Jennifer Mackenzie Reviews Asia Pacific Writing Series Books 1-4
Jennifer Mackenzie is the author of Borobudur (Transit Lounge, 2009), republished in Indonesia as Borobudur and Other Poems (Lontar, 2012) and has been busy promoting it at festivals and conferences in Asia. She is now working on a number of projects, including an exploration of poetry and dance, ‘Map/Feet’. Her participation in the Irrawaddy Festival was supported by a writer’s travel grant from the Australia Council for the Arts.
Vagabond Press has recently issued four attractively presented volumes of poetry from the Asia Pacific region. Each contains the work of three poets and represents China, Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines, respectively.
In the selection from China, Ouyang Yu provides an introduction which is concise, forthright and irreverent, so it should come as no surprise that the three poets he has chosen, Yi Sha (b.1966), Shu Cai (b.1965) and Yang Xie (b.1972) share these characteristics. There is a cool muscularity about these poems. For instance, Shu Cai ‘favours the cleanness of words and images’, Yu writes, ‘a poetry with contemporary rhythms that resonate with his themes of absurdity, of death and of memory.’ His poetry exemplifies the connection between source and form, what Yu calls ‘the centrality of solitary insight’. In ‘Ocean Sea’, the sound from the ocean’s depths and from those of the soul, present a language both perceived and created:
All we can ever do is listen to the sound from the depth
Of our selves
All that can be forgotten needs to be forgotten
As the stars and the earth refuse to be forgotten
At the seaside where I sit and watch
I seem to see life right through to its other end
In ‘Sunday Free’ there is a transposition of self into nature, as the speaker is ‘full of wings/Inside my house, flying inside the bus.’ Once at the beach:
Over my head, a huge bird is
Flying, and I am sitting
A bird whose wings have grown
Yu mentions the poet’s engagement with the poetry of René Char and Pierre Reverdy, and this cross-fertilisation between French and Chinese poetry is evident in Shu Cai’s making of solitude within the fabric of the poem. ‘Hai Zi Forever’ resonates like Char’s work, while ‘Extreme Autumn’ extends the transnational influence, suggesting Wallace Stevens through its images of autumn as a mirror and a tranquil thinker at the very quick of nature. The superb ‘Absurdity’ delineates heightened desensitization, as the speaker ‘like a poplar by the roadside’ plunges into a world where ‘Cruelty was the greatest reality’.
In regard to Yi Sha, Yu praises his poetry for being ‘accessible, direct, hard-hitting, filled with riveting stories that tell of all facets of modern life’, a view of modern life presented with a mordant and what some might consider masculine detachment. The most successful appear to be family pieces, such as ‘The Battle with the Puppet’, in which furniture blocks and confine the argument within a domestic setting:
i was having a great talk with my father
like puppets fighting each other
in the mirror of the big standing cabinet
an argument which had:
an unhappy ending
I capsized the table and all
Yi Sha’s poetry generally offers some wry perspectives on its contemporary themes, and his technical ability is at its best in ‘I Wrote Again About My Mother’s Departure’, which has the spare economy of a Balthus nude. But its social observations have their limitations. It’s possible that the poetry may be stronger in Chinese, but its combination of conservativism and sentimentality is conveyed in the locker-room-macho tone of a poem such as ‘My Next Door Neighbour’, which describes gay women: ‘good girls lying fallow/is really a waste.’
