PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 June, 2006, 12:00am

Moving House and Other Poems from Hong Kong

by Gillian Bickley

Proverse Hong Kong, $98

100 Poems 1985-2005

by Mani Rao

Chameleon Press, $99

Gillian Bickley's new book of poetry is not simply a keenly observed collection of Hong Kong scenes, but also a privileged view into the emotional, intellectual and spiritual life of its writer. The volume begins with Moving House: Memento Mori, which offers a delightful glimpse of what will follow: pragmatism accompanied by wry wit.

The studied juxtaposition of the municipal with the personal offers the reader both the familiar - public transport, characters observed in the street, perfunctory encounters with strangers - and the private - glimpses of the poet's own family, a deathbed visit, letters, dreams and memories.

Bickley has lived in Hong Kong for more than 30 years and her public poems, richly peopled with street sweepers and fortune-tellers, hawkers and hairdressers, enable poet and reader to celebrate Hong Kong life. The profound intimacy of the personal poems, reflecting universal truths about the human condition, render the reader at once intruder and confidant. Among the 69 poems, Metal Birds, an ode to the metal-bird sculptures on the road to the airport, and Transported, a heart-warming poem about the men who lean against their neighbours as they sleep on public transport, stand out.

Self Image, The Photograph, Visiting the Funeral Parlour and Where Now? offer poignant and heart-wrenching observations on ageing and death.

As a senior lecturer and associate professor, Bickley taught in the Department of English at Hong Kong Baptist University for 22 years, and Moving House follows her previous collection, For the Record and Other Poems of Hong Kong (2003). A transcript of a talk addressed to a Hong Kong Baptist University staff seminar on language and literature is included, and a 72-minute CD of all the poems, read by the author, accompanies the book.

Small figures in large landscapes people 100 Poems 1985-2005, an anthology in six parts by Mumbai-born, Hong Kong poet Mani Rao. The collection draws together poems from her earlier works, covering 20 years, including Echolocation, Salt, The Last Beach, Living Shadows, Catapult Season, and Wing Span.

In these visceral pieces, bodies merge with the landscape or are dwarfed by it. Immense backdrops crowd with mountains and trees; seas, streams, glaciers and lakes; craters and plains. The might of nature reflects and echoes with huge themes - time, space, separation, eternity, mortality, chaos. Yet amid these, the protagonists rejoice in the simple joys of living and appear at once vulnerable and strong, somehow greater than the sum of their parts - eyes, lips, skin, nails, feet, breasts, hair, blood, sweat, bones, tongue, veins, breath. 'The smell of death is also the smell of birth'. (Echolocation, p17)

From these often spare and elemental poems - lashed by wind, lightning, rain - and speaking of love, war, death, silence, and alienation there still emerges a sense of resilience and tenacity.

Rao's lavish and loving use of alliterative word play (foxed, funny, forgotten), words within words (evolve, revolve; orgasm, organism; scared, sacred) and imaginative punctuation give her work a playfulness, despite its monumental themes. Some poems have a lightness infused with the poet's wit (or is it cynicism?), and many a line deserves a hearty laugh-out loud:

'Dig twenty holes. My psychotherapist will connect/ them with tunnels for you. With a two-thousand year backdrop' (Catapult Season, p100);


'Our old people locked up in nursing homes/ Laid flat and turned over from time to time/ Dying evenly on all sides' (Salt, p23).

Overall, the collection is specific enough to ring with the authenticity of the poet's experience, yet general enough to resonate with the readers' own particular experiences of a vast and bewildering yet ultimately enchanting world.