[identity profile] stephenhongsohn.livejournal.com
Hi everyone,

I just wrote up a brief piece on Four Way Books and its attention to Asian American poets.

Here is the link:


Am currently reading what [livejournal.com profile] pylduck already reviewed, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, and supremely enjoying it!

Assigned for next quarter!

[identity profile] stephenhongsohn.livejournal.com
 A Review of Sheela Sitaram Free’s Fractured Clocks, Bones, and Windshields (Plain View Press, 2009).


I have always appreciated the ability for small poetry presses to publish innovative, socially conscious lyrical projects.  Sheela Sitaram Free’s Fractured Clocks, Bones, and Windshields is evidence and exemplary of the quite dynamic works appearing out of Plain View Press (also the publisher of other Asian American literary works including Cecilia Manguerra Brainard’s Magdalena and Pramila Venkateswaran’s Behind dark Waters).  For me, the collection has three main movements; in the first, we are given a very specific Western regional frame, that of Southern California.  The midpoint concentrates on death and mourning, where the loss of a daughter and a father’s death in a car accident (the titular windshields) surface as ordering rubrics.  The final and major poetic sequence brings us to the recent terrorist attacks that occurred in Mumbai.  It is clear that from reading the collection that there is a strong performative quality to the work, as the cadences emerge when certain poems are read aloud.  Indeed, the capitalization of particular sections serves to ground the reader that there is emphasis to be made at certain moments, increasing impact to a listening audience.  As a reader, I was struck obviously by the initial sections that start in what is called California’s Inland Empire.  Anyone whose driven through this area knows that it is an interesting space of “edge” suburbs, and probably the one of the first places to have suffered from the housing bubble that occurred with the onset of the global economic crisis.  Free captures the quite precarious nature of living in this area in “I Burn You Burn We All Burn Together,” where the lyric speaker intones:


“In California, who knows –

Our lungs gone to hell in a hand basket of a man-made rage against the innocent skies—

Big #’s, big dreams, big hopes, for life again

here, for 729,000 acres gone in a burn, 2600 homes gone in a burn,

20 dead and still counting, across San Bernadino, San Diego, Fontana, Santa Clarita, Claremont, Simi Valley” (15).


The places she does specifically name are all inland areas of Southern California that butt up, for the most part against mountain ranges and so, for anyone whose lived in the area, the summer after a wet season, it’s brushfire territory.  The phrase that seems most pertinent in this excerpt to me is “big dreams, big hopes, for life again” as these outlying areas consistently get targeted for these fires and yet people remain rebuilding their homes and others continue to move out to these areas in hopes of better deals and better financial investments. 

            As Of Fractured Clocks, Bones and Windshield’s moves into its middle arc, the readers are pushed into the devastating framework of loss and melancholy.  We are prepared for such a shift by two poems in particular, “Prozac One” and “Vicadin Bitch,” where there is a sense immediately of pain and emotional relief that comes with tragedy.  In “In the End Zone,” the lyric speaker directly confronts one loss:


“Wailing from deep within my womb

in fits and starts

you tear through your placental memory

into your new reality

in your end zone.


Rasping breath from deep within your faltering lungs,

in fits and starts,

you clutch onto your cranial memory

with blue extremities

in the end zone.


All of this, caught on tape

book-ending your brief life

for this maternal, wallet-memory

which, for five years after you flickered out,

livens each minute, each day, each year,

into my end zone” (51).


The repetition of “end zone” serves as an interesting linking device, where forms of termination are all queried.  In the first, the physical death of the child is explored, the literal termination of her life.  In the second, the “blue extremities/in the end zone” suggests more particularly the place of the child’s body being pushed to the limits of exhaustion.  The final stanza therefore brings the notion of the “end zone” to the psychic space of mourning and loss, where the speaker finds herself haunted by the daughter’s passing.  This general mid-section contains a number of poems meditating upon this loss, including “Please Don’t Sleep” and “You Stole My Daughter’s Funeral.”   The shift to the loss of the father appears in a set of poems in which we get a sense of the lyric speaker’s father dies tragically in a car accident.  This moment seems to be the one referenced in the collection’s title.  I excerpt a portion from “So Many laps to Go”:


You went, clutching your bleeding heart

before I remember laying my head in your lap,

on the grassy knoll, after the drunk ngo rammed

our spanking new car at the crossroads –

still dangerous after 44 years

Daddy, you died after trying to save Saigon

from itself (67).


What is interesting here is that it seems that the father has traveled to Vietnam to complete humanitarian work (as an army physician), which ironically becomes his physical undoing.  This loss is the next that echoes throughout the collection and through a number of poems, as the lyric speaker in “Kaboom,” laments  “He went in a flash/ his watch survived forever./ Ten years later, no court material in hell/ fixes that./ As sure as hell/ the sky went opaque on us./ Drink and drive, you know the nuts off someone./ There is NO responsible drinking BUD” (66).  The lyric speaker’s mother also suffer catastrophic injuries, so this crash becomes an ordering moment that echoes across time and space, the very “fractured clocks” of the collection’s title.

            The collection concludes with “My Mumbai oh My Mumbai,” a narratively inflected lyric sequence that explores the terrorist attacks that occurred in late November 2008.  I end this review then with some of the powerful words contained in that piece, part of Free’s specific anti-war politic:


No one knows—

who/why/when, the 24/7 news cycle spits out, over and over,

as an inarticulate, distraught, local man wrests the microphone

from the frustrated CNN Sarah Sider.

Here, real at last, in all our faced but only for a second:

“Let us speak, let us speak, so the whole world knows.”

This hydra-headed virus now connects us all in one simple,

tragic, bloody, brotherhood (125). 


The strength of Free’s poetry is in its “g/local” approach.  That is, not only does it move across domestic US terrains, but travels to various areas of the world including Vietnam and India, reminding us of the unique milieu in which we leave, where technologies arguably provide ways to collapse time and space at unprecedented speeds.  The collection leaves us at this incredible and rich juncture, where collision inasmuch as it portends loss also grants us a wider perspective to negotiate this “brave new world.”  These various geographies continue to query the boundaries and boundedness of “Asian American literature,” reminding us of the importance of transnational migration and global conflict to the creations of textual and lyrical terrains. 


For more on the performative nature of Free’s poetry, please see this link:




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[identity profile] stephenhongsohn.livejournal.com
 A Review of Brandon Shimoda’s The Inland Sea (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2008) and The Alps (Flim Forum Press, 2008).

2008 saw the arrival of two distinct and exciting poetic works by Brandon Shimoda, a chapbook entitled The Inland Sea and a full collection from Flim Forum Press called The Alps.  While I have taken the time to often mention Myung Mi Kim in my reviews, I am again reminded her work immediately with Shimoda precisely because I am drawn to his lyrics through the way in which war is elliptically referenced.   Whereas Kim employed the diasporic trajectory to configure how which memory and inheritance fragment and estrange successive generations from the war experience, so too does The Inland Sea and The Alps find the reader attempting to navigate a barrage of sparse images and phrases, experimental sequences to discover constant, yet oblique references to conflict, brutality, and psychic trauma.  I have not taken the time to review any chapbooks yet, but the “form” is interesting as it seems to require much more structural coherence as a group of collected lyrics.  The “inland seas” referenced in the chapbook’s title are “Lake Norman” in 1996 and Seto-nakai, which is Japan’s inland sea, marked off with its own year, 1909.  These two inland seas are separated by Hiroshima in 1945.  Immediately, with the date of 1945 and the geography of Hiroshima, we know that the atomic bomb is just around the corner.  Like many poets, Shimoda plays with the spacing of the lines on the page, which I cannot reproduce exactly, but the effect of the sparse words against a backdrop of wide expanses of white pages gives greater emphasis to each syllabic and sonic packet.  Take for instance this excerpt from, “In the Middle of Migration”: “we find ourselves/ turning—/ recalcitrant in the ancient domain/ masks simultaneously black/ we know not/ the sensible thing/ sugar mammal, slit throat/ tethered to the thickest spar/ between home and adopted home/ makes no difference in times like these/ without bothering to unfold the map/ or take it from its sleeve/ climb the rungs of bone and limb/ to pierce what version of skin or sky/ the solvent leaks.”  The question here first is related to the person that is doing the migrating.  The “we” invoked by the lyric does suggest a larger group of bodies, perhaps then a diaspora and this sentiment is configured through the phrase, “between home and adopted home.”  Everywhere, the readers will note the violence that accompanies these migrations with images such as “slit throat” and “rungs of bone and limb” and “to pierce what version of skin,” but early on it is unclear what the speaker is referencing.  Interestingly, the pages of the chapbook are unnumbered and contribute to this sense of disorientation.  As the chapbook moves forward, it is clear then that the psychic geography of war and its aftermath is being considered:  “it is injurious to wear one’s self around one’s waist/ in radiation first    is flash/ burn, second/ flame.”  Here, the atomic bomb is clearly being referenced and these lyrics appear unbidden, punctuating stark tracts of concatenating images:  “slips/ from tilted rock, burning/ I must be burning too    my.”  I am thinking here for a moment of Abraham and Torok’s theory of transgenerational phantom in this sense that the lyric speaker suffers from a burning too, perhaps something traveling across time and space, across inland seas.  This chapbook clearly is a promising debut, so it was with much anticipation that I read The Alps from the innovative Flim Forum Press. 

            Like the chapbook, the poetry collection works to reference these challenging psychic geographies and the mapping of this space occurs across the page and across different global sites.  The Alps being referenced here are the Swiss Alps, and so much of the poetry collection does connect to us to cold and mountainous images.  Characteristic of these “alpine” terrains is “So Pure and Fresh I love the Air The Plants The Dark,” which I reprint below. 


Generation in a landscape

none belong

to us, the sick


snow-drawn generation

in a landscape bred

upon transhuman

soil growing tongues towards the ice


none belong

to us, the lines

in the landscape hanging

our hunger, the flowers

growing towards the tongues


are killer and killer

abundant landscape ope

though none belong


to us, this stem

uncurling when it all will want

to flatten precisely its target (17).


The character of Shimoda’s poetry is always such that we are unsettled.  Here, even in this seemingly pristine and snowy environment, there is the sense of an encroachment, where “none belong.”  We recall from the chapbook again the movement of bodies across oceans and new countries and occasionally, one cannot help but read allegories into Shimoda’s work.  Given the starkness of the lyrics, one wonders exactly, for instance, how exactly flowers are “killer and killer” or the stem can “flatten precisely its target”?  If nature is read in such a fashion, then all that is living seems to be capable of such brutality, such violence.  

Flim Forum Press is clearly positing itself as a small press devoted to innovation.  In the next sequence of poems, there are a number of blank squares that are situated above poetic tracts.  These blank squares remind me of course of Russian abstract formalist paintings (I am thinking of Malevich’s “White on White” here, “Eight Red Rectangulars”), one wonders what is supposed to appear within them.  This unsettlement and disorientation dovetails with the lyrics.  In “Trinity,” we return again to the question of the psychic after-effects of the atomic bomb:





The first atomic weapon


to deal the climate of effects, holding

sound to the depths

a white mammal

unbecoming            the shadows (60). 


