Judith Huang reviews Who Comes Calling? by Miriam Wei Wei Lo
by Miriam Wei Wei Lo
Reviewed by JUDITH HUANG
Miriam Wei Wei Lo’s Who Comes Calling? begins with an open hand of a poem, its structure mimicking five uncurling fingers numbering off the things which Australia means to the persona, as a girl growing up in Singapore with family in Australia.
As the words step down across the page in five paragraphs, we are treated to a vivid picture of “a crowd of parrots/for a doorbell/squawking up like fireworks” (3), “dogs tearing up/to lick my face” (3), “the rasping smell of wheat/and the light, lemon tang of eucalyptus”(3), “Grandma and Grandpa/standing at the doorway”(3), a place immediately conjured in just a few spare lines.
The poem is called “Opening Australia” and it immediately situates the poet as a person of two places grappling with the contradictions that that brings for identity. This Australia of intimate familial love and outback wildness is contrasted with the Australia the persona is expected to know by her Singaporean classmates – “as the Pinnacles, the Gold Coast/Ayers Rock, Melbourne/and the Sydney Opera House”, a tourist brochure Australia which she has, ironically, not encountered.
The poem finally moves into a more interior space, the persona standing at home in front of the mirror, “stretching out my palm/before my face,/watching my eyes,/shuttered by my fingers…watching my own eyes,/burnt sienna brown,/watching my own eyes, blinking.” (5) The hand which had been stretched out to encompass the entire land of Australia, and which had been spread out too in the form of the poem, now overlays the far more domestic, far more intimate space of the persona’s face, in which her mixed heritage is also inscribed.
Throughout the collection, this movement towards the internal and the domestic is performed again and again, as the poet interrogates grand questions of multiple identity – of being a mixed-race person with a life spanning Singapore and Australia, of being a poet and a Christian, of being a pastor’s wife and an artist in her own right. These roughly map onto the four sections of the book, Crossing Over, Juggling, Rearview Mirror and Hanging Around.
As someone whose life also spans between Singapore and Australia and who has had to grapple with this multiple identity in my own poetry, I found an immediate intimacy to the poems in the first section describing many small but relatable moments of my own existence – from the despair of having a mooncake cut open by customs officials in Australia “armed with fresh gloves” (17) in “Mooncake”, to the fear and paranoia of being labelled a political troublemaker for having dissident views in tightly-controlled Singapore, where the persona overhears discussions of “who was most likely to be/the spy among the scholars” (15) as described in “Smoke”.
Symbolically, Lo places these two places side by side as two rivers of words in a play on form again in the poem “A Few Thoughts on Multiple Identity”. After the initial “family joke” of multiple identity is laid out in a prosepoem-like paragraph, two separate rivers, one in Asia, one in Australia, are described in two columns that may be read one after another or simultaneously. One is “like smooth liquid mud/lolloping,loll-lolloping” (6), the other “a river with water/wide choppy blue”. The two rivers run side by side on the page like two separate veins in two separate arms, perhaps following on from the previous poem’s form of an open hand.
The figure that haunts the middle portion of the book, appearing again and again in various guises, is the woman at the kitchen sink – a picture of almost retro domesticity which Lo nevertheless imbues with great creative power and dignity. In her Ars Poetica, she is given a centrality in the bold statement
Without the woman at the kitchen sink,
nothing is possible. (24)
Lo reminds her readers that “without the toilet-cleaning, clothes-washing, food-cooking, child-minding/kitchen-sink woman – nothing” is achieved in poetry. She becomes both a muse and an artist in her humble act of washing dishes, and Lo insists that this act in itself is poetic if the close attention is paid to it:
The sluice of water over cups and glasses,
the light thwack of plastic, the thud of good china. (25)
the accuracy of these words, the beauty of them, gives the “housewife” dignity (although there is a curiously unexamined retrograde assumption that this figure has to be female– what if men too were washing dishes?).
She appears again as the grieving pastor’s wife receiving news about child abuse in the church in “A Pastor’s Wife Listens to Stories from the Royal Commission”. Here the dishes are imbued with cosmic significance
O my people the lambs
left to the ravening wolves what payment
could ever been enough how I wish
I could give lives back all of them
rinsed stacked on the draining board clean
where Lo “juggles” the roles of “singing her song” as the woman at the kitchen sink while contemplating the sins of those professing her own religion. As the dishes become a metaphor for the lives affected by abuse, the washing of them also becomes a kind of small, penitentiary act, a longing for absolution.
