Chris Tse’s How to Be Dead in a Year of Snakes — At times it feels like the intake of breath associated with the silence you grant the dead

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How to Be Dead in a Year of Snakes Chris Tse, Auckland University Press

Chris Tse is a writer, musician and actor whose poetry first appeared in AUP New Posts 4 (Auckland University Press, 2011). He resides in Wellington, his home town.

Chris’s debut collection, How to Be Dead in a Year of Snakes, responds to a moment in history not so much by narrating that history but by installing a chorus of voices. He takes an event from 1905 when Lionel Terry went hunting for a Chinaman in Haining Street, Wellington and ended up murdering Joe Kum Yung. Within the opening pages, the chilling event is situated in a wider context where laws proscribe the alienness that situates  Chinese as outsiders. This is what gets under your skin as you read.

The poems draw upon and draw in notions of distance, defeat, guilt and forgiveness. There are the unsettled imaginings of what it is to be home, to be at home and to be out of home to the extent that home becomes difficult and different. Mostly it is a matter of death (and casting back into life) whereby phantoms stalk and cry about what might have been and what is: ‘You spend your thoughts drowning in your family-/ missing from this vista- and contemplate a return with nothing to show/ for your absence.’

The collection harvests shifting forms, voices and tones that promote poetry as mood, state of mind, emotional residue. Yes, there is detailed evidence of history but this is not a realist account, a story told in such a way. Instead the poetic spareness, the drifting phantom voices give stronger presence to things that are much harder to put into words. How to be dead, for example. How to find the co-ordinates of estrangement, of that which is unbearably lost and is hard to tally (family, home, what matters in life). On page four you move from a matter-of-fact representation of the law to page five and the wife in Canton (‘you carry her bones in your body’). Two disparate but equally potent aches.

At times the poems are syncopated, with words stretched over little bridges of silence or white space. It adds an accumulating breathlessness. At times it feels like the intake of breath associated with the silence you grant the dead. When you stop and remember. Thus (as it appears in one poem), it also becomes static: ‘Listen: there’s a hunger in the air. It’s reciting prophecies./ It’s doubled up.’

Many lines sing out and stick as they haunt:

‘to kill a man is to marry a shadow’

‘We must divide the world around us into safety sets or else it splinters/ of its own accord into anarchy.’

‘The world is full of murder and words are usually the first to go’

‘Peace is a loose ideal for the abandoned/ left to sing their songs/ to themselves’

‘there will be voices to say your name/ to clear the way. The rest is up to you.’

There are many vessels of emptiness (the body, the head, the memory, the thing) and in a way each poem is a version of a vessel that becomes provisionally and movingly full. Just for a moment: ‘Now your onus is to surround/ yourself in objects    of your former permanence// a bone flute that stores folk songs and lullabies within,/ chopsticks that remember the taste of every meal.’

This collection shows so beautifully, so movingly, the power of poetry to give renewed presence to history; so that the silent bridges billow with a new awareness of how we get to this point.

Thanks to AUP I have a copy of the book for someone who likes or comments on this post.

Hear Chris read from the book

AUP author page

One thought on “Chris Tse’s How to Be Dead in a Year of Snakes — At times it feels like the intake of breath associated with the silence you grant the dead

  1. Pingback: The Ockham NZ Poetry short list- two reviews, an interview and a book in my bag | NZ Poetry Shelf

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