In “So Pure and Fresh I love the Air The Plants The Dark,” we saw the ways in which plants could be read as dangerous subjects.  Here, what is unclear is if the atomic bomb is being compared against “a white mammal.”  Who is the “white mammal,” and is this image another way of envisioning the physical description of the bomb after it is denotated, exactly as it is so bright as to eliminate “the shadows”?  Trinity of course is also the name of the first test for the atomic bomb, but its name certainly does have a blasphemous tone to it in its potential evocation of God.  In “Isolation,” The Alps seems to turn to post-war or war context.  Once again, the specific time and place is a little unclear, although there is certainly the sense of death again as the opening lines reveal the “deathly” location. 


Garnet fog

in the cemetery


where the girl looked

like a boy made me nervous


a thin growth of scalps

where the boy the boy’s mother fed

me butter cookies


and the American Americans

stood upon the slate

focused their lenses on the too-tight briefs

chatted the dough and glands

in unwieldy—balm and udder—strings

from the trees upon the Irish

Americans spread upon the Japanese

Americans as milk/ as the hand

shuttles the Scottish hole, churning

the American Japanese

the indigenous cream or the gentians—


throughout the motivations

to traverse the cropping continent


I will meet you

            ice around our feet


These butter cookies have no taste—

Did you put sugar in them? (106-107).


Since there is the constant reference to Americans in this poem, I can’t help but think of the American occupation of Japan after the conclusion of World War 2, but then there is this reference to the “Scottish hole,” but the collision of cultures is precisely what is at stake here in the production of desserts, the butter cookies, and this “indigenous cream.”   The phrase, “to traverse the cropping continent,” gives us this sense that there is some sort of movement, perhaps them this point of national and cultural interaction.

            It is supremely difficult to complete a reading of this collection without a reference to the ways in which Shimoda utilizes the page space and introduces wonderfully inventive visual graphics.  There is a section that is extremely difficult to describe, but is something of a letter and word tornado, with jumbles and strings of letter in rough forms that from a distance look something like Rorschach test.  He would be therefore a clear addition to the experimental impulse to contemporary American lyric poetry and for purposes of my interests to Asian American experimental poetry.  All in all, Shimoda’s debuts dazzle the eye and the mind. 


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[identity profile] stephenhongsohn.livejournal.com
 A Review of Truong Tran’s Four Letter Words (Apogee Press, 2008).


Wordplay’s the thing wherein we’ll catch the conscience and/or the consciousness of the Asian American poet, or so it seems with Truong Tran’s Four Letter Words.  With a title such as this one, you can expect much profanity and graphic language, but as Tran reminds us, there are countless four letters words that can be employed in the English language, not just slang terms or expletives.  Tran has played with a particular visual poetic style that returns here, where he makes much use of a “block” prose poem with highly chaotic punctuation.  Indeed, at most points, phrases often simply run together in one long jumble, requiring the reader to slow down, but it is through these verbal collisions that much of the dynamism in this collection is generated.  Here is an example:


this is a chronicle written where english is broken sorted salvaged and saved for consumption in time it will be adopted as a delicacy please understand that the metaphor when used here is used out of necessity a grain of rice before all else is really just a grain of rice that striving for clarity looking for an audience wanting to be heard this goes against the nature of things (30)


I’m not quite sure if Tran would have liked that the end breaks occur in different areas because the page margins are simply different in Microsoft Word, but the general gist is here.  Characteristic of this collection are such poetic prose blocks where there is no punctuation at all and a complete use of lower case.  The way in which the lines should be read therefore is left up to the reader.  The collection is broken up into five books: the book of that, the book of lies, the lost book, book of the real and the book of this, but I am unsure as to how to approach the titles themselves, whether or not they exist simply as thematic ordering devices, for instance, or if they suggest that each book is in essence, a “long poem,” or some sort of combination of both.   The content of the above lyric excerpt is of course as imperative to consider as its “form,” where the lyric “speaker” sets out one of the major impulses of the collection and we see how Tran operates with the mantra of “english is broken sort salvaged and save.”  His reference to a “grain of rice” seems to inject a meta-lyrical meditation on the position of the Asian American poet, expected to rehearse perhaps ethnically or racially specific tropes.  To this end, the lyric speaker relates, “a grain of rice before all else is really just a grain of rice,” playfully queries the nature of metaphors and what they might represent.  How does the so-called “Asian American poet” who is “wanting to be heard,” find his or her “audience,” this particular block seems to ask. 


And yet, Tran is quite aware of the lineage in which he is writing.  As the lyric speaker points out in another lyric block: 


or I call upon the ghost of teresa hak kyung cha or my father liked cooking that does not make me the son of a cook or nonsensical notions or the book of beef or in silence there is power or the redheaded stepchild or true that trunog or trunog’s rant or this will be the death of me or the poem as suicide or losing lips or this has been another episode of the Truman show or fictitious and the fool or will the real nort nart please stand up or enough is enough or enough (41)


I’m not exactly quite sure how one calls upon the ghost of teresa hak kyung cha, but I assume in the misspelling of her name, there is a larger impulse as Tran encrypts his name as misspellings at other points in this poetic block.  I wondered at first what trunog’s rant might be, overlooking the fact that I need to understand how Four Letter Words is operating with the thesis in mind that English is broken and must be salvaged.  Trunog’s rant is therefore our reminder that we might be finding anagrams everywhere, so that Trunog might be the misspelling for Truong.  Later, when the real “nort nart” must “please stand up,” is that not a misspelling again, “nart” then for Tran and “nort” being some sort of combination either of Truong or Tran?  In thinking about the ghost of t[h]eresa hak kyung cha then, we come on this block below:




this experimental

language             as

exclusion             from

existence encoded

embedded edited

that  (83)


Is Four Letter Words Tran’s treatise on an experimental language?  We know that there is coding and encoding, experiments all over the collection as there seem to be word-find puzzles and repetitive blocks that don’t seem to make much sense and yet, the lyric speaker returns here asking for some sort of greater purpose: 


that i’ve been trying to find the words to write to read to speak between the lines of what’s authentic that shards and fragments are shaping my way that the sentence complete yields incomplete thoughts that writing is about taking reading about breaking that i’ve taken from this a half eaten fruit that even in its rotting state it was so sweet so cold to the touch (92) 


Here, Tran clearly riffs off of William Carlos Williams (as such as I have posted “This is Just to Say” below), which then causes us to wonder about the nature of authenticity, creative license, and language.  The use of the word “authentic” does invoke the question more largely of identity politics and who gets to speak for whom, but in this passage, where Tran takes on this modernist inspiration, one wonders about originality and the nature of meaning as it can be reformulated from existing lyric tracts.


William Carlos Williams’s This Is Just to Say

I have eaten

the plums

that were in

the icebox


and which

you were probably


for breakfast


Forgive me

they were delicious

so sweet

and so cold


In contrast to Williams’s poem, Tran’s takes the “spoils” of the plums and finds them being buffeted by “fragments” and “shards” of the everyday, where the chaotic nature of language cannot be pinned down.  To end this review, I post this final lyric block:


what if just what we could revert to a simpler way of life when the word was the word unadorned of gerunds gender racist gibberish the word at its purest a noun a greeting a compliment in the right context neither your father nor mine will be damned in us saying that fucker you fucker hey fucker fucker  we could all be fuckers we would all be fuckers and the world would be better be it person place or thing this world full of fuckers (107)


Here, it seems that Tran wonders what if words were divested of their connotations, what then would language look like?  Could there ever be a language like that?  The absurdity of such a proposition appears in this string of expletives, where “fuckers” could really be any one noun.  Tran’s Four Letter Words is a highly discordant text, sure to evoke a visceral reaction, and finally so rich, in its interpretive potentialities. 

For some reason, at this time, the Apogee Press website has not been updated with this latest collection’s purchase information, but I will had Truong’s biographical information as he has a number of other books for purchase at that website.  Also, in terms of the interest in this blog, you might try looking at Tsering Wangmo Dhompa.


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[identity profile] stephenhongsohn.livejournal.com
A Review of Ray Hsu’s Anthropy: Poems.

Ray Hsu’s Anthropy (Nightwood Editions, 2004) is a discombobulating collection, only coming to a sense of lyrical equanimity in the final section, in which the lyric speaker enters into autobiographical meditations about the nature of the personal pronouns, the first person, the second person, and the third person.  The gist of the meta-lyrical reflections in the final section seems to suggest in particular the challenge of the first person lyric in conditioning connections across time and place and across different subject positions.  If there is a functional slippage in the third person, Anthropy begins here with a set of meditations on Walter Benjamin’s life, the noted theorist and architectural academic who most famously wrote, “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” a piece that is essentially required reading at the graduate level in the humanities.  While I have been familiar with some of Benjamin’s work, it was interesting to consider a lyrical approach to Benjamin’s life and influences, much of which I was not aware of, including his unsuccessful attempt to flee to the United States and his subsequent suicide in Port Bou, Spain.  Given the tendency to promote the “death of the author” in academic studies, taking a more autobiographical approach toward Benjamin’s work does serve to influence one’s understanding of his academic publications in different ways, especially as “art” becomes appropriated increasingly as propaganda during the years leading up to World War 2 and the restrictions and persecution Benjamin experienced as a German-Jewish individual.  Hsu takes on a “third person” lyrical gaze on the suicide scene here:

BENJAMIN slides the needle out of his arm.  He is disoriented, knocking several vials over, break on the floor.  He sags to his knees in the dim light.  The unbearable weight of his body sinks like meat.  His body stinks like shame.  His body lies down.  It has not yet thought of a destination (22, emphasis original).

What is immediately notable in contrast to much of the poetry collections I have already been reviewing is that there is no attention to an autobiographically inflected lyric “speaker.”  Who is the lyric speaker here and who is relating the scene to the reader?  These questions and these slippages are a point of actual productivity for Hsu who finds this relationship between speaker and representational object quite freeing. 
    The second section, entitled, “Second Person,” (reminding me here of C. Dale Young’s poetry collection,)  structures pronouns more along the lines of binaristic formulations or more discrete relationships.  Whereas the first section promotes a chasm between lyrical speaker and the object of lyric meditation, the second allows us to move into meditations where there are clearer investments by those being described or invoked, the structure is often between the “you” and the “I.”  Hsu therefore includes poetic forms that help enhance the “second person” stylistic, such as in “An Epithalamium,” which derives from the Greek poetic form written specifically for brides:

The music is an echo of your body
I brought it in from the
rain, arriving behind us
It is the mirror of your ear
your breath
the pattern of your steps and
you reading
to me.
You make me
silent with love.
As you read I imagine
you reading to me (56).

