Photos courtesy of Lyz Soto
Review of bodies of water (2014) by Sterling Higa and Metamorphosis by Jocelyn Ng (2014)
Even though I have lived in Hawaiʻi for nearly five years, I am still learning the deep tradition and contemporary breadth of the various poetry movements here. One of the most vibrant sections of the scene is youth spoken word, nurtured by two interrelated organizations, Youth Speaks Hawaiʻi and Pacific Tongues. Many of the poets who have come through spoken word are also extending their poetic talents into written texts. Two chapbooks were self-published in 2014 by spoken word poets: bodies of water, by Sterling Higa, and Metamorphosis, by Jocelyn Ng. While I have had the pleasure of witnessing these poets perform on several occasions, this was my first encounter with their written work.
bodies of water consists of 18 poems (27 total pages) written in a consistent narrative voice and rhythmic free verse forms. As the title suggests, the collection explores how bodies move—specifically through urban, natural, institutional, personal, and interpersonal spaces. The poem, “To be refilled by the ocean,” describes how the poet approaches these spaces:
present and surrender yourself at shore accept that return is not guaranteed relish the danger of current dive in without stretching swim until you cannot touch bottom dip your head beneath surface (6)
The imperative to surrender, accept, relish, and dive into the tides, currents, ebbs, and flows of experience captures the passion that infuses bodies of water. While the poet may be reminding himself to live in this way, the effect is that the reader is also encouraged to live with such youthful passion. On the other hand, other poems counter this energy with a desire for stillness, reflection, and remembrance. For example, “lantern” highlights a Memorial Day ceremony during which thousands of people gather on the south shore of Oʻahu and release floating lanterns into the water to honor the dead. The poet describes attending the event as a child, hoping that someday, “someone might remember and carry [his] light to sea” (8). Years later, the poet returns to the ceremony, but this time he is surrounded by tourists: “I shove my way to the water’s edge and I want them all to leave / I want to be alone with the boats and the sand and the sea” (9). This wish to be alone speaks not only to the poet’s desire for quiet reflection, but it also foregrounds how tourism and urbanization have negatively changed Hawaiʻi, crowding out local spaces and practices. Other poems take this concern further by showing how development has displaced spaces of contemplation and environmental diversity, creating widespread homelessness. Throughout, Higa’s poems act as both critique of uncontrolled tourism and urbanism and elegy for what is devalued and lost. Another major current of this collection moves through interpersonal space. bodies of water contains sincere poems about first kisses, longing, and relationships. “Ships in port (what we were made for)” is exemplary:
a ship in port is safe but that is not what ships are built for our bodies were fashioned for more than fingers can speak my tongue, an articulate impulse your tongue, driving mine to aphasia my hands, a calloused friction for hips your hair, splayed to be collected my bicep, a casualty of teeth your nails, chiseling cuneiform on my back the backs of our hands, for pressing into bed my mind, charting a course for our bodies fulfilling the purpose these vessels were built for (22)
This piece surprises with its figurative language and its weaving of the corporeal and the abstract. The rhythm of the syntax and the indentations embodies the rhythm of bodies in motion, transformed by their course and purpose. The intimate tone of many of the poems creates an intimate space away from the tourists on the beach and the rising skyscrapers of Honolulu into the arms of lovers and friends. bodies of water concludes with “Broken Glass,” a poetic meditation on how we deal with difficult and traumatic experiences. The primary motif of the poem comes from the poet’s study of Buddhism: “desire and attachment both / lead to suffering / Nothing is permanent / The glass is already broken” (25). The poet chronicles several traumatic moments which are very different in scale: the near-drowning of his uncle and the destruction of the World Trade Center. While it is important to fully experience the pain of these moments, the poet highlights how it is also important to learn how to let go. After this realization, the poet is able to transform his perspective:
Now I hear symphony in the shattering of glass I dance when the music plays I am not sad when the music stops…
Throughout bodies of water, Higa comes of age in a changing Hawaiʻi, experiencing love and joy, loss and heartbreak. All things change, relationships end, buildings rise and fall, people come and go. Higa learns to listen to the shattering, to hear the music of experience, to dance in the moment, and to let go when all things inevitably end. This way of being in the world, of being a body in movement, of being made of water, provides the poetic currents of this work. As Higa notes, it is through poetry that he can truly value the beauty of our complicated world.
