[REVIEW] “Trepidatious Yet Defiant: Tammy Lai-Ming Ho’s Too Too Too Too” by Aaron Chan

{Written by Aaron Chan, this review is part of Issue 46 of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Tammy Lai-Ming Ho, Too Too Too Too, Math Paper Press, 2018. 100 pgs.

Tammy Lai-Ming Ho’s second poetry collection Too Too Too Too has a simple, somewhat melodic, yet intriguing title. Attempts to decode the meaning of the title will only reveal its grammatical ambiguity. Which “too” is a submodifier (as in “too much”), and which is an adverb (as in “me too”)? Could they be puns on “two” and “to”? Or should the four words be understood separately, as dividers as well as connectors of the four sub-sections of the book? Perhaps, as written in the eponymous poem, there is so much more in the book “which can’t be abbreviated”.

The four sections of the book appear to follow the structure of a plot mountain. The first section contains mainly love poems, followed by another section full of personal memories and emotions. The third section makes a turn towards the political and the collective, marking the high point of the entire collection. This, of course, is not to say the poems in the third section are “better” or “more powerful” than those in the preceding sections. Rather, it is the progression from the personal to the collective that makes it climactic, very much like the confluence points where tributaries meet one another. The last section of the book, which consists of only two poems, quickly concludes the book on a powerful yet enigmatic note.

The poems in the first section deal with myriad issues in romantic relationships, including jealousy, copulation, the monotony of married life, the struggle between passionate desire and moral parameters, and many more. The personas in the many poems yearn to be passionately loved, their voices unapologetically celebratory of one’s own desire. Some poems celebrate the present moment, where in a sexual union “her moans / suspend flying geese” (“It Could Happen You Know”), where a woman looks forward to another rendezvous with someone else’s boyfriend: “Perhaps a second sun will appear in the sky / if I go to your place again. I can better see your face, / flustered between my stiffened knees” (“Perhaps a Second Sun”). On the other hand, some poems portray the wanting of passion. One example is the unvarnished remark by the persona in “This is Just to Say”: “I am jealous of you thumbing / the dictionary instead of me.” Another persona, in “Rumours of a First Date”, vents her dissatisfaction with the stale relationship with her long-term partner, reminiscing about the delight and excitement of the first date.

The second section include a number of poems dedicated to different people, from the perspectives of different personas: a friend who pays a visit to a person named Dawn (“A Dream Visit to Your Loitering Land”), a parent reflecting on their daughter’s request to ride in separate cable cars (“A Rendezvous on the Clouds”), a boy who wants to wear dresses (“Red Riding Hood and Grandmother”), a helper who warms their master’s piano bench every evening (“Warming the Piano Bench”), a man in reminiscence of a smoker with whom he once had an intimate relationship (“Double Happiness”), a seventy-year-old woman struggling to recall her memories (“Confession of a Woman, Seventy Years Old or Less”), and even objects—doorknobs which compare themselves with human wives (“Once Born Doorknobs”).

After journeying through the memories and imaginations of the many personas, readers are brought together in the third section, featuring recognisable landscapes of Hong Kong and China. Poems in this section engage with a range of political issues, such as the supposed expiry of “one country, two systems” in 2047 (“Two Zero Four Seven”), the grand narrative of national unity (“Beijing Standard Time”), the Causeway Bay bookseller disappearances (“The Bookseller”), and the territorial disputes in the South China Sea (“One Stone, Two Birds”). In other poems, the poet skilfully connects various issues with simple yet powerful images. “This Brick: A Found Poem”, for instance, offers an assemblage of images in different parts of China, surveying subjects such as Beijing air pollution, the government’s policies against Muslims in Xinjiang, the intersection of Western and Chinese cultures, and the one-child policy. In “Leftovers”, three different issues in China are linked by the one word in the title: food waste, “left-over ladies”, and left-behind children in rural villages. The section is concluded by a poem entitled “How the Narratives of Hong Kong are Written with China in Sight”, which emphasises the volatility of Hong Kong’s status, and that it is the very present moment which makes the city alive—“Where now? Who now? When now? Hong Kong now. We now. Now now.”

The last section of the book is a very quick falling action and denouement. Once again, we are back to the personal side of Tammy Ho’s poetic world, through four postcards and 101 imaginary rooms. The final poem, “101 Rooms”, is a three-page prose poem written in a single stanza, a product of stream of consciousness with reference to numerous unrelated images and notions, ranging from graffitied walls to a tiny baby to e.e. cummings to the existential crisis in the age of digital production to MLA referencing style to Thomas Hardy and John Donne. All these seemingly unrelated images and notions paint a vivid picture of the mind of the scholar-poet. It is enigmatic, suggestive, yet also very personal.

Too Too Too Too is a manifesto of a poetic lover, a poet who has loved others and loves the city she lives in. It is also a book celebrating and exemplifying the power of words. On the personal level, the poet compares herself to a “big book” being read, appreciated, but not always understood by her readers (“Too Too Too Too”). On the political level, the poet’s responsibility has become ever more significant, and yet there is not enough appreciation of it. The masses are indifferent—“So long as the fire / does not burn too near, it’s all right.” Those who believe in the power of words, “trepidatious yet defiant, / continue to sell, print and write.” (“The Bookseller”)

This is a book for you, if you, too, believe in the power of words, if you, too, believe in the poet’s responsibility, if you, too, believe in love, if you, too, believe in Hong Kong.

How to cite: Chan, Aaron. “Trepidatious Yet Defiant: Tammy Lai-Ming Ho’s Too Too Too Too.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 26 Oct. 2020, chajournal.blog/2020/10/26/too.

Aaron Chan is a Hongkonger who loves literature and his city. He received an MPhil in English Literary Studies from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is currently a teacher of English Language and Literature in English at a local secondary school. Occasionally he writes poems too, and is delighted to have had a handful published in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal and Voice and Verse Poetry Magazine.

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