The love poem is perfectly suited to the “second person” that formulates this section of Hsu’s collection.  Although the lyrics in and of themselves do not necessarily strike as particularly specific or dynamic, the more general emphasis does serve its purpose of articulating an affectual connection between a soon-to-be married couple. 
It is finally in first person where we are moving closer to the autobiographically inflected lyric subject, the assumption of course that a higher intimacy may arise.  This expectation is thwarted as a series of philosophical questions and considerations are divulged, including:

But what about an artist looking back on himself, trying to discover the moment of his creation?  he tries to write his story and discovers that his memory is not one story, but many: they don’t cohere into a single, continuous narrative, but are broken into discrete parts.  And worse, he cannot be sure whether he remembers them correct, or whether particular memories ever happened (64).

And later:

I have written essays published in leading journals in the field in third person.  These essays have bee quoted in other leading journals in the field in third person.  The third person is a tradable thing; it lets you wear my body and forget yours for as long as you wear mine.  But I have never made it as mine and it was never mine, because if it were mine, then you never would have been able to wear it.  This is the problem of the first person: there are many of us, and we may never touch each other (71). 

I find this last section striking for a number of reasons.  First, there is the sense that the autobiographical is more untrustworthy in some ways than the kind of security that resonates throughout the first section, where the lyric speaker observes from a disembodied position (it seems in this way a much more narratively driven technique).  The “third person” observer who follows Benjamin’s last days never seems to waver in that memory, although because the circumstances of his suicide are not fully known, Hsu must have had to construct his own version of those events.  And yet, he does “create” a lyric speaker in the final section that engages the process of “self-creation,” it is a continual sense of rupture.  The rupture enables him to locate other individuals who are influential in the comprehension of the “self” and push him ultimately from the limitations of the first person.  In the third person, he can find the personal link to Benjamin and others, where the first person he seems to suggest, is too insular.  Even here though, the meditations serve to “block” any sense of the self in the final section, so are we to locate the autobiographical speaker somewhere in the meditations on Benjamin?  Hsu’s Anthropy seems to suggest so, but what that means, is not necessarily clear.  The title of Hsu’s collection does seem to reverberate against the chemical principle known as entropy, the inevitable movement toward chaos and disorder, but reformulated with the latin-root connected to “man,” what the lyric speaker finds disorder in is a better understanding of himself (vis-à-vis the lyrical articulation of the loves of others, like Benjamin), even if the reader remains a little at a distance, removed. 

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[identity profile] stephenhongsohn.livejournal.com
 A Review of Fred Wah’s Breathin’ My Name with a Sigh and Sentenced to Light


For many, Fred Wah’s creative and critical writings require patience.  His lyrics and creative projects do not often lend themselves to quick readings and often times, attending to the impetus for certain representational trajectories are difficult to parse out at best.  His work might be considered avant-garde or experimental, but like many of Asian North American poets who fall under this rubric such as Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Myung Mi Kim, or John Yau, there is still an invested politic to his work that cannot be subsumed under the sole purpose of an aesthetic radicalism.  To review both Breathin’ My Name with a Sigh (Talon Books, 1981) and Sentence to Light (Talon Books, 2008) together is a difficult task because both exist in different genres and appear over two decades apart in terms of their publication.  Rather than enforce some sort of false linearity between the texts, I plan to compose some impressions and meditations on each text and what they provoke for me as a reader. 


Sentenced to Light collects a number of different multimedia collaborative projects engaged by Wah and a number of different visual artists.  By “translating” these projects into text, Sentenced to Light enacts a new project in and of itself, creating interesting juxtapositions and dynamic meanings.  As an interactive and quite humorous stitch throughout the entire collection, Wah includes his “Homing Pidgin” project; he writes “These ‘one-liners’ were written as an interactive text for an animated website (http://www.vaarc.ca/lostandfound/) constructed by Cindy Mochizuki and displaying multimedia artist Haruko Okano’s 2006 ‘Homing Pidgin’ project’ an extension of the earlier ‘Hight Bridi Tea’ piece” (9).  The site is still functioning actually and going there reveals a quite hilarious “set piece” taking place at a Japantown restaurant.  Moving your cursor over a meal item such as a soy sauce container will reveal a different text.  In Sentenced to Light, Wah includes a line of pigeons (riffing on pidgin) on a wire with cartoon bubbles employed for their dialogue. Wah constantly uses puns and homonyms to disorient and entertain the reader.  These “pidgins” appear throughout Sentenced to Light, reminding the reader of the importance of text and the complicated nature of communication and intention.  Because there are a number of different multimedia projects included in the collection, each piece contains a useful introduction by Wah explaining some of the rationale behind each collaboration.  For instance, in the title project, “Sentenced to Light,” Wah explains, “This series of ppretences (prose-poem sentences) was written for a photo-text collaboration with Mexican photographer Eric Jervaise at the Banff Centre in the summer of 2003.  Eric’s photos are made on his hand-built panoramic view camera and provoke, here, sentences that ‘stretch’ to comprehend the vanishing edges of lens, eye and syntax” (11).


Perhaps my favorite of these multimedia projects is “Pop Goes the Hood” which is a “text for a video-text performance commissioned by The Powell Street Festival’s Spatial Poetics event in July 2005.  The collaboration was with Henry Tsang who produced a video triptych.  The performance was a reading by both of us with the video project on a large wall at Video In in Vancouver” (49).  Although the video does not accompany the text here for obvious reasons, there is a clear polemic related by Wah’s writings.  Wah includes quotations from various sources that speak to the development of commercial zones and other such centers in and around Vancouver and Canada.  He particularly invokes the rapid growth of the city in such a way that one begins to see Vancouver as a center perhaps of a kind of modernization imperative, one that focuses so much of commodities and financing that we are soon in the postmodern city.  Fragmented and disoriented, the Canadian might wander suffering from over-stimulation, crowded malls, traffic jams, and urban ennui.  There is a sense of ethnic erasure in this move to a “new urbanism”: “Except/ the Green Door’s gone/ And the Mah Jong’s clack/ Can no longer be heard drifting over Pender” (57).  Perhaps the most polemic of these multimedia project is “All Americans” as it juxtaposes “two panoramic renderings of the Minnesota Massacre of 1862” with the attacks on 9/11.  The line that most resonates here is: “We never thought of ourselves as the enemy” (85).  After having reviewed Rita Wong’s Forage and Weyman Chan’s Noise from the Laundry, this strain of activist politic is something that seems to be a larger project for the Asian Canadian poets.  To be sure, Asian American (US centered poets) have been interrogating questions about US empire (e.g. Barbara Jane Reyes’s poeta en San Francisco, Luisa A. Igloria’s Juan Luna’s Revolver are but a few examples), but reading these Asian Canadian poets in sequence certainly demonstrates a kind of lyric cohesion that makes one situate the importance of a geographical centralization to a poetic “grouping.”  Sentenced to Light is a very intriguing text to consider on the level of multimedia art projects, the kind that do not fit into neat genre categories and might be taught in a variety of courses. 


I shift now to my review of Wah’s Breathin’ My Name with a Sigh.  The Talon Books description of Wah’s Breathin’ My Name with a Sigh calls attention to this work as a “long poem.  Although the genealogy and inspiration for Wah’s poetry at this time might derive in part from the Black Mountain Poets (his inclusion as part of the TISH poetry group), there are a number of points where I am reminded also of Myung Mi Kim’s Dura, another long poem with radically fragmented and disjointed poetics.  There are a number of ways in which this long poem is extremely challenging.  One element that comes down to a trick of detail is the fact that the piece does not contain page numbers.  One wonders what motivated this creative or editorial decision.  Second, there are natural breaks in the long poem that seem to suggest separation into “poetic packets,” if one might call them such that the work might be seen as a number of poems that are left untitled.  Thinking of Breathin’ My Name with a Sigh as a long poem suggests a longer unity that is interesting to think about.  The opening of the long poem immediately establishes the jarring tonality of the lyrics:


I like the purity of all things seen

through the accumulation of thrust

forward especially the vehicle

container maybe/or “thing” called body

because time seems to be only it appears

to look into the green mountain valleys

or through them to the rivers & nutrient creeks

where was never the problem animal is

I still have a name “breathin’ it

with a sigh”


Characteristic of Wah’s poetry is that words seem to flow into each other such that line breaks don’t seem to really provide signposts as to the lyrical meaning.  The general sentiment seems to suggest that the embodiment of a particular lyric speaker and the “realm of the senses” and his experiences are the motivation for the long poem’s content.  As generic as that might sound, the conclusion does seem to suggest that the body does not exist in some sort of vacuum and if we are to move a little bit autobiographically in that final moment, that Wah’s family lineage has a longer and more complex history where the “body” cannot exist out of time and space. 


Although I can’t mimic the exact spacing of this opening lyric sequence, it seems to be around 1.5 line spacing, which might not seem important, except that later on, Wah employs single spacing.  Indeed, the form and placement of the words on the page is a key element to Wah’s work as he frustrates the reader’s desire to understand and comprehend what is being communicated.  For instance, he leaves portions of the long poem as an underlining, suggesting that the reader must literally “fill in the blank,” even if the letters or words that could be used to fill in the blank cannot be deteremined.  Other portions of the work include blacked out words that cannot be made out or strangely employed superscripted letters.  Such linguistic de-stabilization especially in context of the lyric opening seems to be aimed at the chasm between experience and perception, reality and representation. 


Even with many opaque passages, a through-line does emerge in which a transnational poetic sentiment is advanced.  As Wah’s lyric speaker queries:


Are origins magnetic lines across an ocean

migrations of genetic spume or holes, dark

mysteries within which I carry further into the World

through blond and blue-eyed progeny father’s fathers

clan-name Wah from Canton east across the bridges

in the bioplasmic cloud of simple other organism

as close as out under the apple tree?


There is a clear autobiographical sentiment that motivates this passage as he continually comes to reference his family name, Wah, part of what the lyric speaker seems to “breathe with a sigh.”  What does it mean to be a mixed-race subject, of Chinese-Swedish heritage, and be able to “pass” for white?  The references here to “migrations,” “spumes,” and “bioplasm,” do center the instability of what is nature, what is meant to be part of a specific genealogy.  What does one inherit and what does one learn?  It is here in this more narratively driven sections that the poetry collection begins to gain more and more traction, taking on a kind of snowball’s poetic effect: 


waiting for sasketchewan

and the origins grandparents countries places converged

europe asia railroads carpenters nailed grain elevators

Swift Current my grandmother in her house he built on the street

and him his cafes namely the ‘Elite’ for Center

looked straight ahead Sasketchewan points to it

Erickson Wah Trimble houses train station tracks

arrowed into downtown fine clay dirt prairie wind waiting

for Saskatchewan to appear for me again over the edge

horses led to the huge sky the weight and colour of it

over the mountains as if the mass owed me such appearance

against the hard edge of it sits on my fore head

as the most political place I know these places these strips

laid beyond horizon for eyesight the city so I won’t have to go

near it as origin town flatness appears later in my stomach why

why on earth would they land in such a place of Pleistocene

sediment plate wedge arrow sky break horizon still waiting for that

I want it back, wait in this drunk Christmas night

for that largeness of itself my body to get complete

it still owes me, it does


The sense of displacement embodies the lyric speaker here, as he admits, “I want it back, wait in this drunk Christmas night/ for that largeness of itself my body to get complete/ it still owes me, it does.”  The question of origin points returns here as Europe and Asia as separate lineages collide together and meet in Canada, as the speaker is “waiting for Saskatchewan,” waiting then perhaps for this sense of completeness, attached to some finite geography. 


