Cuttlefishing off the coast of Hong Kong

after ‘Holy Man’ by Will Harris

The night was painting the sea and my hands a vanishing colour
but I could still feel the sticky warmth of the plastic reel
like a comb flat in my palm. I must have only been five or six,
peering out from between the boat’s edge and safety rail,
looking for cuttlefish in the dense water
like looking for stars in a smoggy sky.

I felt small and forgotten watching the darkness congeal
in a swarm of lazy mosquitoes and adult chatter –
if I heard two dialects on deck, I would have thought
they were lovers, then. The boat washed dimly yellow, the shade
of my bedroom in those years of nightlights and spinning dreams.

a hitch on the line –
Pull up quick but careful, careful / Pick it up for a picture, while it’s still alive
[now I like to think that I gave the sad creature to my brother
because I could not carry the weight of its dying pulses]
but when they all came up like a magic trick, fried and salted in a huge pan, still I ate
and ate.

Your tongue’s gone black!
and I think black as oil ink, black as an ocean for running away;

I would not think of how, in twelve years,
protesters clad in black flow
into rivers of fear running through
Hong Kong like a lifeblood; of how
the waiter’s face closes like a reflex
when we order in Mandarin,
the teapot left empty on white tablecloth,
its lid floating belly-up like an apology
or a dead thing: to him,

we were the predators with open jaws
and he saw our tongues were black.



‘Cuttlefishing off the coast of Hong Kong’ by Joyce Chen won the Forward/emagazine Creative Critics 2020. The competition invited 16-19 year olds to write new poems in response to work shortlisted for the Forward Prizes for Poetry.

Julia Copus, our 2020 judge, writes: ‘In this magical poem (inspired by a single stanza in Will Harris’s ‘Holy Man’), the speaker remembers herself back to a childhood memory of night fishing and depicts, with great clarity and poise, the disconnect she feels from the adult world even as she blends – ‘small and forgotten’ – with her surroundings. The experience is recreated with a cinematic sensibility: ‘The boat washed dimply yellow, the shade / of my bedroom in those years of nightlights and spinning dreams’; elsewhere, a teapot lid on a tablecloth floats ‘belly-up like an apology / or a dead thing’. But the poem’s metaphorical significance is only revealed as it moves towards its close and the colour black provides a link to a present-day Hong Kong suffused with political unrest and – as the illuminating commentary puts it – ‘a sense of the confusion and guilt that often accompanies dual identity’.