“flinch and air” Laura Jane Lee (OutSpoken Press) – book review

laura jane lee flinch & air book cover

“flinch & air” puts women’s stories front and centre. Laura Jane Lee draws inspiration from her family stories in the opening sections. The sequence “Tang Chu Ching” follows a girl born into a family of farmers, the only daughter. She left their village aged around 20 and travelled to Hong Kong to marry a sailor. In “deh”, she addresses her father,

“you had lost the wager,
at the gambling house
that yellow morning,
not a penny left –
so rocking me in my cloth swaddle
you gave me my name:
………….chu ching,
………….clear pearl
which in your heavy farmer’s accent
sounded like
………….suu ching
………….lost-it-all

The father is teased and pitied for having a daughter rather than another son. A daughter being thought to fragile and merely a mouth to feed. There is no comment on the men’s gambling. It seems to be part of the landscape: money moves from loser to winner who gambles again, a shifting pool with the occasional wave of victory, but no one gets rich. In part iii, she continues,

“i pitied all the daughterless men.

paupers, they too had
mouths to feed,
crying, sucking,
screeching mouths;
and two sons later i can tell you that
daughters are not a
waste of good rice and
no,
I could not bear to have you,
frail as a rice stalk,
work a day in the field.”

The speaker reminds the father that daughters are needed if there is to be a next generation, that physical strength and ability to work are not the only measures of worth. She too gambled, risking leaving the stability of a family home for a foreign country and, despite many suitors, settling on a sailor. Perhaps she valued the independence offered when her husband was at sea. The poem repeats the motifs of the ambiguity of her name and the images of the rice stalk to give the narrative a framework.

“noah’s wife” is inspired by the story of Yang Chang Man who was appointed curator at the Department of Zoology in Singapore and earnt the nickname wife of Noah or mother of the animals,

“a tireless wench adrift
with the fishes in
her own sea of
formalin
whilst the men
were off doing things
of UTMOST IMPORTANCE –
running the ark, keeping them
afloat, the animals forgotten all
one hundred and thirty thousand of them
tacked up squalid, spooled in red tape”

The poem ends with the line “it will be years before we learn her name”. “Wench” sounds a false note: it’s archaic and doesn’t imply a woman without the company of men which is what the poem is striving for. Otherwise the poem does capture the sense of both the woman and collection being overlooked, left without resources and underappreciated. No surprise she’s only known by a nickname as she caretakes an important collection while the men who have under resourced and left her to it are off doing other unnamed things that are not significant enough to be recorded and remembered.

The poems shift from history to contemporary times. The title poem has the daze of waking up,

“woke up wanting to kiss you/ in
teeth-brushing and fingernail/ in batwing
and sleep/ under wanting to drink you/
beneath flinch and air/ between
hypnotism and spake/ i am/ between
language and i am/ amphibious/ within”

The uncertainty of being in the state between sleeping and waking shifts into uncertainty about the relationship with you. The speaker vacillates between desire to be with ‘you’ and questioning her motives, perhaps overthinking.

“muscovado (nov 12, 2019; cuhk)” looks at The Chinese University in Hong Kong, where student protestors clashed with police, who made several arrests. Tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets were used. Over a hundred protestors were injured and diversionary conflicts were initiated to encourage the police to leave the campus.

“how do you not understand, even now,
that no one
at all likes building barricades?

imagine the fear of a tomorrow so terrible
that eggs shell themselves for oblation on
highwalls.

yesterday i was thinking of how
despite all their professorship,
they could not stop
all the young limbs being shot blue
from now i will see many up close
tend likewise to bloodied grapes but none
with such saccharine colour.”

The students want a better tomorrow and the university staff are failing to negotiate a truce with police carrying out orders to clamp down on the protests. The rights and wrongs are not discussed, the focus is on questioning how these young adults are prepared to take extreme measures to divert a future.

“flinch & air” is a contemporary look at legacy, both the legacy of heritage and history – the stories a granddaughter writes about – and future legacies – what will the granddaughter’s children learn, what tomorrows will have to be faced? The poems explore actions of courage, curation, resilience and strength, centring the actions of woman and stories that are likely to be left out of history books.

“flinch & air” is available from Outspoken Press.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

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