An unexpected collection, both in purpose and origin, Desde Hong Kong has turned out to be a surprising achievement. First, the premise: Desde Hong Kong is occasioned by the 2014 centennial celebration of Octavio Paz’s birth. Couched as “poets in conversation with” the great Mexican national poet, it manages to take several cultural and geographical leaps, and draws together poems not just from – and about – Hong Kong, but also Canada, the Philippines, Singapore and Mexico.
At first glance, the incongruence of a Hong Kong-based tribute to a poet such as Paz does not make much sense. However, to the extent that Paz was an eminent pioneer of cultural globalisation – at a time when the word has not even begun to embody its present-day multitude of connotations – his legacy surely resonates with the celebrated and varied history that is twentieth-century Hong Kong. In fact, the international flavour of Desde Hong Kong feels appropriate, even necessary. And it speaks of the kind of deeply-rooted influence that the greatest of writers can have, across diverse intellectual and linguistic landscapes. Notwithstanding the Spanish-Mexican of Paz that many of the poets here do not read, the poems that they have contributed demonstrate the ease with which language source, as varied as Cantonese, Tagalog and Hebrew, can so readily transcend unfamiliarity to take on expressions of authentic thought and lived experiences. Admittedly, the poems here are fully rendered in English, and even this fact is telling about poetry’s ability to locate a shared code, a basis for mutuality – and conversation.
Set alongside each other, the poems in Desde Hong Kong achieve the kind of energy that emerges in Paz’s own work; the seeming ease with which he transforms ideas and images into fully-realised worlds of engagement, of deriving specifics from the universal before returning them to the cosmos. Take for example, S Mickey Lin’s “To genuflect home, / Crawl back to infancy, / Poisons my soul.” (“Aging”, 80). There is nothing obscure about the tone here – nor its spirit – even as it glances at Paz’s “A tree within” and that poem’s attributions to the cycles of offering and reception, in nature and in human nature.
Additionally, the poems in Desde Hong Kong have the ability to retain a sense of lyrical wonder that is often missing from overwrought attempts at valourisation. Here, the poets take the dialogue with the master seriously, but do so without descending to the embarrassing excitement of fandom. The lyrical vein in the collection, then, is in the poems’ appeal. And they are suitably rapturous in their projection. The result is poems that move from sensate beginnings into the realms of inspiration that are ultimately completed with, not always insight, but certainly moments of distinct realisation, of a neatness about the world in which we reside: “Child, I continue to give myself to you / Until I become undone” (Tammy Ho, “A River On its Way”, 35). This is a return of the self to its most naturally equanimous, a proud moment that ploughs the depths of the poetic reserves – of Paz as muse.
Poets are priests of language. They have ways of accessing the universe’s stores of wisdom, to open up the paths upon which to embark, to seek comfort, if nothing else. There is no magic about the poetic craft, yet what they gift to us often have a spellbinding quality that opens our minds to realms of connection, if only for a moment. Among the doyens of world writing, Octavio Paz is perhaps one of the few who has managed to hold readers far beyond that momentary enchantment. And if the poems in Desde Hong Kong are an indication of his legacy and influence, then the world shall be the richer for it, for a long time to come.
Desde Hong Kong: Poets in conversation with Octavio Paz on the occasion of the poet’s centenary. Eds. Germán Muñoz, Tammy Ho, Juan José Morales. Chameleon: Hong Kong, 2014.
Lim Lee Ching