Tuesday, September 16, 2014

SS Ventnor by Chris Tse

kawe mate

The departed       cargo            
thought doomed

to forgetful waters

instead finds its way
to open shores

         rescued by the people of the land.

te rerenga wairua

There is no reason to leave
the dead                 in such a state

the once-lost must find
their way upon             a bright line.

Death is the common ground       
when acknowledged with respect

gratitude           and the offering of joss.



And so the once-lost are salvaged
and laid to rest

among spiritual kin and tender ancestors

to be ghosts who only speak
              when spoken to

with no choice        in the path they are set upon. 

Chris Tse

This is a poem which draws you in by its grace and power.  Even if you were unfamiliar with the story of the SS Ventnor - a ship wrecked off the Hokianga coastline in 1902 while carrying the coffins of 499 Chinese men back home to their families - the themes of death, memory and redemption hit home.  Tse, as he does elsewhere in his debut collection
-->How To Be Dead In A Year Of Snakes, exhibits an assured lightness of touch.  Thoughts drifting like his words come to rest delicately in corners of the mind. Like the bones they invoke, they are found by locals and taken home.

The dead men lost on the Ventnor - who rest to this day in the Hokianga - were not New Zealanders.  They were Chinese, coming to New Zealand to work in much the same mindset that modern fly-in fly-out workers have. They were here only to work and to bring fortune home to their families. They did not expect to die here. But given the harshness of their existence, many ran out of time, luck, money or all three. The Chinese believed strongly that if you were unable to make it home, you failed in your duty to your ancestors and your descendants.  Without a home and with no-one to feed your spirit, you were doomed to wander forever as a 'hungry ghost.'  Thus the Cheong Sing Tong Association was formed by surviving Chinese, to exhume and transport the bones of those who had died far away from family.  The SS Ventnor was the second such charter ship to depart for China.

Beginning each stanza with a Maori phrase, Tse weaves through the narrative of what happened next. After the Ventnor sank, all the coffins and the lives of 13 crewmen lost, some of the coffins floated ashore.  They were found by local Maori who recognised them as human remains and buried them in their own urupa (cemeteries). Kawe Mate refers to spiritual repatriation, the taking of memories and images home to family; te rerenga wairua is the place, at the very tip of Northland (Cape Reinga) where the spirits leap into the ocean, taking one last look back at the land they are leaving; karakia is prayer. In using these terms, Tse declares the universality of our cultural beliefs: "death is the common ground." To die is to be claimed by your loved ones. Without family, without a place to 'land', you might as well have never existed.  But Tse touches on notes of hope. Stranded in a foreign land, others can take the place of family.

With its evocation of family memory and duty, this poem frames the rest of the poems in Tse's collection, which are about the murder of Joe Kum Yung, a Chinese man gunned down in cold blood to prove a racist point.  Despite the heavy material, Tse's work is not without hope.  As he told me in this interview,
"The story is concerned with death and murder, but I didn't want to be trapped by or preoccupied with the heaviness that can come with that territory. I wanted to focus on Joe Kum Yung's search for light. It was important to me that the book carry a sense of hope, despite the life he had lived."

I remember the moment I first came across Chris' poetry online. I did a double take.  Chris Tse was the name of the first guy that I fell deeply and tragically in love with, and in four years of dating he'd never mentioned being a poet. After some frantic googling to ascertain that Chris Tse was not Chris Tse, I contacted him with the rather awkward message, "Hey, like your stuff. I used to date a guy with your name. Are you related?" 

Luckily, he was not, and we became good friends.  I've never teased him about being from Lower Hutt and he's always been polite about the fact I'm from Auckland. He's helped out with my plays (a friend who drags couches around Wellington in the middle of the night is a friend for life) and I've checked out his manuscripts.  I've always found his work exciting, an all-too-rare male Chinese Kiwi voice (although like me he hates being pigeonholed with a neat description like the one I've just used.)  I was stoked when I became one of the first people to receive a copy of his new book, which is launched next week - all invited.

How to be dead in a year of snakes

By Chris Tse

To be launched by Chris Price.
5:30 pm, Monday 22 September 2014
Vic Books, 1 Kelburn Parade, Kelburn, Wellington

This week's editor is Renee Liang.
Renee, a second-generation Chinese Kiwi, is a poet, playwright, paediatrician, medical researcher and fiction writer. She organises community arts events such as New Kiwi Women Write, a writing workshop series for migrant women in association with Auckland Council. She is a regular contributor to The Big Idea, a website linking NZ's arts community. Renee has been published in a number of journals and anthologies, has produced three chapbooks of poetry and has written, produced and toured three plays: Lantern, The Bone Feeder and The First Asian AB. She is currently working on Paper Boats, a play about the journeys of Chinese-Kiwi women. Website:www.chinglish-renee.blogspot.com.

When you've read 'SS Ventnor' please head into the sidebar to find a host of other wonderful poems by the thirty poets who are Tuesday Poets. They're poems either selected or written by them.


Jennifer Compton said...

oh yes, like!

Helen Lowe said...

I love the delicacy of the poetic form and the language Chris Tse has used, which is deceptive because overall the poem is so powerful. And I like everything else it touches on: loss and impermanence, redemption and hope. Am already looking forward to "How To be Dead In A Year Of Snakes."