Amos Toh reviews Ghostmasters by Mani Rao


by Mani Rao

Chameleon Press, 2010

ISBN 9789881862310

Reviewed by AMOS TOH



Mani Rao has donned many hats – TV executive, visiting fellow, scholar, critic and performer – but she is perhaps most at home as a poet. Tellingly, her poetry has spanned over more than a decade, leaving a “ghostly trail of a narrative thread about the dynamics of a relationship and a corollary questioning of the self” in its wake (Cyril Wong, QLRS Vol. 3 No. 4 Jul 2004). Like her past collections, Ghostmasters evidences an effortless kineticism and a tactile grasp of the language. However, there is also a sense that her restless journeying through love and loss, death and desire has come to fruition.

While Rao’s latest poems retain the freshness and immediacy of her penultimate collection, Echolocation (Hong Kong: Chameleon Press 2003), it also finds deeper satisfaction in the processes of questioning and undermining. Rao’s candid and sometimes acidulous perspective tugs insistently at the pretence of reality so that it tears away to illuminate a world of isolation and oblivion. Her hard-earned revelations enable the poet to shed past obsessions – the oft-romanticised “lovers of the moment” in “Choose”, “the hourglass of my body” and the “fat satin of gluttony” in “Grand Finale” – so that she may come to peace with “the memory of that knowledge by / which we continue to regard as true what we have known to be true” (“q”).

Rao burrows deep into the cacophony of human desire and activity to reveal their transience and therein their futility. She observes, with startling clarity, how want leaves us wanting:

 If everything is impermanent why do you want it

             I don’t want anything for ever
             You will disappoint everyone
             Then you will be free


Death and its associations of finality and salvation are similarly probed. The uneasy decorum and “polite timing” of a passing succumbs to the hunger of the living in “Shorts”; however “well-dressed” and “neatly folded”, death still marches to its pointless, facetious conclusion when “the family finds out who gets what / you are finally understood”. Immediately, the next poem “Duet” speaks of an apparently different subject matter but reaches starkly similar conclusions, finding little solace in the musings of wary lovers desperate to feel alive: 

Next time check with me first

Drop in any time even if you are not around

You too phone when you have nothing to say

Each utterance struggles to come to terms with the suffocating stasis of a relationship that carries on in spite of itself and a future gone cold.

These are poems that provide neither sentimental consolations nor easy answers, probing the vagaries of love and loss with an unflinching eye to reveal our deepest natures and most intractable fears. Rao’s reflections become intensely personal in “Choose”, where a moment of whimsy while cleaning her ancestors’ graves leads the poet to contemplate the power to bring someone back to life. How quickly she discards her list of nominees – family, lovers, children – is reminiscent of American poet Louise Glück’s customary candour and dark wit:

Father of sacrifice needs no help to draw my pity

            That is piteous
            Mother of passion reigned over me
            I resent that
            Brother of empire I would re-instate
            But why
            Sister of sullenness I feel for
            And ignore
            Lovers of the moment I cannot deny
            But they did not wait for me
Rao’s bathos is more mordant than trenchant, purging herself of the emptiness of self-righteous sacrifice and self-pity, as well as a love that is ultimately unloving.

Nevertheless, even as life falls away in “lumps and gravy” at the hands of a tyrant (“Pol Pot”) or crumbles to leave “one ragged wing banging in the wind” (“Shorts”), the poet finds something redeeming in the rediscovery of “the opening softening wood of my body”, as well as its retelling. Human emotions and experiences, already in themselves figments of language, are recast as new verbs, directions and destinations:

            Pain is a Verb


Death is Not

Wrong is a Place

Love has No Opposite

Perfection is a Being



Rao refutes the absolutist perception that “love”, “pain” or a “wrong” can be ascribed boundaries of meaning or any particular ideal. To be sure, this does not mean her poems endorse “the pit of relativity…comparing this truth with that” (“Writing to Stop”). Instead, they reflect that there is nothing so virtuous or grand that cannot be flipped onto its back to reveal its hypocrisy: 

             That I think it is not to be feared does not mean I don’t fear it. I used

 to be someone. I placed so much value on it I acted humble,

 prefacing the admission of my fortune with ‘undeserved’. How

 low an opinion I had of myself that I became satisfied.




The poet is now content with merely being, seeking solace in knowing “she is mere / Reflection” that “Stays with the metaphor / Some respectful distance from the sun.” (“Haul”). Writing may provide catharsis, yet that is no certainty in a topsy-turvy world where “language is language and gives away no clues” about its destinations (“Writing to Stop”). However, little does this faze the poet who is no longer afraid to linger on the threshold between desire and the desired, between the dying and the dead. Fittingly, she asks, “If we don’t stop writing love poems, how can we be loved?”, as if defying the irony. This is a poetry that reminds us to stop arranging our lives as a means to an end so that we may start living. It is little wonder then that Rao dedicates Ghostmasters neither to us nor our existence, but appeals instead to our sense of “presence”.