Theophilus Kwek’s Moving House reviewed by Kathleen McPhilemy
Moving House by Theophilus Kwek. £10.99. Carcanet. ISBN: 978-1784109639
Theophilus Kwek’s poetry is striking for its assurance and control. Yet despite the impression of ‘cool’, his work engages with the world, reflecting his life in Singapore and England An Oxford graduate and editor of Oxford Poetry, he returned to Singapore to do his National Service, an experience which is marked in this book. Since 2017 he has been based in Singapore. Still only 26, Kwek is something of a Wunderkind, with several successful publications under his belt.
Like his fellow Oxford poet and former co-editor, Mary Jean Chan, Kwek has had to reconcile his Chinese cultural heritage, in his case Singaporean, in Chan’s Hong Kong, with the traditions of English literature and poetry to which they have subscribed themselves. ‘Fusion’ poetry at the moment is nearly as popular as fusion cooking, but Kwek explores his relationship to different cultures, reflected in his title, in a way which transcends contemporary fads. The collection opens with a powerful meditation on the effects of observing a traffic accident: ‘a rupture/ in our time where past and present /futures meet, stop short. A living fault.’ The gravity is matched by the secure handling of sounds and line breaks. The second poem ‘Prognosis’, is highly ambitious:
The knowledge settles at the bottom of your glass.
What’s left clarifies, divides the light. Clean white,
which crosses the air unscathed, and this – water’s
half-true cataract. In its arc the table’s dry laminate
turns gold-dappled, warm, even tiles rise up to dance.
Like a prism it drowns the ward in colour, albeit
Of one tan shade.
The poet has handled his long line and tercets skilfully and the assonance and internal rhyme are subtle and unifying. Nevertheless, despite the wealth of detail, it is difficult to visualise what is being described and I am held up by the ambiguity of ‘cataract’ and ‘arc’. I rather like ‘albeit’ but it is a bit of a push for a rhyme. It appears that the subject of the poem is a photographer, which explains the focus on observed detail, but the accumulation of metaphor is somewhat bewildering: the clock ‘pilfering with gloved hands’, ‘the blood’s darkroom’, ‘rays unspool’, ‘listen/for coughs, how your engine lingers with lifted clutch’.
Kwek covers a range of subjects in this book and tries out a variety of forms. Sometimes he experiments with spacing; elsewhere, he moves between verse and prose. In some instances, he integrates footnotes into the poem. In ‘The Dance’ (for Grandmother, 1940-1917) I think this works, because the strength of feeling carries the poem as present and past are contrasted. He also includes sonnets (two poems from the point of view of Sophia, wife of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, founder of modern Singapore) and a villanelle, which I find more problematic because it is a form which too often swamps its content. ‘Love Poem’ is about love, about poetry and possibly about the form itself: ‘a poem must love the thing it lives within’; although the repetition and rhythm are hypnotic, I feel it ran out of steam halfway through.
Some of these poems are clearly political, but the poet tends to approach his subjects obliquely. In ‘The Questioning’ an actor is questioned by the police after ‘he made allegations of racial discrimination during the casting audition for a film’. The interrogation in the poem moves into a consideration of pigment, colour and the graphology of race. The step away from direct presentation of topical issues avoids the danger of propaganda but can be perplexing, as in ‘Westminster’, a response to the Westminster Bridge terror attack. The poem reads as an immediate, almost moment by moment reaction and includes some horrifying images, especially that of an open wound in the second section; however, the sequence, perhaps appropriately, remains fragmentary. A more resolved and very fine poem addresses Singapore’s attempts to keep out refugees from South Vietnam in 1975. The poem uses an extended metaphor of water to point out that the island of Singapore has been peopled by refugees:
All through the years, we fell as rain
and though there was little to catch us then
gathered in every small indentation,
by always seeking out the softest earth
made each channel fit for a monsoon,
with time made the rivers and reservoirs,
made our children drink and not forget the source –
Kwek seems to have a poetic response to so much he comes across, whether it be snippets from the archives or newspapers, the experience of military training, travel in literature and real life which takes him to Ireland, Iceland and ancient Greece. Some of his finest and most moving poems are those which are closest to home, particularly those written for his grandparents. “Requiem’ marks the cremation of his grandfather: ‘With love’s red cloth covering the bowl, /we lined up one by one to send you home.’ The poem moves from family unity in mourning to a hope for the relationships between the living:
Teach me now to love, at their frayed edges
the left-behind, their washed and ashen fingers.
