Impossibility of Return

Reviewed by Sunny Chan

The first thing that stands out in the first poem from The Language We Were Never Taught to Speak is the use of Chinese words embedded into the text without an English translation. This code-switching recurs in other poems, including “When Yuhua Hamasaki Went Home,” “My Grandmother’s Wallpaper,” and “Birth/Right.” It matters that the words are in Traditional Chinese and not Simplified; perhaps matters differently to me, as a reader who is also a Hong Kong-born Canadian woman constantly thinking of how the generations before me performed gender and class, just like Grace Lau.


Her debut collection proves time and again that the universal is accessed through the particular. Lines such as “He has been mourning / the future / for the last twenty years” and “The thing with returning to a home / that exists only in your mind: / your body gradually forgetting what home feels like” (6) explicitly address the 1997 handover of Hong Kong and the feelings around it that characterize a distinctly Hong Kong sensibility. And yet, at the same time, what human being cannot relate to the feeling of being unable to return to a place or time because it no longer exists?


Lau juxtaposes the painful bits of memory—the longing of nostalgia, the homophobia of Christian parents and traditionalist grandparents, the generational poverty brought over by immigration—with the good parts, such as the love tasted through food and acts of care. In between that is her fierce defence of it all from “hustle culture” and “Elon, Mark, and Jeff,” (22), the things that threaten to strip the pleasures and sorrows of lived experience away from us through overwork.


At the end of the work, after all the poems, is a glossary of all of the Chinese words that appeared. Part of me wishes it weren’t there despite, of course, understanding the desire for every reader to understand the references. It just would have been nice to have the people who would not understand feel left out for once—the way folks like Lau and I have felt before.


If the Hong Kong diaspora’s idea of home is a place that exists only in the mind, then the opposite of that might be an idea of home as completely tangible. In Black Bears in the Carrot Field, Linda K. Thompson can see herself and all the people she has ever known in the very living things farmed on top of and inside the land she calls home. But even for someone like Thompson, who lives not far where she was raised and can still see the same landmarks pictured in her inherited black-and-white family photographs, time changes everything. Nostalgia is stirred up and at the same time assuaged by the repeated recitation of relatives’ names, retold anecdotes of cousins and neighbours and her mother’s old friends. “We were all from here. / Dad’s childhood places, ours. / The flat steep-sided valley— / all we knew. / Same grey soil / where he had run / clung like cold forge dust / to our pale legs” (32) is put up against “How could we know? Families drift, break / apart on the rocks. The stories are fading, / nearly forgotten. Washed up on some foreign shore, / we may never find on a chart. Die, waiting / for the phone to ring.” (49). Even if you stay still, the people and things around you move, over Rockies and across prairies as large as an ocean.


Black Bears in the Carrot Field combines poetry with a photography collection from the poet’s personal archive that spans as far back as the 1920s, with the most recent photograph from 2012.The words interweave with the photos, which are just as intimate and unpretentious as the verses. They are not trying to be art photography; they were made to capture memories not of special occasions but of the mundane, made to be passed down, just like the stories told in the poems. The poems themselves interweave verse with prose, and they also weave past with present in a way that deliberately obscures when any given story might be taking place in time. It gives an accurate representation of what our relationship with memories feels like. The personal past is not neatly cordoned off in linear timelines, but rather a part of our present lives.


Dallas Hunt’s Creeland is also a contemplation of the place the speaker called home growing up: the land itself in northern Alberta, and the people frozen in the time of memory such as his grandmother, his kôhkom. The distance between home and now, for Hunt, is not immigration and is not only time—it is also the violence of the colonial state, embodied in the forms of police officers, prison guards, teachers, a hospital that is not there to help.


With a few exceptions, the majority of the poems in this collection take the structure of very short lines. The most notable exceptions are “Porcupine I,” “Porcupine II,” “Porcupine III,” and “Porcupine IV,” a series of tender tributes to the legacy of the poet’s beloved grandmother that paint a portrait without clichés. The majority, though, are carefully sparse lines that usually stay under five syllables, letting long words stand completely alone and drawing attention to clusters of short words like prepositions usually overlooked. It has the effect of constant impact, so that one cannot ignore individual words ith stark lines like “but what of / the original / intent / of treaties?” (102).


Like Lau’s book, Creeland ends with a glossary of Cree words; I do somewhat wish that a settler reader like me were forced to do the work of learning the words myself. Where all three of these works explore our relationships to the past, I leave you with this from Creeland about the future: “the future / is a ghost / you inherit” (88).

This review “Impossibility of Return” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 9 Jun. 2022. Web.

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