The TS Eliot prize drew criticism for the lack of diversity in its short list, although it was won by the only poet of colour included, Ocean Vuong, who also happened to be gay. However, at the level of the smaller presses, diversity thrives and younger poets from a range of ethnicities and sexual orientations are producing exciting and innovative collections. Two recent publications from poets with Oxford links exemplifying this trend are a hurry of english by Mary Jean Chan, published by ignition press, which is part of the Oxford Brookes Poetry Centre, and Five Storms (smith/doorstop) by Theophilus Kwek, who is a former president of the Oxford Poetry Society and, like Chan, a co-editor of Oxford Poetry.
The blurb to Mary Jean Chan’s book describes her as making a ‘significant contribution to poetry and queer writing in the UK’. Certainly, as a young, Hong Kong Chinese, queer woman, she seems to tick all the boxes. However, there is a danger that her PC rating may obscure the power and strength of her poetry. This is a very strong debut collection which explores and exploits some compelling autobiographical detail. In some ways, it reminds me of Seamus Heaney’s first collection, Death of a Naturalist, which also mines the process of coming-of-age. As Heaney’s book had the presiding figure of the father, so this one is dominated by the presence of the mother, addressed directly in the opening poem, ‘Always’: ‘You are always where I begin’…
Always the lips kissing
they could kiss those mouths
you would approve of.
Throughout the book, the poem addresses the mother’s life as well as her own. Although Chan was brought up in Hong Kong, her mother seems to have lived in mainland China and experienced the tyranny of the Red Guards. The intellectual oppression is presented in the second poem ‘what my mother (a poet) might say’ where she represents her mother’s ideas and feelings in lines which are cancelled, so that the only line which stands is the repeated and italicised ‘that Mao wrote beautiful Chinese calligraphy’. The respect for her mother is shown through the tentative ‘might’ of the title. Aside from the typographical innovation of using the strike-through function, this poem is formally beautifully arranged in a series of couplets where the first line is devoted to the mother’s thoughts about her own life, the second to her thoughts about her daughter. In contrast to the glib facility of the refrain, these lines are uncomfortable, acknowledging the complexity of the mother’s character and of the relationship she has with her daughter:
that she dreams about seeing her father’s heart in the doctor’s fist
that I must only write about flowers
Another formally innovative poem is ‘At the Castro’ with the dedication ‘for Orlando’ which I choose to read as an allusion to the bisexual, gender-shifting eponymous protagonist of Virginia Woolf’s novel. Whatever it may be, the poem itself is set out in two columns which may be a visual representation of two lovers, the space down the centre of the page showing the difficulty of same-sex relationships in a hostile society. The poem celebrates the freedom of self-realisation and ‘coming-out’ possible in a gay club:
the first time you stepped into a gay bar
was the first time you danced
The ‘you’ addressed shifts into third person:
the girl who thought she had to sit down
for the rest of her life broke all the rules
became the wind
and then back into second:
till you became sober enough not to be
ashamed the boy you never were
These changes make it unclear whose experience is being addressed in the poem, whether it is the poet, her lover, or both or whether the figures are generic. Celebration changes to horror as ‘a hand pulls a trigger’, destroying the relationship or relationships. Whether this violence is real or metaphorical, it suggests the risks and fears of being gay but nevertheless finishes with a defiant assertion of the importance of love:
skin is never an apology
but always an act of faith
The collection is woven around the relationship with the mother, with the lover and with the desire to reconcile the mother and the lover. Whereas the title phrase for the book is taken from a prose poem where the mother’s influence is felt as oppressive and English is seen as an escape, ‘My desires dressed themselves in a hurry of English to avoid my mother’s gaze’, in //, short-listed for the 2017 Forward Prize, a poem which is perhaps the centrepiece of the book, Chan attempts to construct this reconciliation. The title represents chopsticks: ‘To the Chinese,// you and I are chopsticks: lovers with the same anatomies.’ The poem’s starts with an awkward dinner where the non-Chinese lover is entertained by the hostile family, but moves towards a determination not to be defeated by parental or societal pressure:
Tonight, I am dreaming again
of tomorrow: another chance to eat at the feast of the living
The poem ends by rejecting secrecy and suicide:
I have stopped believing that secrets are a beautiful way
to die. You came home with me for three hundred days –
to show my family that dinner together won’t kill us all.
This idea is reprised in “Love for the Living’ near the end of the book, a celebration of society’s recognition and acceptance of same sex love, which is echoed in the changed attitude of the mother, felt as ‘the ache of pleasure when/your mother mentions your lover’s name.’
The final poem, like the first, centres on the poet’s mother, but the balance of power has shifted. Whilst the first poem is addressed directly to the mother, in an agonised plea for approval and acceptance, in this one the mother is spoken of in third person, as if the poet had succeeded in distancing herself and attaining independent adulthood. She speaks here in the first person, as she recognises her mother’s needs and that she must accept the fact that she cannot solve them or make them her burden.
I can only
invite her to the table: Look,
mother, your hands are beautiful.
Look, mother our tea is ready.
Appropriately, the use of pronouns in this last poem is unambiguous and subtle. The “I” of the daughter ‘speaks confidently to the ‘you’ of the mother, bringing them together in the ‘our’ of the closing line.
Theophilus Kwek is both startlingly precocious and astonishingly accomplished. He seems to have published his first book at the age of 17 and this ‘New Poet’s Prize’ Smith/Doorstop pamphlet has appeared when he is still only 24. Kwek is prolific and has the ability to respond to the moment with poems far removed from the agonized moans or enraged rants so often produced after major calamities. At the same time, his style is distinctly reticent or even elliptical and tends to incorporate allusions which may require research. Admittedly, that is not so difficult in the age of Google, but it does impede the first reading, as in ‘The Passenger’ where the references to Izanami and Izanagi enrich the poem if the reader understands them. Incidentally, either Kwek or Wikipedia has got the names of these Japanese gods the wrong way round.
