Prime Edition

Sumana Roy
Free Verse

The Uncertainty Principle and hula hooping

he beauty of sport is its uncertainty. In this, it is a wondrous mix of both an approximation of and a challenge to life. Not wrinkles but ineptness at physical sports is the great reminder of age. Flexibility, alertness, balance, estimation, anticipation, the instinctive awareness of correctness — these are necessary on the playground. Reading Tammy Ho Lai-Ming's Hula Hooping, her debut collection of poems (Chameleon Press, 2015), I became witness to a magical metaphor bridging where sport and politics could be used interchangeably. It is interesting that the poet's choice of metaphor is an amateur sport — hula hooping has been common to most cultures over centuries. Anyone can try hula hooping — Michelle Obama or the schoolgirl next door. In this, everyone becomes an amateur hula hooper and by extension, an amateur politician.

As a hula hooper who hasn't been able to tame the hoop around her waist for more than a couple of seconds, I realise that the pet name for the game is uncertainty. That, I realise, is the binding metaphor of this Hong Kong based poet's collection.

If you had to choose

between travelling around the world in one day

and waiting for the train with me for five minutes,

which would you choose?

The "choose" in the first and fourth lines are like the arms of a pincer compelling us to choose — the choices on offer have the romance of beautiful alternatives, between travelling and waiting to travel, two sides of the same coin as it were. They are seductive, they are imbued with possibility, and so you choose. Rather, you vote.

My favourite section in the book is "China, Elsewhere, Hong Kong". Standard linguistic expectation would put the "Elsewhere" after "Hong Kong", but here again is Lai-Ming's clever politics. Note the bridge as you travel through it, it's not a means to get you to places alone, she seems to be saying. "These poems relate to specific events or places" goes the poet's annotation. You sit on alert. Here is poetry as news.

Someone said to me:

Everything seems surreal

in China. Have you heard the news?

But surreal is the norm there.

Kafka couldn't have dreamt it as well

as the people who live it.

I read that one March,

dead baby girls were found

in a Chinese river. Washed ashore. ('Have you heard the news?')

Newspapers and news reports carry accents of significance — only what is "important". Lai-Ming's use of "news" is a subversion of that impulse in the most beautiful way. Her poems on the subject gives news traction, makes the newspaper an object of conversation:

South China Morning Post, an English newspaper, is delivered

To our doorstep every morning, and we let it

Stay until all other neighbours know

Our language abilities. ("Languages")

urning uncertainty into a metaphor might come naturally to a skilled poet. But pinching it to reveal its politics, like seeds in a pea pod, requires a mature political vision. As someone who has been reading poems and reportage from Lai-Ming about the protest movement in Hong Kong, particularly the rich and resonant literature about the Umbrella Movement, I have noticed how the poet comes to relate uncertainty with the trope of the umbrella. Even buildings must have umbrellas, such is the onslaught of power.

One of the flats I rented in Hong Kong had a

leaking ceiling and tropical rain came through the cracks

like drizzles of piss. ("Hula hooping")

The uncertainty around the arrival of rain, about carrying an umbrella as protection, these are as loaded as the outcome of political visions — how long political regimes will last, the victory and loss of political parties in elections, the pendulum of hope swinging either way, and so on. Bertrand Russell's distinction between fools and wiser people as the first being more certain compared to the latter's uncertainty is a thread that marks some of these terribly wise poems. Predictability is a ploy, an alloy for those in power:

We know your appointment was predicted,

that you were cooked in a black box.

We know that the codes aren't only yours.

That they are ours too. ('Glory, repentance')

The cover image of Hula Hooping is a door knocker.

doors were unnecessary:

There was nothing to steal. ('The Famine, 1959-62')

Since so much of Lai-Ming's poetic investment is in the visual, it is a happy epiphany to discover how the door knocker is also a version of the hula hoop. There are affectionate poems about the everyday, about families and its occupants, about stranger men and women on streets and other beasts — at first they reminded me of a favourite writer, Virginia Woolf, but then, almost in a sudden flash, I began to recognise that this wasn't a modernist poetics. Lai-Ming had, with a syringe in her hand, infused the cosy modernist images with an uncertainty that was beautiful and scary, a terrible beauty — who knows what might happen after ringing the door knocker? Exit or Entry, welcoming or fleeing — choose, vote, again and again. This is what I take back from Hula Hooping — the horror and the hope of every moment being a moment of choice, a political moment. And the humour of discovering Bill Ashcroft in a poem: "They don't feel/Excluded when two real English speakers/Are in the same room, commenting on/Memoirs of A Geisha or/Bill Ashcroft's postcolonial theories".

 
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