‘Nocturnal’, one of a number of grandmother poems, seems also to be a poem of mourning:
xxxxxxOver your shoulder an earthen bowl
xxxxxbrims with ash and laughter, as guests come
to sit with us awhile. Their children and yours
xxxxxare playing at the swing.
The tone here seems more accepting, even celebratory until the disquieting final lines:
xxxxxxxxxxxxxThese are our faces, that are turning
xxxxxxto salt. Our feet that linger and are now stone.
Perhaps the note of disquietude which runs through this collection is what gives it coherence and distinctiveness. Although in some ways it bears the marks of a very thorough apprenticeship, this is the work of a considerable poet and it will be interesting to see what direction he takes.
Kathleen McPhilemy grew up in Northern Ireland but now lives in Oxford. Her poems have appeared widely in magazines and anthologies. She has published three collections, the most recent being The Lion in the Forest(Katabasis, 2005).
The winners of the 2019 Poetry Business pamphlet competition reviewed by Pam Thompson
The Odds by Emma Simon, SmithIDoorstop, £6, 978-1-912196-80-7
It is probably usual more than not for poetry pamphlets to have an overall theme. Emma Simon’s The Odds expands on a bookies’ term to reckon with what chance will bring in life; what probabilities, good or bad. There are no easy answers of course but the poems interrogate chance, both autobiographically and socially. Hilary Menos’s poems in Human Tissue circulate around emotions involved in the harrowing experience of donating a kidney to her son, and of its subsequent rejection from his body. Nick On’s Zhou uses the name of a dynasty and of a common patronym in China to reflect on the lives of his father and grandfather, and himself in relation to them. Each of the pamphlets is accomplished and distinctive.
Emma Simon has won both the Ver Poets and Prole Laureate competitions. Like her debut pamphlet, Dragonish (2017, Emma Press), The Odds is a vibrant, enjoyable read. The poems run with the them via an impressive array of layouts and forms. Simon is good at adopting different perspectives – in ‘In the Museum of Antiquated Offices: Exhibit C, Fax Machine’ a fax machine (“I was the future once”) comes to life, “I jerk awake some nights, jabber in tongues / of space-age dolphins …” There are lovely imagistic touches, “A curl of white paper blooms – like winter / roses under glass” and “as grey smoke ghosts of secretaries pass”. We find this machine’s counterpart at the start of the title poem set in a bookies, “ … fizzy hisses…the intermittent bleeps / from the fixed-odds machine: a white noise / looped on repeat through Saturday’s hubbub”. It’s a strong start to a poem, not just because of surprising and apt figurative language (“A hand / passes a betting-slip over the counter crackles with it, / like a bulb about to fuse.”), but also the way that vowels and consonants chime together – not to mention a sure sense of the line. In ‘A Glass Half Full of Snowdrops’ we weigh up our own stance along with the poet, about whether we consider a glass to be half empty or half full and, in making the choice, reveal ourselves as either pessimist or
optimist. Several of the poems, like this one, fall into fourteen lines. Although she is adept at all forms, I think that Simon has a particular sonnet sensibility: each couplet is worked seemingly effortlessly to balance contending recognitions. The poem contains the poet-speaker and her mother, the ‘we’ being signalled in the third couplet, and a key event in the fourth:
My mother after her appointment at the hospital
cuts a handful for the kitchen sill.
This makes us re-read what has gone before in another light: the “first thaws in memories”, “Green shoots like tongue tips reaching for a name”. There’s something both heart-breaking bang up-to-date about “Their handmaid heads nod quietly”. The poem concludes with a bitter-sweet take on the saying alluded to in its title. So much here about memory, memory loss, ageing, all in the deceptive calm of a domestic interior: the shifting borders between hope and grief. Next to it, appropriately, ‘Ghost Flowers’, where every other line is indented to mimic the growing patterns of the now-absent flowers:
Their absence waves from street signs.
