Review: I Didn’t Know Mani Was A Conceptualist by Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé

ManiIn this beautifully produced collection of prose poems and vignettes, Desmond Kon amazes and enchants the reader with his usual dexterity of thought and language. Here, in extraordinary, surreal settings, we find ourselves having a ‘dialogue with the juniper shrub’ while a dugong is ‘mistaken for a mermaid in the fog’ and a straight line on a white wall turns out to be de Chirico ‘hiding in his own silhouette.’ This is a lyrical, bitter-sweet realm as well, slight as ‘a spray of allegory in the dried out tobacco leaves’, a place where ‘even the small teacups have lost their chestnut and clover-tree cities to become one unremitting saffron’.

There is a great deal of subtle humour in these pieces where ‘no one is levitating… although they all want to.’ The reader may be baffled by koans and questions and questions behind questions but so too is the archivist, a persona in the first section, who simply nods and keeps quiet in the face of complexities, knowing that ‘keeping silence to such answers connotes understanding  or at least acknowledgement or, quietly, simply lack thereof.’ This is the same bewildered archivist who sucks on a lollipop ‘waiting for the treacle to dissolve into bubblegum he can later stick onto the back of a park bench.’

Humour, wit and a light touch – but sadness and loss are partners in tone here and no matter how often one may sing ‘Starry Starry Night’ no one is listening and there is still darkness in the soul so that the song ‘has perfectly lost its butterfly buoyancy, like sanity and meanings and morning fields and love along the arc.’

DezDesmond Kon has arranged the poems in this collection in four sections, linear in layout but overlapping, multi-dimensional, out of space and time in every other way. When Dada Re-Wrote Koans is fragmentary, elusive, surreal and somewhat sinister in tone, scattered with artists, poets, sculptors, musicians, philosophers as well as modern-day celebrities and pop stars.

Eleven Ways of Looking at a Square, my favourite section, is filled with lyrical tragic voices that come from ‘an oubliette, trapdoor left open to let out the weeping’, voices that whisper of dwellings where there is ‘no windbrace or sprockets or windows although occasionally the crackle of shrinking glass. No turning weather. No mechanism or motif or memory. No handle to grab onto.’ Titles of vignettes in this group are equally bleak: ‘An Unbearable Likeness to Madness’,   ‘Clocking The Thinning Light’, ‘The Eleventh Hour’.

In Memoriam to a Marionette is written in vignettes, numbered backwards from 24 -1. The author touches on notions of Utopia – a nowhere place of imaginary good and imaginary bad. References are made to Thoreau’s ‘hide-out, its henna-coloured myth now a fading mental picture’. Even light in this place is reduced to the amount that can fit in a cup, be contained under a peel-off metallic cover.

Only Resident 97 seems to have some idea of hope, of salvation as he considers his ‘many saved cups’. There is the mention of a path, a hint of love, the desire to be able to feel some emotion and ‘to cry with the full staggering pain of what it meant to cry.’ The section ends with an image of Thoreau ‘murky but peaceful’, a fisher-king figure ‘at the embankment with a pail, to collect some water.’

The final group of poems Dakini Proxemics introduces a number of beings – dakini who may or may not offer enlightenment along a frail path. Here are half- heard questions, voices and fragments and finally ‘pitchers falling into their own spill. And sides.’

There is more, much more, to find in all this richness of language and thought. The reader must bring his/her own experiences, understandings and insights. I am left with a sense of bleakness but also a glimpse that there is hope somewhere between ‘the thrown and glazed earthenware’. The calligraphy is seeping through the pages, says the author. Ambiguous and open to as many interpretations as a Rorschach test it will still set, ‘on the other side’.


Mandy Pannett works in the UK as a creative writing tutor. She has won prizes and been placed in international competitions and has judged several others. She is the author of a novella, The Onion Stone, and of four poetry collections: Bee Purple and Frost Hollow (Oversteps Books), Allotments in the Orbital (Searle Publishing) and All the Invisibles (SPM Publications). A new book is forthcoming soon from Pighog Press.

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