Antony Huen reviews recent poetry releases by two of Hong Kong’s most respected young English language poets.
Kit Fan, As Slow as Possible (Arc Publications, 2018), 82pp.
Jennifer Wong, Letters Home (Nine Arches Press, 2020), 72pp.
Kit Fan has always had the eye of a visual artist. In his debut poetry book, Paper Scissors Stone (2011), he showed his acute sense of paintings, as in the two-line poem “Morandi,” which can be voiced by the eponymous Italian painter: “Wrestle with the object first. / Then plant the shadow.” Fan also repeatedly reads words as images. In one poem, the Book of Kells, displayed in the library of Trinity College Dublin, is seen to have “lapis lazuli / brushing against the lagoon of a Latinate ‘g.’” In another, a visitor to the British Museum is “deciphering the word 華” on a “scholar’s rock,” seeing how “the dividing strokes hesitate / at the meeting points.” A Latin letter in an illuminated book and a Chinese character on a rock sculpture are both seen as visual images, and Fan invites us to decipher the Chinese word, which is reproduced in calligraphic font.
Fan’s first book, a winner of the inaugural HKU Poetry Prize, evinced his interest in painting, book arts, and calligraphy, but his latest poetry collection, As Slow as Possible, published in the UK, marks his full investment in the visual arts, recreating and referring to a vast range of visual artworks from the East and West. These include Chinese landscape paintings, frescoes, Banksy’s street art, “photographs by Daniel Beltrá in Spill,” anatomical illustrations, the sound installation which gives the book its title, and “an ivory model of a pregnant woman,” among many others.
A number of these are closely associated with our early years. “Among School Teachers” radically reinvents the title and historical context of W. B. Yeats’ “Among School Children”: “children who knew little of death / had seen images of guns and wounds, a speck / of a person stopping a column of tanks.” The poem “Law of Desire,” in contrast, records a teenager’s sexual awakening, which was triggered by a film with the same name of the poem: “His first Almodóvar, a name he couldn’t pronounce, made his heart leap / forward across the embarrassing teenage years.” In Fan’s new book, the sight of still and moving images awakens a child or teenager to what they “knew little of.” Fan repeatedly captures the capacity of a visual image to trigger a coming of age.
If these encounters with documentary images and a film are isolated moments in Fan’s book, paintings often provide the narrative frame of a poem. “Zurbarán’s Window” and “My Mother in a Velázquez” are both about a pictorial portrayal of the mother. The first poem recreates the narrative in Zurbarán’s Christ and the Virgin in the House at Nazareth, reimagining how the Spanish painter, “the son of a haberdasher,” projects his younger self with his mother onto the biblical painting: “he puts a sewing basket by her ruby dress / and a single teardrop on her brooding face // as she sees her son braid a crown of thorns.” The other poem refers to Velázquez’s art as a benchmark for a truthful, though not entirely accurate representation of the mother: “It was you, wasn’t it?”; “or at least how I or Velázquez / would have painted you.”
Fan’s new book, with its range of visual artworks, travels in time, and between cultures and artistic traditions. One poem, framed as “Ten Haikus by Fan Kuan,” reimagines the landscape painter as a poet composing a haiku sequence in English:
at the spine of a cliff some warbles singing –
Oh it’s dawn.
of good ink
seen through tracing paper.
like pubic hair.
Fan (or Fan Kuan in the poem) reads the physical body into nature, offering a unique take on the traditional haiku form and Chinese landscape art. Sharing the surname of Fan Kuan, the poet also establishes himself as a poetic equivalent of the painter, as the shape of the haikus mimics that of a mountainous range, integral to Chinese landscape paintings.
Elsewhere, Fan continues to be a poet with a painter’s mind, seeing the world in terms of its colours. In the opening poem “Transmigration,” based on a day in Salamanca, a city in Spain, Fan characteristically focuses on a shade of blue: “That sudden indigo is not to be mistaken / for cobalt, iceberg, peacock’s crown or the poet’s lapis lazuli.” The image of “the poet’s lapis lazuli,” alluding to Yeats’ poem about the bright blue silicate, becomes a counterpoint to the “indigo” in question. It is revealed to be the colour of a bird, seen as a symbol of transmigration: “that living, spectral colour between blue / and violet, flying out of the arch, perching on the stone for three seconds.”
As Slow as Possible is full of colours, from “your mandarin orange shirt” to “their hands half-frozen, purple with bruises.” Blue, nevertheless, stands out, with the many shades of it. “Zurbarán’s Window” depicts the painter’s use of charcoal in childhood: “His hand says sky, and it turns charcoal blue.” In another poem, a visitor reflects on a day in Ischia, an island in the Gulf of Naples: “The sky was a dead sea blue.” In “Twelve Months,” a sequence of poems associated with each month of the year, Janus, the two-faced Roman deity, is “yet to be repainted / probably this spring in Hague blue.” The Europe painted by Fan, which also contains the Book of Kells and its lapis lazuli, abounds with blues, seen in connection with spirituality, transformation, memory, mythology and nature.
If Fan has used colours like a painter in his poetry, he has also recreated multifarious uses of visual art: to offer a model for his poetry, to trigger political and sexual awakenings, to foster an identification with nature, and to figuratively restore or create lives. These include a group of human and mythical mother figures. According to “Genesis,” the longest poem in the book, Nüwa, the mother goddess, “created humans in her image, moulded the earth into shapes.” Framed as the Chinese Genesis and borrowing words from the Bible, the ambitious poem suggests that both the Chinese and biblical versions of the Creation are sculptural. In “Europa,” Fan puts it astutely that the “goddess,” compared to a “trophy,” “will / survive as long as the idea / of it survives, in the midnight / oil, in the hearts of its people, / in books, statues, and museums.” Our “hearts,” as Fan suggests, are comparable with literature, artworks and artefacts as where a life lives on. Fan’s As Slow as Possible is a handsome monument to the literary, visual and historical images etched on his heart.
