Jackson reviews Against Certain Capture by Miriam Wei Wei Lo
Against Certain Capture
by Miriam Wei Wei Lo
Reviewed by JACKSON
The interestingly eccentric Apothecary Archive recently re-issued Miriam Wei Wei Lo’s collection, Against Certain Capture, which won the 2004 WA Premier’s Book Award for Poetry.
Like many Australian citizens, Lo has a complicated background. She was born in Canada and grew up in Singapore. She has Chinese-Malaysian and Anglo-Australian parents (Lo, About), and their meeting is part of the story of this book, which presents two parallel biographies, one of her Chinese paternal grandmother 梁月仙 (Liáng Yuè Xiān) and one of her Australian grandmother Eva Sounness.
While a prose biography may be lengthy and detailed, a successful verse biography is like a good biopic: it showcases the pivotal events, allowing the reader to extrapolate the story and its significance. Against Certain Capture adopts this approach, offering 21 shortish poems, devoting half to each grandmother. Within their brevity, Lo lucidly evokes these women’s characters and times.
She does so by subtly deploying poetic craft. The life of 梁月仙 amid the scrabble and crush of twentieth-century China and Malaysia, choosing romance over money and giving birth to Lo’s father in a narrow room above a shop (Lo, Home), is given quick-stepping lines, free-flowing, fast-changing stanzas, and fragments of Chinese. A striking example is “Run”, which appears on the page in three narrow columns, suggesting not only the young woman’s literal and metaphorical journey but also the vertical presentation of traditional Chinese poetry. It opens:
Through Lo’s skill with phrase and pattern, we feel the young woman clinging to her cultural identity while labouring for her family’s survival (“the coffeeshop / bankrupt”).
In contrast to 梁月仙, Sounness raised ten children in the dry, expansive Australian rural landscape. Accordingly, her section tends toward slower, prosier lines and more regular stanza patterns. Assessing the farmer she would marry,
she notes that his arms are steady, although his dancing
leaves something to be desired. As they move, she weights
his soberness against bandy legs, his shuffling
two-step, the smell of the farm on his collar. She sways.
(“Saturday Night Dances”)
These examples illustrate how throughout this book the style serves the subject matter. There are no egregious verbal gymnastics. As Andrew Burke comments, Lo’s “diction is so unobtrusive you never notice the words — just what they’re saying”. After all,
There are no pretty words
Only a thin white dribble
squeezed from a cracked nipple,
(“No Pretty Words”)
and dignified maturity deserves understated metaphor:
Eva rises, drawing her years about her —
a cloak of thick and silvering hair
that hangs past her shoulders.
Refreshingly, this book is written in the third person. This enhances the sense of intermittently peeking at the two families’ lives as if through a camera. Elsewhere, Lo remarks that she likes “experimenting with aesthetic distance. The practice of Keats’ negative capability … of writing without drawing attention to oneself … was in the back of my mind” (Brennan, Interview).
Sounness, especially, is seen from a distance. In an essay, Lo compares the experiences of researching and writing the two lives. She says writing about Sounness was much more challenging although — and maybe because — she was still alive and Lo interviewed her instead of replying solely upon others’ narratives. This made creating a coherent story more difficult (Lo, “Reconfiguring” 205–207). Perhaps as a result, the Sounness work tends, for me, to be less successful. In particular, there is a good deal of quoted speech which, although Lo handles it skilfully, appears to have been somewhat resistant to rendering in verse. These lines do not ring in my mind after reading like the ones in Lo’s own voice.
Nevertheless, the poems memorably capture the tone of Sounness’s life. Michael Brennan comments that through her poems, Lo “explores family histories with openness, sincerity and a gift for characterisation, giving detail and depth to the conflicts and prejudice, nurturing and love, of the strong women of her family.” He calls Against Certain Capture “an adroit sequence of poems” in which “Lo’s formidable grandmothers … are vividly present” (Miriam). Intriguingly, no-one ever describes a man as “formidable”. Lo herself comments, “I wrote about my grandmothers partly because we live in a world that does not take old ladies very seriously, when I feel that they ought to be taken very seriously indeed” (Brennan, Interview).
Sounness’s recollections are taken especially seriously in “Between a Mother and her Mongol Child”, which juxtaposes the book’s only foray into mid-line whitespace and chopped-up syntax (“connectthe wiring start / the stop heart startstop / the stopheart”) with a passage from Sounness’s journal (“It took some time before the Mongol became a child”) to vividly express Sounness’s conflicting feelings about raising a child with Down syndrome.
