I've had the pleasure of reading four of Evelyn Lau's previous collections of poetry, You Are Not Who You Claim (Porcepic Books, 1990), Oedipal Dreams (Coach House Press, 1992), In The House Of Slaves (Coach House Press, 1994) and 2012's A Grain of Rice (Oolichan Books). I wrote about A Grain of Rice earlier this year, in May, for this blog. Evelyn Lau has consistently hammered out books taut with emotional violence and vision.
Living Under Plastic is a collection full of lament for the dead, confessional poems of deep sorrow, touching tenderness.
Palliative Care Ward,
Lions' Gate Hospital
In the end you let go so easily
as if your life were a bit of dander
you shook from your sweater and watched sail
into the breeze. For weeks I sat by your hospital bed,
the ferries outside carrying their cargo of light
across the ink harbour as minute
by minute you sank down
towards your death. At first
you exclaimed at your penthouse view,
ashamed to accept such luxury
after a lifetime of self-denial––
the nurses laughed at you
for trying to slip them something extra
from your own pocket, for trying to make up
for the disgrace of having to handle
your humbled body. In those days you could still
pace the corridors while I tried not to watch you
shake at every stumbling step––
I would come to miss that time
when later there was nothing to do but watch.
The coil of catheter that carried away your urine,
the black orbs of your eyes fixed and unseeing,
your cracked mouth with its sweet stench.
It was then I reached for your hand
for the first time and you took it like a child
who needed help crossing the street. But you let go
of your life without a fight,
you who could argue the worth
of anything, who fussed over the price of a tip
in a restaurant, who bartered for hours
over some trinket in a street stall,
your high-pitched Cantonese complaint
enough to turn heads––
when it came to your own life you simply
went dumb. Some spirit flew out of you
so that you took the bad news
lying down, as if this was what you deserved,
as if death were a reward
like the retirement banquet and the gold timepiece
you worked your whole life to accept.
Living Under Plastic is divided into three loosely thematic sections. The first, Part One: Blindness, deals with family history and grief, the emotional mine field that we are all dragged through. These poems talk about the cost of loving and losing what we love, losing those closest to us.
This was my glamorous aunt, from whom a stray smile
or pat on the head was better than any treat––
eyelids painted like miniature skies, lily skin
now foxed, though a dot of gold glitter
winks from her cheek as she cries.
Gray dusts her hair but she doesn't care,
wears a patchwork coat like a cleaningwoman's,
misses a tooth, the gap like a tiny door onto darkness.
Behind her shoulder another woman is weeping
into her latte, mascara streaking her cheeks,
the man opposite her stone-faced.
So much sorrow on a Wednesday afternoon
in Caffe Artigiano. The wind lashing down the street
between the office towers, blur of blue.
A boat show at the marina, streams
of parrot-coloured flags snapping in the sea breeze,
strains of music, fairground pleasures
tucked around the corner, out of sight.
The day my aunt drove her husband to the hospital
and he passed through those gleaming glass doors,
she hurried off to plug the meter. The last thing
she said to him before his aorta burst,
flooding his body with blood––
I need to get change for the meter.
Why? she asks now,
why was that so important?
Coins for the meter!
She is as thin as a centipede, a girl
in a magazine, her pale face floating
above the stalk of her body––
refuses the treats from the bakery case,
the lemon muffin, the hunk of bread and chocolate.
Lifts a mug of black tea with both hands
like a child, like it's the weight of a stone.
It's like having a stone in my head, she says––
shivers when the door opens, winces
at the coffee grinder's roar.
I remember the men who courted her,
faces greasy with nerves and hope,
wide open with lust. My uncle
who was late for every appointment
had rushed ahead to meet an early death.
Outside, the lights wink on in the luxury stores––
they sail into view like cruise ships,
take your breath away in the gathering dark.
The second part of Living Under Plastic, Part Two: Tarantula, deals with the emotional toll of the death of love, the failure of love. Romance gone rancid. These poems are the angry/sad tale of woe of the spurned lover who now has to question their place, their purpose. Evelyn Lau doesn't flinch with these visceral, taut missives.
Part Three: The Drowning, deals with the loss of friendship, companionship, sincere loss that comes with the horrible realization of our own mortality that comes through the prism of lost friends. It all comes at a cost and Lau is fearless is sharing many of the emotions most of us keep secret.
The Heron Returns To False Creek
There he was, standing by the water.
Wearing his frayed, Chinese-silk dressing gown,
his beak the colour of copper
or hammered gold. Waiting all day
for the flash of a fish in the stunned water.
Imagine being blessed by faith––
to see this as a sign, a visit
from the afterlife. Your spirit reincarnated
into this patient fisherman,
standing like a mourner on the shore,
head bowed, robed in silence.
Above, the boiling white clouds
blown apart in the blue sky.
The vault of sunlight burning down.
You are no longer anywhere in this world.
Evelyn Lau is polished but never pristine. These poems work at a most primal level. Her family becomes your/our family and we are intimately interwoven into the lives Lau cares about. These fine poems are Lau in sharp form, crisp, but never abrupt. Evelyn Lau has become one of those poets who you can not not read.