Never underestimate the potential energy
nested in three noble syllables read from right to left.
Father and son with different appendages: Kum, Wing.
You seemed unfazed to start anew an abandonment of past graces
while your son reset from Joe to Wing and back again
with bank accounts in each name like conjoined rooms to store each breath.
This is where our table of contents splinters
and the hue of countless generations suddenly shifts.
As the younger entries begin to spread their ink
our once-unifying name arches further from the clan
cuts itself a groove in the family's bristled opera.
We carry its melody on everyday breaths but can't undo the words.
Chris Tse's first forays into poems about his family were mine to savour six years ago when we were both studying for an MA in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters here in Wellington. I wasn't in Chris' class, but my good friend Penny was, and she and I would share the work we brought home from our respective classes.
Chris' poems interested me because they were about a world I didn't know but had glimpses of via a sister-in-law: the lives of New Zealanders of Chinese descent. They also spoke more broadly about the dislocation of the immigrant - especially the dislocation of language - something I did understand. I liked (and still like) the voice of the poems, of a sensitive writer with a wry eye and sense of humour who is part of but also at the periphery of his family, shaping what he's known all his life into fresh words and images.
The poem posted here deals wonderfully with the way Chinese immigrants often changed their names to make them easier for English-speakers to get their - woefully ignorant - tongues around. I also like the way Chris builds his love of music into his poems - language and names as music, for example: 'we carry its melody on everyday breaths.'
I was delighted when a collection of Chris' poems 'Sing Joe' was included in Auckland University's AUP New Poets 4 publication, along with work by Harry Jones and Erin Scudder. I went to the launch (with Penny) and bought a copy. You can find it at independent booksellers like Unity in Wellington, or ask your bookseller to order it from AUP.
Since then, Tuesday Poet Janis Freegard (who knows Chris from another poetry class they attended) has posted one of Chris' poems on her blog and last week had an interview with him which elucidates his work. He says,
My family have been really supportive and generous with letting me share these stories. Hopefully they see that I’ve approached it with the utmost respect for my ancestors, especially since I have written about some fairly delicate moments in their lives. My great-grandparents’ situation wasn’t uncommon back then – many Chinese men remarried when they came to New Zealand because it was near impossible to bring their wives out too. My great-grandmother wasn’t mentioned much when we were growing up so these poems were a chance to give her a voice.
As Janis says, the poems written about the great-grandmother left behind are among the most poignant in the collection. I was torn between the poem I've posted and These Days, which faces it in the book, ending:
The sun hooks her eye
and in the light
she recollects days of
when all she hoped for
was a life of family
to spill out at her grateful feet.
I am thrilled to see Chris is working on a new collection of poems, as well as film scripts and, at the insistence of his mother, fiction! I think there is a novel inside this poet. He has many more stories to tell, and I look forward to them.
For more Tuesday Poems click on the quill in the sidebar or go here. There is a magnificent poem at the hub by US poet Hayden Carruth, and then a host of other marvellous poems to dip into and out of at will in the sidebar.