Yi Sha’s implicit gender anxiety is also present in the poetry of Yang Xie, who works with the expressionist elements of nausea and the olfactory, elements which are specifically gen-dered. He uses unripe or rotting fruit to good effect in poems such as ‘Rotting’, which works particularly well to create contrast between a ‘purely white, spotless apple’ and the ‘rotten pear …chucked in the bin.‘ In this ‘disgusting poem‘, as the author calls it, mundane decay extends into the world of the city, death, prostitution and the police. This is further explored in ‘The Night Women’. Viscera constructs the poem, where ‘night women … quietly ooze liquids, fishy and oily’:
the night women flood this
they spread this small city
with their peculiar fragrance
and let it in this atmosphere
rapidly become white apples wrapped in white paper in the
and pears that sit permanently on the trays on the desktop
In other poems, like ‘Something Is Taking Leave’, onomatopoeic effects are worked in to this abject landscape, where sounds of a dripping tap, a ticking clock pour into the body. Underscoring a sensibility that runs through this series, Yang Xie is a highly visual poet, recording sensation in deft strokes of the pen. In ‘A Man Died’, the depiction of an unequal exchange of prestige, wealth and social attitude are portrayed as a painter might:
He stopped me as I was about to go past their BMW
Saying he wanted to introduce me to his wife as a poet
But the woman’s morning-fog eyes
Swept past my face to dwell on
The florid rubbish bin behind me
Till I said bye in a hurry two minutes subsequently
A man died just like that
Remembering all those things
I can’t help writing this poem
It is possible to imagine ‘the woman’s morning-fog eyes’ as being the initial impetus for the poem: the image is emblematic of a visual expressionist palette, and its confrontational nature is the locus of challenge for the poet.
Turning to the Japanese selection, a visual sensibility predominates, but of a different kind. One is struck by the poems of Rin Ishigaki (1920-2004); as exquisite objects, they balance intellect and sensibility; what she describes in as ‘In the midst of eternity/At the intersection of time and space/The drama of the “everyday” unfolds’ (‘When the Sun Rises on New Year’s Day’). Linguistically brilliant works with a touch of William Carlos Williams in their attention to detail, they address femininity in such gorgeous poems as ‘Island’:
The history of the island.
The dimensions of the island.
Waist, bust and hips.
The singing of birds.
The hidden spring.
The flower’s fragrance.
As Yasuhiro Yotsumoto notes in the introduction to the volume, Rin Ishigaki spent all her working life as a bank clerk and as the main breadwinner for her extended family. With such an overwhelming responsibility, it is no wonder that in the superb ‘Motherland’ poetic free-dom is so celebrated. Rin Ishigaki employs the mountain ascent as a metaphor for the world of poetry, a world without prohibitions:
I was overjoyed by there being no notice
On the trail I had just glanced back at
It was a mountain trail where nothing like a notice should be.
On the mountain top
Where nothing like that should exist
I yelled out without knowing why,
If someone erects a notice here
I’ll tear it out
I’ll tear it out regardless of the cost!
‘In Front of Me the Pot and Ricepot and Burning Flames’ is a poem of much formal care, beauty and resonance:
There have been for ages
Objects always placed
In front of us women,
A pot of sufficient size
To match our strength and
A ricepot designed especially for fat
Simmering shiny rice and
In front of the fire that we have inherited
from the beginning of history …
a resonance proclaiming a witty and gracious feminism:
In front of these beloved objects
Just like we cook meat and potatoes
With a deep love
Let us study politics and economics and literature.
Balance, humour and unwavering honesty distinguish her poetry. It is praised by the volume’s translator, Leith Morton, for ‘the simplicity and power of her diction. Rin Ishigaki’s words ring on the brain like the beat of a drum, sometimes the rhythm is gentle, almost comforting, but sometimes it breaks the silence like the cracking of a whip.’ If her style is rhythmic, one of her companions in this volume, Masayo Koike’s (b.1959) creates surfaces. Her words are alive on the page, with images deftly cut and folding into each other to create a vibrant surface formed of observation and perception.
Individually, her poems have a single, tender conceit. It ranges from the tragic, to the inci-dental, to variation on the transcendental in ‘Antelope’, where a childhood encounter with an antelope at a mountain spa resonates through the years:
To the spa in my dreams
In the dead of night gently I put my toes into the hot water
Through the steam opposite I can hear faint steps
Returns each time
Images of mountain and water inform a number of Masayo Koike’s poems. Among her many supple and inventive works, ‘Hakozaki on Deep Blue’ is notable for the humour and urgency of its observations:
Nothing captured Hakozaki Ichiro’s heart as much as deep
When he was waiting in front of the station for a friend
By chance his eye fell upon a nearby flower bed
There quite by accident
A mass of small blue flowers was growing
His line of vision
As if harvested by a vacuum cleaner was sucked into it
In ‘the sequel’, the poet notes her own love of the colour blue, particularly of blue flowers: ‘Aren’t I Hakozaki? Isn’t Hakozaki me? We love blue.’ She extends the reach of the poem into minute evocations of the colour, whether it be a spot of blue on a body or a faint touch in the white of an eye. The employment of narrative and close attention to the texture of words underscores an appealing originality.
