[Review] There’s No Place Like Home: Nashua Gallagher’s All the Words a Stage

{Written by Nina Powles, this review is part of Issue 42 (December 2018) of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Nashua Gallagher, All the Words a Stage, Chameleon Press, 2018. 102 pgs.

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They place me in new soil / Do not look at me in my newness / They place me in new soil,” Nashua Gallagher writes in “Uprooted,” one of the more striking and experimental poems from her debut collection All the Words A Stage. Journeys, departures, arrivals, mother tongues, putting down roots, uncovering long-lost memories—these are all recurring motifs throughout the book as Gallagher searches for the meaning of home.

Born in Sri Lanka and raised in Hong Kong, where she still lives, Gallagher grew up as a “third culture kid,” and so did I. Our childhoods share a similar pattern of relocating to a new country every few years. Hong Kong is the place she continually returned to; for me, Shanghai is my adopted home, though I was born in New Zealand.

Her poems examining the word home, such as “Diary of an Expat Immigrant,” carry a feeling that is both comforting and painfully familiar to me: “I wondered how fresh soil would feel that was all mine … a part of the earth that would grow a bloodline.” Whenever I encountered classmates who had lived in the same town all their lives, I always wondered how that must feel; I couldn’t imagine what it must be like. In “Nomad Child,” Gallagher traces the path of a girlhood of rootlessness. It reads like a constellation of scattered sensory images: “plaiting oiled hair,” “a rosebud on skin,” “cooling tea in a saucer,” “clouds of red earth under running slippers.” “Nomad Child” beautifully captures the overwhelming experience of encountering a city such as Hong Kong for the first time as a child. Throughout the second section of the book, I yearned for more intricate details like these, where I can almost touch the colours and textures of Gallagher’s inner world. Some of her strongest work is to be found here, in recounting “childhood at the start of my remembering.”

Gallagher is the founding director of the Hong Kong performance poetry collective Peel Street Poetry. Much of her work suggests she is foremost a performance poet, and one of Gallagher’s strengths is using sound as a poetic tool. I found myself underlining beautiful, chaotic alliterative patterns in many poems, such as “kitchen cacophonies,” “visceral oar dip,” “tangerine-sweet sleep,” “soft-boiled sunrise,” to name a few. Her playfulness with words occasionally feels overwrought and could be pared back, but the overall effect may work differently if one were to experience her poems in performance. I don’t believe it’s necessarily useful to compare performance poetry with poetry written for the page; I see them as two related but distinct art forms. In performance, the poet has much more control over how they intend their work to be received, how they want their poem to exist physically in the room. A number of poems in All the Words a Stage lack a certain “spark” or “pressure point” for me on the page, a point where the poem comes alive, vibrates with energy. But in performance, these sparks of heat may well be obvious. This is one way in which the collection could have benefited from more a rigorous, attentive editorial eye. There are several places where editors have failed to catch rogue commas and words used incorrectly. Nonetheless, the result is a free-wheeling, playful collection of poems.

In the second section, the poems turn their focus to politics and motherhood, and the speaker’s voice becomes more assured, defiant. Some poems such as “Moral Dyslexia” feel like they belong elsewhere or require further editing, and Gallagher’s use of rhyme feels sometimes heavy-handed, though, again, it may work well in performance. I was particularly struck by her poems that deal directly with the act of writing, such as “Semantic Satiation,” “Free Verse” and “I’m Looking for a Word.” While there are many poems in existence about writing and many poems about mothering, to encounter one that sheds light on the difficulties and joys of both is wonderful and important. In “Free Verse,” the speaker turns her eye directly on “this poem” as if it were a part of her own body:

This poem has love handles to trim,
So I use free-verse like a little black dress
To cover the child at my breast

“This poem has love handles” is a striking line that remained with me long after I read the poem. In so few words, it turns the poem into a kind of protective charm, one that’s innately physical and feminine, intimate and powerful at the same time. This line distils the intimacy and playfulness of Gallagher’s poetry, and also hints at the poet’s awareness of the notion that “good” poetry ought to be minimalist, trimmed down, pared back. Instead, she consciously and confidently rejects it: “I want to write a poem for you that would look dreadful on paper” (“A Love Poem”).

All the Worlds a Stage is also a love song to Hong Kong in all its chaos, its diversity, its unique landscape and complicated history. Hong Kong is an important subject for three other poets whose work I love—Sarah Howe, WaWa and Jennifer Wong—who each have a different, complex connection with the city. For these poets, and for Nashua Gallagher, Hong Kong is a shifting, changing character of its own. In poems of her childhood and adolescence, for instance, the city is dreamlike, illusory: “For the magic to work you must not blink,” (“Midnight Tai Tais, Lan Kwai Fong”). In later poems such as “Chronicle” and “The Leap,” she looks at Hong Kong through a wider lens. In her day-to-day interactions with the city, such as climbing its steep hills, the present moment opens out to reveal the geological past: “silt slips giving way / to landslides, failing mountains forming steps we climb.” “Yellow Umbrella” touches on the recent Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, though it ends on a more universal note (“These are the tales of what we’ll all become”) which lacks impact. As in “Siu Ap Fan with a Visitor,” where Gallagher acknowledges that she does not speak Cantonese, I wanted to know more about the complexity of finding home in a place where, to others, you will always be a visitor.

All the Words a Stage is a promising debut from a poet with a distinct, defiant voice. It is exciting to see more and more poetry that reflects the diversity of Hong Kong, to which Gallagher’s work is a welcome addition. Her choice to include a foreword serves to welcome all kinds of readers into her world, especially those who may not yet have discovered poetry. The book begins with the epigraph “There’s no place like home” from the film The Wizard of Oz, but what if your home lies in many places at once? Gallagher’s own answer will resonate for those who have grown up between cultures and between countries: “Home is not a place but a story.”

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Nina Powles.jpg

Nina Powles is a writer from Aotearoa New Zealand, currently living in London. Her work has recently appeared in PoetryHotelStarling, Asian American Writers’ Workshop, and Best New Zealand Poems 2017. A collection made up of five poetry chapbooks, Luminescent, was published by Seraph Press in 2017. Her pamphlet Field Notes on a Downpour is forthcoming from If A Leaf Falls Press in Autumn 2018. In 2018 she was selected as the winner of the Jane Martin Poetry Prize. She is half Malaysian-Chinese and is poetry editor at The Shanghai Literary Review.

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