(Editor’s note: this is a special edition of Why I Wrote This Book featuring Kate Rogers. TMR is publishing it in its entirety.)
A series of losses and discoveries led me to write my new poetry collection, The Meaning of Leaving. One catalyst was the death of an abusive ex-partner during the pandemic. Another catalyst was arriving at a fresh understanding of how the dysfunctional nature of my family had impacted me and influenced my choices. Living in a culture different from my own, witnessing intense political dissent in another country, returning to Canada and witnessing my own society in crisis were among the reasons for writing my collection. Experiencing violence firsthand and observing its impact on others compelled me to write the poems in The Meaning of Leaving.
During the first six years of my two decades teaching abroad, I met and married a man who was manipulative and abusive. I was blind to how he kept me psychologically off balance. Like many abusive men, he used gaslighting to undermine my confidence and sense of self. He was hyper-critical and needy at the same time. The physical abuse ramped up when I was struggling to get pregnant. Only after I left him and went into counselling in Hong Kong did I recognize the psychological patterns between us as the same patterns I had grown up with.
One major reason I wrote The Meaning of Leaving was to chronicle my journey of leaving my abusive ex-husband. During the pandemic intimate partner violence surged across Canada. In many cases, women in such relationships found it even harder to leave abusive partners. Anxiety about COVID and financial limits played a big part. Currently, one in four Canadian women has been physically abused by an intimate partner. I hope my poems about living through, leaving and transcending domestic violence will help other women who are experiencing abuse feel less alone.
One tactic abusive partners use to maintain control is to isolate the partner they are abusing from friends and family. Isolation means she has no external validation for her feelings and doubts the reality of her suffering. I hope reading my poetry collection, reading this essay, or hearing an interview with me helps a woman in an abusive relationship who needs to feel she is not alone. I hope she will be empowered by that recognition and ultimately, leave her abusive partner. My poems about intimate partner abuse in The Meaning of Leaving assume that the personal is universal.
Many of the poems in The Meaning of Leaving are set in China and specifically, Hong Kong. During my two decades teaching in China I fell deeply in love with Hong Kong. It was a bridge between the East and West. Its colonial history was familiar and unsettling—like that of my native Canada—for how it trampled over the rights of the indigenous people. I was very fortunate to live in Hong Kong during the heady years after the Handover from British colonial rule to China. Hong Kong was a borrowed place, on lease from China. Yet during the first 15 years or so after the 1997 Handover, there was tremendous optimism that the full democracy which Britain had failed to grant Hong Kongers before handing it back would finally come to pass. Those years were exciting. Hong Kong Literature was gaining international recognition. Hong Kong was becoming autonomous. That is until Hong Kong’s growing independence led Beijing to crack down on freedoms—of the press and of assembly.
A newspaper editor was stabbed to silence him. At the behest of Beijing, the Hong Kong government tried to bring in a pro-China school curriculum that ignored major events in China’s history like the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square. Highly organized pro-democracy protests started in 2014. Some of my students took part. Occupy Central shut down Hong Kong’s business district for 79 days and paralyzed much of the city. Publishers who released books critical of China’s leadership were kidnapped by Beijing in 2015. There were more protests in Hong Kong.
I was inspired by the courage of protest organizers and protesters fighting for their freedoms. By 2019 I was taking part in many protest marches myself. But my poems about the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests were inspired by my students who took part. It was very difficult to watch violent clashes with police and know more and more young Hong Kongers were being imprisoned and beaten by authorities. Many remain in prison without trial even now.
Art helps victims of different kinds of violence validate their reality. When I lived in Hong Kong I was part of a poetry collective called Poetry OutLoud. Until 2019 when I left, Poetry OutLoud gave voices to many young poets who were active in the pro-democracy movement. Six months before I left Hong Kong I was interviewed by the Globe & Mail about the role poetry can play in protest. As a teacher of literature and creative writing at City University, Hong Kong, I was asked to stop teaching political poetry in 2018. The article refers to other educators who felt silenced and at risk of arrest for supporting their students who were involved in the pro-democracy movement. There are half a dozen Hong Kong-based poems in The Meaning of Leaving. One is the title poem for my collection, a glosa, which riffs on the poem Requiem by dissident Chinese poet Bei Dao.
Another theme in my book is the meaning of home. Living abroad meant I came to see another country as home. At times, while I was adapting to another culture, I felt displaced. That is one reason I am sensitive to the state of homelessness. But more importantly, I have felt afraid of becoming homeless—as a woman leaving an abusive partner who controlled our finances. After leaving Taiwan I had to take my ex-husband to court in Hong Kong to get a small financial settlement. During that time I slept on a friend’s couch until I could afford to rent a flat.
When I encounter unhoused people now I often think that could be me if I’d had different opportunities, including access to education. My poem “The Nose-ring Girl” shares a moment when I encountered a young woman outside Tim Horton’s who reminded me of myself as a young teenager. I could have gone the direction she did and ended up living on the street if I had fallen into addiction.
