Theophilus Kwek

‘The Clearest Voice’: Of Poetry and Protest

Deaf Republic
, Ilya Kaminsky, Faber & Faber, 2019, 96pp, £10.99 (paperback)

Flèche, Mary Jean Chan, Faber & Faber, 2019, 88pp, £10.99 (paperback)


As I write this, the people of Hong Kong are gearing up for their thirteenth consecutive weekend of protests since Chief Executive Carrie Lam introduced her now-withdrawn extradition Bill in June – protests which, in recent weeks, have seen increasing police brutality matched by sheer willpower on the part of the protestors. Pressure has been building ahead of the weekend’s demonstrations: international news stations have reported military vehicles of the People’s Liberation Army ferrying troops across the border, while more than twenty key opposition figures (including Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow, who played a critical role in the 2014 Occupy protests) have been put behind bars.

Friends in Hong Kong report a sense of grim determination settling across the streets, and, despite everything, a faith to carry on. So, turning to Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic on this troubled morning, it is perhaps no accident that I hear echoes of the way they describe the city they love:   ‘It has begun’, he writes, ‘I see the blue canary of my country / pick breadcrumbs from each citizen’s eyes…’ (‘4 a.m. Bombardment’). Set in a fictional, occupied territory resembling the Soviet Union of his birth, Kaminsky’s sophomore collection tells the story of Vasenka: a village that, in response to the shooting of a deaf child by the invading forces, collectively chooses deafness as a mode of resistance. In breathless stop- motion, each consecutive poem sketches another scene in the action, their titles forming the book’s storyboard: ‘Gunshot’–‘Alfonso, in Snow’– ‘Deafness, an Insurgency, Begins’.

There are many things that set this book apart, but none more so than the way it refuses to hold the pathos of protest at arm’s length, zooming in on every proud and shameful facet of the human conscience that, in a rare moment of courage, becomes the only thing capable of holding the state at bay. As Kaminsky’s townspeople discover, this courage does not easily obtain (‘We tiptoe this city, / Sonya and I […] Be courageous, we say, but no one / is courageous’), and crumbles almost as soon as it reveals itself (‘Vasenka watches us watch four soldiers throw Alfonso Barabinski on the sidewalk. / We let them take him, all of us cowards’). But for as long as that courage is felt, it is truly dazzling; a force which makes each individual so much more than her everyday self. From the men who ‘once frightened, bound to their beds, now stand up like human masts’, to the girl who ‘nicks a pair of shoes from a sleeping soldier, skewered with light’, Kaminsky’s ordinary protestors – in the words of his winsome protagonist, Alfonso are ‘really something fucking fine’ (‘Alfonso Stands Answerable’).

Reminiscent of oral tradition, Kaminsky deploys the book’s almost recitative structure to great effect by interrupting the action on the streets of Vasenka with scenes from the lives of Alfonso, Sonya (his wife) and other characters – the puppeteers, soldiers, and the cunning Momma Galya. More than simply taking over a village, we discover that the invading troops have, through the force of language, occupied their memories too: ‘I watched you / […] holding your / breasts in your hand—/ two small explosions’, says Alfonso of his wedding night (‘Of Weddings Before the War’). Indeed, everything is coloured by the occupation, and though the narrative remains nimble, it illustrates deftly how easily how totalitarian rule shades every aspect of life in either defiance or compliance: ‘On earth / a man cannot flip a finger at the sky / because each man is already / a finger flipped at the sky’ (‘Soldiers Aim at Us’). One might say that Kaminsky has written a book of political poetry that is political in its truest sense: it is about how form, language, story, and even the silences of the page are organised to reflect the workings of power, in the same way that human lives are so often bent by forces beyond their control.

At the book’s close, Kaminsky lifts the veil of his fable with the poem ‘In a Time of Peace’, which unfolds in contemporary America where the poet now lives, ‘a country in which a boy shot by police lies on the pavement / for hours’. The sleight of hand – transporting us from the former Eastern bloc to this supposedly ‘peaceful country’ – is swift and devastating, and equally so, the revelation that our own streets are only ‘peaceful’ for those who ‘do not hear gunshots, / but watch birds splash over the backyards of the suburbs’. As much as protest is a choice that the citizens of Vasenka eventually fail to make, we too ‘pocket our phones and go / to the dentist, / to pick up the kids from school…’, and allow ourselves the luxury of ignoring the violence around us. Kaminsky does not pull his punches: in the murdered boy’s open, silenced mouth, we glimpse only ‘the nakedness / of the whole nation’.

