Book review: To cup this sound in my throat

Natalie Linh Bolderston, The Protection of Ghosts, V Press, £6.50, ISBN 9781916505230
Warda Yassin, Tea with Cardamom, Smith|Doorstop, £5, ISBN 9781912196722
Jennifer Lee Tsai, Kismet, Ignition, £5, ISBN 9781916504356
L. Kiew, The Unquiet, Offord Road, £6, ISBN 9781999930479
Degna Stone, Handling Stolen Goods, Peepal Tree, £5.99, ISBN 9781845234348
Jennifer Wong reads five recent pamphlets

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In this group of contemporary British poets spanning different diasporas and generations, one is struck by their convergences and distilled truths. The Protection of Ghosts by Natalie Linh Bolderston, a Chinese-Vietnamese poet whose family moved to England as refugees, is a poetic testimony. In ‘My mother’s nightmares’, atrocities return to haunt: “taste like seawater and vomit, handfuls of spat blood. The sky is a paper bruise, and it is always 1978. A gunshot forces her to carry the dead in her womb.”

1978 was the year the poet’s family left Vietnam, and the year Vietnam invaded Cambodia. The speaker struggles to understand her own nightmare, the fear of losing her mother: “There is a garden where her skin is drying on the line, a handful of her hair / on the lawn.” In the last section, we return to the present, where both mother and daughter are survivors who “both know there are some things we can only / consider with our eyes closed.”

Form becomes a way of framing trauma. A glossary-like poem that alternates between the voices of Bá Ngoại (grandmother) and the mother, ‘Divinations on Survival’ pushes boundaries with form. Bolderston’s poetry transforms history into the personal, a seamless flux of voices and multilingual expressions. Tender yet unflinching, these poems tell of survivors of atrocities, armed with knowledge and love.

Winner of the New Poets Prize, Tea with Cardamom by Warda Yassin, a Sheffield-born Somali poet, is an accomplished, poignant reflection on grief, faith, and the cruelty as well as selflessness in society. In ‘In Burco’, one becomes at once an insider and outsider to Burco, Somaliland, where religious schoolboys “chimed Tajweed in unison” and, in the evening, “rental / Range Rovers carried young guests to Plaza”. The speaker is struck by the strange political reality that exists in parallel, and the futility of denying it: “The army / was the police, the police drove tanks. My mother / slapped me for staring.”

Yassin’s poetry offers a way to understand the challenges of living with dignity and faith. In ‘Trophy Wife’, the poet interrogates the trauma of domestic abuse, and a woman’s right to be her true self: “wipe the shine from your cheekbones / before entering his Audi, pull the lashes from the eyes / he told you belonged to him.” In ‘Small Talk’, the young girl walking along Blackfriars Bridge hopes to advise her friend “on closed-toe sandals, overseas universities”, feels touched by her friend’s sincerity: “You ask for my tribe before my telephone number.” ‘Blick’ is a powerful poem that tackles racist language with courage: “start a revolution / and reclaim this word – blick”. Its deeply ironic slant almost makes one forget that there is beauty for those willing to see it (“the sun’s promise of staying”).

Jennifer Lee Tsai’s pamphlet Kismet explores with sensitivity the gaps between generations, cultures and belief systems. ‘Breathing’ conjures the image of a paralysed man in Tiananmen Square on New Year’s Eve and an enveloping fear: “he breathes over the petrified lake / in Houhai Park. Nothing gives.” Despite the stillness of it all, he is not dead but capable of starting again: “[a] patch of frost thaws / only to freeze again when he rises.”

Family history is steeped in pain. In ‘1961’, we catch a glimpse of working-class Hakka women, the aunt who “lights incense, replenishes the bowls of oranges / and white chrysanthemums on the ancestral altar”, remembering a grandmother’s suicide in 1961. In Kismet, we encounter versions of femininity that defy stereotypes. In ‘Going Home’, a long poem in parts, Lee Tsai subverts the moon metaphor, alluding to the myth of Chang’e and her resistance to her husband’s plans. ‘Love Token’ captures the morbid, elliptical thoughts of a self-professed “witchy vagrant locked inside an endless hall of mirrors” who inhabits “the wrong place at the wrong time, my wasted youth traded for a ghostly ride in a fairground”. Such is a version of self where “a Chopin nocturne plays inside my head every time”, that is capable of such power it can “smash through the glass”.