A few months before The Meaning of Leaving was published I co-wrote a chapbook entitled “Homeless City” with a friend. We were moved to write poetry about our encounters with unhoused people because we wanted people to see them, not just turn away. The lack of compassion in Canadian society disturbs me. This is not the country I left to teach in Asia more than 20 years ago. I hope more people who engage with poetry will also feel moved to notice those in our society who are vulnerable: women in abusive relationships and unhoused people struggling with addiction and mental health. I also hope that people do not turn away from the story of Hong Kong because there are now new conflicts in the world. The loss of freedom in Hong Kong is a warning that dictatorship can overwhelm democracy anywhere in the world.
Three poems from The Meaning of Leaving
in the orbit of my right eye.
We were in a jeep
on a mountain road.
Mist gauzed the trails.
Later, I tripped
over a tree root,
yelped. No pheasants
bustled past for him to note
in his fucking Twitcher’s book.
After dark the bruise spread.
I stood before the bathroom mirror—
For one week
I left the lights off.
He entered, I left.
I wandered the trails above our house
to let evening spread
its violet afghan over me.
Would strangers think
My eye faded yellow.
I walked the gravel verge to the market.
A woman holding a star fruit
her cheek black and blue
would not meet my eye.
In Taichung, Taiwan where we lived
earthquake-emptied houses hung
on the edge of the gorge.
At every intersection
of the mountain roads
offerings of snow pears, incense
for the earth god.
My suitcase in the hall,
taxi pulling up, Derrick
came in from work.
His fist a shadow puppet
on the wall. A meteor
flaming out as I walked
through the door.
The Meaning of Leaving
“The wave of that year
flooded the sands on the mirror
to be lost is a kind of leaving
and the meaning of leaving
the instant when all languages
are like shadows cast from the west.”
The wave of that year
hurled me back to the country of my birth.
I swim the old lake, back-crawl into chop,
suddenly swamped by a memory
of buoyancy in the South China Sea.
Cheung Sha beach sticks to my skin, salty ear.
Along the shores of Algonquin’s lakes
Inukshuit[i] sculptures—settler stacked.
Motor boat oil slicks the water,
flooded the sands on the mirror.
To be lost is a kind of leaving,
an echoing departure, train
smoking in the rock-blasted
tunnel. Hong Kong mountain
cliffs. Skirting the edges,
scattering rubble. Believing
in my right to walk there,
not looking where it fell.
Tripping, always clumsy, on the stones
and the meaning of leaving.
The instant when all languages
opened their mouths in my class,
I glimpsed the heart of Hong Kong.
I hold the door open for students
in dreams, even today.
Bound by bandages,
they climb a precipice.
Falling is safer than waiting.
Their lithe silhouettes
are like shadows cast from the west.
The Nose-Ring Girl
In front of Tim Hortons
most days with her supermarket
shopping cart. Two pyrite rings
in each nostril.
She stretches out her skinny hand,
palm cupped, for coins.
Her sleeve rides up, a bracelet of scars
binding her wrist.
I buy her a bran muffin
which she drops at my feet,
shouting, “They use lard!”
That is our second meeting.
The cardboard cup of squash soup
from my mitten yesterday
like vomit on the sidewalk.
It will seem strange to her
when I try again tomorrow.
Ask her name, as I must.
How much of her rage
can my pockets hold
after I empty them of coins?
I watch as she uncrumples foil
from a takeaway meal,
folds it into a flat silver cone,
pinches triangles from the edge,
spreads open a shining snowflake,
tucks the corners
into the steel bars of her cart.
Was she evicted by her landlord
for non-payment of rent?
I picture her sweaters crocheted with holes,
jeans torn at the knees,
falling from green garbage bags
as she dragged them into the savage cold.
At nineteen I had an attic room
in an old row house,
no insulation: Major Street, Toronto.
I was thin—layered sweaters, tights
under trousers in winter,
making my rent by lifting spines
from fillets of salmon
and sole in Kensington Market.
Party, common room, Rochdale College!
A high-school guy held out
a silver foil boat
with a long line of coke.
Like icing sugar!
I dipped my index finger,
rubbed some on my gums.
My heart leapt me over
couples entwined among
boots in the hall. I forgot my coat,
sprinted down Yonge
to the ferry docks.
Watched the sun
fry its yolk
on the dark grill of the lake.
[i] “Inuksuit” (plural of Inuksuk). Inuksuit are stacks of stones or boulders originally created by the Inuit people of the arctic. The stone figures were built by the Inuit “to act in the capacity of being human,” or function as navigational aids for hunters. Some settlers to Canada now also build Inuksuit as a gesture of friendship, or to say they have been in a wilderness location. However, some Indigenous Canadians see such settler-built Inuksuit as cultural appropriation. See page 14, http://www.canadianculturalmosaicfoundation.com/uploads/5/1/1/9/5119051/reduc