He is particularly skilled at presenting natural and physical detail. The first poem in the collection is written in more-or-less rhymed couplets with some powerful internal sound effects as in the second stanza:
As haw, thawed streams like cracks in the bone.
The internal rhyme of ‘haw’ with ‘thawed’ contrasts sharply with the onomatopoeic ‘like cracks’ and is followed by the final shocking long rhyming vowel sound in ‘bone’ which emphasizes the whiteness of the snow. However, I am puzzled by ‘haw’, which should be the red of the hawthorn berry, but seems here to mean something more like the ‘hoar’ of a hoar frost. Nor am I quite sure why the thrush is ‘hurtling’. The mysterious quality of the poem is also apparent in the ambiguity of its setting. It begins as a view ‘From a window’ and this idea is reinforced at the end, ‘That through a window comes’ but we cannot be sure if this is a window which is merely that of an observer, or whether it may be a train window, in which case, the poem’s speaker is also involved in the action. A ‘cabin’ is stirred ‘to praise, or something like praise’ and we are left uncertain of the location of the cabin; is it outside the train, part of the train or a synonym for ‘heart’ in the next line? The many hints that this is more than a nature poem about snow culminate in the portentous last half line ‘The right and the wronged’ –perhaps a little too portentous after the subtle ambiguities of the rest of the poem. Another piece that becomes suddenly and heavily significant at the conclusion is ‘What Follows Deer cull, Wytham Woods, 7th February 2015’.
Again, the observation of natural detail is beautiful and convincing: ‘bounding across seed-rows they are gone,/the cracked frost making an ashen path/to a gap in the horse-wire thorn’. However, the last stanza, which uses multisyllabic and royal rhyme, also becomes suddenly abstract: ‘struck on the flint of that eternity/more alive than in the burnished wood.’ Something very odd is happening: ‘struck on the flint’ has connotations both of shooting and of making light or fire, while the adjective ‘burnished’ transforms the wood from nature into a work of art. The poet is writing about the creation of an image, the image that he missed with his camera, but which has been captured by the eye, memory and the poem.
There is a wide range of subject matter here, with poems based on anything from biblical themes to newspaper stories. Perhaps it is easiest to engage with the poems which give us more to go on or where there seems to be some kind of personal involvement. For example, in ‘Requiem’/ Grandfather, 1936-2015, although we may not understand exactly what is happening in the funeral ritual, nevertheless we grasp that a family has been brought together in mourning, and recognise the poet’s hope that he can maintain his love for his surviving relatives:
Teach me now to love, at their frayed ends
the left-behind, their washed and ashen fingers.
The language of the previous two lines suggests that these relationships have not always been easy, ‘our sifted, falling silences, the plunge//of numbed hands under frigid water.’
The final group of sonnets, for which the collection is named, ‘The First Five Storms’, appears to be a sequence of love poems, but the reticence mentioned earlier, make this a very different kind of poetry from that of Mary Jean Chan.
It may be instructive to explore the use of pronouns in these poems. The first person plural is dominant. ‘We’ is used in every poem except iv, ‘Desmond’, where it splits into ‘you’ and ‘I’, a split heralded in iii, ‘Clodagh’, ‘I had come here/ to make resolutions, taste the grey/Christmas skies you loved’. In the first two poems, the ‘we’ is unproblematic; it may be the speaker and his friends or his lover, more likely a lover, given the imagery in the first sonnet, ‘the rest of our days reach in to join fingers/ with the season’s slow dusk’. ‘We’ provides a sense of assurance, a platform, ‘safety in numbers’. In ii, ‘Barney’, the ‘we’ becomes exclusive, almost smug, as it celebrates itself and its own escape from the ravages of the storm, with the ‘dog outside’ perhaps symbolising social exclusion.
We stood, then went in our cars to church,
And scraped our shoes, and left the dog outside.
Clodagh describes experiencing the storm on a sea-crossing to Ireland. ‘You’ sleeps through ‘the thick/of it’, leaving the ‘I’ in the sestet, on his own to make new and unexpected discoveries, perhaps about love: ‘but found instead/fine rain, and land underfoot; gold and myrrh’. ‘Desmond’, the fourth sonnet, is a beautiful poem which seems to refer back to ‘The Weaver’ at the beginning of the book. There the bird’s nest-building seems to represent the enduring love of a parent; here, it seems to be a lesson learned by the speaker, again as the beloved sleeps –‘you had gone up to bed’ – about the power of love to endure, through adversity, a lesson which he shares by directly addressing the beloved:
I cannot explain, love, but I knew
how different they seemed, and how they sang
all the louder in the rain, and flew.
Lesson learned, the poet returns confidently to ‘we’ in the last poem ‘Eva’, which, like the first poem in the book, is set in snow. Poet and beloved ‘set out early’ and come upon ‘the scent of January’s mowing/fresh on fallen grass’ which I take to be snow or perhaps frost. It is further significantly described as ‘a season’s dowry’. The melting of the frost is seen as the first stage in the renewal of fertility which ‘ would put dry earth to grass, and then in time/turn road to wood, and sky, and bark, and moss.’ This poem , like the whole sequence, is in many ways very conventional, with its use of the sonnet and natural imagery to celebrate love. Kwek demonstrates his mastery of the poetic tradition while at the same time displaying linguistic invention and an ability to innovate by pushing the forms to their limits so that the apparently naturalistic poem resonates with subtle and often ambiguous meaning.