Kismet, Jennifer Lee Tsai
ignitionpress, 2019 £5.00
Avoiding fluff and flowers
Jennifer Lee Tsai has the ability to write simply.
‘Use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences,’ said Mark Twain, ‘don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in.’
‘Breathing’ is a fine example of this. This ekphrastic piece is a homage to performance artist Song Dong. The poem describes his actions, placing one detail after another, extracting maximum resonance from place-names:
A few policemen patrol on night watch.
The lamp posts are fitted with cameras.
This is the gate of Heavenly Peace.
The end-stopped lines are not unlike the gentle breaths of Song Dong as he lies on the frozen ground in Tiananmen Square, face-down. For forty minutes, he does nothing but breathe. Long enough to melt the icy surface.
Then Lee Tsai eases her lines about Song Dong’s performance into skilful enjambment:
A patch of frost thaws
only to freeze again when he rises.
In the morning, by the Western edge
of the Forbidden City,
he breathes over the petrified lake
in Houhai Park. Nothing gives.
The resonance of ‘petrified’ here is electric. And though ‘breathing’, in one way, is the most ordinary of actions, it’s a key concept in a group of poems featuring loss, alienation and at least three deaths (two of which are suicides). But simplicity of expression creates stillness and control. The darkness doesn’t drag the reader down.
In ‘1961’, for example, the poet’s grandmother, ‘drank weed killer / by the harbour at Sha Tau Gok’ — and yet ‘A Prayer for my Grandmother’ reveals that ‘grandmother’s name means spring beauty.’
The terminal and the beautiful can exist side by side. ‘Between Two Worlds’ is a poem in which the narrator places the ‘poetic’ Tibetan idea of death (‘Awareness dissolves into inner radiance’) next to her own description of the moment in which her father took his last breath:
Outside your window
we could hear the extractor fan
the banging of an iron wok,
customers placing their orders;
the TV blaring in the background,
the sound of laughter,
my mother and brother carrying on the family business.
How simple. And utterly compelling.