Your Secret Life: Poems by Harry Ricketts

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 April, 2006, 12:00am

Your Secret Life: Poems by Harry Ricketts

by Harry Ricketts

HeadworX, $138

It used to be said there was no need to worry about what people would say about you once you left Hong Kong. You'd be forgotten before the ship left harbour.

Harry Ricketts taught in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Hong Kong during the 1970s and his earlier book, People Like Us, was published in Hong Kong by Eurasia in 1977.

Ricketts was a tri-culture kid, brought up in Hong Kong, Malaysia and England. Since 1981 he has lived in New Zealand, where he teaches literature in English and creative non-fiction at Victoria University of Wellington. Much of his writing from New Zealand has been published by presses there, with scant distribution in Hong Kong, but his biography of Rudyard Kipling, The Unforgiving Minute (1999), was published in London by Chatto & Windus.

Of his poetry, the Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature says: 'Ricketts' best are either deftly satiric 'light verse' ... or wry commentaries on the perplexities of love, marriage or parenthood.' Your Secret Life - his first full-length poetry collection since his selected writings, Nothing to Declare (1998) - is consistent with this description.

The poems are conversational, mainly short, but packed with observation and understanding. Retro is a good example: ''The two of us just grew apart,'/ you say quietly, sick at heart;/ careful not to wonder whether/ you just never grew together.'

The poems refer to the New Zealand countryside with its flora and fauna and New Zealand life with its parochialism, its literary competition and tragedies: 'In Wellington, in Wellington,/ the cake is rather small;/ and everyone who wants a crumb/ must practise how to crawl.' He presents family and personal lives strongly imprinted by this environment.

Ricketts' emotional life is coloured by his expatriation. Cricket and the classics of English and European literature are as vividly present as New Zealand writing, sights, scenes and personalities.

A section of four Hong Kong poems reveals how a sense of history also provides him with an emotional space to inhabit. Repulse Bay Hotel, Hong Kong reads: 'Soon, they say, this elegant facade/ will exist only in photos: for some,/ a shard of post-imperial tristesse;/ for others, more colonial scar-tissue./ But here this morning on the quiet verandah, .../ .../ you find yourself shuddering suddenly/ to think of all those, gwai-lo and Chinese,/ who have sat, like you, watching/ distant flame-trees scarlet out of green.'

Another piece of local wisdom used to be that people who retire away from Hong Kong don't live long after wrenching themselves away from the stimulus Hong Kong provides. Ricketts is probably still several years shy of retirement, but it's good to know there is life after Hong Kong. And that Hong Kong can still be part of that life, even if only in the imagination.

Your Secret Life is available through Proverse Hong Kong at