[REVIEW] “Too Too Too Too Is Not Too Much” by Lucas Klein

{Written by Lucas Klein, 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 book of poems, Too Too Too Too, is a book of tensions—between the styles of poetry she writes, and between the poems’ (or perhaps the poet’s) desire to be self-sufficient and strong, and to be emotionally available or vulnerable.

For the latter tension, consider the title poem of the collection, which sounds like a secret inversion of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”), in which Shakespeare insults, perhaps nags, his love, yet ends, “I think my love as rare / As any she belied with false compare”. Ho, a professor of English from Hong Kong, has read widely in English and Chinese, but wears her erudition mostly lightly (at a reading once I heard her recite A.D. Hope’s “His Coy Mistress to Mr. Marvell”, responding to Andrew Marvell). Here is Ho’s “Too Too Too Too” (p. 23):

I told no one, but no one wants to know, anyway.
You and I are about to part, and my feelings
are twice removed from an imitation of love.

You are too too too too. Everything’s hyperbolic
when said by you. You, whose tiny scab
on the back of your head intrigues instead of disgusts;

you, whose pretentiousness causes giggles, blushes;
and day in day out you wear your glasses, or not,
like a fourth-rate intellectual, but one nonetheless.

You said so many things that you’ve now forgot. Thus,
you’re definitely not that character in Borges, nor in fact,
any narrative that can be consummately summarised.

Just because you’ve read, and understood, so well,
all these big novels, doesn’t mean that you’re smart,
or necessarily admirable. You’re too easily impressed.

Still, you’ve read this big book—me—and although you’re
not the best reader, you’re one of the most appreciated.
And I remember your long eyelashes. And much more—

which can’t be abbreviated.

—Tammy Lai-Ming Ho, “Too Too Too Too”, Too Too Too Too.

A speaker insulting her lover at parting (Ho met her husband in Paris; perhaps she wrote this to him when she had to fly back to Hong Kong?), to convince herself that she will not be sad after she goes. Yet she finds her complaints (“You said so many things that you’ve now forgot”) turning into endearments (“you’re one of the most appreciated”) in spite of herself. Remembering his eyelashes and more, she loves him more than she wishes she could admit—and if he is a good enough reader, he will understand how sad she is promising that she will be.

Interestingly, the speaker’s edging toward admitting she loves her addressee comes with a touch of arrogance: “you’ve read this big book—me”. I do not know which story by Borges she might be alluding to, but it does not matter except to announce that she can keep up with her lover’s pretensions (I said she wears her erudition mostly lightly). Yet this posturing is belied by how long it takes to tell this man she loves him, by her sense that “no one wants to know, anyway”. It is an interesting tension this poem reveals about its poet: the same anxiety, or mixture of confidence and diffidence, we see in the speaker’s attitude toward her lover is mirrored (assuming that this poem is true to life) in the poem itself. “No one wants to know”, yet I am “this big book”. “Too too too too” not only indicates, as in the poem, hyperbole, but also “also also also also” in the fact of the poem: what we read in the poem we also read in the poet’s presentation of it to us. The rhyme that ends the poem (“the most appreciated” / “which can’t be abbreviated”) provides an echo in which we hear what the poem saying resonating with how it is being said. The way the speaker treats her addressee is the way Ho treats her readers.

One tension in Ho’s poetry is about how she expresses her vulnerability, with confidence or insecurity; another tension is what kind of poet she is at all. I came of age as a reader of poetry in the era of Ron Silliman’s blog, when it seemed like the world—or at least the world of American poetry—could be divided into camps of “the post-avant” and “the School of Quietude”. Certainly Silliman’s categories were overstated, and I’m not sure that they would applied to anglophone poetry from outside Silliman’s “American Tree”. Nevertheless, it’s a shock to see such hypotactic and, if I may say so without saying dismissive, well-wrought poetry such as the above in the same collection as such disjunctive lines as these, from “Once Born Doorknobs” (p. 30):

we cannot become windowpanes or curtain
rods. bitterly, we have learned to accept fate
ever since our creator walked away; his
job done and toolbox shut.

—Tammy Lai-Ming Ho, “Once Born Doorknobs”, Too Too Too Too.

Or these, from “Mythologies” (p. 49):

Love means love you. Not really.

My fingers tell me to smile. We are savages, you quite understand!

Other bad habits: Check if I am arousing. Pretending to make phone calls. Thew wind is southerly and I am sad.

Books—long for; Cloudberry flower; Homeward; Ice—first meeting with, whitereflection from; Moons!

Jargon, n. 1: The art of London spread out in the commonplace.

Perceptible eyes would probably see my blueberry pancakes. That someone is Chinese.

—Tammy Lai-Ming Ho, “Mythologies”, Too Too Too Too.

The range of styles works a bit like the disjunctions between these lines: they compel the readers to figure out for themselves how to make sense of the types of poem Ho gives them. There may also be something particularly Hong Kong, or at any rate “world English” about the book’s stylistic diversity: Ho is not part of what Cole Swensen called the “American hybrid”, but rather must embody a broader diversity in her work to be able to speak to a less monolithic (if smaller) audience.

