By Alison Wong
Steele Roberts, NZ$20 | Reviewed by Megan Fleming

ALISON WONG’s poetry is deceptively simple. Her first book is a collection of intensely personal poems, filled with imagery crafted in clear language. The subject matter is mostly accessible: there are the details of domestic moments, the wonder of a new child, the falling out of love – but she lends these subjects a humble and attentive form, drawing the reader in, to rest in the space between. Wong’s background in mathematics comes across in her poetry, not as a subject, but in the careful formula of words to white space.

Wong is a New Zealander of Chinese heritage, and she begins us at the beginning – with recollections of childhood. Her style is practised and consistent throughout, but the first section of poems, named ‘Pearl River Bridge’ after her family’s chosen brand of apparently carcinogenic soy sauce, is strongly narrative. These poems are a looking back, a celebration of the small triumphs of sentimentality. A slide show shows the remaining family “small things we do not remember.” A poem about the discovery of her milk teeth in a kitchen cupboard, aptly named ‘The Archaeologist’, is unusual and familiar at the same time. Wong hints at the maternal compulsion to retain the discardable parts of children, jumbled among used postage stamps and rubber bands in the family home. She reveals a desire, perhaps, to order and label these things that we lose. But perhaps it is truer to re-discover these lost fragments at an unexpected moment, as artefacts of the messy nature of memory. These opening poems are snapshots of the home: the persuasive mother; the continually ill sister (could it have been the soy sauce?); and the distant father, eulogised in ‘The 22nd of July’.

The second section transitions from writer as child to writer as parent. Wong’s small son is the central amazement in these poems. ‘Pumpkin’ is a frank description of the creaks and bodily admissions of pregnancy, but it ends on a jarring vulgar note. The bedtime poems are my favourite. These mostly punctuation-less moments of the home give a real sense of humility and comfort in the careful words. Wong’s use of line breaks transmutes meaning across and through the changing relationships of the generations. The most vertically stretched poems hold the most in each word; each line a pause, each small sentence a declaration of attention. ‘Child, 5:30am’ is a metaphorical landscape of protection: mountainous mother sheltering small ridged child. There is humour here, in the mildly dirty words that children learn with relish, in the heartbreaking explanations of a small boy’s art. “He is drawing a silence./ What is silence? I ask./ I am quiet, he says./ I am quiet to draw.”

The love poems of the third section – falling both in and out – are of mixed impact. ‘The photograph’ uses the top-drawer metaphor of a fading photograph as a falling out of love. But perhaps the clichéd description is appropriate. After all, the tragedy of love’s fade is the slow, sad, everyday-ness of it. ‘Light’ is a languorous exploration of two lovers, and the glorious sensation of ‘Feeling the world turn liquid’ – the third section’s title. The language is simple and straightforward. There is no cleverness, no abstraction of meaning. But it is a poem that can be read again and again, a simple joy in humbled lower-case.

The title poem is aptly chosen. ‘Cup’ is a lovely exemplary of Wong’s style. There is the infusion of cross-cultural awareness – “ten thousand blessings” is an infinite number in Chinese tradition. It ends with the lines: “we hold out/ more than we hold in.” Indeed. This book is a holding out of experience, an offering of personal details. Rainbows, boiled carrots, mothers and moths; bedtimes and bare bodies and the shape of a family. Wong has already made her mark on Wellington as a founder of the Porirua Poetry café, and she’s one of the visible poets who’s flourished without the leg-up of the International Institute of Modern Letters. I’ll be interested to read the novel Wong is working on, and see if the merits of her style translate into prose.