Words, Verses, Fractals… – Kitaab review of Tammy Ho Lai-Ming’s Hula Hooping
by Joel Gn
The “beauty”, or should I say cardinal difficulty, of poetry is that it deviously thwarts any attempt to construct a factual narrative. This, of course, does not mean that the poet’s experiences are inauthentic or false. On the contrary, all kinds of verse become coloured fractals, masking a myriad of impressions that allow the reader to catch, if not feel, a world that is neither familiar nor foreign, but embodied and imagined. In this way, poetry, like all other works of the imagination, embraces difference with and for us. To quote Roger Scruton, the poetic work “interrogates the world, not as religion interrogates, to sniff out heresy and error, but in order to spread itself in sympathy”.
It is thus via this sensitivity of the written word that poetry seduces more than it dictates, for the reader is not expected to know or ascertain if the words are abstracted as fact or fiction, but is impelled to relish the ambiguity between the two. Of course, such a movement, on the onset, might seem awkward, if not somewhat disconcerting, but therein lies the possibility of an affection for the work itself, an encounter where subject positions are effaced for the play within and between every verse.
The collection of poems in Tammy Ho’s Hula Hooping revolves around such playful encounters between loved ones, lovers and her love of places. These are woven together in heartfelt and visceral moments that vividly capture the vicissitudes of singular characters and their social fabric. Especially whimsical are the works in the section titled “Story Poems”, where she muses about the marriage of a painter and sculptor; peculiar women who offer gifts of weal and woe; and her inner struggle with names. Both poignant and picturesque, the verses in the collection melt into and transfigure the mundane, as elegantly rendered in a stanza from “Suggestions for distributing your poems”:
Write a poem on an umbrella
and go out into the rain.
Watch the lines melt onto the street.
and pause briefly at crosswalks and traffic 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.
These words are also carried into aphoristic contemplations of places, where the personal is inevitably confounded with the political. Concerning China, the reader is presented with a lyrical string of mysterious deaths and jarringly bizarre news of perished infants that make the ambience both tense and grim, while the tumultuous relationship between Hong Kong and the mainland is most tangible in these fervent, polemical lines from “Glory, repentance”:
when China was served
collapsing tofu schools
and contaminated milk.
We are not heartless.
Our heartbeat is tied
to the nation’s.
Still, something is not forgotten.
Something nags, has pulled our pulse out of beat, for twenty years.
Yet there are also softer, more tranquil moments that leave us with traces of homely comfort. “Tin Shui Wai”, for example, lends ear to the chatter of genial folk who yearn for validation and intimacy, while “Hong Kong public etiquette” might serve as an introduction to the nuances and even idiosyncrasies of its people. Passionate, but never didactic, these delicate verses emanate vibrant hues that invite us to experience and re-create the many facets of daily life in Hong Kong.
Besides such elegant depictions, the author’s satirical take on her mother tongue also proves to be delectably charming. In “Cantonese idioms”, metaphors are taken apart, questioned and subtly re-conjured. One cannot be sure if anything is lost in translation, as the negations seem to suggest that other metaphors are to be discovered the moment previous ones unravel.
Like the repetition and difference of the fractal, the poetic work of Hula Hooping comprises patterns that turn or spiral towards an ineffable centre, where a kaleidoscopic differentiation of affections is inscribed on every page. And it is in these pages that readers are invited to probe without judgement, by feeling with and through layers of verse that draw us into a world that is never ours in the absolute. Perhaps the gift of poetry expressed in Ho’s collection does not pertain to the mastery of the object, where the poetic work is denuded to be comprehensible, since comprehension may easily be reduced to the trap of delineating and hence deciding between the true and the false. Rather, it is the reader who receives, or comes to share the life of the other adorned in verse. In many ways, the verses of Hula Hooping make for a delightful exemplification of the elliptical celebration of the poetic work, where the words do not only move, but dance in celebration of life.
 Scruton, Roger. Modern Culture London: Continuum, 2005: 66.
Joel Gn is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Communications and New Media, National University of Singapore. His research considers cute design as a technology of the lovable and explores the phenomenological implications of the aesthetic in interactive agents such as digital partners and social robots. Gn’s other interests include critical theory, science fiction and East Asian popular culture.