Blair Reeve reviews a debut collection of poetry from Nashua Gallagher.
Nashua Gallagher, All The Words A Stage (Chameleon Press, 2018), 102pp.
Nashua Gallagher’s debut book of poetry, All The Words A Stage, collects poems written across the past decade of her life. She divides the collection into two Stages – an innovative way to split the poems chronologically, between those she considers a ‘stage’ in her development (as a writer), and those she considers written for the ‘stage’ (i.e. with an audience in mind) and therefore more seasoned or topical. Both stages have poems of a diaristic or autobiographic nature, dealing with topics that range from the poet-persona finding her tribe, her feet, a home, a vibe, to those vagaries of the mind that effect the writing of poetry, and more captivatingly, the pains and joys of (a) maintaining an identity while (b) raising a family (c) in Hong Kong as symbiotically relational spheres. It’s the first and last of these three that I’ll attend to in this review.
In both Stage I and II Gallagher enacts the process of becoming a poet, beginning with an homage to the café where she wrote “at 16” in the poem “Blue – For Joyce Is Not Here,” and strews the collection with ruminations on writing that serve to thicken the structural conceit of stages (10). But this process is a fraught one, where writing itself is obsessively examined and the writer’s curse – those demons of insecurity, the tortures one must suffer – can find a form. In Gallagher’s case, that form is the imagined city, or phantasm of Hong Kong, “the tallest city in the world” (“Nomad Child,” 5), which is a cold, indifferent muse with the power to contain and define its citizens’ lives. In “Passing by Mong Kok,” for example, the distracted bus-riding speaker finds that her thoughts are “now too, a plaything of the city” (14). This sense of being both a subject of the city and subject to the city troubles several of these poems to their core.
If a megacity has a creative life of its own then it has the capacity to transcend and diminish the little people scribbling in their journals. In “Chronicle” Hong Kong is a biographer who “scribes on rock, brick and earth,” telling of “thousands of lifelines / Written in ghost-hand by the city” (82). But we get a sense of the poet’s struggle not to be diminished or ‘written in ghost-hand,’ for the city can’t be trusted. With its surfeit of skyscrapers “jutting like a witch’s smile” there lies a hint of folkloric malevolence (82). In “New Year’s Eve” the folkloric become blandly commercial, “the many jagged teeth of The Man, laughing,” but no less barbaric (67). The city’s “odd angles” are mirrored in the wildly varying line lengths of these poems’ ragged right margins (67).
Referring to the 2014 Occupy movement in Hong Kong, “Yellow Umbrella” laments the city as shapeshifter, a narrative without determinate structure, or one that rarely conforms to the neat arc of fiction. The poet’s political sympathies flicker in this poem. Her tentativeness might be grounded in the question of whether a city that cares not for its subjects is really worth supporting. “They say these people always fall,” observes the speaker of “Twilight Years” (75), while in “The Leap” Hong Kong’s depression index is measured by the distance between the tops of its buildings and the ground. In time, “the list grows as tall as the city” (89). Again, that sense of being belittled by the city creeps into the poems. And yet, back at the beginning of Stage I, in a past era of innocence, we read that the city “never made me feel that small” (“Nomad Child” 5). Thus it is the move into adulthood and the working life that accompanies and colours the poet’s Stage II perceptions.
As a post-nomadic adult writing her way through questions of identity and meaning, Gallagher navigates the proverbial urban jungle by creating her own legend. In “Siu Ap Fan with a Visitor,” we learn that “Hong Kong, like me, is a third culture kid who writes her own story” (73). One alleged aspect of a ‘third culture kid’ is how her personal and cultural identity always remains in flux, with an ‘inbetweener’ sense of belonging. Thus it behooves Gallagher to embroider her narrative with her own mythology, by turns earnest, ironic, and comic (“They call me Wonder Woman / but really, I’m more Incredible Hulk” 92) as a way of standing in for, or bridging over, the gaps and crises in identity. Gallagher, however, boldly rejects any notion of an “identity crisis” in negative terms and prefers to embrace this aspect of her poems’ personas, almost revelling in displacement, and able to find a home anywhere: “I never found a need for roots” (“Nomad Child” 5). A cool determination and occasional self-satisfaction run hand and hand throughout this “third culture kid” herstory.
The narrative of All The Words A Stage follows an arc of triumph: displaced from [Sri Lanka] to Hong Kong as a child; an itinerant beginning; school difficulties; a pass at the school of hard knocks; assimilation by compromise; reading a lot; gaining love; losing loved ones; raising a family; job success; congratulating oneself because nobody else will; virtue signalling in the digital age; diarising it all and presenting your ‘life’ as a book of poetry. Yet Gallagher is a self-aware mythologizer, telling us in the Stage I poem “I’m with Stupid,” that “I faked it all” (8) and ending her collection on a poem about “my life” called “Taken With a Pinch of Salt” (92). Opening Stage II is a short poem, “The girl plays tetris for the most part,” embodying these identity conflicts and offering a brief ‘explainer’ for the inquiring reader:
The trouble was not who I was
It was how I was going to be
All of it,
Without knowing if any of it,
Was truly me. (48)
Gallagher’s mix of stories, concerns and identities (as poet, businessperson, daughter, wife, mother, et al) rejects sympathy (though not sentiment) and any notion of ‘victimhood’, while announcing herself as a force to be reckoned with. I see reflected in her poetic style a certain devil-may-care improvisation of survival.
Blair Reeve is a performance poet, stay-at-home Dad, children’s author, and educator with an MFA from the City University of Hong Kong. He mentors students on the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s post-graduate writing program. Blair grew up in New Zealand then spent much of his adult life in Japan and Hong Kong. Music appreciation is one of his biggest passions, while his latest challenge is learning piano.