This last line I quoted in “Mythologies” might call to mind Robert Perelman’s “China”, perhaps the famous poem of paratactic disjunction for being included in Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. But where “China” in Perelman is a discursive construct, indicating language’s role in creating its objects, China for Ho is all too real. Ho herself is Hong Kong Chinese, and one whole section of Too Too Too Too is populated only with poems handling the tensions implied in that phrase. From “How the Narratives of Hong Kong are Written with China in Sight” (pp. 66–68):

1. Call me One Country, Two Systems.

2. It is a truth universally acknowledged that the democracy fighters in Hong Kong must be genomically modified by the West.

6. China, non-light of my life, non-fire of my loins.

7. Happy cities are all alike; every unhappy city is unhappy in its own way. Hong Kong is unhappy because it wants happiness too much. It believes that the right to vote for its own leader would contribute to its happiness. It believes.

8. democracyriverrun, past Mongkok, Causeway Bay, Admiralty and Central…

12. Someone must have slandered Joshua Wong… for one evening, without having done anything outrageously wrong, he was arrested.

16. 689 was spiteful.

19. The Hong Kong people said they would fight for the city’s future themselves and they would bring umbrellas.

—Tammy Lai-Ming Ho, “How the Narratives of Hong Kong are Written with China in Sight”, Too Too Too Too.

These allusions (to Melville, Austen, Nabokov, Tolstoy, Joyce, Kafka, Morrison, and Woolf) are also performative of something in the poem itself: genomic modification by the West. Whereas many have argued that colonialism has brainwashed the people of Hong Kong away from rightful loyalty to their own Chineseness, Ho’s deployment of Western literature here—like Xi Xi’s 西西 overwriting of the Belgian artist René Magritte’s paintings with a Hong Kong surreality in Marvels of A Floating City 浮城誌異—enacts a third-space cultural translation (in Homi Bhabha’s sense) where the Western canon itself will have its genomes modified for new political application.

In the final section of the book, Too Too Too Too’s tensions nearly resolve. The book ends with a long prose poem, “101 Rooms”, consisting, I think, of one hundred and one sentences (I’m not going to count them all) about a room—or a hundred and one rooms. Before that is the prose poem “Postcards Orderly” (pp. 71–72), where Ho shows us her speaker’s relationship with the love she was sorry not sorry to leave in the book’s title poem having progressed to a deeper level of flirtation and understanding. One stanza:

Indeed you are judgmental. But I love you more for that. You snored so much last time when we were together. It must be the beer. I forgot to tell you how much I like to see you eat with your fingers and lick off the grease. What’s the name of that room in that palace, in which the emperor passed on a flower to a maid-in-waiting. Was the flower snatched by a lark? Or was it a magpie? And he said, ‘Just as well.’ You told me the story, following the guidebook language mostly but you added your own flourishes. Your pauses were impeccably timed. I didn’t interrupt you even though I had read the anecdote earlier that morning.

—Tammy Lai-Ming Ho, “Postcards Orderly”, Too Too Too Too.

The loving observations of his foibles revealed in “Too Too Too Too” are back, but with the avant-gardist, or perhaps post-avant, prose poem format, the poem seems more honest, and yet simultaneously more artful. Certainly it is more comfortable with itself. By the end of the book, its form-and-content tensions are more sublimated, and therefore sublated.

The near-resolution of her poetic tensions is appropriate for the end of a collection, but I return more often to the poems that are less resolved, the poems that require more participation from the reader to reach their completion. My own tastes, too, tend toward the prose-poetic. Too Too Too Too being only her second book of poems, it is worth wondering where she’ll go from here—or where we might hope for her to go, poetically speaking. Ho is a translator as well as a poet and English professor, and given this city’s bi- or multilingualism alongside her interest in writing Hong Kong, I’d like to see her incorporate translation, code-switching, and polyglottism into her poems more. Some Asian-American writers have done this; it would be interesting to see what kind of a response an anglophone Hong Kong Chinese poet would make. This diversion is, admittedly, drawing us away from the topic of reviewing the book at hand, but that is also to acknowledge the impact that these poems make. Too Too Too Too is not too much: on the contrary, it leaves us wanting more.

How to cite: Klein, Lucas. “Too Too Too Too Is Not Too Much.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 24 Nov. 2020, chajournal.blog/2020/11/24/too-too-too-too/.

Lucas Klein (PhD Yale) is a father, writer, and translator. Executive editor of the Hsu-Tang Library of Classical Chinese Literature from Oxford University Press, his scholarship and criticism have appeared in the monograph The Organization of Distance: Poetry, Translation, Chineseness (Brill, 2018) and in Chinese Poetry and Translation: Rights and Wrongs (2019), co-edited with Maghiel van Crevel (downloadable for free from Amsterdam University Press), as well as in Comparative Literature StudiesLARBJacketCLEARPMLA, and other journals. His translation Notes on the Mosquito: Selected Poems of Xi Chuan (New Directions, 2012) won the 2013 Lucien Stryk Prize; other translations include the poetry of Mang Ke, October Dedications (Zephyr and Chinese University Press, 2018), and contributions to Li Shangyin (New York Review Books, 2018). His translations of the poetry of Duo Duo, forthcoming from Yale University Press, won a PEN/Heim Translation Fund grant. He is an associate professor in the School of Chinese at the University of Hong Kong and the Translation Editor of Cha: An Asian Literary Journal. (Photograph of Lucas Klein © Zhai Yongming.)

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