100 Poems reviewed by Solveig Bang in South China Morning Post 4th June 2006.
Small figures in large landscapes people 100 Poems 1985-2005, an anthology in six parts by Mumbai-born, Hong Kong poet Mani Rao. The collection draws together poems from her earlier works, covering 10 years, including Echolocation, Salt, The Last Beach, Living Shadows, Catapult Season, and Wingspan.
In these visceral pieces, bodies merge with the landscape or are dwarfed by it. Immense backdrops crowd with mountains and trees; seas, streams, glaciers and lakes; craters and plains. The might of nature reflects and echoes with huge themes - time, space, separation, eternity, mortality, chaos. Yet amid these, the protagonists rejoice in the simple joys of living and appear at once vulnerable and strong, somehow greater than the sum of their parts - eyes, lips, skin, nails, feet, breasts, hair, blood, sweat, bones, tongue, veins, breath. "The smell of death is also the smell of birth." (Echolocation, p17).
From these often spare and elemental poems - lashed by wind, lightning, rain - and speaking of love, war, death, silence, and alienation there still emerges a sense of resilience and tenacity.
Rao's lavish and loving use of alliterative word play (foxed, funny, forgotten), words within words (evolve, revolve; orgasm, organism; scared, sacred) and imaginative punctuation give her work a playfulness, despite its monumental themes. Some poems have a lightness infused with the poet's wit (or is it cynicism?), and many a line deserves a hearty laugh-outloud: "Dig twenty holes. My psychotherapist will connect them with tunnels for you. With a two-thousand year backdrop" (Catapult Season, p100); and "Our old people locked up in nursing homes / Laid flat and turned over from time to time/Dying evenly on all sides" (Salt, p23).
Overall, the collection is specific enough to ring with the authenticity of the poet's experience, yet general enough to resonate with the reader's own particular experiences of a vast and bewildering yet ultimately enchanting world.