast, both poems of which were first published in the now-hard-to-find 1977 collection, Sheung Shui Pastoral.

I have always thought of Louise Ho as an unlikely poet. Her poems often declare and declaim; the language is often abrupt, blunt and sometimes a little too forceful for my taste. Yet there is always something in her poems that stays with you: 

For the healthy man
His life is his poem.
For the literary critic
He lives to write another article.
It is the poet
Who shuffles from kitchen to loo
Biting his nails not knowing what to do.
     ("Poetry is Never of Emotion" 19)

Maybe it is the straight-forward envy of those who are contented with their lot, of those who never have to second-guess the trajectory of their lives. Maybe it is the disparagement directed at the hardworking literary critic whose work is, in the final analysis, academic. Or maybe it is the self-deprecation, the rather unromantic portrayal of the poet reinforced by the wry humour in the rhyming of the last two lines.

In many of her poems that deal with the act of writing, self-deprecation is involved. Often, we are reminded of how English language poetry is an anomaly in Hong Kong. In "Writing is Bleak", the persona longs to live in "the Paris of Joyce", in the company of the literary-minded. If writing as an activity is itself bleak, then "Writing in this language in this place [Hong Kong]/ Is doubly bleak", given that Hong Kong is not usually known as a place conducive to English language literary endeavours (8). At other times, there is a dissatisfaction that attends to her choice of language: 

Heung not Hong
Gong not Kong;
In any case
Transliteration into English sounds
Of monosyllabic tonal Chinese
Is alchemy in reverse
Changing all that is gold
Into dross, loss and mockery
     ("Incense Tree" 125) 

The irony is that if English sounds are "alchemy in reverse", then her poetry which after all is written in English amounts to "dross, loss and mockery". It is in this way that Ho's bilingualism sometimes threatens to reduce her poetry to silence. In contrast, Cantonese that is refined, as she tells us,

Creates a civilized space,
Or a proper silence,
Which was not there
Before he spoke.
     ("Well-spoken Cantonese" 60) 

We have here a paradoxical moment where Cantonese is celebrated in English. Given Ho's bilingualism, her poems hint at a corresponding set of poems in Chinese (or Cantonese) that remains unwritten. Perhaps this is symptomatic of Anglophone literary writings in Hong Kong, in that the English language author is conscious of the fact that he or she is writing for a limited local audience. It is this reflexive awareness of her bilingual situation that partly renders Ho's poems so uniquely Hong Kong.

Ho is uncompromising in terms of how she portrays Hong Kong. In "A Good Year", we are told: 

1997 is a good year
No better or worse
Than the year before or after
     ("A Good Year" 113)

This is a defiant statement which refuses to recognise the significance of 1997 to Hong Kong, suggesting that it is of no relevance to its populace whether Hong Kong remains a British colony or whether it is part of China. Ho is definitely not apolitical, as evidenced in "Remembering 4th June, 1989", a poem much discussed within academic circles: 

The shadows of June the fourth
Are the shadows of a gesture,
They say, but how shall you and I
Name them, one by one?
     ("Remembering 4th June, 1989" 39) 

Of course, part of understanding the people of Hong Kong has to do with understanding their response to June Fourth. Given the brute facts, perhaps poetic eloquence is a luxury the poet herself (and the society at large) cannot afford:

One has to be so vulgar
To live in vulgar times
In vulgar places.
     ("'Pop Song II: I Am of Hong Kong"'5)

Perhaps that is why Ho is fiercely unapologetic in terms of her approach to poetry, and this is self-consciously revealed in the above stanza in an early poem of hers.

"Have, get, make, what I will, I must", writes Ho in the poem. In the best of her writings, it is through the piecemeal accumulation of images, the constant struggle to take on whatever poetic material Hong Kong society has to offer and the will to transmute all of these into language that her writings coalesce into political poetry. That is why the poems of Louise Ho are abrupt, blunt and forceful. That is also why her poetry is so relevant, so powerful, and so poignant.

Editors' note: Three poems from Incense Tree were first published in issue #4 of Cha. You can read another review of the book by Cha co-editor Tammy Ho here.

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