Friday, August 23, 2013

Alison Wong

Alison Wong grew up in Hawke’s Bay, Aotearoa New Zealand, and has lived most of her life in Wellington where she studied at Victoria University and once worked in IT. In the 1980s and 90s she spent several years in Xiamen and Shanghai, in 2002 she was the Robert Burns Fellow at the University of Otago, and she now lives in Geelong, Australia.

Her poetry collection, Cup, was shortlisted for Best First Book for Poetry at the 2007 Montana New Zealand Book Awards, and her novel, As the Earth Turns Silver, won the 2010 New Zealand Post Book Award for Fiction and was shortlisted for the 2010 Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. 

A lesson in Chinese history

My mother is practised in the tools
of persuasion — she would hide pieces
of carrot under our potato. 
Have a taste, she would say, then slowly,
surely, you will learn how to like them.

Faithfully I ate my carrots, yet
still have severe myopia.  My
sister found excellent excuses,
even a man who dislikes carrots.
Her vision is this close to perfect.

My mother grows older.  My sister
laughs, Just wait till you’re old enough, she
says, I’ll feed you boiled carrots — carrots
sautéed, mashed and raw — there is nothing
I cannot do with the odd carrot.

When I was ten years old we would go
after rain to pick worm bodies from
the hot concrete.  Hold out your hands, I’d
tell my sister, and together we’d
send communities back to the soil.

When I was eleven my mother,
expert with the Chinese cleaver, would
chop earthworms into wriggly pieces —
each a live reproduction, exact
in its sacrifice to my goldfish.

My sister is still six years younger.
She lives in a house in Whitby twice
the size of mine. Each weekend she digs
in the garden, throwing her hands in
the air when she slices an earthworm.

My mother has arthritis.  This is
a disease that only vertebrates
suffer.  Suddenly in her sixties
she confesses a phobia—Don’t
tell your sister (about worms), she says.

*When I was young I tried to save the world and its worms without understanding. My sister, like my mother, does not like worms.

there’s always things to come back to the kitchen for

a bowl of plain steamed rice
a piece of bitter dark chocolate
a slice of crisp peeled pear

a mother or father who understands
the kitchen is the centre of the universe

children who sail out on long elliptical orbits
and always come back, sometimes like comets, sometimes like moons




My son says they are
wishing spider sticks.
You make a wish and
blow wishing spiders
all over the world.
I wonder what he
wishes for – a mother
and a father who
are happy? We have
so many wishes
growing all over
the spontaneous
lawn. See how many
moments of happiness
there are waiting for
a boy alone in
the garden holding
a soft green stick.

The river bears our name

As the sun eases red over Pauatahanui
You stand alone at the Huangpu River
Layers of dust catch in our throat
The water is brown with years of misuse

You stand alone at the Huangpu River
Your card lies still open on the table beside me
The water is brown with years of misuse
I write out your name stroke upon stroke

Your card lies still open on the table beside me
A white ocean breeze slaps at my face
I write out your name stroke upon stroke
My hand is deliberate like that of a child

A white ocean breeze slaps at my face
You are more fluent in a foreigner’s tongue
My hand is deliberate like that of a child
I lick the sweet envelope, seal up my word

You are more fluent in a foreigner’s tongue
The heat of exhaust swallows your breath
I lick the sweet envelope, seal up my word
I know you will tear it, one trace of your eyes

The heat of exhaust swallows your breath
Layers of dust catch in our throat
I know you will tear it, one trace of your eyes
As the sun eases red over Pauatahanui

* Pauatahanui is a suburb of Porirua city in Wellington. The Huangpu River, also known as the Bund, runs through Shanghai. Huang is my surname in Mandarin pinyin romanisation.


he moves his hand
down the dip of her back
over her buttocks
then up again
each stroke
the sound of a wave
over shingle
it's like your skin has a grain he says
like the scales of a fish
oh she says feeling the world turn
she turns and there
it is—a touch
of rainbow in her skin
as he catches her
in the right


lovers are light
on the earth
they do not understand
as I lie
draped over you with nothing
not a molecule
between us
I feel like a soft wet leaf
a piece of news
paper wet with the love of you —
we are both
draped over this paper
maché world
and nothing can
separate us
the mix of our
bodies, our words
all the world’s
being recreated

Round Hill

Leslie leads the way through miro, supplejack and mamaku.
Everywhere the crush of leaves underfoot,
the sound and smell of water. Fantails
spread white and black feathers
and peep peep in the hush
of muted greens and browns. We walk
beside stone walls that line the banks
and water races,
past sluices, dams and mine shafts
where once five hundred Chinese miners
lived and worked. Leslie lifts a tin drum lid
from one fork of a race to the other. This
is how we divert
water. We watch it rush
over the bank,
pass old camp sites with their broken
brandy bottles and celadon bowls,
stones arranged like a memorial
or a grave.
Possums lie close to the path, stripped
back to pale flesh. This one reminds me
of the dogs hanging in the markets of Canton
their jaws wide open.
You can come around here quietly now, Leslie says,
his small 83-year-old body moving lightly.

