May Huang reviews a new collection of poems from Hong Kong.
Lok Fung, Days When I Hide My Corpse in a Cardboard Box, translated by Eleanor Goodman (Zephyr Press, 2018), 144pp.
It is an important time to be reading and writing about Hong Kong, a city that made headlines recently for its million-strong demonstrations against a proposed extradition law. Protests give us opportunities to observe how bodies, culture, and politics interact, as does Days When I Hide My Corpse in a Cardboard Box – a new collection written by poet Lok Fung (penname of Natalia Chan) and translated by Eleanor Goodman. Defiance occurs in subtle ways throughout the work, which centers on both domestic and public spaces. In the poem “Ion Lover,” a woman goes to the salon for “perfectly / ion-straightened hair,” a classic post-breakup hairdo, an act of self-affirmation. The hairdo does the job: the speaker is liberated by “trim[ming] off all the unnecessary longings.” As Goodman points out in her Translator’s Foreword, however, hair-straightening is a painful “beautifying” practice that has been subject to feminist critique. In a similar poem about beautification practices, a woman considers using an SK-II product to “rejuvenate” her face, which has “grown old from travels.” Although the poem ends with her defiantly deciding that “the skin knows…how to love itself,” the dangers posed by aging reverberate throughout the collection, challenging modern attempts to resist the passage of time.
The pressures placed on women to appear young and stay beautiful are closely tied to systems of oppression inflicted upon the city itself. In the poem “When the City Gets Old,” which touches on Hong Kong’s handover to China, both the personal and political become sites of conflict. Lok opens with a question—“when the city gets old / how long can we stay young?”—and closes with its inverse: “when we start to get old / how long can this city stay young?” Uncertainty permeates the poem, as the speaker searches for “something real” to hold onto in a city that is rapidly entering a new era. The poem subtly recognizes that one’s youthful individuality may become endangered by the years after the handover—and expresses the fear that, as the city ages, those who have grown old may no longer be able to help the city “stay young.” In “The Color of my Name,” the speaker remarks: “my hairstyle and way of thinking should probably change.” Both women and cities are pressured to keep up with the times. But when doing so puts personal and political agency at risk, how do we continue to love ourselves? To love each other, and our city?
Love, an important theme in Lok’s work, is often inseparable from the baggage of modernity. In one poem, Lok memorably compares a Hong Kong minibus to a “flying coffin,” which also serves as a metaphor for a relationship; one that, “speeding down the highway,” can “hit a dead end.” In the poem “In Love With a Virtual Lover,” the speaker describes her experience conversing with an online presence who arrives “more punctual than a lover” but will also “leave like a lamp clicking off.” At the end of the poem, the speaker deletes the lover’s “name and password” with “one stroke,” a gesture that is both a reclamation of agency and a signal of erasure in the digital world. Vitality and death, intimacy and distance, the individual and society—such contrasts are juxtaposed throughout Lok’s work. They animate the poems and keep us on our toes, as if we were one of the characters in her lively poems about dancing. Indeed, several of Lok’s poems conclude with a hyphen, as if they remain in motion, prepared to leap. Although one of her poems ironically ends with the words “the end!”, another asks us to consider, fittingly, “the possibility of a sequel.”
The roving, open-ended quality to Lok’s work, paired with her attention to Hong Kong, might suggest that she is a “flaneuse:” a woman who wanders through and writes about the city. Yet one wonders whether the speakers of her poems would embrace this title. As the titular poem suggests, she would rather live in a cardboard box than confront the “packed jostling space” of a city. Nonetheless, Hong Kong is omnipresent in Lok’s poetics. Even poems that are not explicitly about the city encounter its pollution and its humidity. Just as Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen captured the atmosphere of the masses without having to explicitly mention the crowd, Lok’s work takes the city as its premise, particularly towards the end of the collection, where poems such as “When the City Gets Old” appear. In “A Poem of Mong Kok,” we can scarcely trace the speaker’s path, but instead access vignettes and feelings through camera shots (one might think of P.K. Leung’s “Images of Hong Kong”). English phrases such as “take two,” “take one,” and “flashback” enter a Cantonese-language poem amid cultural references that dramatize otherwise mundane moments in the poem. Only fleeting mentions of “bodies that bump and press together” and descriptions of “escalators littered with trash” remind us that we are surrounded by a crowd: Mong Kok is infamously one of the densest places in the world.
“A Poem of Mong Kok” also feels like a work of multimedia. Language, film, manga, and other media intersect to address not only consumer culture, but also “culture” itself (Lok is both a poet and a cultural critic). While the visual effect of seeing English words amid a Chinese text disappears in the English translation, Goodman deftly captures the multilingual qualities of Lok’s poetics nonetheless. In “Tracks of Emotion,” Lok cites the English lyrics to Vanessa Williams’ “Save the Best for Last” in an otherwise Cantonese poem set in the train station. In Goodman’s translation, her use of the word “tracks” becomes an instance of clever wordplay, as it refers to both song tracks and train tracks. In other poems, rhymes in the English beautifully echo or complement the original Chinese: “I am low as a cello” and “I am slayed, I rot / powerless whether I love or not” are two instances. The book itself, which is printed in parallel texts, speaks to the multivalences that translation can expose—as does the Hong Kong Atlas series, the first to exclusively spotlight Hong Kong poetry in translation.
The choreography of Lok’s poetry is exquisite, navigating the spaces between bodies—in a dance, in public spaces, across the internet—with lyricism and honesty. At a time when many modern experiences can seem instant and fleeting, Lok’s poems invite us to pause and be present: to make time for living and loving in a city that ages, alongside its inhabitants, toward an uncertain future.
May Huang is a translator, poet, and essayist. Born in Taiwan and raised in Hong Kong, she graduated from the University of Chicago with Honors in English and Comparative Literature in June. Her work has appeared in Exchanges, InTranslation, Cha, and elsewhere.