For The Record
For The Record by Gillian Bickley
Proverse Hong Kong $75
Gillian Bickley has the sharp eye and strong stomach of the true realist.
A professor of English at the Hong Kong Baptist University with several well-received books about the region behind her, Bickley considers the scent of men's toilets (Discrimination), avian excrement (Good Luck A Local Product) and a vicious millipede (An Intense Desire To Be Oneself).
In the last, Bickley remorselessly records her relentless pursuit of the 'multi-footed, inch-long,/Personality'.
Like a creature from a Hitchcock or David Lynch flick, it just refuses to be hosed down the plug-hole, drowned or battered to death. She therefore cuts it in two with her nail scissors - 'not easy to do', she writes in a typically droll, yet disturbing aside.
Bickley counterbalances the sordid work in the mould of her millipede meditation with paeans to nature, some of which are brilliantly observed.
Take Tobacco is about as close as any poet comes to word-perfect, so it will be quoted in full: 'How happily inappropriate are/the cultivated tobacco plants/in the children's playground in Robinson Road./Their incredible sexuality:/pinkish brown outer leaves/opening/to an unfolding bright pink.'
Not even the American minimalist William Carlos Williams could zero in on and capture a detail with more panache.
Alas, Bickley has a weakness for stating the obvious. In Root Support, an otherwise ingenious reflection on roots 'humanising/the straight lines of masonry', she looks at a tree growing out of a wall 'unaided by man' - as if we need to be told that. Laying it on thick, Bickley gives this dud thought a line to itself.
Bickley is also big on allotting commonplace phrases acres of space. Chunam Plaster, Pokfulam Road, again an otherwise absorbing environmental reflection, contains the line 'seeds have directed themselves'
'Asserting [sic] their various right
Unlike the pedestrian examples quoted, lines lent emphasis by isolation should be spellbinding, strictly speaking.
Despite Bickley's questionable command of the art of alignment, For The Record nonetheless represents a thought-provoking and entertaining contribution to Hong Kong literature.
Bickley succeeds in conveying the character of the Fragrant Harbour with humorous rigour - excrement and all.