Letters Home 回家’ published by Nine Arches Press (2020)
Jennifer Wong’s new book of poems is the “small dream of soy sauce” she describes in ‘Sushi bar amnesiac’. A tasteful, part-sweet part-sour collection, Letters Home 回家 traces the in-between spaces of identity and belonging produced by Wong’s migration from Hong Kong to England in October 1998. These page-length poems travel back and forth through space, culture and language creating a multidimensional nostalgia. In ‘Arrival’, she confesses, “When I first arrived/ I did not tell anyone that I had/ a rice cooker in my suitcase.” Coupled with the anxiety of a ‘limited leave to remain’, the poem – located neatly in the mid-section of the book – grapples with the duality of longing that informs Wong’s poetry.
Material remnants of the past are scattered across the book. These are examples of a culture carried on one’s back. There are ice lanterns filled with water from the Songhua river, redolent menus with both ‘sei mei bitter tea’ and ‘Tsingtao beer’ and Buddhist temples and bauhinia trees alongside ‘kaiten’ – Japanesesuicide torpedos. Wong builds landscapes of her Hong Kong within these poems. She writes wrenchingly in ‘From Beckenham to Trim Sha Tsui’, that her train also calls at a line of stations in Hong Kong. This is an endearing ground truthing.
Wong’s poems are equally flourished with rose gardens in British houses and Sainsbury’s aisles where she rehearses English words. These parallel universes blend into each other, eclipsing the distance between the here and there in the poems. One reaches a point in the latter half of the book where one no longer knows which is which.
These fragments exist simultaneously in Wong’s writing, joined at the hip by an imaginative voice. They fuse together as Wong translates syllable by syllable, ‘Bei 北 Jin 京 San 三 Huan 环 Lu 路’. The book is a continuous puzzling of the meaning of home. Laura Marks writes that nostalgia (from nostó meaning ‘I return’ and alghó meaning ‘I feel pain’) need not mean an immobilising longing for the past. It can also mean the transformation of the present by past experiences. Letters Home 回家 is fittingly described as a collection of love-letters from the past to the present. It builds a continuous dialogue between crosscutting memories, an immersive experience for the reader.
Grained with the textures of Chinese myth and astrology, these poems reimagine a life for an audience unfamiliar with this rich cultural history. “All they know/ is the counterfeit of lantern streets/ in Chinatown” she writes in ‘Mountain City’. In an acute sense, Wong’s poetry is also a counterfeit, or as she says, “copies of my former life.”
The hallucinating structure of the book moves between time and space in dense circles. There is no clear starting or ending point to these movements. The distinction between place and memory turns increasingly permeable as one delves into the five-sectioned collection. We return to the dream within dream structure of ‘of butterflies’ which the book begins with:
the man does not know
if he dreams of a butterfly
or if a butterfly dreams
of a man.
Layers of untranslated material in the poems encourage the reader to undertake their own research. There is a solid wistfulness about the translation of the epigraph to ‘Mountain City’ – “With over 40 years of history, Sunbeam Theatre, Hong Kong’s last traditional Cantonese opera house, has reached the end of its tenancy. Many Cantonese opera fans are very disappointed.” These deserve to be read and enjoyed in their own right. However, the italicisation of transliterations betrays the effort. This stylistic choice reduces the complexity of cultural interaction to macaronics that emphasise a ‘foreignness’.
Letters Home 回家 continues to complicate the connections drawn in Wong’s previous two collections, Summer Cicadas and Goldfish. Their poignant voice and the descriptive anonymities and liquid landscapes give the collection a modernist feel. To be sure, there is something very Poundian about ‘the sea of black heads in a metro station’ that Wong stresses she does not miss.
Is there a catharsis at the end of this journey or is this an endless migration, a continuous shifting of comfort? Who are these letters written to? At many points, Wong’s poems are reminiscent notes to the self. At others, they address her daughter who she dreams into being in her poems. In ‘Arrival’, Wong’s mother writes back with letters full of question marks, “how cold is England’s cold?/ Should we send more instant noodles?” Wong resists these questions. Between strokes of nostalgia, she writes “Whatever you say, don’t ask me where I come from. I have traded my country up for better air.” Letters Home 回家interrogates what it means to return. It suggests that perhaps, in the end, it is only the words that can go back.
Nikita Biswal is a final year student of literature at King’s College London. Her criticism has appeared in The Times Literary Supplement and Strand Magazine. She is currently writing about the city and food memories. You can find her at: instagram.com/nikitabiswal/