REVIEW: FOREIGN SKIN | BY KATE ROGERS

Aeolus House | 84 pages | $20.00 | Purchase online
Review by John Oughton

This is Kate Rogers’ third book, preceded by City of Stairs and Painting the Borrowed House. In this collection, her double(d) identity as a Canadian teaching at a community college in Hong Kong informs the writing.  In a hectic, entrepreneurial metropolis  — a “high wire act. / In four inch heels” — she questions how one can be of two cultures, and possibly of neither. A familiar stranger, local exotic; simultaneously a flaneuse and a spectacle.

In the poem “Tripping in TST” she describes falling on a people mover: “I was gaping too — in this new element –/ not knowing if I’d ever breathe again.” Many of the poems navigate a moment of suspension like this, although perhaps less painful ones. They show her love for the culture and landscape of Hong Kong, framed by her self-portrait as an outsider.  Sometimes the persona can relax, and just be there: “I shed my foreign skin.” She memorably imagines this cross-cultural double consciousness as a war of food in “At the Daipaidong” —  “Noodles bite me back/ with garlic and chili,/ singe my palate” and then “At night I dream of pinching shut/ the gaping mouths of perogies”.

The evolving double nature of Hong Kong itself also fuels the poetry in Foreign Skin. Under the British, Hong Kong became a free-wheeling capital of business development, shopping and food, drawing many tourists. But the Chinese government is ambivalent about Hong Kong’s tendencies for freedom of expression and individual choice: “Who cares for the police officer/ who runs screaming into the crowd/ because of what he was asked to do…”

Rogers’ poems are generally tightly written and economical.  One of the qualities that make them shine is her ability to convey a mix of emotions, a kind of affective stew:

Rage sits by pool too long,
staring at the sky
until she is nearly blind.

Her skin is so red
when you put gel on her back
she shouts,
Don’t touch me!
Rage will want a hug later.

— from “Portrait of Rage”

This gift is particularly evident in the touching Ah Ku poems, the book’s final section.  These are tender, wistful evocations of the lives of Chinese and Japanese concubines from a century ago, of young women who still have romantic dreams of their own, but have been sold or abandoned by their families, and must live somehow: “Enough to eat will do / a bowl of rice and I will/let you slide your hand up my skirt…” Delicate as a sepia photo, this series shows the poet’s compassion and ability to imagine lives beyond her own.

The poems are carefully constructed and punctuated series of phrases and clauses, often reading as a grammatical whole.  This may be a side effect of teaching English — something I’ve experienced in my own verse when I taught writing courses more often — but it would be interesting to see what might come of these poems relaxing out of not only the foreign skin, but also the prose skin from time to time. In poetry, form should be the servant of feeling.  If one feels displaced, experiencing chaotic impressions, syntax and imagery have the power to do the same and strengthen the effect.

I do recommend this collection, both for the quality of writing and for its unique perspective on a vibrant city struggling with an authoritarian regime that loves its profits, but hates its citizens’ desire for independence and self-determination.