Emma Lee reviews Nick On’s ‘Zhou’

‘Zhou’ Nick On
ISBN 978-1-912196-



Zhou is the tenth most common surname in mainland China and one of the Three Dynasties of ancient China from 1020-221 BCE. Nick On’s ‘Zhou’ explores his heritage through his Chinese grandfather and the search for a cultural identity in this pamphlet which was one of the winners in the Poetry Business Pamphlet competition judged by Neil Astley (Bloodaxe Books), Michael Schmidt (Carcanet) and Amy Wack (Seren).


‘Fragments of Zhou’ introduces the grandfather and what little is known of him. His surname is On, first name Joe, which could have been an anglicisation of Zhou. This Zhou built a hut from bamboo and re-built it after it rotted and watches migrants build ‘a vaulted monument/ in the rich man’s name’,


‘And when the migrants left
the empty vaults
echoed to no eternity.

He would shift his shack
and let the monument decay.

He built a bamboo hut
that rotted in the rain
so he could build it once again.’


Zhou is a man who only labours as far as necessary: to build a home. He doesn’t join the labourers who built the vaults for a wealthy man. His home is made from perishable materials and built purely for shelter, not to leave a legacy for any future generations. Naturally, that makes it hard for future generations to find him. Shown when later, an attempt to ask who knew him,


‘“We do not know this ‘Joe’ –
there was a Chow from Fujan
who never went to school,
was servile to the richest men,
then a rebel, then a fool,
but he is dead and nothing now –
except a hungry ghost.”

You cannot fill fourfold space with my date of birth.

But you can buy my portrait ready-made
and learn to paint the eyes of my blank face’


It’s not clear how this ‘hungry ghost’ became a father or even if Chow became Joe. There is a photograph at the beginning of the pamphlet. The year of death is known, 1949, but no year of birth. Nick On’s father, who has an English first name, was born 19 years before Joe On’s death. The grandfather is a sketchy outline, lacking in detail, in ‘The grandfather comes to England.’ ‘Canto II’


‘For “Zhou” the pinyin patronym



And why should migrants be
fastidious with their names?
Let dynasties fall, as dynasties do,’


In translating the Chinese ‘Zhou’ into a standard Latin script it eventually becomes phonetically ‘Joe’. The poem goes on to explain, ‘The Exceptional Zhou became the ordinary Joe.’


A couple of poems move from grandfather to father who was a copywriter, in ‘Copywriting’, the boy watches his father dress for work,


‘Your cuffs linked with things of wonder
wherein I thought my daddy was not poor
to go adorned in gold for lack of buttons’

Later when the son is taken to his father’s workplace,

‘and were enchanted by commercial artists
who could make any mundane thing
come alive in lines from lovely felt-tip pens.

Your whole career was filling space with words
making every quarter-page and half-page
articulate with copy.’


The wonder of the gold-coloured cuff links, which to the child, signified the transformation of a poor man into a respectable one is echoed in the ordinary felt-tip pens’ ability to transform a few lines into a lively image. The child’s sense of wonder at the father’s making space ‘articulate with copy’ suggests the father wasn’t a talkative man. He was someone who wrote rather than talked.


The final sequence, ‘Ghosts’, reflects on the search for details on the grandfather, in the second poem starts on a note of frustration, ‘He is not in the books’ after asking ‘How do you find this ordinary, individual man?’ But then considers,


‘Perhaps he ran, perhaps he hid, and in this he was successful.
Perhaps he stood still and gained respect from all the factions.
Perhaps he lived his life remotely, beyond tumult.

How do you find this extraordinary, individual man?’


A search for one man, a grandfather, with little to go on, becomes a journey of possibilities, a journey into history, how lives are documented and inter-related. How even ordinary lives become extraordinary to one who is looking beyond mundane facts to try and build a picture of the man behind them. In ‘Zhou’, Nick On has created an exploration not only of his grandfather’s life, but its impact on the generations to follow and a reminder that lives are not the dry, documented fact, but surges of passion and dreams that inform decisions.