The lives recast in art, nevertheless, can be far from their actual counterparts. Consider these lines from Jennifer Wong’s early poems: “She looks at the drawing getting more real. / She is becoming to herself a counterfeit, / And to the artist, only skin” (from “Life Drawing”; Summer Cicadas, 2006); “you sat there editing my face, / setting the hues, the colour contrast. / You spent days on the images” (from “Photographs”; Goldfish, 2013). Since her earliest works published by Chameleon Press in Hong Kong, Wong, like Kit Fan, has recreated different kinds of visual artworks, exploring the paradox in the relationship between art and reality.
If Wong’s first two books, especially Goldfish, represent her expanding interest in visual artworks, which include the “colours and headwears” in “a Peking opera performance” and Yayoi Kusama’s “dots,” her latest full-length collection, Letters Home, her first in the UK, embodies her extensive investigation into art from and about Hong Kong and mainland China. The poems are as much “letters home” as a poetic exhibition of artistic and cultural objects from Wong’s first home. Anticipated by the cover artwork, by the Hong Kong artist Lam Tung Pang, the expansive group of objects includes Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love and 2046 (the latter used in Goldfish too); “ideograms/ of rolling hills, a loving farm,” as opposed to “ominous symbols of altars, / knives”; digital pictures of social unrest in Hong Kong; an “engraved Chinese teapot,” and many more.
In Letters Home, many of the artworks and artefacts lend themselves to be classic representations of a Chinese family. In the poem “Bloodline,” referring to Zhang Xiaogang’s family-portrait series with the same name, one of the portrayed families reveals a discrepancy between private pain and the public image: “We camouflage our pain / with our comrade smiles.” In the poem based on Zhang Yimou’s Under the Hawthorn Tree, a film set during the Cultural Revolution, the speaker addresses the “free love” which “would destroy you,” saying that “I was vigilant in my speech / to save our family from blame.” Looking at Chinese artists’ works, Wong explores the political and social-cultural obligations laid on a Chinese family.
“Ba Jin (1904–2005),” an earlier poem in the book, recreates the writer-activist’s representation of “home, or family, or none of those”: “家 where everyone has to be as perfect as a porcelain vase. In their embroidered robes, the parents sit in Qing dynasty chairs made of rosewood: virtuous statues.” The prosaic form foregrounds the decree-like nature of this quotation, where the images of the traditional Chinese artefacts, used metaphorically and as part of the mise en scène, dramatize the perfection which “has to be” embodied by each family member and indeed, the house they live in. Wong introduces Chinese art and culture to readers of English poetry; in particular, the idea of a “perfect” Chinese family, often staged in their equally “perfect” house.
Wong tells us at the end of the book that the modern character of 家 “looks identical in both traditional and simplified Chinese,” suggesting that there is a uniform kind of Chinese “home, or family.” In another poem, Wong refers to the Chinese word for love: “I even taught you 爱, the character for love. Too many strokes! I won’t remember.” Earlier in the poem, we hear from the lover who does not speak Chinese: “Tell me about your language. Your words are pictures aren’t they?” Wong’s Letters Home, peppered with Chinese characters throughout, self-consciously addresses her Anglophonic readers as seeing the Chinese words on the page as “pictures,” rather than words with meanings and etymology.
“King of Kowloon,” a tribute to Tsang Tsou Choi, the famous street graffitist in Hong Kong, ends with a collective identification with Tsang’s words: “Your furious characters on the red pillar box / kindle in us an identity we have always known.” The poem addressing the character 爱 does not indicate that it is simplified Chinese; in “King of Kowloon,” Wong, again, does not tell us that the “furious characters” reproduced on the page are traditional Chinese. Wong strategically uses either traditional or simplified Chinese for different words, and without the knowledge of that, one would not recognise the irony in the comment on 爱 as having “Too many strokes,” and the kind of “identity” Tsang’s characters is said to “rekindle.” Wong impressively takes full advantage of her multilingualism in Letters Home, which lives up to its name by being committed to her homeland and the Chinese interconnection between home and family.
Just as other poems include Chinese words as “pictures,” “Mountain City,” the longest poem in Wong’s new book, begins with a five-line epigraph in Romanised Cantonese. The long poem, modelled on T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” begins by painting Hong Kong in red through the images of “blood red flowers,” “the red umbrella” a “bridesmaid holds,” “the scarlet silk of the bride’s / lung-fung kwa,” and the “cherry eyes” of a “suckling pig.” Strikingly, it ends with a call to “read the unabridged Dream of the Red Chamber.” Red is consistently the colour of Wong’s Hong Kong. In Goldfish, Wong homed in on “the red baby / of Zhang Xiao Gang,” offering her first reading of Zhang’s eccentric family portraits. “Red is our metaphor,” she memorably puts it. If blue is frequently Kit Fan’s metaphor, red is Wong’s, representing the Chinese heritage of her home city.
The two writers, born in Hong Kong and now based in the UK, engage with Asian and Western literary traditions, and use the poetic space as a canvas for their exhibition of art; working art and colours from Hong Kong and beyond into metaphors, images and narratives, and proudly establishing themselves and their cultural heritage in Anglophonic literature.
Antony Huen is a poet-critic. His recent poems have appeared in Cha, The Shanghai Literary Review, and Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, and articles in The Compass Magazine, Humanities, and Wasafiri. With a PhD in English from the University of York, he lectures at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
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