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Super Model Minority by Chris Tse

There are no winners when you play Cards Against Humanity with your mum.

In a single line that begins an anecdotal poem, about two thirds into the collection with the memory-making connection between families at its core, Chris Tse encapsulates much of what is to love about the new collection Super Model Minority. Acting as the finale in a semi-organised trilogy (the first two collections being How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes and He’s so MASC) Tse has, once again, presented a curated selection that is equal parts witty, observational, heart-breaking and confronting.

As a contemporary poet from New Zealand, there are few that can boast the level of success that Tse has - and rightly so. Tse works drama into his language constructions. His focus on explicitness in the presentation and the resonating diction choices are remarkable, and yet subtle in their poignancy.

I never assumed courage could be inherited, but sometimes I can’t bear to be in a room surrounded by people I know and love. And so is love - too bright to look in the eye, too bright to ignore

(‘Love theme for the end of the world’: Chris Tse)

Tse paints with a brush that is uniquely Kiwi Asian, championing the LGBTQI+ community, and built on the challenging of stereotypes in so many disciplines, including the medium of poetry itself. In addition, his strength also comes from the wide-ranging encouragement of New Zealand poetry through his many channels for publication (including editorial oversight of The Friday Poem on The Spinoff). As a writer he has a freshness and a vibrancy that is uninhibited and courageous, speaking directly to the reader and yet also providing that observational social commentary that acts as a kind of marker in time of our society.

The collection is loosely divided into three sections: Super Model Minority; Vexillology; and Poetry to make boys cry. From the first section, Tse talks with immense intensity about the often ruthless world of his experiences:

I have reduced myself to playing the part of empty orchestra too many times to know what sort of reception I’ll receive. I brace myself for hard hands on my slack body while the crowd films every grope on their phones. But this time I tip my head back and release the most primal sound I can summon, a reach so pained it can be underwood by all creatures: a confession with no sigh of relief, a demand for consequences.

(‘Karaoke for the end of the world’ Chris Tse)

Such is the veracity of the imagery and the language that one cannot help but be moved by the deep set courage demanded of Tse as he responds to these sequences. The almost audacious construction of ‘tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’ confronts the reader and knocks them around a bit with its position. Inspired (no doubt) by Macbeth’s infamous speech following the death of his wife, and the closing in of the world around him - both literally and figuratively - Tse responds with his own take on life:

These days you hear every single flag raised over the divided city / tides in the wind / everything else ripped apart by sunlight…

(‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’ Chris Tse)

Of the three, it is the Vexillology (the study of flags) that really stands out. The exploration of the rainbow flag, symbolic of the LGBTQI+ community and the exploration of modern sexuality in its many forms and facets. A song of sorts, exploring the colours of the rainbow as individualised expressions, orange being ‘healing; visions of possibilities; and turquoise being ‘Art & Magic’. The strength within these pages comes from the ability to vocalise these concepts with such tightly composed explorations and creative insight.

We learn to inhibit the end, which is nothing but a prolonged process hijacking our senses like the hesitating drag of rusty saw teeth across the frame that holds up the sky.

(‘Yellow - Sunlight’ Chris Tse)

Finally, the concluding section Poetry to make boys cry succeeds in its intent. The emotional connection to these poems is palpable. Such constructs of heart-wrenching humanity mixed with Tse’s classic mix of humility, witticism, cutting commentary and cynicism.

And yet, with the end of the world colouring the overarching narrative of the collection, there is a hopefulness that exudes from the pages. There is a tomorrow, and a tomorrow after that. Tse is somehow able to run this dual narrative where he laments the ‘now’, while still celebrating the ‘next’.

Reviewer: Chris Reed

Auckland University Press