Well over a decade ago, an extremely sensitive and intelligent lady said to me that when she opens a poetry book the first time, she goes to the last poem in the collection. I believe I agreed with her notion that that poem on the last page would often serve as both ironic since culminating bellwether for the selection, as well as a summation and/or statement on the particular EQ crossroads the poet finds her/himself. Of course this goes only for books issued by living poets who made the choices themselves and decided on the order of contents.
I have since adopted the practice, skipping the first sections of a poetry collection and immediately settling for the ultimate entry.
In Tammy Ho Lai-Ming’s debut collection Hula Hooping, published by Chameleon Press of Hong Kong early this year, it turns out that the last poem is also the title poem. Summation of all sorts, then, or a précis of the contemporary poetic stage the poet finds herself inhabiting.
“Hula hooping” the poem takes up six-and-a-half pages, rendered in a total of seven paragraphs that are typographically set as common prose, with no set line endings. It’s too long to quote in its entirety here. Let me share the last paragraph (as faux stanza):
“Writing this for days exhausts me. It is a good kind of exhaustion, like what Hemingway said about finishing a short story. I wish the friends and family I have mentioned or alluded to will continue to love and admonish me. When I die I want somebody to close my eyes and make sure my horny feet are not exposed at the funeral. I sometimes think of hula hooping with my sisters but I don’t really remember much. I wouldn’t want to revisit my childhood. I wouldn’t want to go back to any period of my past. I imagine it’s more cinematic to part with someone at a snow-covered train station than a provincial airport. If I am to write a book in my senile days it will be The History of the Clock. I am in a seizure of love. When I read this back in a few years’ time I will probably find my current self unbearably pretentious and naïve — ‘hard to believe I was ever as bad as that.’ I want to be happier. And I want to believe that my best days are still ahead of me before I belong to the ages.”
It’s the only poem that takes up the last section, “Envoi.” Preceding sections are “Family affairs,” “Story poems,” “To make death in us live,” “Love poems,” “Autobiographies,” and “China – elsewhere – Hong Kong.”
The title poem sums up the recurring motifs brought up in the preceding sections, as well as the tacks and techniques that spell a unique voice dwelling in and hovering about set-pieces that address memory, awareness, familiarity and intimacy with the self and expanding circles of family, friends, literary influences, loves, settings, traditions, political spheres, imagined future, and again circling back into the apostasy of the I.
A feigned flippancy characterizes the evident modern reluctance to engage in poetry of verbiage, or of stilted lyricism. Mostly, narratives are the backbone for each exercise, as are engagements with seeming ordinariness, the quotidian. And yet the storytelling is enhanced beyond the confines of chronological paces, with the personal voice breaking off suddenly or shifting to another tack to release itself from possible tedium.
With tonal configurations turning premium, inclusive of mock-flighty digressions, the totality of each poem serves up the measures of appreciation. There is startling, taut freshness, as with the brief “The vacuum cleaner”:
“She wanted to write a short story/ on a piece of paper. Finding/ none on the table and under the sofa,/ she opened up the vacuum cleaner/ and found and pieced/ and transformed fragments of movie tickets,/ bra-tags, lazy hairballs into a/ sort of paper marked with memories.”
Then again, from “Advice to herself at age eighteen,” quoted in full: “She began with a Chinese word: ‘fat’, which means/ quick, swift, rapid, or to hurry up. She was/ maturing and she needed no helmet from refined/ lust. Quick, she must learn to prescribe/ the bluntness of love, and lengthening/ loneliness of long summer afternoons entitled/ to come. Swift to issue the notice of attention,/ with density, to this girl and that boy. The body/ should be dazzled, pebbled, jumbled, by that bitch/ or that bastard. Rapidly,// she ought to fuse confusion with desire,/ discovery, alliterative sighs. Hurry up!/ This moment with this girl or that boy/ inherited everything, including interlaced/ kisses, parted lips.”
Tammy Ho Lai-Ming as poet and persona is tough/tender, both delicate and resolute in her determination to summon up experience and imagination, documentation and prophecy. It is not a brazen toughness, as it relies on yet unjaded memory, given her relative youth. So do the delicacy of recall and articulation.
I liked best “The newlyweds,” “Wishes,” “Bring a torch,” “The comfort of strangers,” and “Your silhouette is blasphemous” among the entries in the section “Story poems” — where adroit calculations speak so subtly of imagination carefully tethered to reality.
In that same section, “Suggestions for distributing your poems” offers a particularly memorable stanza: “Write a poem on an umbrella/ and go out in the rain./ Watch the lines melt onto the street,/ and pause briefly at crosswalks and trafic lights,/ before continuing on your way./ Most lines will disappear down drains,/ first their periods, then predicates, then personal pronouns./ But a few key phrases may be picked up by wingtips,/ and stamped as fading footprints, throughout the city.”
Urban imagery is thereby transposed into a fey convergence of surrealism and idealism.
The section on “death” displays similarly soft sorcery. In “The soliloquy of the paper iPod maker,” the middle stanza provides the canny gist of generational torch-passing, inclusive of youthful, prospective cynicism.
“I asked my father who believed that the world/ could be constructed with paper, ‘We are serving/ ghosts, are we not? But they will never receive/ these dying ashes.’ He muttered something about/ everyone ends with bones and ashes, or ashes/ and bones, He was forever obscure, and single-/ mindedly returned to the paper Rolex he was holding/ and added two arms to forge a fixed line.”
What a quietly powerful line, that last, manifesting the strength of image suffusing the idea.
Of the love poems, “Haunting” I find the strongest, in which these lines begin and end as bookends of affirmation: “I wish I were dead so I can haunt you./ That way, I could be closer/ to your especially strong bicycle calves.// … My only worry would be that if I were dead/ you might eventually forget me —/ a lid of an abandoned jar.// Still, let me be presumptuous and say/ my last words now:/ I’d rather be with you than live.”
And there’s the playfully imagistic/mythopoeic “But not Chuang Tzu’s butterfly” that ends thus: “Snails outside of their shells are slimy/ and resemble the genitalia of hermaphrodites./ There are owl butterflies — their wings have patterns like/ owl eyes.// They don’t glow like owl eyes, though./ When my legs are open and naked, from a distance,/ they and my pussy look like a butterfly./ I’m not kidding. There really are owl butterflies.”
The cyclical is circular in Tammy’s poetry, which is ultimately kinetic. The movements include sudden stillness. In effect, the circular motion of hula hooping serves as throwback of leitmotif. The force continues even after rest.
The technique involves apparent whims of when to slacken on the tight focus. It’s much like intuiting when to tug at a kite string to increase the tension in challenging the wind, and when to have it go slack, to have the flyer float sideways, or soar higher.
In “Watching my dad fly a kite,” she reminisces: “… He releases some string,/ then reels in slightly, releases more./ Applause./ That skill isn’t luck, that skill is marvelous.”
We can say the same of the poet’s riveting skills.
Tammy Ho Lai-Ming is founding co-editor of Cha: An Asian Literary Journal and an assistant professor of literature at Hong Kong Baptist University. She co-edited Desde Hong Kong: Poets in Conversation with Octavio Paz (Chameleon Press, 2014).
We met her briefly last May in Dumaguete, where she was invited to serve as a panelist for the second week of the Silliman University National Writers Workshop (SUNWW).
She delivered a lecture, “Ghosts in the Machine: Poems and Photographs,” at the Byblos Library, where she also launched this first book of hers — with its arresting cover photograph credited to our buddy the Singaporean poet Alvin Pang.
A book of Tammy’s stories is due for publication later this year. We look forward to it, and more of her fine poetry.