Woman to Woman traces the growth of a woman
from childhood memories and awakenings of her intellectual perception,
through times of emotional tenuousness, to eventual peace.
Agnes Lam on poetry: I have often
been asked why I write poetry. I usually reply carelessly: 'I don't
know. I just do. It's like breathing.' At this point of presenting my
collection of poems written over the last decade, perhaps I should
answer this question more seriously.
poetry is part of everyday life. I see it and hear it everywhere in
everything. I cannot trace how this awareness began. I was a rather
quiet child who liked to sit by myself gazing at the sea. I also read
a lot from a young age. The death of my father when I was thirteen and
the difficulties in my first marriage could have enhanced that
sensibility. The times when I could not speak of my own dissolution
could have made me more sensitive to similar circumstances in other
Through writing poetry, I reorder my inner
dissonance. If I can articulate the fury and the calm, perhaps my
words may offer some comfort in resonance to another who does not.
"This is an
exquisite collection. The poems speak of the deepest emotions with a
cool poise which sharpens their poignancy. But there is also a breadth
of awareness which is the strength of the collection as a whole: a
concern for the value of life and love in a human journey not ever
protected from pain, but made the more meaningful by our willingness
to meet its challenge."
holder of the Southeast Asia WRITE award
"Agnes Lam demonstrates a capacity for compassion and a sensitivity to
her physical environment – in Singapore, Hong Kong, Pennsylvania,
Cambridge – and other places of her imagination. Covering a diversity
of themes, from the intimate to the personal and the public, these
sixty poems capture and evoke the tragic, the poignant and the happy
in her own life and the lives of others."
National University of Singapore
"Some of Agnes Lam's poems are so moving they will
make you cry. The tough reality of her mother's illness and death
force the reader to ponder over the death of their own mother, whether
coming or past.
"But death is only one aspect of life as explored in
the first collection of poems by the associate professor of the
University of Hong Kong's English Centre has published. Her first
collection of poems, Woman to Woman and other poems, is, in
fact, a celebration of life.
""I try not to write for the literary expert, but
for ordinary people, said Lam." I hope my poetry can be read at
different levels, first as a story or description, then to make people
think of the tenuousness of life and perhaps value it a bit more.
""I write about sad things not because I have had a
sad life, but because when sad things happen you learn what life is
"Her view of life is, in fact, positive. A
tree-lined street is illustrated on the cover.
""This is a positive picture of Asian women in
transition. They are all walking on a very level street, with trees
forming a canopy and the sun shining through. But everyone has to live
their own life and carry their own story, even if you are in a crowd."
"Woman to Woman
consists of poems written from the 1970s to the present, reflecting
the poet's journey from adolescence to the maturity of middle age.
They are moving, because they touch so closely the experience of women
in particular and people in general."
South China Morning Post
My mother-in-law -
I am supposed to be
always quarrelling with her,
according to Chinese folklore.
But I do not speak Teochew,
nor is her English even basilectal.
Mutual learning is a possibility
but she's too old and I'm too busy.
Many times though, my sisters-in-law
have called me to post-umpire
a verbal score between one of them
and my mother-in-law.
You tell me, Agnes -
who is right ?
Have I not tried hard enough?
Such a small thing and she curse and curse -
And I, your favourite daughter-in-law
have only ears and no words
for my mother-
had a sudden fall -
caused by a tumour
benign in the brain.
The operation was successful
- too much so,
a wicked daughter-in-law
would have thought.
But why should anyone worry?
Even before the operation,
you had decided to come and live
with me - your favourite in-law.
Gone - my roaming in shopping centres,
pizza dinners by special delivery
or last night's leftovers
microwaved for another meal.
No longer can I work
late beyond air-con time
or early in the morning,
switch on the music.
My last vestiges of pampering,
my meagre distractions
when husband is out-of-town
or if in-town, out-of-home.
Oh, my mother-in-law,
why must I, the youngest,
least able to communicate,
be your favourite?
Six pm -
the fan is whirring,
you are dozing,
an S-tube protruding from your nose,
coiling like a worm
feeding on your skull.
The sodium chloride drips
drop by drop -
another one -
Always when I come,
you draw my hand to ease
the phlegm in your flatted chest.
For one-and-a-half hours, I row
the tiny oar of my white hand
on your trachea thinking -
my father died,
my mother died,
this woman has brought up nine children
and five or six grand ones,
this woman who could quarrel with such spirit -
is now seventy-odd pounds, unable to talk,
hands tied to bed rails -
this matriarch from of old,
who is supposed to scold,
lying flat, skin peeling
as if sunburnt but without the glow
is when the phlegm will flow.
As I row my small hand,
look at me
with your one remaining eye -
and you smile
my mother's words,
to your mother
1 October 1989, Tan Tok Seng
A tree-lined street
A tree-lined street
of women walking,
the back of their black hair
swaying in rhythm.
Some modern in cigarette pants,
stiletto heels, others in dress
tunics from border regions,
shades of turquoise, pink, maroon
amidst the black, grey, blue.
The attire irrelevant,
a few pause,
ponder by the side
as if to turn back,
The street straight and level,
tips of branches
from both sides meeting,
a canopy of blessings,
sun lifting gold from green,
for every woman moving,
black hair shining
26 August 1996, Rodrigues Court
Copyright © Agnes Lam