Poetry Pamphlet Reviews & Features

Run by HappenStance Press

red cover with swirly pattern and godlike many-headed many-armed figure in the middleyou are mistaken, Sean Wai Keung

The Rialto, 2017   £5.50

Red envelopes

I might have taken, as a point of interest, the poet’s use of ‘+’ instead of ‘and’ or ‘&’, and whether he is stuck with this for life as a kind of personal signature, but the title poem, at considerable length, anticipates this (‘no i wont stop using +’) as well as allows for a proviso too (‘no i don't always follow my own principles that would completely defeat the point of having them’).

So that is not my point of interest, though the plus signs did distract me while reading this pamphlet. Mostly I was interested in the cultural references, which I found both rich and educative, and in particular I liked the poem called ‘a gift’ with its mention of a ‘red packet’. I learned from the Wikipedia page on Red Envelope that in Chinese (and some other societies) a red packet is used to contain a gift of money, which one might receive on special occasions, such as weddings, graduations or the birth of a baby. In the poem, a couple with a baby come into the shop where the narrator is working. They produce ‘a / red packet filled with money’, and the narrator impulsively says, ‘i havent had a red packet since i was a kid’ and he is either unheard or ignored. This allows him to foreground the idea of deprivation (in a set of poems where lack of money is a recurring issue).

But I liked in particular the way the red packet was a cultural link between the narrator and the couple, something he immediately recognised, and at the same time I liked how this made me sharply aware of what I don’t automatically pick up on. Much in poetry depends on cultural recognition and it’s all too easy to forget that mainly one is reading inside one’s own culture and corresponding limitations. This pamphlet introduces many new signposts. It erodes complacency.

So maybe my niggle with ‘+’ instead of ‘and’ is cultural rather than mathematical. I’m reading the wrong sign.

Helena Nelson

Poetic address and tone

In the title (prose) poem in this inventive and uncompromising short collection (winner of The Rialto’s first Open Pamphlet competition), the poet-speaker addresses a generalised ‘you’ – all those people (us) who have asked or might ask offensive,  stereotypical questions about his (or anyone’s) ethnic, sexual or gender identity. Written in lower case throughout, without punctuation (as are all the poems here), the page and a half-long poem consists of an uninterrupted list:

[…] no I don’t like pandas no im not malaysian no im not a very happy boy no I dont remember the handover no im not asleep my eyes are just like this

The list is disturbing – bringing home, through the form, the unceasing pressure of prejudice in a person’s life (reminiscent of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen). Similarly, in the poem ‘I think I want to write about race’:

that’s really cool
can you do that aren’t you white
have you read sarah howe
you should ask for funding to go back to hongkong

The mystery is that ‘you are mistaken’ does not feel accusatory but invitational. This is because – although the address of the poems may be propositional or instructional, ironic and sometimes bitter in the poet’s apprehending of self and others or in his application of ancient tao philosophy to some of the absurdities of contemporary life – overall his tone somehow remains neutral:

[…] +it reminded me
of the time I got attacked by a crow I felt its claws on my head + I turned
to look at it + it was wearing this frantic bashful expression as if to say
I dont know why im doing this + it dont know why im here
but at least we are both defining ourselves in somesortaway

The poet’s tone represents his attitude to himself in relation to the world (unmistakably one of humility) and it is this that enables us, reading these poems, to accept that we are mistaken, that we will sometimes wish that we weren’t, and sometimes wish that we were.

Kay Syrad