Wah’s work is certainly a challenge, but a productive one and one hopes that a definitive collection will appear that reprints and makes accessible some of his works that seem to have gone out of print.  It is difficult to make full sense of a trajectory of his poetry given the fact that I have no yet read enough of his work, but there is a unified sense that he is invested very much in the density and texture of language, not simply written, but the way that it sounds and the way that meaning can both be amplified, disarticulated, and subverted. 


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 A Review of C. Dale Young’s The Day Underneath the Day


ETA:  I did not realize this review would get out into the world so quickly.  I apologize for the typos in the initial post, but I am still very much in the editing stages of the review =).  

One of the challenges wrought by the emergence of ethnic studies and the positing of specific racial designations as a way to institutionalize ethnic studies has been the problematic of mixed race.  Such issues have certainly been an issue in the arena of Asian American literature.  How does one posit the work of someone of mixed-race background without eliding it under the rubric of a racial designation?  When C. Dale Young was included in Victoria Chang’s anthology on Asian American poets, Young’s work immediately brings to mind the problematics of “identity” and “race” as taxonomies for literary bodies.  Further, the content of his poetry cannot be subsumed under strict questions of his mixed-race background.  Instead, both The Day Underneath the Day (TriQuarterly Books 2001) and The Second Person: Poems (FourWay Books 2007) seem most influenced by Young’s background as a physician.  He embarks more broadly on what I would call “medicinal poetics,” employing the body, anatomy, and other such related signifiers as terrains upon which he can deploy his crystalline lyrics, but reading either poetry collections solely through this lens would fail to capture its complexity. In an interview with Dan Wickett conducted on 5/21/2005, Wickett asks Young about the label of “Asian-American,” to which he responds, I never think of myself in terms of labels, but others are more than happy to do that for me.  Hence panels such as the one you mention.  I am C. Dale Young.  That is good enough for me.  Latino, Asian, Indian, Gay, whatever.  Those are terms others foist on you.  I always live in many worlds, even when it comes to work.  How schizophrenic to try to label everything you do.  I don't stop during the day and say: ‘Now I am a doctor, and now a teacher, and now a poet.’  That is absurd.  I am proud of being Latino and Chinese and East Indian and Caucasian.  I am proud to be a gay man, a doctor, a poet, an editor, a teacher.  I am proud to be a son, a partner, a brother, etc.  But none of these labels take precedence over the fact I am me.”  This understanding of “me” resonates throughout both collections as the lyrics explore issues of genealogy, death, love, and other such major thematics. 


From the very beginning of The Day Underneath the Day, readers will observe the centrality of the body, in which the very first poem, “Home to William Carlos Williams” is separated into three parts, the first entitled, “The Body,” the second, “Corpus,” and the third, “The Body in Bloom.”  However, the body quickly becomes a metaphor one kind of landscape of meditation, one that arcs out within the collection to scenic vistas.  Indeed, it is the lyric speaker’s relationship to these various places wrought with such incredible detail and precision.  Take for example, “The Field,” which is reprinted here in full:


The hum of wood lice,

the way it



the frequency of C#,

the way it is heard

only in close



to the rotting tree

that stands alone


in the field;

the wildflowers,

their colors, the fact


they are nothing

but weeds, their leaves

prickly like weeds,


the grasses, greens

easily separated

by the trained eye


into celadon, civette,

patina, veronese, reseda,

the common leaf-green


or shoe-bottom mold;

only with such detail

do I love you—


the paper-thin curls of bark

on our shirts, the dry grass

falling from our hair (12).

Characteristic of Young’s poetry is the way an exterior landscape serves as a dialoguing apparatus.  In “The Field,” the various scenes that the speaker observes allow him to meditate on love and its relationship to what he can see, what we can remember.  The poem’s poignancy appears with the turn of the lyrics, “only with such detail/do I love you,” the sense that memory in all of its intricacy remains there because of affectual resonance.  The enactment of this metaphor where the field’s description stands for the speaker’s depth of love succeeds through the vivacity of sound and sight, especially of color.  The poem reaches a sort of climax by the different ways in which green is described in an array of shades, then we understand, all the shades of love. 


            Young’s poetry does not shy away from his unique mixed race background, especially as it posited through the Caribbean.  The second half of the collection moves more firmly into a transnational context where the United States is placed in conversation with Jamaica.  The “Footbridge in Summer,” roughly located halfway through enacts this “bridging” of anatomical bodies, loving bodies, to racialized bodies: 


The Footbridge in Summer


The shadow that is mold, dark and crusted

like the scum on the frog’s back, has been encouraged

to run the railing and the rotting stump,


and I have pushed the sky out of the picture,

banned every cloud so as to free the lake

of the broad, slap-dashed reflections.


Even now the sun darkens my face,

darker still in this shimmering mirror

where herons see the hymn of the common bream


darting in pairs around a funnel of water.

What my grandparents left to me, the sound

of the Caribbean, its repetitions, is disappearing.


Ruckus of algae in later afternoon, ruckus

of the anhinga moving out over the lake,

the air beneath its wings sounding arcs across the water (27).


Here, the external landscape much like in “The Field” acts as an apparatus for the lyric speaker to meditate upon a particular situation or instance.  Images of light and darkness are key to this poem suggesting where there is a desire to see into a genealogical past, to grab hold of what is left.  This loss is felt keenly in the lines, “What my grandparents left to me, the sound of the Caribbean, its repetitions, is disappearing.”  One wonders though by freeing the lake of clouds and making his reflection more “clear,” how was it that the lyric speaker supposed a kind of recovery?  The way in which nature exists as an overwhelming force draws attention to the difficulty in establishing the quietude the speaker requires to find “himself,” as both the mold and algae are becoming ever more plentiful, even suffocating.  The darkness of the “face” does seem to resonate against a possible racializing metaphor, that is not completely uncovered until the later poems, where the lyrics move us directly into the Caribbean.  If this loss of the “sound/ of the Caribbean” is occurring, how can such loss be interrogated, challenged, or even overturned? 

            I leave this review with Devon House, the poem that takes as its subject matter the historical monument in Kingston, Jamaica.  The Devon House was home to one of the wealthiest African Caribbean millionaires during the 1800s:


“Devon House”


--Kingston, Jamaica


Lamps have begun to light as evening,

alluvial, fills every crevice in the courtyard,


fills Devon House, alone with its marble columns,

its verandas and esplanades empty,


the plantation gone, and the fields,

the courtyard a tourist attraction now:


glass ashtrays etched with boys

too large to be clambering coconut trees,


statuettes of women too smooth to be burdened

with baskets of fruit on their heads, stoneware


with doctor birds captured in the shallowest bas-relief,

key rings carved in the rough shape of the island;


and now even the hummingbirds are spoken of as jewels

where once everyone drowned in leaf-filtered sunlight (53).


This poem immediately generates a temporal dissonance between a period of time in Jamaican history where the Devon House might have been home to a different population with highly stratified social conventions.  Bodies have literally become replicated in artistic form that allude to this past, but yet aestheticize them.  Particularly important to the politic of the this poem appears with the lines “statuettes of women too smooth to be burdened/ with baskets of fruit on their heads,” a sense then of a laboring past that goes unnoticed.  Why would such a history be forgotten?  A quick survey of the internet sources exploring the Devon House serves to introduce it as a perfect tourist destination, a place to be observed for its beauty, rather than for the history it might invoke.  Practically all the guides avoid the fact that the Devon House was a former slave plantation, instead concentrating on other qualities, like the fact that you can visit there and eat its famous ice cream.  Young’s poetics recover this past, reminding it was a place “where once everyone drowned in leaf-filtered sunlight.”  The dissonance between the beauty of Young's poetry often clashes against its very grave content, amplifying the collection's affectual power.  Yet another essential addition to the variegated body that is "Asian American" literature.  


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Victoria Chang Mega-Post

I primarily know of Victoria Chang through the introduction to one of the most recent Asian American poetry anthologies, a polemically structured work that delineated generational lines between earlier activist-centered poets and the generation currently producing many of the newest poetry collections, many of which I have been reviewing on this blog.  In this Victoria Chang mega-post, I review Circle (2005, Southern Illinois University Press) and Salvinia Molesta (2008, University of Georgia Press).  One of the interesting tidbits about Chang’s background is that she holds an MBA degree and one can see how this educational and professional trajectory influences her work. 

The title of Chang’s first work clearly articulates one of the lyric goals of the entire collection, which “revolves” around various poems that together formulate a figurative geometry.  The first section, “On Quitting,” certainly mobilizes this geometry in considering the intricacies in various relationships, often romantic in nature.  One poem that demonstrates this circularity is “KitchenAid Epicurean Sand Mixer,” which is partly reprinted here:

KitchenAids still line the shelves at Williams-Sonoma
In military formations on her thirty-third birthday.
Their smooth bodies feel like butterfat,
Curves covered with enamel, boasting form and function.
Her eyes meet the hunter green one in the middle,
Everything she’s wanted in life in this box,
Never imagined she would not be married by now,
And still living with a roommate in a flat,
Intimate with a new man every weigh months,
Dancing in circles, spinning round and round (17).

The inventiveness of this poem lies partly in seeing that the first letter of each line corresponds to another lyric that moves vertically down the page, written out as “A Good Housewife Has a KitchenAid,” with the KitchenAid portion shown here.  Of course, there is a sense of domestic expectations for the lyric speaker here, who finds her life “dancing in circles, spinning round and round,” but many of the lyric characters who appear throughout “On Quitting” are suffering some sort of challenge in their lives.  The images here are ones of contradiction, where even as the KitchenAids are “smooth… like butterfat,” they nevertheless appear in “military formations” and “boasting form and function.”  There is the sense of a genuine disconnect between her life and the one she idealized and it is this emptiness that pervades the poem.

In “Five Year Plan,” Chang highlights the more transnational nature of her poetics, where some poems reference immigration, Asian American identity, and Chinese history, and the ways in which these various rubrics might be seen to function in tandem or in collision with each other.  In the opening lines, the lyric speaker considers what it means to be a Chinese American woman:

A good Chinese American housewife has a five-year plan.
It’s strategic, sparse,

menacing.  It stutters at nothing, a tin present tense, perhaps
a new VCR

in two years.  A good Chinese American daughter washes
windows and retains

curvatures.  And when I revise my five-year plan
to exclude window-

washing, to include speaker of the house in two years, in four,
maybe president (28).

