The title of Sam Cheuk’s second collection holds many possible outcomes to a historical event: the series of protests and direct actions taken by Hongkongers (mostly students) from June to November 2019 against the anti-extradition law—and more importantly about the end of the relative autonomy still granted by China to Hong Kong.
Cheuk writes postscripts, not postcards as a quick glance at the title might indicate. The poems are not quite letters, they are not self-sufficient. They work so well because they do not explain or describe the protests, the police repression, the political speeches, but rely on a general sense that the reader already knows enough. Many seem to continue letters not included, and have the easygoing tone of a writer who has already communicated the essential, although something remained that could not find its place in the narrative. If there were letters, they are missing, but the recipients are often mentioned: a lover, often; an ex-lover; an ex-student; several family members; those across a divide, on the other side of the line the law meant to draw; a priest, once; a police officer, once.
These poems are postscripts—they come after the actions of protesters, they are secondary to them, they carry experiences that are unessential to the political event, but nonetheless have value for the speaker and the receiver, for the writer and the reader, experiences that are intrinsic to how the movement is lived. We can guess that, usually, the speaker is not involved in the movement, is not a protestor—but at a close distance from the events. He is a spectator who experiences the protests as happening in his city, to people to whom he is close enough to touch, and as concerning him. All the while he also cannot help but turn away from them, since life and other desires do not cease:
And the position of the speaker, or the speaker himself, also changes. Different protesters seem to speak, displaying ordinary forms of courage and determination, full of fear and sadness, in between moments of action.
These postscripts address events as they take place, rendering embodied reactions and perceptions, interruptions in everyday life that seems unreal in comparison to the magnitude of what is about to end, the depth of the need for protest, the measured hope that the break may not come to pass. The strength of the Chinese state was well known by all protesters, even as they—and several of the poems—poke fun at them and point out their lack of control over the situation. And after the law passes, the book ends in silence. In spite of the hope that carried the movement, Cheuk writes,
Home eludes the speaker both through the difficulties of love and familial relationships, and because of a loss of the city of his childhood, the streets no longer being the same. Not because of the protests, quite the contrary: they are experienced as attempting to save that past by allowing a continuity with it, against the ongoing break with the life Hong Kong used to make possible.
The postscripts are also captions to an event, accompanying or accompanied by pictures which present traces of the protests, bricks and words left in public, the destruction that accompanies the graffiti “if we burn you burn with us.” Several of the poems act as snapshots, so that specific events are remembered so easily they are lost in the tumult of the wider political movement and its repression. Protestors who fell to their deaths—“who knows how this one fell,” Cheuk writes, and soon continues in a counterpoint to these falls:
Above all, these poems feel like postscripts because they presuppose and show that everything is not yet written. And Cheuk gives us that feeling whole, along with all the emotions that accompany it.
Postscript: I read this collection during the occupation of Ottawa and various proto-fascist demonstrations around the country, and wrote this review during the first three days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It reminded me that there are always other forces to refuse and resist the urge of others to dominate. It reminds me of the importance of witnesssing this resistance, this defense of the only freedom worthy of the name, that which is born in togetherness and solidarity.
Jérôme Melançon writes, teaches, and lives in oskana kâ-asastêki / Regina, SK. His most recent poetry collection is En d’sous d’la langue (Prise de parole, 2021). He is also the author of a bilingual chapbook with above/ground press, Coup (2020), and of two books of poetry with Éditions des Plaines, one book of political philosophy, La politique dans l’adversité (Metispresses, 2018), as well as articles on political movements and dissent. He’s on Twitter and Instagram at @lethejerome and sometimes there’s poetry happening on the latter.