“But what of returning?” The answer to that question is “not yet”, probably never for the long-term, although ambivalence and nostalgia prevails. The past, the cycle of life, life’s inevitable compromises, and that haunting question is deeply examined in this poetry collection by Jennifer Wong.
As the title Letters Home suggests, the poems unfold as a personal history. While not every poem in the book is personal to the author, the majority appear to be born of her own experiences. Poetry is a form that cleverly incorporates non-fiction and fiction. Poetry practitioners are aware of how the two streams marry, even if readers sometimes want a poem or all the parts of a poem to be “true”, especially if a piece relates to a real event or is presented as a precise memory. But there’s a reason for the phrase “poetic licence”. Poets may take reality as a starting point and then infuse other ingredients to come up with the “truthfulness” that is found in a good poem.
Wong’s poems radiate a raw honest beauty. She grapples early on with the emotional impact of making a home in a different country and culture from the one she was raised in. She doesn’t shy away from voicing the dreams of her ancestors and her peers, that led to these distances, first from China, for one generation, then Hong Kong, for hers. In “Doicesan Girls School, 1990-1997”:
We dream of going away
To England or America,
And never, never coming back.
And in “Daughter”, she speaks to both the reader and to her child born in England:
If one day you look for
my childhood, you will find
it lies elsewhere, in a country
with no alphabet…
Family, history, rituals, tradition, Hong Kong life, student life in Oxford, followed by a more grown-up life in England, and being a poet and a parent, all intermingle in this collection. “Girls from my class”, harking back to her school again, is a wonderful poem, intriguing in its spare sentences; narrating a life-story and an artistic awakening on just half a page.
On Hong Kong she has this to say:
How much freedom have you got there?
I tell you I don’t know. Someone handed us the rules.
The wryness is palpable. Wong doesn’t shy away from the changes being wrought in Hong Kong and the recent protests. Sometimes she’s subtle and careful, other times overt. The drollness extends to a sweet and sly mockery of some Chinese superstitions, as in “Naming the sheep year babies”:
…if you WhatsApp me at email@example.com
all the aspirations you have for your precious one,
(stunning beauty; stable career; or to fetch
An incredible marriage)
I will come up with the luckiest name
commensurate with your fees.
A poem written in London in 2008, at the time of the last financial crash, is perceptive in its descriptions:
The ash-faced trudge along,
takeaway coffee in their hands,
uncertain how well they have refashioned
Wong weaves between England and Hong Kong, returning to the poignancy of “My father, who taught me how to fold serviette penguins”, expressing in tender words that feeling of how far she’s come in so many ways. The focus on Wong’s personal journey is what makes this collection engrossing, intimate and vivid, as in “From Beckenham to Tsim Sha Tsui”, a poem encapsulating the love and loss of one home culture and the desire and acceptance of another.
After eight years it’s
Almost home. Now I go via
Brixton Herne Hill West Dulwich
Except my train also calls at
Prince Edward, Mongkok, Yaumatei,
Jordan, Tsim Sha Tsui and Admiralty.
Towards the end of this poem she writes:
…. And the years
I have lived here, have cost me all those places I once tried to
leave from, am leaving still…
These lines an émigré refrain, silent in the heart, known to every person, no matter where on the globe, who has moved from a place they believed they were from, and settled for good elsewhere.