This poem extends more largely Chang’s concern for the position and experiences that women have in contemporary life.  Here, the lyric speaker upends the desire for certain legitimate trajectories.  In this respect, the poem already dialogues with the “A Good Housewife Has A KitchenAid,” by the more active resistance suggested by this speaker who “revises” the five year-plan and expands her ambitions to include major governmental positions.  Whether or not such possibilities are likely is not the concern, but rather to de-stabilize the expectation that the Chinese American housewife should be expected to wash windows.  The reference to the five year plan also has other potential resonances, especially as these are commonly employed in governments as reform measures, with five-year plans being particularly employed in Chinese communist governmental policies.  Such a conflation is welcomed by Chang’s Circle as the collection can and does move transnationally and through different temporalities.  The first poem in “Limits,” entitled “Lantern Festival,” takes on the atrocities that occurred during the “rape of Nanking”:

Some hang like accordions, honoring the arrival of a newborn,
others hang still like moons,

red ones line up in a row on a metal thread over scents
of sticky rice balls smoking in soup,

round ones glow in the wind, sockets firing up
one after another.

No!  I am wrong, the round ones lash in the wind:

they are human heads, gutted and plucked from bodies that were
sipping stalks of choy sum, or

excavating daikon, or stabbing fish in the river, or trimming
pork loins for evening porridge.

And they hang in a row for decoration, foreheads bumping
into each other,

glowing like a galaxy of holiday lights, honoring
the arrival of the new,

that always, always turns into the next target,
the minute it is named (47).

This poem is particularly gruesome as it begins with the promise of another generation in comparing what seem to be lanterns to “accordions,” an ambience of merriment amid festivals.  The turn that appears in the fourth stanza re-orients and disorients the reader as well as the lyric speaker who comes to realize that these hanging lanterns are actually human bodies.  The future is not simply terminated by the presence of so many dead.  Instead, these severed heads mark the reproductive cycles of violence, “that always, always turns into the next target, the minute it is named.” 

In Salvinia Molesta, Chang continues some of the themes made apparent in Circle.  For instance, she investigates the tragic death of scholar and journalist, Iris Chang, author of Rape of Nanking, who committed suicide before the completion of her book that was to be on the Bataan Death March.  Prior to her death, she had been experiencing significant psychological problems, but none that necessarily prefigured her early demise.  Chang’s “Ode to Iris Chang” honors Iris Chang’s life and continues an archival lyric depicting the incredibly savage Nanking massacre.  This particular approach grants Chang a larger space to consider Japan’s imperial and colonial campaigns during the early 20th century that included it’s the Sino-Japanese War as well as the colonial occupation of Korea.  “Bindweeds” considers the ways in which historians are complict with problematic versions of the past:

A Japanese historian
hunches over his desk,

prints characters on warm paper
about rising buildings,

new postures of steel,
invention of the rice cooker.

He leaves out the soldiers
who had paid a fee, obtained

a ticket and a condom,
who had been led to a space

partitioned with sheets—
a pillow, a tatami mat,

a Korean woman (17).

Here, there is the immediate sense of historical revisionism, at least in the sense that there is not a multiperspectivalism that generates the problematic valences of Japan’s past.  The lyrics underscore how the historian sees fit to draw Japan through its heroisms and its various modernities, where “invention” and new buildings overtake any references to Korean comfort women, sexual slaves for the Japanese army.  What other “inventions” the lyrics seem to suggest exist beyond technological innovation.  How then might history be considered an “invention” and what then does it erase.  It is the first section that moves most transnationally to consider this question, as Chang moves on to also re-envision the 2-28 Massacre that occurred following the KMT’s occupation of Taiwan. 
In “Union,” Chang returns to lyric considerations of the Nanjing massacre.  In this case, the lyric speaker considers the ways in which her scholarly study of the event and her research collide against her own reality: 

Red-lidded, I have been here for hours,
old books smell of wood with flattened

moths.  Pictures of Chinese hung by
their tongues.  Bodies heaped into one

another—a man’s head, another’s arms,
a woman’s white legs.  Munch’s lovers

kissing so hard, their faces fatten into one.
My stack of dollar books, the cash register

opening like a tongue stuck out, the old
one-armed man at the desk, his glasses that

have begun to drowse—what it must be like
to hug him, how his one good arm and

my right one might circle our bodies, how
they might shiver, form a perfect set (19). 

One is reminded of “Lantern festival” here, but Chang is more deliberate in situating the lyric speaker’s own reaction to visually gruesome photographs.  In the process of an aestheticization of violence, “Union” seems to consider the impact of such historical events on one’s reality.  In this case, the speaker imagines her place in what seems to be a used bookstore in relation to the cashier.  Their connection to each other is placed in a grotesque comparison to the dead from the Nanjing massacre, so one reads the last lines dubiously, “how/ they might shiver, form a perfect set.”  It would seem that the word “shiver” is the “tell” here in challenging the so-called perfection of the titular union.  But, more largely then, if individuals are so easily melded together, there is a sense that bodies and their parts cannot be extricated from the collective that posits them as victims.  The poem therefore seems to be a meditation on the possibilities of excavating personal histories in the form of mass trauma. 

Much of the third section from Salvinia Molesta is devoted to lyric considerations of Clifford Baxter, as a way into thinking about commodity capitalism.  Clifford Baxter was one of the individuals connected to the Enron executive collapse and who later killed himself.  It is this section that seems to evoke Chang’s background as someone in finance.  The first poem from this section, “Currency,” sets up the final sections consideration of the global economy.  Given the current economic crisis, this poem seems particularly prescient: 


The Federal Reserve adjusts, raises,
lowers, and we follow, predictably,

to purchase the milk or to hold off
on the love seat.  In God We Trust

labels the backs of bills to reveal
that bills are backed by faith,

while we are and search pockets for
more.  Days never change tempo,

a metronome stuck on moderato,
even on our last day, when flies

seem to crawl and sparrows suspend
in air.  Each day a thirsty dog and

an old man wanders the streets, no
longer in season, or having currency,

they leave the same smell behind—
of resin, of garbage, that near-death

odor—how easily we exchange them.
how easily we create more (53).

There is the sense here of economic monotony pervading contemporary life, reducing all things and individuals to desultory relationships.  As a conclusion to the collection, the various poems that focus on Clifford Baxter and economic relations more generally serve to contour the problematic ways in which intersubjective encounters are increasingly contained through monetary concerns.  We see strains of Karl Marx and Georg Simmel influencing a “financial politics” that the collection advocates. 

In the incredibly rich terrain of Asian American poetry, Chang shines as a major literary and creative force in the years to come.  Like many of the poets I have already reviewed here, we can only hope that she continues to produce such wonderfully nuanced work.

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<lj-cut text="Review This-A-Way">

A Review of Vandana Khanna’s Train to Agra

This collection was wonderful to read up against Vazirani’s World Hotel because both travel and traffic in similar geographies.  I’m most interested in speaking about Train to Agra as a collection invested in identity, migration, and tourism.  Many of the poems are concerned with the question of what it means to be a second generation South Asian American, specifically an Indian American and how that collides against certain expectations as one travels back to the “homeland.”  Khanna was awarded the Crab Orchard Series First Book poetry prize for Train to Agra and it was published in September of 2001.  One hopes though that Khanna will continue to publish in this medium as she has a clear penchant for exposing the nuances of place, space, and the politics of mobility. 

The question of “homeland” is immediately queried in the first poem, “Spell,” in which the lyric speaker admits:

We traveled the city like we didn’t belong, a place I should call home

but as foreign to me as to you.  And you?  Who can say why you cried?
two miles from the Taj in the city proper.  My aunt thought it was the heat.

Maybe it was roaming the cluttered streets, no face your own,
or that smell when we stepped off the plane (5). 

What is interesting is that there is a definite sense that the lyric speaker here is an Indian American traveling abroad to a location that she should have a particular ethnic affiliation to, but that the feeling that emerges is one rather of estrangement.  Interestingly, this affectual impulse is mirrored by the friend who has “no face” to call one’s “own,” a sense then that her physical difference marks her as always-already foreign.  The poem is a fascinating contemplation of the ways in which subjects find themselves Othered, but that this process of being de-familiarized is not always clear-cut nor direct.  The poem is thus a meditation of this process of alienation that the traveling subject may face.  Of course, there is always the larger question revolving around the politics of mobility.  The notion that the “smell” could function to cause someone discomfort suggests a certain kind of cosmopolitan class difference that strikes negatively upon the lyric speaker’s friend.  Regardless, the root of her tears cannot easily be found. 

Likewise, in “Dun” this sentiment of estrangement is focalized on a young child, who for the first time, sees India by plane:

I had seen pictures, imagined the green teardrop of a map
lined with blue veins.  Instead, everything looked flattened,
rubbed down by a rolling pin.  I thought, I can’t go; each rut
and curve would singe my feet.  Everything lacked green,
not at all like the glossy world my mother had shown us
in the atlas, trying to orient, to give a picture (11).
The ways in which imagination and mapping collide with the child’s visual field here is remarkable.  There is that sense of expectation that is shattered spectacularly when the fertility and vitality that she has accorded greens and blues is replaced with other more muted hues.  Further, the child’s sense that “each rut/and curve would singe my feet” emphasizes that sense that she will find the landscape inhospitable to her very body, where its potential aridity burns rather than nourishes.  The play on words with “trying to orient,” is useful here in that even as she attempts to situate her own location vis-à-vis the landscape, a kind of cognitive mapping if you will, she is traveling to Asia, what has been called the Orient. 

In contrast, the expectations that a lyric speaker has as an adult infiltrates other poems that follow.  The touristic gaze is once again invoked

The only thing we wanted we couldn’t have:
water—unbottled, unboiled-pure sweet,
American-tasting water.  With every sip,
a prayer to one of the gods: the god of good
health and an easy flight home, the god of
treasures hidden away in crowded street stalls.
There were other things, of course—trinkets
made of colored glass, hand-painted-boxes, raw
silk—anything to saw we had been there.  Something
to hang on the walls of our tiny apartments.  We were
looking for the gods, for the one thing
that shimmered more than silver, a pyramid
or temple, a country-something we couldn’t fit
into our pockets.  We wanted the India of postcards
with our faces on the front.  Under all that glitter,
we wanted the shards of something we can’t name (15).

I especially found this poem indicative of a kind of shift in the touristic gaze.  Whereas many poems focus on estrangement and alienation from the “homeland,” in this, there is that sense of something unfamiliar and uncomfortable, the inability to find “American-tasting water.”  At the same time, the inability to take back home with them the “India of postcards/with our faces on the front” contrasts in that it shows the desire on the part of the speaker to return with something more than tiny mementos that come to stand in for that experience.  One might read this desire for this “something more” not simply then as the desire for another object, but evidence of their presence underneath the postcards that would never contain their faces.  How does one preserve the incredibly picturesque locations AND the sense of personal experience all at one time the poem seems to ask?

