Week 5 Poem of the Week: ‘Away From Home’ by Bernice Chan

Our fifth Poet of the Week, Bernice, speaks about her experience of separation from her home and culture

Away From Home

I spill confusing coinage for an ounce of happiness.
Syrup-soaked Belgian waffles. Flour is bit into, bits of space shoving their way in.

Where is the wrapping up in sheets of heat? Where are the lotus flowers
Sunning their way, big, leisurely, unfurled in welcome where
Is the needling past crowds crunching
On a rice roll, pulled pork whiskering at lip-edges gone?

(At thirteen, I wide-eye saucered the vague river sleeping
Beneath the bridge. Convinced, I named it home while my punt
drove itself back. I forgot who steered.)

Rat-like hunger pangs, winter gnaws and burrows in your bones.
Uneasy, you inhale cold. You are illiterate, helplessly trying to unravel foreign stars.

Knees scraping down streets, I found gentleness in sardine-packed
Railway compartments, compact with crumpled uniforms.
I bundled up years of pressing noses to glass, devouring city lights washed
Over by fireworks and an overflow of excited Cantonese.

(Hotpot in December. Beef strands curl leisurely around chopstick ends.
Ma stuffs seconds in porcelain. Drenches it in tough love:
Sticky sweetness lapping through layers of warm meat.)

The waiting will pass, they soothe, with the ferocity of liars.
Suitcases stuffed. You choke down plane cancellations, seared with sickness.

I interlace migraines with coffee, wage a Petrarchan war against a language that
I can never own. I wake up to epitaphs, and drift off into fitful elegies
Breaking, tatters of torn parchment. Lines stabbed.
Always too much space, too little human.

(Hastily brewed valerian perching on its haunches, the curl and drift
Of sleep-smoke-mist. I see the dawn approaching and a sliver of
Interest blooms in me. The sun’s petals unfurl, delicate, trembling, thin.)
Morning tastes of city dissolving into my arms. Hesitant, the quiver of
A clock paring seconds, I learn the patterned birdsong drifting through my window.

Image credit: Keira Quirk

After reading her poem, I interviewed Bernice over Zoom to give her the chance to talk about its themes in more detail and to outline her writing process.

To start with, I asked Bernice to elaborate further on the sense of nostalgia that runs through her poem, and about how closely it resonated with her own experiences, being herself an international student.

“During the first few months it was kind of lonely, and I felt a bit homesick as well, so I started writing a bit of poetry about that. This poem specifically is about being away from home, being away from Hong Kong, and missing the sights and scenes of Hong Kong as well as my family back in Hong Kong.

“When I first came to Cambridge, I felt it was a bit hard to adjust to the environment because I wasn’t really sure which topics people were interested in, and so it took me a while to familiarise myself with others. I’m also studying English, which isn’t my first language, but I’m taking it as my first language, which also made me feel a bit out of my depth here: so I when was talking in that one stanza about a Petrarchan War against a language that I can’t own, I was referring to English in a sense. I guess there’s the euphoria of entering a new country and then trying to assimilate to the culture: that’s what I was trying to present in this poem.”

Image credit: Keira Quirk

To add to the sense of separation between cultures, Bernice tells me that she has weaved in references to food throughout the poem, a part of the culture of Hong Kong that she has missed since coming to Cambridge.

“[The reference to food] is definitely a cultural thing. It’s something really homely, the Cantonese food that I used to have in Hong Kong. For example, the pulled pork rice rolls, which you can grab off the street: sometimes I would eat them after school when I went home, so that’s a kind of nostalgic food for me. And hotpot too is something that we traditionally do, and I missed that here, because there aren’t many good hotpot places in Cambridge – so it was a bit of reminiscence.”

I was also keen to inquire as to whether “Away from Home” is representative of Bernice’s process of poetry-writing: that is, written to express some personal experience, feeling, or impression. She replies that poetry is indeed a “type of catharsis” for her, a way of gaining perspective on “something momentous in my life, or something that I really enjoy, or something I feel sad about.

“It’s a sort of emotional outlet as for me. And whenever I write my feelings down on the page, it just feels that I’m doing something concrete and making something out of my emotions which feels productive to me.”

She adds that the imagery of birds recurs throughout her poems due to their symbolism of “flight, freedom, or longing to leave”. Other favoured motifs include places, sceneries, and sometimes nature, along with plenty of “emotional metaphors”.

Image credit: Ruth Pavey

As for her experience as a poet, Bernice explains that she has been writing since the age of eleven, though this was “sporadic” and “limited more to short stories.

“I attended a poetry class when I was 15-ish, so that sparked my interest in poetry, and then I started reading a lot of poets, and then started developing my own style. So I’ve been writing from then until now.

“Writing is sort of a haven for me, it’s one of my favourite pastimes, and during the pandemic, whenever I felt something, I would just write it down, it would just be some diary entry or some poetry, or a short story, even.”

When asked about influences on her writing, Bernice specifies the Imagist Movement, a modernist movement which favoured precise imagery and clear, sharp language and is considered a reaction to the florid ornamentation of Romantic and Victorian poetry. In T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, for example, Bernice finds that the writing is “deep” and “flows naturally”, making him one of her favourite poets.

“He wrote a lot about time and how it’s in flux and defined by us: past, present and future are mapped out by humans. There’s not really a point to that; instead, he is saying that we should use time as a flowing river, in a sense, as something that can change and grow, and we should look upon the past and into the future. I find that very inspiring, and I try to emulate his style in my poetry.”

That’s a wrap for Week 5, but remember there is still some time left of term to submit your poems! Just drop an email the Poetry Editor ([email protected]) with your submission: we would love to hear from you!!

Feature image credits: Keira Quirk

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