Thursday, June 16, 2005

Poetry in Hong Kong

I attended a poetry reading session last night. I walked in the door of the new Bookazine store in Jardine House, admittedly with a cynical attitude. It was actually attended by several poets that collaborated in a new anthology, about fatherhood (given the imminence of Fathers' Day), and several of the contributors read their own pieces. What I did expect was that there would be many expat poets, given that the language of expression was (mostly) English.

What I did not expect was that it was fantastic! To be sure, the poetry on offer was largely sad, either having to do with the emotions regarding the loss of a father, or of a father that was absent. But I was really impressed with the quality of the poetry I heard, given the small percentage of expats and foreign educated Chinese that make up our community. Their limiting factor is clearly not their talent (as I guiltily assumed before) but rather both the size of their audience, and the expectations of others. I realized as I stood there, rapt, listening to these poets hold forth, that I, too, had participated in the chip-on-the-shoulder post-colonial xenophobia attitude that as expats, even as long-term residents, they could not capture the mood or feeling of the city; I had gone in hoping that their poetry would at best ignore the city as a backdrop.

True enough, as the poetry was about fatherhood, Hong Kong did not loom large as the subject matter - the poets' fathers had generally been quite far away. But what I had an epiphany about is this - thoughtful poets can summon their talents to create a poignancy in the spoken and written moment, wherever they are. Just as bystanders can appreciate poetry, as long as they can understand the language, wherever it is they come from. A self-styled cosmopolitan city like Hong Kong should have greater tolerance and interest in such poets when they live in our midst. Unfortunately, it is the nature of ourselves to denigrate, subconsciously and consciously, those most accessible to us, and most needing our support.

Love of poetry in Hong Kong has a surprisingly long pedigree; one of the first governors of Hong Kong, John Bowring, was a poet of some fame, and Parsee Dorabjee Nowrojee, the founder of the Star Ferry, loved Lord Tennyson's poem "Evening Star" so much he named his service after that excellent ode. There is of course many poetic moments in the writing of Louis Cha, Hong Kong's very own best-selling author and founder of the martial arts genre novel (not to mention the Ming Pao newspaper).

One poet last night in particular caught my ear; her name is Madeleine Marie Slavick (also the MC for the event). She has lived in Hong Kong for some time, and I was so intrigued by a recent volume she published, called Delicate Access (by Sixth Finger Press) that I had to buy it right then and there. I'm so glad I did! I highly recommend you buy this book, which had been under its spell the moment I began to read it. What I love about her poetry most are the questions they ask about the great questions of life - love, death, feeling, experience. For all those doubters among you, I challenge you not to have a reaction to her Hong Kong poems, regardless of how long you have lived here. I found it very moving and stimulated many of my ambivalent emotions about the city. I shall close this blog entry today with one of her poems from this collection, entitled "the act of walking" (given our business, I love this paean to awareness as a pedestrian, a counterpoint to the Han Suyin observation I noted a month or so ago):

the act of walking [apologies, Madeleine, my blog does not allow me to show my readers the subleties of the exquisite, deliberate spacing in your poetry - Ed.]




we ask
is walking and freedom the same thing?
the way we step
into stride
with the soft scissors of our metronome arms
sometimes we hum

how the head searches forward:
around the corner could be god
or a barricade of opinion
what does the sidewalk protect?

one, two horns sounding
tick goes the ear small goes the eye
nothing lives the same as yesterday
we do not need a purpose
to know this moment

please,
a slow seeing is the revolution of kindness

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