One final poem that deals with this emphasis on mobility, consumption, and commodifed gazes appears in “Domes.”

We should have gone on the train, the way
for travelers, tourists, ones who don’t belong.

I wanted a map of Agra, you wanted India
for your postcards—all the colors, stories

to tell your friends back in Boston.
We were hungry for all of it: the city

pressing against the car doors, the story
of the Taj found its way into our dreams.

Whatever happened to all those hands taken
from the workers, from those who built the Taj

step by step, sealing slabs of marble together
with their sweat?  We were blinded when the sun

first shown on it just like in the postcards, blinded
like the architect who designed it, so he could

only see it once, ordered to never build again,
only his mind remembering the color of marble

like teeth (25). 

In this poem, tourism comes to be effectively dismantled by the unveiling of the commodity fetish.  The Taj cannot be seen simply as a beautiful structure, the labor too much be excavated.  Here then the lyric speaker understands an alternative history that is encrypted in the very walls of the beautiful structure.  These is always the sense then that the gaze much be complicated through particular social and historical contexts. 

I end this review with a brief discussion of “Dot Head.”  I reprint a portion here:

A dot head,
a sang nigger—one of them who never
freckled during recess, smelled of curry

and spices, ate their sandwiches rolled up
in brown bread, skin dark as almonds.
Except they got it wrong.  No matter how

many times they rode by, chasing us
with words, with rocks and broken bottles
spitting at our backs, they got it wrong.

It was a sign of being blessed after temple,
of celebration when women wore them, red-gold
to match silver-threaded saris, to match red and green

glass bangles that shivered up their forearms, my brother’s
jagged, glittering more than a pundit’s thumbprint,
more than a holy mark, glittering (51). 

The reversal in “Dot Head” is empowering, especially as a way in which to revisit racially charged moments of childhood.  Whereas there is the potential sense of a kind of ethnic shame, the conclusion of the poem problematizes any such retreat through a lyrical explanation.  Indeed, the “dot” symbolizes so much more than the racialized abject and rendered her in precise and luminous images, its beauty challenges the ways in which it is subjected under the racist gaze.  Train to Agra always reminds us of these glances, the politics in looking, the power in observational consumption and the challenges and intricacies in transnational mobility. 

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A Review of Adrienne Su’s Middle Kingdom. 

A very useful biography of Adrienne Su appears here:

I’ve excerpted the portion most relevant to this review:
“Su is the author of these books of poems: Middle Kingdom (Alice James Books, 1997), Sanctuary (Manic D Press, 2006), and Having None of It (Manic D Press, forthcoming in January 2009). In 2007 she received a fellowship in poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts. A graduate of Harvard University and the University of Virginia, Su has had residencies at Yaddo, The MacDowell Colony, The Virginia Center for Creative Arts, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. In the summer of 2003, she was the resident poet at The Frost Place in Franconia, New Hampshire, the house where Robert Frost wrote many of his early poems.” 

Most notably, Su has a forthcoming poetry collection, which is always welcome news!  The title of Su’s Middle Kingdom clearly references China and connects to the ways in which her ethnic heritage appears as a focal point within many of her poems.  Generally, the poems invite the reader into small portraits of intimate moments, like a elderly woman lying in a hospital bed accompanied by her son.  It is this ability to carve out the personal and the familial that makes Middle Kingdom so successful. 

Middle Kingdom opens with a poem that reflects the general thematic ethnicity and race as a grounding theme for the collection:


There are many ways of saying Chinese
in American. One means restaurant.
Others mean comprador, coolie, green army.

I've been practicing
how to walk and talk,
how to dress, what to do in a silk shop.

How to talk. America: Meiguo,
second tone and third.
The beautiful country.

In second grade we watched films
on King in Atlanta.
How our nation was mistaken:

They said we had hidden the Japanese
in California.
Everyone apologized to me.

But I am from Eldorado Drive
in the suburbs. Sara Lee's
pound cake thaws in the heart

of the home, the parakeet bobs on a dowel,
night doesn't move. The slumber party
teems in its spot in the dark

summer; the swimming pool gleams.
Somewhere an inherited teapot is smashed
by a baseball. There may be spaces

in the wrong parts of the face,
but America bursts with things it was never meant
to have: the intent to outlast

the centerless acres,
the wedding cake tiered to heaven.
Every season a new crop of names,

like mine. It's different
because it fits on a typewriter,
because it's first in its line,

because it is Adrienne.
It's French.
It means artful (3).

The structure is this poem invites the reader to first think of the various ways that Chinese Americans have been racialized and/or stereotyped.  Of course, by the sixth stanza, Su presents an important turn that considers the quite pedestrian ways in which the lyric speaker might see herself and how she might define her life beyond elements of race and/or ethnicity.  In this respect, the poem does not rehearse the ethnic food trope as a way to define the individual as it is “Sara Lee pound cake” which can be found in the “heart of the home.”  The most interesting line of the poem appears when the lyric speaker divulges that “America bursts with things it never meant to have,” the amazing diversity and abundance it possesses, the continual ability for the country to expand in a variety of directions.  The lyric speaker considers the importance of the self-address, that is of her name, and what it means.  She is both Chinese American and she is artful, the poem seems to suggest.  And yet, the issue with race and ethnicity is not so easily pushed aside in these private moments.  In “At Seven I Mistake a Documentary on the Internment Camp for an Announcement to All Asians in America,” Su’s Middle Kingdom continues the mobilize the disorienting nature of Otherness:

What will Marsy do when she wants to go roller skating?
Who will look out for Kadar, who can’t bark?

Mom says Disneyland is in California.  So is Hollywood.
Maybe they’ll let us go, for good behavior.

The man behind the barbed wire is talking in subtitles.
He points to the white flag.  He says the red spot

is the blood of the Japanese people.  Everything he says
sounds like the two words I know: arigato, sayonara.

We’ll need to know more than that.  We’ll have to ask
for food, and everyone will laugh at us (11). 

This poem, like “Address,” functions within a general lyric form.  Whereas “Address” is characterized by three line stanzas of a relatively short length, “At Seven I Mistake a Documentary on the Internment Camp for an Announcement to All Asians in America” employs two line stanzas of uniform, but larger length.  The poem explores the ways in which the speaker identifies herself with Japanese American internees as a child, thus situating a more broadly conceived Asian American panethnicity.  At the same time, the child’s inability to fully comprehend that which she is watching is rendered spectacularly in her reductive reasoning, whether it be through the possibility of leaving camp Disneyland or Hollywood based on good behavior or that the speaker conflates the words being spoken in Japanese, letting them run together. 

Su’s Middle Kingdom is also very notable for its usage of form.  I was particularly pleased with the inclusion of the “sestina” which I haven’t seen employed too often or in ways that seem to fit the form’s repetitive nature.  I’ve printed two excerpts below from poems in which the “sestina” form is used.


You said the last word with your last
breath and I was not there to bury
it.  You spent your life writing
the note and intended
to go alone; you knew what
to say but poof! you were out (31). 

Shanghai ‘87

I follow a man and a thin woman up the stairs
of my mother’s house.  They are the first-floor family.
From a door on the second, a diminished woman
in a cotton gown watches.  Hers is the room
my aunts slept in before they joined the traffic
racing south, before the country shook its unbearable (62). 

The sestina contains six six-line stanzas with a concluding stanza of three sets and the poem is most structured around the concluding word of the lines of the first stanza.  In “Elegy,” for instance, these words are “last,” “bury,” “writing,” “intended”, “what,” and “out.”  These words are repeated at the conclusion of each lines in the following stanzas but in a particular order.  This cascading form has a definite hypnotic quality so the form relies upon the inventive ways in which the poet can make the repeating lines work dynamically.  “Elegy” is mobilized through the mourning of a lost friend, but what is important to note in terms of Su’s choice in the word selection is the varied ways in which they can be employed.   Whereas “intended” seems like the most rigid word of the six, “last” might be employed as a verb or an adjective in multiple iterations.  Su capitalizes on such variance within “Elegy” continually energizing the poem forward.  Interestingly, Su relies mostly on nouns for the repeated words in “Shanghai ’87.”  Whereas “Elegy” is much more abstract in quality and tone, one can see how this abstraction can be situated on the repetitive word phrases.  “Shanghai ‘87” is considerably more imagistic, providing the readers a sense of modern China’s move toward urbanization.  The repeated word emphasize both space and density and populations and thus augment the poem’s overall content and theme. 

I conclude this review with “China,” a poem that epitomizes Su’s effectively tangible lyrics:

You are all strange and what am I doing
without a plan?

Nothing along the train tracks.
Too much sugar in the lotus-root pudding—

My personal Narnia
is not personal at all.

After dinner we slurp noodles
and a boiled egg

so everyone will live forever
like the shining idea

of the other hand, blessed
by the one good spirit

whose breath
rustles the fine crop—

like the people everywhere wishing,
as they enter sleep,

to sway in those long fields
far away, without season (64). 

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A Review of Nick Carbó’s Andalusian Dawn


Andalusian Dawn is Nick Carbó’s third poetry collection (Cherry Grove Collections, 2007) after El Grupo McDonald’s (1995) and Secret Asian Man (2000).  He is also an active anthologist having compiled works related to Filipino American literature and poetics. 


Andalusian Dawn is especially a departure from Secret Asian Man, which imagines a Filipino/American superhero type character who attempts to re-fashion himself into a poet, in that it takes a divergent geographical approach, choosing to begin the collection with lyric poems that consider the vitality of Spain to the lyric speaker’s meditations.  In “Robo,” Carbó immediately establishes the importance of Andalusia to the collection:

I must admit to this outright theft.
Before the crickets could impede me,

I reached outside my window
to grab as much of Andalusia as

I could in the palm of my hand.
I took the evening’s silver

from the olive trees, the yellow slumber
from the lemons, the recipe for gazpacho.

I made a small incision in my heart
and slipped in as much as my left

and right ventricles could hold.
I reached for a pen and a piece of paper

to ease-out the land into this poem.
I closed the small incision in my heart

and closed the wooden shutters
of my window (16).

The lyric speaker employs the Andalusian history, culture, geography, and landscape as a kind of poetic muse.  Much like Linh Dinh’s work (I’m thinking of course here of Linh Dinh’s outstandingly dynamic collection, Borderless Bodies), Carbo’s poetry is often very playful and the first line is an indicator of his flexible employment of language, likening his Andalusian-inspired poetry as a kind of theft.  The poem thus proceeds to show the “value,” why it is that the readers too can understand why the speaker would want to steal that which is not his.  In simple and direct lyrics, augmented by a geometric form, the poetry collection is born here and the poems that follow draw from the speaker’s enchantment with Andalusia.  An excellent example of the mesmerizing effect of Andalusia occurs in “Humedad,” which is reprinted here:


On a humid night like this—
olive leaves turn silver,
air is as still as a statue of a saint,
mosquitos come out with their neumatic tools
to drill for four thousand red blood cells. 