I hope that dated term “Mongol” makes you squirm as I did upon encountering it quoted by a person with Chinese heritage. One reason we read poems is to examine ourselves. As Brennan notes, Lo’s work highlights the “ethnic, cultural and political divisions and contradictions from which contemporary Australian identity evolves, as well as a vital and realistic picture of how the minutiae of culture and identity reshape us over generations” (Miriam).
I would add that the reason Lo’s poems do this so well is because she chooses not to delineate her sociopolitical concerns explicitly. Hence, readers are free to experience her work on multiple levels, see its connections for themselves, and draw their own conclusions.
Lo herself comments on this. Discussing poets she terms “hybrid” or “multi-racial” whose work she read as background, she says:
I was also bothered by a general obsession with alienation and the way in which the poetry seemed to become a repetitive performance of various poets’ marginal credentials. I wanted to write something that emphasised not only the relational and communal context of experiences of cultural difference, but also the positive possibilities of hybridity as a mode of being that does not have to be characterised primarily by alienation. (Brennan, Interview)
Perhaps the most important reason Lo writes about her grandmothers is to articulate her personal definition of hybridity, a theoretical term she seems to find apposite, but also uncomfortable because of its “dark linguistic history” (Lo, “Towards” 9–10). To be able to use it, she defines it as seeing oneself as a collection of cultural “parts” in “relationship with each other”. She comments that these “parts” are shaped by familial and historical “factors” and that by writing about her grandmothers, she is attempting to create a “positive” view of hybridity without forgetting how it is affected by prejudiced discourses (“Towards ” 13–14).
One way to do this is through language. The 梁月仙 poems, like Lo, use English as their first language and Chinese as a second (Lo, Home; Brennan, Interview). Because of their appearance and sound, the Chinese fragments significantly enhance the poems’ atmosphere. Lo explains that using Mandarin helped her get inside her grandmother’s head and milieu (Lo, “Towards” 16). It helps the reader, too:
(“Like the Autumn Clouds, They Are Gone”)
Um … something about flowers and years? I turn to Google, which translates the first line idiomatically as “In the mood for love”, adding wistful romance to Lo’s English version, which beautifully preserves the poetry:
Like flowers, the days of my youth —
they came like the sweet breath of spring
in my dreams, like the autumn clouds
they are gone where they cannot be found.
As Burke observes, this 32-page book is large “in intention and scope”. On finishing it, I felt a little short-changed! I wished I could learn more about the grandmothers’ fascinating lives.
I would also have liked more of the poetry to savour. As Lo herself remarks, “Poetry has to be about pleasure (poetry for its own sake) and it will be relevant and valuable as long as some of us enjoy reading and writing it” (Brennan, Interview). I have certainly enjoyed reading and contemplating this book.
Brennan, Michael. Interview with Miriam Wei Wei Lo. July 2011, https://www.poetryinternational.org/pi/cou_article/19021/Interview-with-Miriam-Wei-Wei-Lo/en/tile.
Lo, Miriam Wei Wei. Sept. 2009, https://www.poetryinternational.org/pi/poet/14885/Miriam-Wei-Wei-Lo/en/tile.
Burke, Andrew. Miriam Lo’s ’Against Certain Capture’. Sept. 2004, https://hispirits.blogspot.com/2004/09/miriam-los-against-certain-capture.html.
Lo, Miriam Wei Wei. About. 2021, https://miriamweiweilo.com/.
“Home” FAQ. 2021, https://miriamweiweilo.com/home-faq.
“Reconfiguring a Necessary Entrapment : A Tale of Two Grandmothers.” Beyond Good and Evil? : Essays on the Literature and Culture of the Asia-Pacific Region, edited by Dennis Haskell et al., University of Western Australia Press for the Westerly Centre, 2005, pp. 199–209.
“Towards a Particular Hybridity: A Beginning.” Westerly, vol. 44, no. 4, 1999, pp. 9–20, https://westerlymag.com.au//wp-content/uploads/2016/02/WesterlyVol.44no.4.pdf.
JACKSON was born in Cumbria, England, and lives in Australia and New Zealand. Her four full-length poetry collections include A coat of ashes (Recent Work Press 2019) and The emptied bridge (Mulla Mulla Press 2019). Her work has appeared in many journals and anthologies, notably the Fremantle Press Anthology of Western Australian Poetry. Her awards include the Ros Spencer Poetry Prize. In 2018 she completed her PhD in Writing at Edith Cowan University, winning the University Research Medal and two other awards. During 2018 and 2019 she taught English in China. She works as a poetry editor and casual academic. thepoetjackson.com