Olly Todd reviews Jennifer Lee Tsai

Kismet published by ignitionpress (2019)

The corridors of memory are labyrinthine, leading to rooms of revelry and lament by turns. Some doors, of course, we’d rather leave closed, yet Liverpool poet Jennifer Lee Tsai, in her debut pamphlet Kismet (ignitionpress, 2019), is down there picking the locks and switching on lights. Often exploring complex issues – the playground teasing of the child of immigrant parents; puzzlement at the different coloured skin of new peers – the book opens with an urgent run of present-tense poems which bring striking immediacy to the memories they depict. Other devices such as line breaks within prose poems indicated by forward slashes serve to confront and confine these memories, ordering this would-be daunting bit of limbic housekeeping into an arresting account of patently troubling lived experiences. Later, we have lost love, mental health crises, grandparental illness; yet with the baleful scenes slotted in amid coruscating imagery, Lee Tsai’s poems appear able to refract the autobiography in a defiant light.

The child who learned “how to keep secrets” in ‘Self Portrait at Four Years Old’ has grown up and acquired the language with which to confess them. For the most part that is. In ‘Why’, we don’t learn the identity of a mysterious ‘it’, only that whisky, howling winds and ‘dark niches in the marsh’ contributed to its occurrence. In the same poem the use of repetition recalls a technique favoured by Lee Tsai’s The Mersey Sound Scouse forebears. But for the playfulness sought by Messrs Henri and McGough through recurrent line-openings (in Without You or What You Are, say), read foreboding. Lee Tsai’s free-verse investigation also has language itself, or more accurately its shortcomings, in its sights throughout the pamphlet. Idiomatic Cantonese untranslatable into English, and the meanings of family names lost across continents, in particular. Lines like ‘Hen harriers dive as merlins pursue’ (The Age of Innocence) become imagistic nuggets that temper the frustrations of the speakers of untold – or untellable – secrets, skilfully reflecting the descriptive clarity in the pictograms of Chinese names that open the poem.

Linked intrinsically to memory and language of course is place; context for content relived, which introduces another of Kismet’s primary themes. The poems resonate with their city, Liverpool; from its broad Georgian terraces, night bus routes and gothic churchyards to the private domestic detail of a grandfather’s armchair (a recurring motif) in a small room above the family restaurant. In ‘Between Two Worlds’, a muted anguish is placed delicately (between folklore and the primary colours and common nouns of anecdote) against a passage of literal description that is suddenly clamouring: ‘… hear the extractor fan / whirring relentlessly, / the banging of an iron wok, / customers placing their orders; / the TV blaring in the background,’ It’s a tantalising piece of piano-forte whose inherent tension anchors the quiet drama in a cinematic mise en scène, complete with non-diegetic sound, that stays in the mind long after reading.

And it seems only right, when you consider the hippocampus is the neural neighbour of the olfactory sense, that Kismet should be full of flora and the language of scent: dandelions, lotus leaves, tulips, steamed bamboo; elsewhere: ‘elixirs of immortality’ and alchemy that blooms ‘the most enchanting flower’, from ‘A Prayer for My Grandmother’. There’s a confidence in Lee Tsai’s work for a syntactical flourish too. Clauses like ‘Twilight, she comes alive’ and ‘Midnight on New Year’s Eve, / we sauntered’, which see fit to eschew the preposition, were pretty snazzy.

The venue of one of the book’s standout poems, ‘You Said’, whose unsettling coda arrives amid a tussle of Elvis and Keats and atheism via the strobe lights of a night club, is aptly labyrinthine. Liverpool’s The Krazy House was a multi-level warren of rooms and dance-floors which hosted the kind of laughing, crying, snogging, fighting and shirtless head-banging that only two-for-one lemon Hooch can inspire. This reviewer is a former punter of the establishment so there’s an element of kismet to the fact this particular publication landed on my desk. Happy it did. Sidestepping melancholy on a lyric journey of catharsis, Kismet is a guided tour of a childhood, a family, a city, a self; with more than a touch of stoic victory to add to the magical mystery. Step right this way.

Olly Todd’s pamphlet Odeum Spotlights was published by Rough Trade Editions in 2018.

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