By Jason Eng Hun Lee
The Mental Life of Cities, Chameleon Press, 2010
Very rarely do poets successfully grapple with Hong Kong’s transient and illusory nature, but in Eddie Tay’s most recent contribution, we find a mind tuned to the varied cadences of the city’s hustle and bustle urban spaces, with impressive results.
The Mental Life of Cities is an attempt to explore the everyday workings of the city, its spirit and culture, and its effect on our collective human consciousness. Tay presents himself as a veritable psycho-geographer, “learning to walk / through unwashed streets / with memories of flu in the neighbourhood.” In the urban crush of the city, his role is that of the surveyor, whose desire to orient himself to the city and adjust to its rhythms helps underpin his creative anxiety. We find in the first few pages an admixture of rapture, frustration, wonder, coupled with nostalgia and loneliness:
In a city of millions
I have become an old neon signboard
a black leather jacket
and torn jeans
of yesterday’s fashion.
Tay’s language throughout the collection is spare but compelling, always trying to find an apt phrase to capture the emotions of the city. “I am a camera hunting for metaphors” Tay avers, but though he seeks definitive images, his persona is also aware of the artificial nature of that representation. Where the city is concerned, a singular perspective remains futile. ”My rights and wrongs / are transcribed on paper / and shuffled to and fro” says Tay, lamenting how the cities he knows best, Hong Kong and Singapore, always evade that perfect depiction. There is a strong emphasis on bilingualism in The Mental Life of Cities, which signals a change in Tay’s previous writing style. The shift in language to Chinese characters has the effect of becoming an echo, reflecting both the inherently Chinese nature of the city and embedding the poet’s own subconscious in the narrative. The line that reads “我走過, 我走過, 你忘了, 我走過。”(I was here, I was here, you forgot, I was here) also hints at the alternative voices that can be evinced by a change of register; perhaps Hong Kong itself speaks to us through this medium. But as Tay well knows, “Cantonese is cunning, is cunning.” Cupping an ear out to the city, this is what he hears:
There are runaway hexameters
coursing through veins of street protesters,
rainwater rhymes from shopkeepers
and sharp syllables from sweaty bankers.
Though Tay conjures up different ways of mapping the mental life of Hong Kong, he is no sycophant of its myriad cultures. There are sly critiques of modernity and the dystopian projection of what the city stands for – “we have imagined ourselves: / we live like rats, our appetites bite and bite” – and he is troubled by the technological motorcade that entraps the city’s population in a perpetual traffic jam: “What is the car demanding from me / in the middle of the night?” There are also lines that suggest that our longing for our natural environs will ultimately be denied, telling us that “year after year / concrete refuses / to return to the soil.”
In setting out his stall with this collection, Tay has stolen a march on his peers. His muse has taken in the particular eccentricities of city life and moulded them into lucid prose that neither exaggerates nor obfuscates the effect that urban life has on our own creativity. This is what other poets residing in the city should have been writing about all along.
Eddie Tay is a former alumnus of the School of English. He is an associate professor at the Department of English at the Chinese University of Hong Kong where he teaches courses on creative writing and poetry. He has two previous collections of poetry, Remnants and A Lover’s Soliloquy. His latest collection can be purchased here: http://www.paddyfield.com/mainstore2/details.php?prod=9789889956585