Shuntaro Tanikawa (b.1932) seems to have more in common with his female compatriots than with the masculine ‘grunge’ of the Chinese poets Yi Sha and Yang Xie. In this selection, he appears to be a poet of extraordinary range, with a free-wheeling persona that takes him comfortably through a variety of form and subject. He possesses a clear and candid voice, which immediately engages the reader. Like Masayo Koike’s work, there are many references to sea and forest; and Rin Ishigaki’s poetry may also be compared to Tanikawa’s poems, in which everyday objects often reverberate beyond themselves:
In the distance the sea caught the light
From the unvarnished table that arrived yesterday the faint
scent of forest
But birdsong faded away (‘Here Now’)
The direct voice can on occasion be complex, as in the fine ‘Shaping Sand’ which plays with the very idea of writing:
The lines born from your fingertips
Shape forms without shape and unshape forms with shape
Reject the flora and fauna of a single star
Tanikawa’s poems about family, especially his father, are particularly strong, but equally striking is the finely delineated ‘The Chagall and Leaf’, poised as it is between nature and art, between the costly acquisition and the found leaf. The poem begins:
Next to the Chagall lithograph that I bought with all my savings
I placed a Japanese chestnut oak leaf that I picked up on the road
The sound of Ravel played on the piano in the background
Today becomes one with eternity
In the blue sky outside the window my heart and my body melt
… Where did these tears come from?
Moving from the aesthetics in ‘The Chagall and Leaf’, a world defined by the beauty of image and sound, we enter into a different world, a contemporary world full of noise, turmoil and extempore choice. My first reaction to the poetry of Lưu Diệu Vân (b.1979) in the selection from Vietnam was that I wanted to hear her read live:
ask a poem to a bar
leave it alone
sit at a distant table
watch its every move
take another poem home (Lưu Diệu Vân, ‘time killers for poets’)
Rich in theme, with a brave and lively selection of imagery, Vân excels at incisive observation – at times tragic, and more often than not, very funny. The poem ‘post-feminism’, coming after a crisp dissection of Confucianism in ‘dead philosopher’s apologia’, is a highlight. Here are some snippets from this tale of an unfortunate dinner-date:
he eagerly criticizes, after a few inhales of thick smoke
you have yet to possess true feminine traits …
I wear red high heels, clingy off-shoulder silk dress, and
elegant white pearls …
I widen my eyes in surprise and yawn discreetly with my
mouth covered, slowly cross my long legs, neatly fold
both hands on my lap, calmly interrupt his second
criticism after asking the waiter to bring me a separate
bill for the lemonade and crème brûlée to take home …
Feminist and political appraisal is strengthened by Vân’s awareness of neighbourhood, specifically its imagery in such poems as ‘dolls and bicycles’ and ‘the finality of peace’. This location of politics in the individual’s life is evident in ‘my 1975 story’, through a transposition of time that presents national tragedy in two short, vivid pages:
I am a young woman, approaching eighteen years of age
scrambling around the square, morning, noon, day and night
where they bind prisoners to flagpoles
under the broiling sun
offering to exchange wedding bands and keepsakes for half a
and a mouthful of cold water
The other two poets in this Vietnamese volume, Lưu Mêlan (b. 1989) and Nhã Thuyên (b. 1986), are both promising writers in their twenties and at the beginning of their careers. Both show an exuberance and inventiveness in their use of language. For Nha Thuyen, water appears to be her chosen element, in that it works as an expressionistic device to make a frag-mentary, and fractured, connection with the world. An example of this trait can be seen in ‘unfamiliar appearances (1)’, where:
the girl shrinks herself behind the wooden door, clutching a
handful of rain
from somewhere the autumn sky pours down on the garden
she dips one by one a pungent kumquat leaf of water
Lưu Mêlan also reveals a fragmentary, disconnected and migratory self when she evokes in ‘Ninh Thuan’, ‘a sun shined Saigon’ of ‘somber clouds and chilly winds’; a Saigon which is deceptive, illusory and alienating. Such features are also present in the final volume to be dis-cussed, a selection from the Philippines.