Metamorphosis, by Jocelyn Ng, consists of fifteen poems and prose works, as well as a poetic foreword (28 total pages). Ng explores the theme of transformation and personal growth, focusing on what she learns about herself, others, and the world when she moved from Hawaiʻi to San Francisco for college. Profoundly, Ng addresses these transformations through the complexities of race, gender, class, and sexuality. The theme of change is embodied in the formal transformations as well: throughout, Ng presents a range of serial poems, free verse, and prose; left-justified, right-justified, and centered poems; and a flarf poem, collaborative poem, tumbler post, google translation, haiku, and tanka. The diversity of poetic forms makes for a a dynamic reading experience.
Like bodies of water, Metamorphosis is an emotionally brave work. Ng willingly “leave[s] the pretty at the door” in order to face the brokenness, fragmentation, messiness, imperfections, and flaws that often accompany life’s passages. Indeed, one of the opening poems, “I Dare You To Move,” confronts different kinds of breakage:
Since graduating high school 5 of my classmates have passed away 6 months ago my grandmother removed both of her breasts after a scare with cancer This past year, the roof of an auditorium collapsed one hour before myself and 300 people enter to watch a poetry slam…(14)
The poet responds to the nearness and unpredictability of death by vowing to live passionately, challenging the reader to do the same. Ng writes: “I dare you to run through the city / paint it in sweat and glory…I dare you to be what the dawn aspires to be” (15). Further in the poem, we are dared (or inspired) to dive into the ocean, kiss the person you have a crush on, skydive, fall in love, forgive others, forgive ourselves, buy a plane ticket to the unknown, and dream fiercely.
The spirited energy of “I Dare You to Move,” infuses the entire chapbook, and is ignited in “Who Wears the Strap,” an exemplary poem that explores the theme of queer identity. The poem begins with a series of questions that, we assume, the poet might have been asked before:
“Which one of you is the butch and which one’s the femme?” “Do you scissor or do you wear the strap?” “Are you a top or a bottom?” “Who wears the pants in the relationship?” “Who’s the man and who’s the woman?” (17)
Subsequent stanzas subvert these problematic questions to reveal the poet’s thoughts about the complex and beautiful realities of queerness. In turns, Ng is humorous, sarcastic, profound, and memorable. While the whole poem is worth quoting, I will just point to the very end, which captures all those registers at once:
so when I tell you that I am a woman and so is she it is because we choose to be because what goes on in the king sized bed made for queens is none of your business But if you really want to know who wears the pants in this relationship? neither of us do. But the strap on is adjustable (19)
This poem skillfully questions many assumptions about sexuality, and offers a honest, open, and intimate conversation about queerness. The lyric voice of the poet comes through strong and clear, forcing the reader to listen, respect, and adjust our perception.
After discussing the issue of queer identity, Ng tackles another deep theme: race. The poem,“Fern Gully,” specifically discusses racialized (and problematic) representations in Hollywood films. The poem begins by critiquing movies in which a white person saves indigenous and minority peoples, such as Fern Gully, The Last Rainforest, Pocahontes, Dances with Wolves, Avatar, The Last Samurai, Dangerous Minds, Freedom Writers, and The Blindside. Cleverly, the poem imagines how a woman of color might “re-write the script” to assert that “we never needed a savior.” However, Ng goes further than defying dominant white narratives and rejecting their ideology; she also offers a new, more appropriate narrative for cross-cultural solidarity and alliances:
This is how it’s supposed to be It’s being quiet and listening it’s asking before you assume It’s educating yourself It’s using your privilege to educate the privileged it’s caring before you call yourself an ally (24)
I appreciate how Ng is not afraid to address difficult topics that have social, political, and cultural relevance. She indeed has a unique and progressive perspective that I think many people can learn from. It is refreshing to witness a young poet tackling big issues with the same passion that she attends to personal poems.
Overall, Metamorphosis is an important contribution to Pacific poetry and poetics, offering a fresh, energetic, and thoughtful voice. I look forward to more work from Jocelyn Ng, as she continues to experiment with form and unfold the depths of her voice. Perhaps she describes her potential most poignantly when she writers: “This stage of my life is transformation. I’ve composed this in the middle of my own metamorphosis. I am writing hieroglyphics on the inside of my chrysalis.”
Both bodies of water and Metamorphosis showcase the talented poetry scene here in Hawaiʻi. I admire the dedication of Higa and Ng to the spoken and written word, as well as their courage to share their poetic reflections on intimate and political topics. As a middle-aged, mid-career poet myself, I am inspired by these poets energies, passions, and DIY-spirit.
Note: If you would like to learn more about these poets and to hear them perform some of their poetry, you should check out their websites: http://www.jocelynngpoetry.com/about/ and