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The Meaning of Leaving: Womanhood from Toronto to Hong Kong

A review of Kate Rogers’ latest poetry collection

Content warning: domestic violence, sexual violence, political violence

I was lucky enough to read Kate Rogers’ The Meaning of Leaving while on a train leaving Toronto, which I think is the most aptly ironic location to experience this bittersweet poetry collection. A Canadian poet who lived in Hong Kong and China for more than two decades, Rogers recently moved back to eastern Ontario in 2019. This is where The Meaning of Leaving takes off, leading the reader on a journey that is constantly on the move from one city to another. Each poem blurs the line between departure and arrival, navigating the intersections of female loneliness, domestic violence, and the search for identity. Published in February 2024 by the Montreal- based publishing house Ace of Swords Publishing, this beautiful collection enters the literary fray right in time for Women’s History Month.

The book opens with the poem “Unreal City,” a sort of anti-ode to Toronto that brings to light all the violence simmering underneath the surface of the city. By mentioning specific locations by name, Rogers makes the setting of this “unreal” poem feel all the more “real” – allowing the words to occupy a tangible space in real life. Even as someone not from Toronto, I was able to relate to the scenes exactly as she laid them out, largely in part due to her straightforwardly familiar tone. “Unreal City” sets the scene for the rest of the poems in this collection, which are divided into five untitled sections that continue moving chronologically through different periods in the poet’s life.

Rogers uses the first section to invite the reader into her childhood home, revealing the abuse she faces at the hands of her father, and establishing a link between this early violence and the violence she goes on to experience in her romantic relationships with men. She wastes no words, shying away from subtlety in favour of boldly laying out the events as they happened.

While I appreciate the lack of restraint and the trust she places in her reader, at times the shrewdness of Rogers’ poetry leaves little room for interpretation. In “Derrick’s Fist,” Rogers’ emphasis on elaborate descriptions of bruises leave a striking first impression on the reader, but her bluntness simultaneously results in an opaqueness that I felt lacked a more personal connection with the speaker. “Albino Sword Swallower at a Carnival, 1970” is an example of another graphic poem I felt was executed better. Here, Rogers is able to show her love for meta-textual references through her masterful association of the violence from her early sexual encounters to the violence experienced by a circus sword-swallower.

Section Two moves forward into Rogers’ time spent in China and Hong Kong, bringing these settings to life with the same attention to detail as she expressed for Toronto. In “On My Way to Cantonese Class” and “Lamma Island Tofu-fa,” Rogers crafts a loving relationship between herself and the city, pointing out the colourful characters that inhabit its every corner. Something as simple as tofu-fa from a roadside hut is likened to salvation. These images of home reach a turning point in the titular poem “The Meaning of Leaving,” in which she recreates her life story so far by moving from the lakes of Ontario to the Hong Kong coastline. The poem takes its title from a translation of “Requiem” by Bei Dao; each line of Dao’s work sandwiches Rogers’ stanzas, giving the words an entirely new meaning. She succinctly communicates the feeling of being lost in one land, before finding peace in another.

Rogers moves further into the realm of politics with Section Three, drawing the reader’s attention to pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. Like in her earlier poems, she conflates real-life conflict and trauma with fantastical images: the authoritarian government becomes a Gate of Hell, the young protesters become the nation’s saviours. Rogers emphasizes how the personal and the political interact with each other in times of crisis, and to me, her poetry seems to suggest that love and resistance are inextricable from one another. In “The Jizo Shrine,” we see the importance of holding on to close female friendships. This love letter to the long- lasting bond between two women stands in as an ode to letting go of grief, whether it be private or collective.

Though The Meaning of Leaving complicates the ideas of home and homeland in a nuanced, self-aware manner, I found myself growing wary of certain poems that seemed cast in an orientalist light. The implications of the line “Yet I long to uncover more layers / of Hong Kong’s midden heap” in “Cantonese Class” make me uncomfortable, especially as I recall the long colonial history of white travelers wishing to “uncover” the secrets of the East. “Sei Gweipo” in Section Four is a candid retelling of Rogers’ experience as a white woman in Hong Kong, highlighting her struggle in reintegrating with Canadian society by comparing herself to a “white ghost.” It’s almost overly self-aware in its execution, leaning towards feelings of white guilt, which makes it all the more difficult to read from a non-white perspective.

The book is ultimately redeemed through its meditations on womanhood and anger, which I found embodied primarily in “The Nose-Ring Girl.” Rogers plays with the idea of female vulnerability as she wonders about this stranger’s backstory, before connecting it back to her own college days. The titular nose-ring girl personifies strength and tenacity, as she continues to stand by her principles even when she does not need to. As we enter the fifth and final section, the reader is introduced to even more figures of feminine resilience. Rogers brings back her love for meta-textual references as she imagines an encounter with a victim of the Spanish Flu, and re-imagines the tale of the Don Jail ghost. In both cases, she reclaims a story told largely by male voices to instead shed light on a female perspective.

Rogers chooses to end this poetry collection by returning to the bird motif sprinkled throughout the book, taking on its themes of flight and motion. “Ode to the Ode to the Yellow Bird” is yet another retelling of a tale from the male poetic tradition. Rogers counteracts the pessimism of Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to the Yellow Bird” by making this poem an affirmation of joy. Her yellow bird is the very ethos of the kind of womanhood she writes about in The Meaning of Leaving: she is the Don Jail ghost, the girl in the pink tutu and Nikes, the lady with a bruised face at the fruit market. She is a symbol of resilience and ambition. And despite everything she has been through, the book grants her one ecstatic cry of hope in its very last sentence: “You live!”