Finally, in the title poem of the book, Who Comes Calling? the woman at the sink is given a ferocious interiority, refusing the insistent calls of the poem that “came home to work on/me” (51) with the bellows of “I am a housewife!…leave me alone!”(51) In this powerful poem, two parallel narratives form two side by side columns again, one of the poet working on the poem and one of the poem working on the poet. The poem behaves like a mischievous child, multiplying domestic tasks for the poet by making a mess of the house and crockery, “sprink(ling) five-spice and cumin on the kitchen floor” (51), “carefully paint(ing) shark fins on the wall with black vinegar and maple syrup” (51). Its rage is also that of the poet’s rage for an identity both vital and essential and too-often denied, but surprisingly compatible with the rest of her life, and also her faith, once admitted to its rightful place – around the kitchen table.
This second section is full of quietly moving poems about other women the poet encounters in her role as pastor’s wife, confronting the messy thick of things that make up a life – infertility, childbirth, abortion, with sensitivity and an unerring sense of compassion. “Friend” moved me to tears with its depiction of both the unfairness of God in blessing one woman with multiple children while another remained barren, as well as the unadulterated happiness of the former when the latter finally sends a photo of her daughter to her friend, having moved across the country and finally conceived. It is in these gifts of tiny glimpses of lives touched in the unpaid labour of being a pastor’s wife that meaning is wrought.
It is against this backdrop of tiny triumphs and heartbreaks that the stand-out poem of the collection, “In Memory of Katrina Miles”, makes its appearance. Rightfully warranting a section to itself, it is a tour de force of grief, memory, horror and redemption in the face of an unspeakable act of domestic violence that resulted in the murder of a woman by her husband and the poet’s budding friendship with the victim, cut cruelly short by her death.
Bookended by the simple act of a book (“The gifts of imperfection”) borrowed by the persona from her friend, and the same book borrowed again by the dead friend in an imaginary afterlife, the question “Friends?” echoes down the poem, unanswered until the very end, but not in this life. The weight of life unlived, a kindness reciprocated only after death, haunts the poem. It is a work of art that clearly cost the poet much to produce, a feat that anchors the collection.
The final section of the book, Hanging Around, has a slightly less cohesive quality to it in that its first half tends to feel a bit like a miscellany of things that didn’t quite fit in the previous sections, notably a few ekphrastic poems inspired by artworks by Jenny Potts Barr which feel a little out of place.
However, there are still delights to be sampled in this section, particularly the incredibly moving “Still Searching”, which so sincerely depicts the love between a mother and son as a “primal dance” (86) of familiarity and unfamiliarity, a “wrestling match” (86) that the poet likens to the wrestling between Jacob and God “all night on the banks of the river: awake with longing and pain but fighting until he knows what he wants: the blessing” (86). It is bittersweet, as the mother senses the son’s imminent “departure”, but also names it a “gift”.
It is such glimpses of these different kinds of love, familial, divine, transcendent, love of art and love of community that ultimately give this collection its otherworldly glow. These tiny moments of domesticity, collected, to quote the poet, like “tiny and large, smoth and spiked, dull and iridescent… So many delicate skeletons” (71), and displayed for us with exquisite craft and care. It is a hand offered in friendship, arms open for an embrace.
JUDITH HUANG is an Australian-based Singaporean author, poet, literary and science fiction translator, composer, musician, serial-arts-collective-founder, Web 1.0 entrepreneur and VR creator @ www.judithhuang.com. Her first novel, Sofia and the Utopia Machine, was shortlisted for the EBFP 2017 and Singapore Book Awards 2019. A three-time winner of the Foyle Young Poet of the Year Award, Judith graduated from Harvard University with an A.B. in English and American Literature and Language and taught creative and academic writing at the Harvard Writing Center and Yale-NUS College. She has published original work in Prairie Schooner, Asia Literary Review, Portside Review, Creatrix, The South China Morning Post, The Straits Times, Lianhe Zaobao, QLRS and Cha as well as being a founding member of the Spittoon Collective and magazine in China, which currently has branches in Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Xi’an, Dali, Tucson (AZ, USA) and Gothenburg (Sweden).