In much the same way, Mary Jean Chan’s Flèche holds two cities – her native Hong Kong, as well as London where she now lives – to close scrutiny. The two are, of course, joined by an historical thread, which   she gestures to in her Preface, citing (among other documents) the 1898 Convention of the Extension of Hong Kong Territory. But there are countless other connections which criss-cross both cities, lines of prejudice, reconciliation and desire, and Chan weaves these expertly into a memoir- like narrative that also makes brief landings in Shanghai (of her mother’s birth) and Linz (for a childhood fencing tournament). This prodigious border-crossing is, if anything, mirrored in the range of forms that Chan experiments with throughout the collection, from her inspired use of the humble couplet (visually evocative of chopsticks clashing at a dinner table, but also of lovers lying side-by-side) in the poem ‘//’, to the cacophonic in- text Cantonese-to-English translations of the poem ‘speaking in tongues’ (whose lines are, in turn, based on the lyrics of a 90s Cantopop hit by Faye Wong, ‘Promise’).

In a sense, the book itself is a formal and linguistic experiment, with the three sections of sixteen poems (each broken into fourteen, then a pair) titled after three fencing techniques, an extended play on the volume’s title. But each internal section divider is also printed with the Chinese characters 母親的故事, a close approximation of ‘My Mother’s Fables’, which is the title of Chan’s opening poem. Taken together, these structural devices may be read in several ways: to reinforce the reader’s sense of the poems as     a cycle, ultimately returning to where they began; or as a nod to the two conflicting forces in Chan’s narrative, namely, the chiding figure of the poet’s mother, and the pull of all that fencing represents – physical exertion and desire, violence masked as play. Two poems that best illustrate this tension are ‘Flesh’ (from the first section) and ‘Flèche’ (from the third). The former turns on an intimate scene of the poet’s mother teaching her to cook, recalling days of famine during the Cultural Revolution (which the older woman survived, in her youth), and rendered bittersweet by the kitchen’s associations with domesticity and convention, which the poet herself later begins to question. The latter, a prose sequence, takes the poet’s years as an amateur fencer as a foil for what she learns about herself and the world: putting on the ‘steel mesh’ of the fencing mask, to learn of ‘distance as a kind of desire’.

It is impossible not to read Flèche in light of the present moment, though Chan refrains from direct comment on the questions of governance that bedevil both her home cities. Her poems are shot through with a sense   of both cities’ complicated pasts, mediated through personal experience: ‘I grew up in a city where parks once displayed / this sign in my mother tongue: CHINESE and / DOGS NOT ALLOWED’, she writes (‘Written in a Historically White Space (II)’). By seeking to reconcile and contain the many worlds she has come to occupy, within the space of each poem, Chan has made of her collection a more supple and sustained political statement than we expect at first glance. And what an act of courage it is, too. Chan faces down prejudice on the streets of Shanghai (‘a taxi driver asked me whether I was my lover’s tour guide […] tell me what it is that I should do next?’) with as much sorrow and aplomb as she does in London (‘I am greeted with / Sir / Sir / Sir / […] / in the café / of the British Library’), and emerges with a kind of resistance that is at once disarmingly honest and vulnerable:

‘today I run again / through a sea of eyes / to find myself redeemed
/ by a child’s voice / […] / how strange to think / I’ve been looking
everywhere / for forgiveness / and all it takes is an eight-year-old /
to gently speak / my name’

– from ‘Names (II)’

If Deaf Republic shows us how to put aside our first-world distractions to sit up and listen – then Flèche points us toward a tentative response, by teaching us to recognise our own inner contradictions, and reminding us that the work of undoing prejudice (and healing divides) will take more than a single conversation or confrontation. Between the uncertainty of the long view and the fear of immediate reprisal, these poets show us how to live, as we must, in the meantime. Indeed, to paraphrase Kaminsky: ‘What remains of [us] (they took you, Sonya) – the voice we cannot hear – is the clearest voice’.
Theophilus Kwek is a writer and researcher based in Singapore. His poems, essays and translations have appeared in The Guardian, Times Literary Supplement, Mekong Review and The Irish Examiner. He was formerly Editor-at-Large at Asymptote, and now serves as Co-editor of Oxford Poetry.

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