* Leslie McKay, who died in 2008, owned and maintained a goldmining area at Round Hill near Riverton, New Zealand. Here hundreds of Chinese laboured in the early 1880s. Leslie conducted tours and kept a museum of artefacts found onsite.

Chinese settlement, Arrowtown

Christmas Eve 2002

Walk from the township through the police camp
not far from the river where the purple and pink
lupins and yellow broom flower. See the poplars
shed sticky white seeds through the air,
on branches and leaves, over the dry ground
like fresh wool caught on fences
like dreams of a foreign (white) Christmas.
Here, Ah Gee was found hanging,
Old Tom pitched forward
burned black in his fireplace,
Kong Kai, excellent cook and blind of one eye,
found up Eight Mile Creek, his clothes
spread over his bones, £70 in his pocket.
Now only relics of chimneys, a huge depression
where Su Sing’s store once stood, a few huts
and rock shelters, restored/reconstructed
or not. A sign points the way to the cemetery.
At each of the doorways, a woman
has left white roses.


this is what we form
what we hold in our hands

ten thousand blessings

the colour of air

and the sound of hunger

hot or cold, everything
comes to the same end

we hold out
more than we hold in

* In Chinese, ten thousand signifies a huge or infinite number.

Reflection on a proposal of marriage

after sharing a 2 for 1 voucher to an exhibition

I was married once, briefly,
to a man I met at the ticketing desk
of the Christchurch Art Gallery.
We kept falling
into each other before
the shadowy figures of
Giacometti. Hello,
we said in thin voices —
a Standing Woman, a Man
Walking away. We parted
only to find each other at
The Glade, The Forest and City Square.
We were a Group of Three Men
my husband and I and our
marriage — each of us turning
away. Before we finally
separated, I offered
my name. Graham, he said.
Thank you. We shook hands.
He never gave me a ring.

*The italicised words are names of bronze sculptures as displayed at the Giacometti exhibition.

Tongariro Crossing

Mangatepopo car park
commuters disembark
in every language
we find our space
in the eight hour day

Mangatepopo Valley
we are aliens here
pale green brain
lichen spilt over black rock

South Crater
if we had a broom, if we moved
these broken (rock) stars
this would be the pitch and not
even Cairns could reach the boundary

Red Crater
let us create our own cave
this red rock, this black
feel the colours on my skin
the simple lines
of a horse
for you

Emerald Lakes
the earth is a long-boiled egg
how the air tastes of it

Central Crater
orange moon suits
a Japanese couple stride
into dust
another universe

near Ketetahi Springs
life is small here
water slips
warm through our fingers
harebells, daisies, Coriaria
every shade of

to Ketetahi car park
bellbirds, blow
flies break into wet
exuberant green

Ketetahi car park
we lie back
and wait
for the old
life to take us

Meditation on Yangzhou

he sweeps morning
and night enters his pores
as he might over

a breath
taking book
or simply

a map of this
location — if only
they were

in English
he walks and loses

with all this good
Chinese food
and language oh

Wei he says
over the line
she is used

to Crikey
My foot is giving me

* Wei is the greeting used when answering the phone in Mandarin.

A Chinese ghost story

Tsim Sha Tsui
I take your reluctant hand
as we walk the starry promenade.
A fortune-teller asks us
to choose colours, numbers
tells us we’ll be happy
(do I see hope in your eyes?)
then takes me aside.
People take advantage, he says.
Not your family.
We walk past the handprints
of Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh,
Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung...
You do not understand Chinese
love stories.

Cheung Chau
We overlook a tree-lined parade,
striped awnings, a harbour that
reminds me of Rita Angus’
Boats, Island Bay.
The boys drink Olympic Delicious Happiness
everything sounds beautiful in Chinese.
I sip Indian rose soda, you
Blue Girl beer.
All night in Delicious Apartments
flakes of white plaster fall,
cling to our bare skin.
The EXIT sign above the door glows.
Did she weep when you left her?

You look at me and say,
In China a woman is old
at 35. Student waitresses
gather round you
as to their professor.
They see your son, my son,
they see the look in your eyes.
Are you family? they ask.

* Coca Cola™ was a major sponsor of the Beijing Olympics, and at the time, cans of coke
displayed the Olympic rings. When the Chinese create new words they either select characters
to signify the meaning or transliterate from the sound in the original language. The drink, Coca 
Cola™, is transliterated in Mandarin as Kekou Kele, literally delicious happiness. And the
apartments where we stayed on Cheung Chau Island, Hong Kong, although pronounced
differently in Cantonese, used the same Chinese characters for delicious.

All © Alison Wong
Poems 1-9 were collected in Cup (Steele Roberts, 2006).
The river bears our name first appeared in Printout No.11, 1996. 
Reflection on a proposal of marriage appeared in JAAM 25 and Best New Zealand Poems 2007.
Meditation on Yangzhou was published in The International Literary Quarterly Issue 12, 2010.
A Chinese Ghost Story was first published in Landfall 217, 2009 but this updated version was published in 99 Ways into New Zealand Poetry, 2010.

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