Adventurous, humorous and enigmatic, Tammy Ho’s debut collection, Hula hooping, takes the reader on a curious journey that explores the hidden dimensions of the self and society.
A thoughtfully-composed cultural assemblage, Ho’s poetry is marked by the remarkable free-spirited spontaneity and nonchalance in her language. Moving between personal and social realms, her poems expose secrets behind social disguises and inter-personal relationships. Delivered with humour and sarcasm, her works also articulate the paradoxical nature of cultural beliefs, knowledge and human desires.
Some of the introspective, experimental poems such as “Scientific Love” reveal the poet”s strength in the use of evocative language and imagination. The poem begins with a reassuring statement (“To you, I could be everywhere at once.”) and builds up in momentum as the protagonist evokes a memorable, blossoming relationship:
On the beach – the beach
where you peeled me a banana, a peach.
I could be once again heart-dancing
in your bathtub; you created a small tempest
by stepping in. (“Scientific Love”)
It is only at the concluding stanza that the reader discovers the unspoken drama in the relationship, from her telltale hint that “the smudgy bit defines me.”
Poems such as “Have you heard the news?” demonstrate the poet”s ability to expose and challenge untold truths and social oppression. Beginning with the enigmatic speaker and context, “Someone said to me: Everything seems surreal / in China. Have you heard the news?”, the poem suggests disturbing scenes of cruelty and abuse, and leaves the reader with the daunting burden of reality, as the protagonist acknowledges what is happening and the horror of the untold stories. “Official causes of death in a Chinese prison” is another witty piece that reflects on the terror inherent in the suppressed freedom of language.
Perceptive and entertaining, some of Ho’s poems examine the paradoxical nature of cultural practices and beliefs. In “269C”, for example, the scene outside a bus stop in Hong Kong suggests how Chinese and Western rituals co-exist in harmony:
Next to the stop old people practise tai-chi
to a slow Beatles number.
The meaning of the lyrics,
love and aspiration,
elude their weak knees. (“269C”)
Some of the poems in the collection, especially on love and childhood such as “Early Spring”, “Barefoot Women” and “Wishes”, could have been more powerful with more thoughts given to form, line breaks and precision of language.
Presented as an afterword, Ho’s poetry statement offers an entertaining, playful account on her poetics, as well as her convictions towards the possibilities and thresholds of language, the writer’s environment and the value of literary influences. She sees it her responsibility “to question authority constantly, secretly, timidly”. The poet also reveals how intuitive knowledge, everyday life and childhood memories (such as playing hula-hoop with her sisters) help to inspire her writing as much as her encounter with the works of Borges, Dickens or films such as Topsy-Turvy and Solaris.
This is a very promising first collection from a young, ambitious poet, and displays the strengths of Ho as a candid and adventurous voice, as well as her creativity with poetic language in challenging the paradoxical manifestations of the self and social reality.
Tammy Ho Lai-Ming. Hula Hooping. Hong Kong: Chameleon Press, 2015.
Jennifer Wong has an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia and is currently doing a PhD in poetics at Oxford Brookes. She is the author of two poetry collections including Goldfish (Chameleon Press) and her work has appeared in journals including The Rialto and Warwick Review. Twitter @jennywcreative