Mulberry Way: once a twisted trunk
that edged the forest track, now leads
to the mosque and chicken takeaway.
The poem moves with grace towards its devastating concluding image, “the tied up, dried up bouquets / hung from railings, marking out the other side.”
The contexts of Emma Simons’s poems are continually original, recognisable and poignant: Lady Macbeth on a psychiatric ward, “I laugh, or rage / at their limited ideas of madness” (‘Lady Macbeth)’; the use Anglo-Saxon kennings and conventions of layout in the wonderful ‘Dissolution of the Libraries’, “ Gone all the idlegold: the glimmerings / on paperthick and parch”; the present-day eco plaint of ‘Mayday’, influenced by Robert Herrick, “Gather plastic bottles while you may ./ from overflowing hedgerows.” She couples the real with the surreal, bringing predilections of the 21st Century up close. Her personal history spins through the poems to appealing effect, “Tonight belongs to ageing goths and scrawly love songs / Nothing has altered. It all remains the same.” (‘A Pindaric Ode to Robert Smith of the Cure’)
Human Tissue by Hilary Menos, SmithIDoorstop, £6. ISBN 978-1-912196-78-4
Human Tissue is the second winning Poetry Business pamphlet for Hilary Menos . Her first collection, Berg (2010, Seren) won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection in the same year. Her second collection, Red Devon, was published by Seren in 2013. The subject of the pamphlet is outlined in a prefatory note from Hugo Williams. Menos’s son, Linus, who suffered from kidney failure, had a seemingly “successful” transplant, aged 17, of one of his mother’s kidneys. The premise of this alone is unbearable as a stark devotional gesture of love, sacrifice and terror. There is an apparent “success” as the kidney took quickly and functioned well at first. Williams continues though that “Aged 19, Linus had a massive rejection episode” and “They had to remove his mother’s kidney and he is now on dialysis.”
Knowing these bald facts led me to wonder in how the poems would present them to us. Even before we get to Hugo Williams’s introduction, the title of the collection has already alerted us to the body and its vulnerability; to the detached, clinical terminology of doctors. There is no real evidence of the central premise until a few poems in although the first poems give us a sense that the speaker seeks to give offerings in any direction that might bring hope. The Mud Man, for instance, is a recurring elemental deity of sorts, brought to us vividly in the first poem:
Close up he looks like old cake
his shoulders shedding crumbled chocolate,
his face a slipped scree of icing …
(‘The Mud Man’)
“We must feed him every weekend, says my son”. The idea of giving the Mud Man tributes is extended in ‘Oblatory’:
All year I am appellant, devotee, suitor,
appeasing and wooing him with the copse’s fruit
and he is my journey’s end, my talisman,
my worry beads, rabbit’s foot, saints bone.
It is an intense faith and merges with the onset of both pilgrimage and penance, “I walk from tree to tree, station to station”, themes picked up in poems in which the speaker is one of the “Pilgrims” – yet although she and her partner, are present they remain on the outside looking on as they walk the Camino del Santiago with its yet unknown privations, “No-one mentions the last leg, the rocky road to Finisterre…” (‘Camino’). Menos’s focus is kept on the refreshingly non-spiritual as she watches penitents in their “satin glory suits”:
Some bag and sag at the neck, which reminds me of elephants,
except the ones in white, which remind me of lynching.
One pulls back his hood and suddenly becomes ordinary.
The pivotal concern of the pamphlet comes mid-way down ‘Petition’. Leading up to it the reader’s ear is seduced by repetitions; by questions and answers:
What do we pray for in the third petition?
We pray for a normal childhood for our child.
We pray for, basically, a normal childhood. //
… A donor GFR of eighty per cent or more
and easy plumbing. A surgeon with good hands.