An elegy for the poet’s father, ‘Between Two Worlds’ considers the distance between the living and the dead. Resisting the painful reality, the speaker’s mind turns to the Tibetans who believe that after death, “the blood in the centre of the heart forms three drops”, observing how the family will survive grief: “the TV blaring in the background, / the sound of laughter, / my mother and brother carrying on the family business.” Filled with darkness and hope, Kismet conjures a world where the divide between the living and the dead becomes indistinct, where inner strength and love can transcend fears and bring healing.

In The Unquiet, L. Kiew’s poems prompt us to confront dialects in their transliterated, untranslated form, inviting the reader to grapple with incomplete meanings in a multicultural, complex social reality. Born in Malaysia, Kiew moved to England at ten for boarding school. Her ambivalent sense of belonging is expressed in the shifts between Hokkien, Teochew, Malay and English. In ‘Learning to be mixi’, the speaker conveys a young girl’s mixed feelings at leaving home for boarding school: “It was so panas / but aircon in airport / bite like cat.” While home dialect feels like “a blush licked / my face, campur-campur / speech bursting the ice wall”, school days in England amount to attempts to suppress what’s natural:

the backs and the hate,
suppressing the suffix-lah,
being proper and nice, cutting
my tongue with that ice.

In ‘Swallow’, the metaphorical bird suffers from “overeating from the dictionary – nouns sticky as langsat, a kilo of adjuncts, a kati of adverbs”. Regional dialects are repeated, juxtaposed with unfamiliar words (eg “plangent”, “minatory”) and remain deliberately unexplained. The poet’s incisive vocabulary; the brisk, run-on lines; sparse punctuations and disrupted syntax are revealing but disturbing.

Kiew’s poems explore the mind’s complexities and the undercurrents in relationships. In ‘Dinner’, a couple’s struggle to conceive is hidden in metaphors of “frozen meat”, “chopped rind”, “Your cold cut sandwiches / on Saturdays”, while the unusual syntax and the motif of bleeding in “Though I love you, I wipe the bowl. The sink’s red” conveys internal suffering. In ‘Balik kampung’, the wish to return home where her father in a sarong will be waiting, dissolves into the thought of a child in rush-hour traffic, with “no one left to / take her anxious hand”. Visceral and non-conformist, Kiew’s poetry challenges us to confront the legitimacy of difference and opaqueness of language.

With an imaginary trajectory moving from the trickster god Anansi to the magic of changing skin colour, Degna Stone’s Handling Stolen Goods charts the uneasy territories of family and love, when one’s skin colour also comes into the equation. Stone is an assured storyteller. In the title poem, the child is shocked and ashamed to learn there are stolen goods in the house, while her accidental slip of the tongue about them is met with severe punishment: “Mum’s hands splay out / like a shadow-play dove, / flutter at my throat.”

Deceptively simple but nuanced, in ‘Allotment’, fruit-picking becomes a cherished family ritual. The love of nature is merged with the family’s love for one other, where a “bass line of city traffic underscores / the hum of insects and bird chatter”, and as they “pour sunlit water back into the earth”. In ‘I’ll Never Protest As Well As Nina Simone’, the poet foregrounds the illogical relationship between skin colour and prejudice: “I’d wonder how the science / behind layers of skin cells / translates into hatred”. In ‘Of Mutuality’, a sonnet, the speaker confronts the reader, questioning how a person’s life might change with a different skin colour:

Watch the pigment rise (or fade), feel the texture
of your hair change, blink the ache from eyes

refocusing in their new shade.
How does the world look now?

Jennifer Wong is the author of Goldfish (Chameleon, 2013) and Diary of a Miu Miu Salesgirl (Bitter Melon, 2019). This essay was first published in The Poetry Review, 109:3, Autumn 2019. © The Poetry Review and the author.