This is a book of children’s poems for adults, or perhaps one could call it a book of adult poems for a reader’s inner child. The poems articulate author Wawa’s multivalent feelings about returning to Hong Kong (and to her native language) after a sojourn abroad.
Although couched in allegorical terms, the poems carry an emotional punch because they grapple with social realities in Hong Kong and with recent assertions of popular will, such as the Occupy Movement and the Fishball Revolution, both of which the poet joined in at street level.
The book is curiously polyvocal: in this slim volume we encounter three major kinds of discourse: 1) a Preface by Henry Wei Leung gives a theoretically informed treatment of linguistic circumstances behind these Chinese-language poems by Wawa, given Hong Kong’s “doubly colonized history”; 2) the poems themselves are fables written in playful storybook language with serious resonances; 3) the appendix is a conversation in which translator Henry Wei Leung prompts Wawa to open up on a “meta” level about her temperament, motives and mental state as a poet. Only near the interview’s end does he reveal that they are husband and wife. (He proposed to her three days after the outbreak of the Fishball Revolution.)
In many of these poems, the speaker makes efforts to connect with the society where she grew up. She tries to connect directly with a “monkey of the soil,” a blade of grass, a royal poinciana tree, a “rooftop sleeper” and other denizens of her haunts around Lion Mountain (above the quintessentially Hong-Kongian district of Mongkok).
She tells them she was friends with Pei Pei the Monkey King, evidently a character to be reckoned with in her youthful halcyon times, but the denizens seem preoccupied and are not roused by references to past camaraderie.
The speaker also tries to re-connect by sympathetically contemplating the city’s spaces where people dwell and move about. What she sees takes imagistic form: for instance, tenement buildings are massive birdcages.
For every mention of a constraint that holds people down, there is an answering evocation of freedom. For instance, for the children cooped within those multiple cages, there are flying trees that draw near the windows to visit the children. The speaker recalls that as a child she found release by spending time with those trees.
In “Kingdom of the Rooftop”, the speaker visits a rooftop sleeper who loves to pursue his own daydreams on elevated platforms. He admits that his erstwhile transcendent dreams have gone off-kilter, but nevertheless insists that “my city is arriving soon.”
This reminds me of the poet’s discussion of “vertical life” in an interview she did for Apogee Magazine #9. “Vertical life” refers to withdrawal from the city’s horizontal workaday surfaces which are chaotic and hotly contested, seeking a space to free one’s own mind.
This theme of space promised or foreclosed is also addressed in the poem “Hardhearted Rabbit,” in which the speaker complains to the stern rabbit: “You told the leverets/ That on earth there is truly no grass…/ I drew windows on your warren door/ Made the leverets see grasslands/ You used to take a look at the window/ Then take a look at me/ Now you just watch me and laugh.”
The question of finding space to free one’s mind is one of life-or-death. As Wawa puts it in the appended interview, “local mothers talk about their children ‘winning at the starting line.’” In other words, even children are under pressure to succeed, and there is little time to play.
In other poems we see the result in the form of child suicides. One poem speaks of “raising steel umbrellas” designed to protect pedestrians from people who jump off buildings…“So we can resume a life with heads lowered/ The streets back to business” (“Death of the Green Balloon”).
The children lose direction because their socialization doesn’t give them a coherent sense of who they are. The poet’s sense of urgency and her impulse to act are expressed in absurdist terms: “Holy Shit! Mr. Satan’s schooling in the school!/ I’ve busted in but my feet are glued down!// Holy Shit! Mr. Satan’s schooling in the school/ One by one I scoop the flowers up/ Crawl out on my arms/ Both my legs are rubbering//…My legs stringier and stringier!/ The flowers starting to bloom evil faces!/ But my face slowly vanishing!…”
In spite of these encounters with horrific social phenomena, the poet keeps digesting her experience in a way that yields transcendent perspectives, at least as reference points.
In the final poem of the collection, she looks back upon all the onetime cronies and creatures she encountered upon her return. She calls all of them “immortals,” and enumerates the perspectives that belong uniquely to them. She does not forget the caterpillar that “fell into her arms” and hitchhiked a ride under her collar, eager to see the city’s sites of bustle and commotion.
Perhaps this caterpillar poem prefigures the actual situation of the poet, who now lives with her husband in Hawaii and is expecting a daughter. In her “Letter to a Future Daughter on the Occasion of the ‘Fishball Revolution’” (Guernica Magazine), she declares that she fully intends to take her daughter back to Hong Kong.