The mother donates a kidney to save her son. The emotional freight of that act and finding means of expression to convey it could derail the writing but never does. In ‘Danish Palaces Egg’ Menos guides us through the ‘facts’ – the mother’s donation the kidney – by means of spare couplets, details, precise and tender, “a space / the size of a fist … It holds your kidney / which I am keeping warm”; figurative language renders the kidney both precious, “Like a Faberge egg” and ordinary, “squeaky / like a dinette booth cushion …”. In the unusual juxtapositions of metaphor and syntax and under, rather than over statement, the emotive impact is all the more intense. Such are the qualities of all the poems in this exceptional pamphlet. The final poem is about making sloe gin but each couplet says so much about the stages of one more comforting ritual; small acts, both sustaining and hard-won:
Time matures the thing. At least, adds distance.
I sit at the kitchen table, trying to make sense
and pouring a shot of sweet liquor into a glass.
The filtered magenta, sharp and unctuous,
reminds me of sour plum, of undergrowth,
the scrub, the blackthorn, and the hard push.
Zhou by Nick On, SmithIDoorstop, £6, 978-1-912196-79-1
Zhou is “one of the legendary Three Dynasties of Ancient China” and “the tenth most common surname in mainland China”. The poems are topped and tailed by helpful notes and a prefatory photograph of (I think) Joe On, Nick On’s grandfather. The collection is dedicated to his memory and that of On’s father, Barry On. The prevailing question behind the work seems to be how does one place oneself within these fragments of history as son, grandson and poet? The first poem, ‘Yellow Bird’ provides a direct immersion into the grandfather’s story:
the yellow bird stops
on Navigation Street
where my Chinese grandfather
dropped dead … //
he left his laundry
and a medal
from Chaing Kai Shek.
On performs his excavations in formally diverse ways. ‘Fragments of Zhou’ is both narrative and lyrical. Italicised titles of each section appear as other fragments, of words or voices from a family member or family members, who try to piece together the story of the grandfather who was driven from China to England to escape the strictures of a tyrannical regime. As a boy, people sought Zou’s calligraphic skills even though he wrote was never of his own free will:
The boy is the hole in the mouth
the useless dragon of spring
who must learn the line –
the un-correctable line –
by the numbers and the lists.
(‘people came to him with letters’)
Eventually, the resolution:
I will learn just enough
to keep a ledger,
but not to lie in ink and cover facts in blood.
(‘we do not know why he left’)
In parts, the lines are brief, insistent and incantatory. The grandson places himself with his grandfather, fishing, “I sit with Zhou in his small boat … // The children cry for food. / Zhou’s nets have no fish.” Zhou emigrates to provide a better life for his family, remaking himself as a conjurer, forging a different identity but never quite leaving the past behind:
his capacious trunk contained
his conjuring equipment
his flowing robes of silk
his old opinions
(‘he came as a conjurer’)
On’s method is palimpsestic. ‘Canto I’ and ‘Canto II’ recall Pound’s varied and frequently fragmentary Cantos. They include extracts from Chinese poet, Li Po, reinforcing a direct line through from the past to the present. On must have wrestled with the question of how to tell his stories and include portions of history without being too prosy and or too linear. Much can be done in two Cantos, to tell the story of “The Exceptional Zhou who became the ordinary Joe” (Canto II): short sections with short lines, or lists which provide other layers, like the story of Bi Cuide, who “signed the coolie contract” and was shipped to Europe to labour for the war effort:
and learned in English – NO CHINESE
and wrote a letter home:
forget our quarrel the day I left
take care of our parents
when I return I will bring
money to support them
the rest of their days
and was set to clear the field of mines
and stepped on one.
Nick On moves to reflection on his father in last few poems. The linguistic gift is passed on from On’s grandfather to his father, the copywriter, and is taken up by the poet himself. This coalesces in ‘Ghosts’, a sequence of six poems where On’s formal virtuosity is showcased. The poems, moving in their specific details and their questionings, are again evidence of the indelible layering of generations.
The little fingers of my father’s father
bent inwards from the top joint
and so with his
and so with mine
and so with all our progeny.
Pam Thompson is a writer and lecturer based in Leicester. Her publications include The Japan Quiz ( Redbeck Press, 2009) and Show Date and Time (Smith | Doorstop, 2006) and Strange Fashion( Pindrop Press, 2017). Pam has a PhD in Creative Writing and is one of the organisers of Word!, a spoken-word night at the Attenborough Arts Centre in Leicester. She is a 2019 Hawthornden Fellow.