By comparison with the youthful Vietnamese writers of the third volume, the three Filipino poets in this fourth anthology are of a much older generation, and generally the pieces in-cluded are not recent work. Rolando S. Tinio (1937-1997) was a theatre director who wrote poetry in both English and Tagalog, and it is possible to see the influence of the theatre in the deft characterisation employed in works such as ‘The Granny’, ‘Song for the Dead’ and ‘Af-ternoon Coffee’. Scene-setting and the disposition of objects illustrate person and circum-stance, as Tinio uses observation to shape the poetic voice. Consider the beginning of ‘After-noon Coffee’:
As if she grew fat on the cold and hardship,
Ensconced under a cardboard pergola and rotten iron sheet,
Ripened by the noons,
Turned grey-haired by merciless dust,
For years she was in my view:
Companion of boiled peanuts, papaya and jackfruit
Blowflies, too fastidious, weren’t tempted by,
Like her always in season.
The tragic Downstairs is tender in its disposition of discarded objects:
The day before yesterday was the anniversary of her death:
Bashed by the Japanese, mistaken for someone else they say.
I fixed a padlock to the drawer
Slipped the key
Into a lotion bottle.
In contrast, poems originally written in Taglish (a mix of Tagalog and English) celebrate a disrupted linguistic surface, both in performance and on the page. ‘Postscript’, with the poet’s own English language lines set in italics, is an example:
your star-spangled ideas
You made us idiots
No match for you
I get so furious
we were put through school
and come out silly
Because we’re out of touch (chua chua)
Because we’re out of touch (chua chua)
Making up this volume from the Philippines are Jose P. Lacaba (b1945) and Rio Alma (b.1944). Their work continues this series’ trend to surprise us with its selection of poets and an exciting range of subject and style. Lacaba’s verse, with its subtle social observation, in-cludes the refinement, indeed artifice, of the lyric. ‘Letter from father to son’ is particularly moving:
We talk about a lot of things,
yet never talk about
what’s close to the bone …
Still I know
when I’m plastered
from beer and tequila,
you’re ready to drive,
and you can be sure
when those aliens land,
it will be over my dead body
when and if they get you.
In contrast to Lacaba’s spare verse, Rio Alma’s poetry tends to follow the trajectory of the emotion generated by the poem. This might be a meditation on a particular state of being, as in ‘On Loneliness’, or as an evocation on the melancholy and tragedy of contemporary rural life – a theme he shares with Lưu Mêlan – as in ‘The Returning Herons’. His poetry appears to be pitched at performance, with subject and image moving together in tragic and communicative unison. Of the meditative poems, ‘On Suicide’ possesses a mordant iciness while ‘On Loneliness’, with its haunting imagery, inhabits the dwelling place of loneliness:
… Loneliness will make its appearance
In the form of a green enchantress
With a circumspect and kindly smile
And an armful of dreams for the gash in your heart.
It will sing to you and while singing
Alter scent and the colour of its dress.
Now ruby, now silver or copper, now emerald
Until you fall asleep with cobwebbed eyelids.
When you make it to the dream’s noonday, however,
Again it will pull apart the wound in your chest,
Rub lime juice and salt into it
Till it has grown black pearls.
These volumes give the reader a snippet of the enormously various subject and style to be found in contemporary poetry from the Asia-Pacific region. By not focusing on one style, one generation or one singular vision or point of view, this series from Vagabond Press effectively disperses any idea of a singular regional canon and embraces diversity and inclusivity. In this way, the series does what is, perhaps, the key function of anthology: it encourages the reader to look further; to seek out the many poets currently writing work that is worthy of close reading and critical engagement.