Goldfish by Jennifer Wong

-Reviewed by Lucy Ayrton 


Do not talk to trees.

At night they dance in ballet shoes,
Tell secrets to one another,
Put on a ring, wisdom for every year.”


Goldfish by Jennifer Wong is a beautiful and perfectly sculpted collection of poems, drawing on the poet’s experiences in Hong Kong and England, and infused with fairytale and folklore. The poems are short, clean and deceptively simple at first, but there’s something very haunting about their sparseness. I found myself dog earing my copy, picking out favourites and going back to them again and again. This whole collection seems so careful – each poem lovingly crafted and presented to you like a gift.

When I was a kid I used to think
they were toy shops – all those
paper houses, paper dolls,
paper shirts and even mobile phones.
I didn’t know until the day I saw
Grandmother burned them after purchase.

I didn’t know what to do
with the packet I received:
a coin, a sweet, and tissue paper.
A riddle.
How strange it feels,
things we don’t talk about.

(‘Shanghai Street’) 

The themes of belonging and becoming are clear throughout, and this is a work of transition – from childhood to adulthood, and from one culture to another. It’s a show of Wong’s skill that, although her descriptions of childhood are rich with traditions that were very different to mine, such as the above description of buying paper offerings, the resonance of this brushing against the adult world, of challenging things taken for granted for the first time, could apply to any child in the world.

In the hutong an ancient
walks on, drinking douzi,
his granddaughter humming
a song by Adele.


Both cultures are presented with intimacy and a focus on the tiny details. Rather than gazing over the dreaming spires of Oxford, Wong shows us two students having a fag on the quad. There is no grandeur in the depiction of deprivation seen in the Guangzhou train station in ‘Spring Homecoming’ – instead we are shown men longing for “hot water/for the rationed instant noodles/or the week’s first bath.” This immediacy brings both cultures to life and together, highlighting the similarities and humanity of the minutiae of everyday life wherever it is lived.

My only reservation about this collection is the section where Wong translated other Chinese poets. While it was good that I got to read some poems that I otherwise wouldn’t have sought out, I felt that they suffered by comparison to Wong’s own poems. These pieces didn’t grab me in the same way the rest of the collection did.

Much as I love the spare little snapshot that characterize much of the book, my favourite of Wong’s poems are those that have a strong narrative drive, especially ‘Wish’ and ‘Out on the Quad’. These understated stories capture a sense of deep melancholy in short, everyday exchanges. In ‘Wish’ the gentle description of devotion – wallpapering the subject’s flat, picking fleas out of his dog, helping him pick out a ring – is heartbreaking. The understatement of sadness is used powerfully to create an astonishing emotional depth in such a small space.

She said I was ugly as hell.
When she wasn’t looking I went over
to our glass jar of beansprout shoots
grown for science class, found hers
and snapped its proud stem.

(‘Ten Dreams’)

This is a gorgeous collection, and (especially considering it is only Wong’s second) an incredible display of skill. Goldfish is packed with beauty, evocative imagery and not a spare word anywhere. A properly wonderful collection of poetry.

A pair of Canada geese
scissor across the pleasant water
as if nothing ever
ripples their minds.

(‘Regent’s Park’)