Monday, January 12, 2009

Poetry from Hong Kong

I met poet Agnes Lam for the first time at the entrance of the Magna Grecia Archaeological Museum of Reggio, in South Italy, last November 2008. She was together with other poets from all over the world and who had participated in the Nosside International Poetry Competition 2008, and also winners of various prizes. The thing I remember best is her magical reading of her winning poem (Special Mention), Vanilla in the stars (see below). People present were bedazzled by the way Agnes Lam read her "cosmic" poem. Nosside gave us all the opportunity to meet people like Agnes: intelligent, brilliant, sincere, friendly, humble and inspiring.

(Photo by Thomas Langdon)

Agnes S. L. Lam (poet, essayist, literary critic) completed her PhD at the University of Pittsburgh and is currently an Associate Professor at the University of Hong Kong. She has published two collections of poetry, Woman to Woman and Other Poems (1997) and Water Wood Pure Splendour (2001), and her work has appeared in anthologies around the world. Other publications include several short stories, scholarly monographs, and other creative and critical works. Her articles on Hong Kong writing in English have also appeared in World Literature Today and World Englishes. She was awarded the title of Honorary Fellow in Writing by the University of Iowa in 2008 and received the Nosside International Poetry Prize (Special Mention) in the same year. Her current research on Asian poetry in English is funded by the Hong Kong Research Grants Council.


Vanilla in the stars

When I was a child,
I used to gaze at the stars above

our garden of roses, jasmine and lingzhi by the sea,
wondering how far away they really were,
whether they were shining still at the source
by the time their light reached me …

I was told that everyone was born with a star
which glowed or dimmed with the fortunes of each.
I also heard people destined to be close
were at first fragments of the same star

and from birth went searching for each other.
Such parting, seeking, reuniting might take
three lifetimes with centuries in between.
I had thought all these were but myths …

Now decades later, I read about the life of stars,
how their cores burn for ten billion years,
how towards the end, just before oblivion,
they atomize into nebulae of fragile brilliance –

ultra violet, infra red, luminous white, neon green or blue,
astronomical butterflies of gaseous light
afloat in a last waltz choreographed by relativity,
scattering their heated ashes into the void of the universe …

Some of this cosmic dust falls onto our little earth
carrying hydrocarbon compounds, organic matter
able to mutate into plant and animal life,
a spectrum of elemental fragrances …

Perhaps on the dust emanating from one ancient star
were borne the first molecules of a pandan leaf,
a sprig of mint or basil, a vanilla pod, a vine tomato,
a morning frangipani, an evening rose, a lily of the night …

Perhaps our parents or grandparents or ancestors further back
strolling through a garden or a field had breathed in the scents
effusing from some of these plants born of the same star
and passed them on as DNA in the genes of which we were made …

Could that be why, on our early encounters, we already sensed
in each other a whiff of something familiar, why, when we are near,
there is in the air some spark which seems to have always been there,
prompting us to connect our pasts, share our stories even as they evolve …

… till the day when we too burn away into dust
and the aromas of our essence dissipate
into the same kaleidoscope of ether light
to be drawn into solar space by astral winds …

… perhaps to make vanilla in a star to be
before the next lifetime of three?

Agnes Lam, 9 May 2008, Rodrigues Court, with reference to Sun Kwok’s book, ‘Cosmic butterflies’

The rape of a nation

Larger than life,
they were soldiers
in the streets of darkness,
shadows with no faces,
burning, raping, killing
in a land not their own,
a battle not of their making.
I was watching
by the side with others.
They did not see me
or the other watchers.
But I could hear the screams,
smell the wet of the blood,
see the red of fire.
I was doing nothing.
Nothing was done to me.
But I felt the desperation of both
the perpetrators and the victims
in the rape of a nation.
Was it from another time?
Another space?
Was it just television?
Or a hallucination? A prophecy?
A fragment of collective memory?

22 June 1997, Rodrigues Court (Lam, A. (2001). The rape of a nation. Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, 32(1), 136.)

Other poems can be read on:

Selected Bibliography:

· Poetry

o Water Wood Pure Splendor. Hong Kong: Asia 2000, 2001.
o Woman to Woman and Other Poems. Hong Kong: Asia 2000, 1997.

· Nonfiction

o Language Education in China: Policy and Experience from 1949. Hong Kong: Hong Kong
o University Press, 2005.
o “Defining Hong Kong Poetry in English: An Answer from Linguistics.” In World Englishes
o (19:3, pp. 387-97), 2000.

· Short Fiction

o “La montagna dei crisantemi [‘The Mountain of Chrysanthemums’]. In Singapore: Sedici
o Racconti dall’Asia estrema. M. Coppola and A. Mioni, eds. Milan: Isbn Edizioni, 2005.

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