On a humid night like this—
figs on the fig trees shake their bellies
and laugh their way into a purple ripeness,
the farmer’s young wife down the dirt road slaps
a mosquito on her naked thigh (21).

Carbo returns to certain vivid images such as olive trees and here “olive leaves” which turn “silver.”  The interlingual valence of the entire collection is elucidated here through the title of the poem which when translated into its clear English cognate means humidity.  Like “Robo” which has a geometric symmetry in its two-line stanzas, here the the poem is constructed with a gentle refrain “On a humid night like this,” with stanzas constructed of five lines each.  In each stanza, figurative language stands to texturize each image.  In the first stanza, the lyric speaker muses on the “air,” which is described as “still as a statue of a saint,” at atmospheric description that is immediately complicated by the following lines.  Even in this apparent stillness, there are various kinds of activity taking place, including the nocturnal quests of mosquitos and the ripening of fruits, whose progress toward ripening is described through a wonderfully inventive personification.  
In second 2, the collection moves backwards in time, as evidenced by its title, “Songs of Ancient Arab Andalusia” where early Arab Andalusian poets loom large.  Much of the these lyrics seem to provide dialogues with poems written in this early Spanish period.  Of course, given Carbo’s own poetic inspiration, Federico Garcia Lorca, his choice to set this section in “Arab Andalusia” does recall Lorca’s own high estimation of these poets.  The final section perhaps complicates the collection’s affinity with Spain by presenting a different landscape, a different history, one irreparably connected to Spain, that of course, being the Philippines.  It is here where the kind of legibility accorded to the Asian American poet might most easily be found, but its resonance especially against the different ways in which the lyric speaker interfaces with unique set of temporal and spatial contexts is nevertheless much appreciated.  “Capis Windows” begins with exactly this sentiment of familiarity and distance as the speaker walks through the Manila streets: 

“Capis Windows”

How do you enter that Manila
frame of mind, that woven
mat of noodle house restaurants,

that dawn of tapis tasting women,
that hankering of hourly hauntings?
Drive along Roxas Boulevard

when the moon has just clocked
out of third shift and the sea horses
are returning to their feeding stables.

Walk the afternoon trees of Taft Avenue
and talk to the mechanics of Sunday
medicine.  Ask them for recipes

to cure fire-retardant love.  Bask
in the baying of mahogany dogs on Mabini
street and pass through the red

wrought iron gates of Calle Remedios
where you’ll find a house with capis windows
where Dona Inez waits to sew your skin (60). 

Entering that Manila frame of mind seems to be related through the discrete particularity of images and streets, food and even specific individuals.  This poem is so exquisitely crafted in terms of its sound quality.  I have thought about this factor much in my enjoyment of poetry ever since Lee Ann Roripaugh’s Year of the Snake.  I especially enjoyed the last two stanzas where the alliterative repetition of “b,” “m,” and “w” sounds continue to ring outward as the lines move onward.  Everywhere the poem confounds through subversive word usage.  For instance, this line, “Walk the afternoon trees of Taft Avenue and talk to the mechanics of Sunday medicine” already challenges our preconceptions of what it means to “walk” and what sort of information we might receive from “mechanics,” especially as they have the “recipes/ to cure fire-retardant love.”  I end this review with some photographs culled from the internet which include both an Andalusian dawn and a “capis window" and the reference to "Roxas Boulevard." 


Here is apparently an Andalusian Dawn, pretty beautiful huh?


A capis window!

And finally, Roxas Boulevard:


[identity profile] stephenhongsohn.livejournal.com

A Review of Timothy Liu’s Burnt Offerings, Say Goodnight, and Of Thee I Sing

    Timothy Liu is the author of numerous poetry collections, including Vox Angelica (Alice James Books, 1992), Burnt Offerings (Copper Canyon Press, 1995), Say Good Night (Copper Canyon Press, 1998), Hard Evidence (Talisman House, 2001), Of Thee I Sing (University of Georgia Press, 2004), and For Dust Thou Art (Southern Illinois University Press, 2005), and apparently with another forthcoming from Talisman House in late 2008, early 2009. Liu is currently an Associate Professor of English at William Paterson University located in Wayne, New Jersey.  Born in 1965 in San Jose, California, Liu, of Chinese descent, schooled at various universities including University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Brigham Young, and University of Houston.  Like Cathy Song, Liu’s first poetry collection, Vox Angelica, would set a distinct and distinguished path, in that it heralded the importance of queer sexuality as one main thematic to Liu’s lyrics.  In this respect, Liu stands out among Asian America poets; some might say his inspiration has much more to do with Walt Whitman (as much of his own poetry does reference him) as well as contemporary queer poets such as Thom Gunn, Allen Ginsburg, Mark Doty, and Adrienne Rich than Asian American writers like Li-Young Lee or Marilyn Chin.  Central to Liu’s lyric is the graphic nature of queer desire in its variant forms whether it occurs in public spaces of restrooms and rest stops or in the supposed privacy of the bedroom.

    In this Timothy Liu mega-post, I review Burnt Offerings, Say Goodnight, and Of Thee I Sing.  The title to Liu’s Burnt Offerings already suggests the trope of sacrifice, much of which can be attributed to Liu’s consideration of an entire generation of queer men who tragically died during the first decade of the continuing AIDS pandemic.  Burnt Offerings immediately begins with the question of queer men in “Thoreau”:

My father and I will have no place to go.
His wife will not let us in the house –
afraid of catching AIDS.  She thinks
sleeping with men is more than a sin,
my fathers says, as we sit on the curb
in front of someone else’s house (10).

It is unclear whether or not this wife is the lyric speaker’s mother, but the way in which the speaker states that it is his father’s wife instead of his own mother does suggest that there is already a familial gap.  Of course, this divide is furthered by the admission that the speaker is homosexual and therefore assumed to have AIDS.  Given the temporal context of the poetry collection when protease inhibitors were just starting to be employed, AIDS and HIV infection were still immediately viewed as death sentences.  The title of this poem though speaks also to the different inspirations that can be found in Liu’s poetry, much of which can be drawn from the American transcendentalists in that there is a desire to commune with the body among nature, to reach into the self and excavate one’s true “core.”  In “Reading Whitman in a Toilet Stall,” the lyric speaker finds himself reading Whitman in a toilet stall and looking for inspiration:

O daguerrotyped Walt, your collar
unbuttoned, hat lopsided, hand on hip, your sex
never evading our view!  how we are confined
by steel partitions, dates and initials carved
into the latest coat of paint, an old car key

the implement of our secret desires (12).  

The lament being made here to Walt Whitman arises from a promise unfulfilled in relation to the possibilities for sexual desire to proliferate, much as it is implied in much of Whitman’s poetry, certainly in “Song of Myself.”  Especially in relation to queer desire, the partitions not only evoke the toilet stall walls, but also the inability for homosexuality to appear uncloseted.  Instead, encrypted languages emerge as car keys are employed to scrawl requests for a particular type of sexual partners.  There is never the sense that these sex acts are themselves deviant, merely that they must be consistently hidden from view and complicated through surreptitious symbols and codes.  The lyric speaker seems to suggest, if only queer sexuality might emerge so spectacularly as that image of Whitman in his mind.  

The incredibly lyrical nature of Liu’s poetry is embodied in one of the concluding poems, “Across the River,” which is one of my personal favorites:

A steady wind.  A childhood
that waits for us as daffodils
shed their husks on a shore
where no one has wept for years.
There is another world, time
enough for walks, for testimonies
of wood in a cast-iron stove.
A descrescendo.  A wilderness
on fire.  Then rain.  Finally snow
with no one’s footprints in it (67).  

There is a certain surrealistic and strangely utopic quality to the landscapes being described here, where time seems to stop even as nature is buffeted by the elements.  If one considers the word “utopia” on its definitional level as a “no-place,” then “Across the River” interrogates this impossible location.  

Liu’s Say Goodnight evokes many of the similar thematics found in Burnt Offerings.  The connection to Walt Whitman is again re-established in “Oasis”:

Just off the Jersey Pike we saw it—
the Walt Whitman Service Area—our bladders
full, stomachs caught up in the rapture
of a Roy Rogers burger—a self-serve fast-food
feast: long lines of men standing behind
the urinals
. . . .
How those men kept filing in—truckers,
Boy Scouts, New Yorkers, bikers—no time it seemed to look for glory holes, to worship
at the altar of a stranger’s groin and taste
the infinite while wives and lovers
rummaged through a bargain bin in search of tunes
to play just once on a beat-up deck
for the ride back—a hard pack of Camel lights
and some change to spare on the burning
dash—none of us losing any time at all (85).

We are reminded from the earlier poem, “Reading Whitman in a Toilet Stall,” that queer sexuality in public restrooms isn’t so problematic as it is the way in which individuals feel required to conceal their desire.  The same issue seems to be at work in “Oasis,” as the lyric speaker perceives the possibilities for queer sexuality to emerge at this rest stop, but if such possibilities are thwarted, for what reason does this seem to be the case?  The fact that the lyric speaker ends with this sentiment “none of us losing any time at all” implies more likely the opposite, in the sense that by rushing from one location to another, there exists a lapse in the ability to see beyond the incredibly fecund intersubjective encounters that can happen.  There is of course a playfulness to this poem as the reference to Walt Whitman also appears in conjunction with Service Area, suggestive of sexual servicing in addition to its automobile assistance.  In addition, the sacred and profane are yoked together as it is the full stomach is in “rapture” because the lyric speaker has consumed a Roy Rogers chain-fast food restaurant burger.  

In “Strange Fruit,” the lyric speaker briefly meditates upon the continued prejudice levied against queers:

Spray-painted across a garage door.
No names to attach to the crime.

No cause for alarm—some lesbians
returning home to find their cats

still hanging from a coat rack
in the entry hall—Holiday’s muted

voice echoing through the house
on the CD player left on repeat (97).

While the tendency in Liu’s poetry is to concentrate on queer men, there is an obvious move outside of this framework here.  The explicit linkage between Billie Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit” to the hate crime posed here does serve to make a provocative cross-politic between sexual prejudice and racial discrimination.  The phrase “no cause for alarm” does appear ironically, as if no one should be bothered by what has happened to these women or their pets.  
Liu’s poetry also possesses an elegaic quality that appears in quiet domestic scenes.  In “Two Men in a Rest Home Looking Back at Us,” the lyric speaker considers the mortality of two men, presumably partnered and at the ends of their lives together:

One unable to speak to the other
slumped over in a chair—jaws working hard
to oil a mouth that only family
would kiss.  We are given one body only
youth a faded mask that never fit.
Would we get in bed with them, trying to love
what we will become—spent passion
like some recurring dream we carry
to the grave?  A calendar bearing
Michelangelo’s slaves—such eternal folds
of flesh touched by mortal hands (57).  

