Poetry Shelf’s speaking room: Secondary school student Cadence Chung responds to NZQA with a poem

This poem is in response to NZQA using a poem by white supremacist and murderer Lionel Terry in a Level 2 History exam. Terry’s poem was part of a source which included testimonials from people who had received treatment at Seacliff asylum, which I feel disregarded his actions as ‘madness’, and extended sympathy to him. I also feel that the source didn’t properly contextualise Terry as a person, which downplayed the seriousness of his actions and views. Many other members of the Chinese New Zealander community also feel the same, and have lodged complaints against NZQA.

Shadows / shades

White: the colour of truth

the colour of enlightenment

the colour of the religion Lionel Terry

thought that he had found

in guns and Chows and murder.

The colour of purity

the colour of the purest skin

the colour of Terry’s hair

stripped bare with age

the colour of his chasteness

painted in portraits with white light

shining behind him, like a painting

of a god.

The truth: on September 24th, 1905

Lionel Terry shot Chinese man

Joe Kum Yung on Haining Street;

a cold, unremarkable Wellington night

(a Chinaman bleeding to death)

a man walking down the street

(a killer escaping his crime).

White, the colour of the starched

computer room, white screens

flickering with exam codes, white

clock on the ticking wall, time

sliding like a body to the ground.

White pages, neatly printed

with a poem by Lionel

Terry.

He pleads on the page

from Seacliff Asylum

for his case to be considered

that he is not insane

that murder is not always insanity.

The exam question asks me

for two different perspectives

on asylums.

I ask myself why I should have to

write about a murderer’s

perspective

a white supremacist’s

perspective

why I should have to slip myself

into such rotting, fetid

shoes.

All the exam says about him

is he was ‘known for his views on immigration

and racial segregation’.

Across the room, I catch eyes

with my friend

she gives me a loaded look

the whites of her eyes

wide

the edges of her white teeth

flickering on a grimace.

Red: thought to be the colour of blood

but that’s a little cliche

it’s more the colour of heat

the colour flickering behind

calculating eyes

searching for a Chinaman

the colour of fingers

closing in on a trigger

blood vessels beamed together.

Red, the colour of the pen

that grades work

the colour of a failed paper

the colour that means stop

or fail

or end.

The lucky colour in China

the colour of red envelopes

and paper lanterns

and prosperity and joy

and good things.

The colour of the borders

on the NZQA website

each letter rimmed in crimson.

I find the full poem online

the frothing frenzy of

Crowds of Russian Jews and Chows

that invade your peaceful land

and spread a few diseases of

an extra special brand.

I find it strange that this part

had been cropped out of the exam

and by strange, I mean

all too predictable

and by all too predictable

I mean so, so tiring.

Black: The colour of yesterday’s blood

the colour Joe Kum Yung

would have left on the streets

for lonely citizens to clean up

the colour of the ink on the page

the colour of a shadow: Terry’s

manifesto was called The Shadow

about the dark and lecherous men

with black hair and eyes

taking over the country

ruining it

burning it

shouldn’t be allowed in

(should be killed).

The colour of the scribble

my friend made under Terry’s poem

I HATE U in bold teenage chicken-scratch

the dark stains of the numbers

on the clock

ticking away

the bloated body of the fly

beating against the window.

My father’s hair is black

his eyes are black

mine are too

our mouths rounded in

the Kiwi accent

yet people still ask us

where we’re from.

He scrolls through Terry’s Wikipedia page

face screwed up

a contortion of black lines.

He was a real piece of shit,

this Lionel guy, he says. What were they

thinking, putting him in the exam?

His thick fingers pause on the photos

the charming headshot

or the one of him playing cricket

or the portrait where he’s bearded

and anointed, imposing

on my father’s eyes, and I think,

here’s another Chinese man

who has the taste of Lionel Terry

in his mouth

and here I am, another Chinese person

with my name now linked

to his.

Yellow, the yellow peril, yellow fever

yellow on the outside

white on the inside

yellow, the colour of piss

the smell of the streets

yellow, the supposed colour

of cowardice

the colour Joe Kum Yung

was killed for

the colour I am trying to bear

with pride.

The colour of the sun

shining when I left the exam room

the colour of something

on the horizon

the colour of the sunset

the promise of a new day’s kiss

a hope that something better

will come

from all of these shadows and shades

of bruises

Cadence Chung

Cadence Chung is a student at Wellington High School, who is tentatively trying to be a poet. She first started writing poetry during a particularly boring Maths lesson when she was nine. Outside of poetry, she enjoys singing, songwriting, reading old books, and perusing antique stores.

3 thoughts on “Poetry Shelf’s speaking room: Secondary school student Cadence Chung responds to NZQA with a poem

  1. reneeliang

    This is such a powerful poem. It is well crafted, with the structure building and augmenting within itself to that penultimate stanza which is devastating and emotive – I felt my stomach crunching as I read it (Cantonese people will tell you they feel everything in their gut). But most of all I love it as an elegant, perfect rebuttal to that clumsy piece by Terry which can barely be called writing let alone poetry. Saluting you Cadence.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

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