A response poem based on Phoebe Wang’s Admission Requirements

Admission Requirements by Phoebe Wang - Reviewed by Klara du Plessis

McClelland & Stewart 2017, $19.95


(Intended as a review, this response is conceived as a poem in dialogue with Phoebe Wang’s writing. All italicized lines are quotations from her debut Admission Requirements.)

It’s one of the small poems, hemmed
in between the more robust ones,
the poems with more important titles. Blue Irises.
I have always loved irises,
perhaps it is because even the word represents
on paper the softly flopping folds of the flowers
in gardens—they droop like fatigued lovers.
The sanitized store-bought irises are tight
and infolded, rigid spinal candlesticks.
No one lit them, yet they’re burning,
dangerous as gas flames.
Straight lines
demarcate this book. Flowers keep blooming,
the insinuation of growth, but edged in—
the interior space of marginalization is an enclosure.
Titles: Tea Garden. The Chinese Garden
(Montreal Botanical Garden).
The Japanese Garden (Nitobe Memorial Garden).
The Quarry Garden. The Stone Garden.

Yards and courtyards, gated gardens flourish.
Gardens with admission requirements, tourist traps,
old boys’ clubs, gardens that are museums.
Every leaf labeled. This cartography of plants.
The lush quality of greens and colours, pre-articulated,
thought out and designed to convey
the image of freedom through growth. Even the moss
can be a fist.

Montreal Botanical Garden

Montreal Botanical Garden

Formalist gardens
make their way into the shapes of poems,
a topiary of words, clipping shrubs into couplets,
or lines of threes, patterns of lines.
The recurring shapes of poems surrounded by pages.
Around their shapes are shapes of other things I can’t solve.
A shape might contain the assumption
of definition—a triangle has three lines, a garden
surrounded by hedges becomes a yard,
it adopts a form. Formal.
A diabolic form is the Application Form.
It contains shapes, forms and voids,
intended for this express purpose…details
that will identify you.
But for all the longing
to make sense, to identify, to define, to shape,
there are always the negative spaces, the forces
that warp and dissolve outlines.
It was part of our early training,
to look at the shape of things, though nothing
ever keeps its shape.
Loss of shape
is a prerequisite of growth, of being, it is impossible
to be and be static.
Therefore the paradox of the still life. 

Naturally a still life is a genre of art. An arrangement
of objects and flowers to gaze upon,
then reproduce on canvas or paper with paints or pastels.
To type a still life is to infuse narrative with immobility,
gazing upon your life, then assembling it.
                                                                  What if
                                                 you never rose
                                       the broad strokes framing your life?

Memory, not with the faint edges
of reminiscence, but with the impressionability
of ink into story. When we tell and retell,
narratives elongate, take on shapes that dictate details—
is this what we remember or what we were told that we remember?
Family histories, voyages, reimagining of lives,
new continents, new beginnings, new shapes.
Instances of childhood, parents, siblings, spaces.
These are vivid flashes of back-story, crystallized
into poems. Static vitality.

Nitobe Memorial Garden

Nitobe Memorial Garden

Still Life with Sea Water, a Lake, a Frozen River, Bathwater, and a Fountain.
This is my favourite still life for its insistence on movement,
the frothing sea water, waves lunging and recoiling,
the blinding glisten of a lake, the undercurrent
of a frozen body of water to skate away on, bathwater
for the hyperactivity of introspection, and a fountain for luxury.
And yet, permission fetters mobility.
(The father’s fury courses, a tempestuous vector,
it glides beneath the current, then roars,
its presence is felt even when not spelled out,
temper festered, for it punctuates the book’s
progression of poems. And it is frightening
not knowing which instant of poetry
will include anger. Anger has agency,
but it imposes passivity onto its surroundings.)
Because you want to keep your daughters
from drowning, you present them with opportunities…You let them…
Let them…
Allowing is shorthand for a return to still life.
Water becomes the content of the vase in the still life,
closed off, unseen. Water becomes the substance
which lets domesticated gardens grow. The border
between self-sovereignty and still life blurs to a shape—
how much to pay, the admission required
to enter into a life.