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  • Writer's pictureNZ Booklovers

he's so MASC by Chris Tse

Chris Tse’s new collection of 43 pieces is a real jewel box of sparkling verse. Called he’s so MASC, I was struck by the variety and interplay of amusing observations and sometimes sad laments. The everyday and the ordinary alongside the extraordinary and the beautifully phrased.

If you flick quickly through the book, the eye is caught by the variety of white space on the pages. There is no standard size or verse shape, lines are both wide and narrow, alternating between left and right-hand margins, gaps appear mid line. Two pieces appear more like paragraphs of prose than actual verse.

There are some beautiful lyrics about emotions between two people, there are hurtful ones too, but in Release I was moved at the song for a lover who has left the bed that morning, about clinging to a pillow on which their scent will linger, but knowing they are gone forever. Often poems of togetherness tell of brief, fleeting moments followed by mornings of regret. Some of the most poignant words came in Still – the boys:

“and the rest fall into beds with each other

without the right words to use the morning after

in rooms too small for silence.”

The line “rooms too small for silence”, perfectly captures that awkward time when no one knows what to say or how to act, whether to say to little or too much, and just how hurtful no words at all can be.

Chris Tse obviously has a great sense of humour and I particularly loved his poem called I was a self-loathing poet. He treats the confession of being a poet rather like you would if confessing to being gay, becoming involved with another poet who instructs him that he needs to tell his parents. In the closet world of poets his new friend “impressed me with gossip about acclaimed novelists who were secretly writing poems on the down-low”. His mother suspects, “She would ask me if I was reading any good novels and I would respond with something vague.”

There were so many wonderful allusions in these few short pages, that I found myself taking notes about the ideas and memories that were triggered in my own head. When talking about houses from our past, the phrase “growth spurts set in door jambs” had me remembering the way children’s lives are charted up the door frames. In Next year’s colours I was struck how true it is that we always return from holidays with more pictures that we will ever need, but if it is a place we have visited before, then it is like correcting the photos taken on previous visits. The habit tourists have of taking the same pictures, “public forgeries without a definitive original”. That strong recollection about your picture, “It meant something to me at the time.”

Part way through reading the collection, I decided to Google ‘MASC’ in case there was a nuance that I had missed. I assumed that it stood for masculine in a gay context, but I wondered if there was more. Once I got past the South Korean boy band (K-pop) of the same name, the Master of Applied Science and the Maryland Association of School Councils, I saw that there was MASC and FEM, but then encountered words like ‘homonormativity’ which were unexpected. The wolf was a theme that reoccurred several times, not just in Lupine and Boy meets wolf, perhaps an unsettling metaphor for the predatory side of gay encounters.

I like the humour reflected in some of the poems, such as ‘Punctum’, which pokes fun at many New Zealand Chinese stereotypes, and has a young woman “…bullied into saying ‘fried rice’” and considers whether the offspring of a Chinese marriage might result only in prodigy who ‘though pleasant looking enough’ will only fill in as background extras:

“But in all likelihood my children will have only

moderately humble acting careers playing

accountants, taxi drivers and restauranteurs

to supplement their primary incomes as

accountants, taxi drivers and restauranteurs.”

There were almost too many phrases that I liked in this collection, lines that resonated with meaning for me. I’ll leave you, if I may, with one that I loved:

“like placing my optimism

into the path of oncoming traffic.”

Reviewer: Marcus Hobson

Auckland University Press, RRP $29.99


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