This poem draws me immediately back to Cathy Song in the poem’s consideration of aging and death.  Especially given queer cultures focus on youth, this lyric sequence considers the other end of the spectrum to the extent that physical beauty (at least in the normative sense) is so evacuated as to assume a state that “only family” could appreciate.  The lyric speaker places the representation of this aging couple against Michelangelo sculptures, figures with bodies that never age and therefore described as having “eternal folds/ of flesh.”  The rhetorical question that is asked is never quite answered here and instead interrogates the constant desire to remain youthful.  The poem thus seems to ask, what is lost when we can’t “love/what we will become”?  This poem also brings me back to Burnt Offerings, in evoking the “Strange Music,” reprinted here:

Strange Music

Men have seen their own graves at the edge
of clinic beds, afraid
the watches strapped to their wrists are nothing
       more than faces on clocks
still ticking in a childhood house.  To kneel
before a dying lover
is to know those calendars yellowing
         against a wall.  Sometimes
men stop eating. Just like that. No taste
to revive their tongues again.
Bells linger in the air long after
        pigeons fly up into
the afternoon, yet nothing endures
longer in the mind
than that echo of what we might have been.

Once again, the ephemerality of queer love appears as to weigh heavily on the mind of the lyric speaker, where time is so abbreviated as to be compared to “clocks still ticking in a childhood house.”  Whereas the actual time is truncated within these doomed relationships, the eternity of “what might have been” exists as a doleful lament for different futures and trajectories that never had the chance to be mapped.  Liu takes common images and always is able to transform them especially from the perspective of star-crossed, mortality-bound lovers.  

Of Thee I Sing continues to take up the trope of sacrifice, death, and queer sexuality in “The Expulsion.”  

Time will erode our darkest memories
as faces of ex-lovers start to fade
Nothing to hide, we lie beneath the trees

and linger in some surreptitious breeze
where kisses are blown to the edge of shade.  
Time will erode our fondest memories

as angels descent with vials of disease
to infect the love our bodies have made.
No place to hide, we kneel before the trees

and offer prayers in vain.  How to appease
the laws of nature we have disobeyed
even as time erodes, our memories

no match for the Almighty God’s decrees:
All shall burn till the debt in full be paid.
Too late to hid among Edenic trees

uprooted.  All of us down on our knees,
stripped of everything we own but a spade
in hand as death erodes our memories—
exhausted corpses laid beneath the trees” (15).  

This poem is certainly a wonderful example of Liu’s attention to form and structure; Liu’s three collections often include sonnet variations and his poems more generally ascribe to a uniform length and meter.  The “villanelle” is a wonderful choice for the content of this poem in that it has a dream-like and repetitive quality that focuses on particular themes and lyric motifs.  Here, the phrase “time will erode our darkest memories” is a risky beginning because it is so abstract in its meaning.  However, the poem will go on to explain how time erodes memories precisely as queer bodies age and die.  The “expulsion” alluded to in the title draws the collection back to the religious imagery that appears again and again throughout all three collections.  In this case, the “expulsion” refers to queer men who have been cast out of a kind of Eden for their sexual desires.  What is interesting here is that queer men are hastened to their deaths by angels who are the ones who delivers vials of what seems to allude to the HIV virus to their bodies.  There is a sense of repentance after the mortality of the queer body is made clear, hope that prayer can extend one’s life, but such possibilities are extinguished in this poem.  The appeal the religious powers seems to exists ironically as it is the angels themselves who participate in the reconfiguration of sexuality as being potentially lethal.  Further, instead of a life extension, the poem concludes with the image of corpses beneath trees.  It would seem that queer men are made to “dig their own graves” so speak.  The reference to “laws of nature we have disobeyed” once again makes clear that queer men are seen to be religious blasphemers for participating in homosexual actions.  While the poem seems to suggest repentant queer bodies, the tonality offered more largely is one of sadness and resignation at the loss of premature life.  

“Tenderness in a Dark Age” continues to the theme of queer mortality in the face of AIDS/HIV:

Shadows of headstones
lengthen as I burn

the photos—old lovers
wreathed in flame,

mouths still hungry
for whatever there was

to get—all of us
before an open grave

where one would survive
to bury the other (37).

The title refers to a “dark age,” elucidating a complicated time in which so many queer men lost scores of friends and lovers to the AIDS virus.  Consequently, the poem opens not with one shadow of one headstone, but rather with “shadows of headstones.”  Interestingly, there is a sense of that these “older lovers” still possess a kind of power with their “hungry” mouths.  In this respect, the lyric speaker suggests that such dead lovers cannot be easily forgotten, their desires still remembered and pressing against the lives of the living.  To a certain extent, such an admission calls attention to the ways in which discourses of AIDS/HIV cannot simply be extinguished.  In the case of the queer community, survival during this particular time period was predicated often on the death of so many that many continually were burying lovers, friends, and acquaintances.  

In “Bisexuality,” Liu offers one of his lighter poems that occasionally appear in “Of Thee I Sing.”  In the lyric scenario drawn out, a homosexual man is at a bar with a bisexual man:

His credentials?  He says he did it
with a boy or two long before
his pubes set in.  Says he’d
do it again were he not already
married.  Says his wife completely
understands, having done it
herself with a sorority girl
before they ever met.  I’m drinking
my beer as slowly as I can,
nursing it like the truth I know
will finally get told, peeling off
the labels on my Amstel light—
first the neck, working my way
on down the front, and then
the back.  This could take all night (41).  

The lyric speaker here seems unconvinced of his bisexual conversation partner’s bisexuality as he admits, “I’m drinking my beer as slowly as I can, nursing it like the truth I know will finally get told.”  In this case, there is the sense that if given enough time there will be some sort of admission in some form of a strong homosexual impulse.  The act of peeling off the labels from the Amstel light seems to invoke a metaphoric comparison of the actions that the speaker involves himself in—that is, he seeks to strip away the layers of closeting that his conversation partner might have put up, so that he can ultimately see if a queer sexuality is underneath and for the possibility of a sexual encounter with him.  The Amstel light bottle therefore echoes the male  body, both in its phallic structure and in the way that the labels appear analogous to clothing.

With queer Asian American literature being more generally under-investigated and under-utilized in the classroom, Liu offers much in illuminating queer sexualities in a variety of forms, situations, and lyric trajectories.    

Purchase Here

Say Goodnight: http://www.amazon.com/Say-Goodnight-Timothy-Liu/dp/1556590857
Burnt Offerings: http://www.amazon.com/Burnt-Offerings-Timothy-Liu/dp/1556591047/ref=sr_1_6?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1219708857&sr=1-6
Of Thee I sing: http://www.ugapress.uga.edu/0820326003.html
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A Review of Lee Ann Roripaugh’s Year of the Snake

Year of the Snake
(2004, Southern Illinois University Press) is Lee Ann Roripaugh’s second full length poetry collection after Beyond Heart Mountain (1999, Penguin Books), which was the winner of the 1998 National Poetry Series (selected by Ishmael Reed).  Roripaugh is an interesting poet to consider within the Asian American tradition because her artistic work has been clearly affected by her geographical upbringing in Wyoming.  Whereas so much of Asian American literary production has been confined to the Pacific West, this poetry provides a much needed and dynamic movement into the United States interior.  In this respect, even as her work is transnational in many respects, it could very much be argued as evoking American regionalist aesthetic practices.  Roripaugh holds a number of music degrees and as well as an MFA and is currently an Assistant Professor of English at University of South Dakota. 

Year of the Snake is an extremely imagistic collection.  I begin this review a little bit out of order because I was taken aback by one of the poems located near the end.  Entitled elliptically, “Hope” involves a folk-medical approach toward treating a sick goldfish.  Although the topicality might seem mundane or even completely disconnected to the title of the poem, the poem itself is lush and one finds it difficult to catch one’s breath; here is an excerpt:

There are nights I dream of goldfish,
and in my dreams they sing to me in
fluted, piercing sopranos like the Vienna
Boy’s Choir
. . . .
Their ovoid bodies are like Faberge eggs
filigreed with flakes of hammered gold,
a glittering armor of polished gill
plates, their dorsal fins elegant ribbed
silk fans that open when in motion,
and fold themselves shut in repose.
Clever pectoral fins maneuver and oscillate
like small propellers, and the circling
tails flare and twirl with the hypnotic
flourish of the toreador’s cape.  All
is endless metaphor here.  All of it (63).

This second stanza, which I’ve typed out in full, is specifically noteworthy for its sound quality.  The alliterative properties of the first four lines (Faberge, filigreed, flakes, fins and gold, gill) along with the assonance (repetition of “I” sounds) and consonance (“m” sounds and “g” sounds) all mobilize these lyrics forward within an intricate sonic web.  This stanza is largely indicative of Roripaugh’s collection as a whole where there is an obvious attention to sound quality inasmuch as lyrical content.  Here, the notion of “All is endless metaphor here” strikes against the title of the poem, “hope,” by suggesting that the ongoing dilemma that the lyrics will draw out will somehow involve the challenges experienced by goldfish.  Indeed, the last stanza sees the lyric speaker in a caretaker mode, acting as an armchair veterinarian for a sick goldfish:

And several hours later, the sheer veils
of tail and fin begin to bloom, to resume
their arabesques and veronicas around
the sleek shimmer of her white satin body—
the scandal of her scarlet cap dipping
coquettishly, onyx beads of eyes swiveling
in their turquoise socket rings.  She swam
around and around the clear glass bowl,
until my heart swung left and followed her
around and around from above the way
red-throated loons on the Island of Seto
circle and follow the fishing boats, tamed
by the fisherman, and calling out
with their strange and mournful cries (64).

Because Year of the Snake, as the title would suggest, is filled with animal imagery, the conclusion of this poem is fitting to other lyric threads introduced in earlier poems.  In one touching poem about childhood and the limits of animal mortality, “Loneliness,” the lyric speaker awakes to find out that the frogs that she was forced to leave outside in a holding container were baked in the sun.  In “Octopus,” the lyric speaker contemplates the strange qualities of an animal used so often for family meals.  And the collection’s title follows the movement of a multi-poem sequence in which the speaker considers the challenges of a biracial identity.  “Snake Song” opens Year of the Snake with this ordering template:

Ai-noko, half-case, I tilt
my head in the mirror first this way
then that—Horikoshi

cheekbones, Caucasian nose, my ojii-san’s
serious eyebrows
feathering like ink strokes over eyes

not quite green, not quite brown,
in the tranquil white moon of my face.
My blood runs hot and cold (1).

While one might be tempted to state this opening lyric sequence rehearses the oft-considered racial trope of the Asian American as tragically divided self, its rendering within lyric form attests to a more complex representational mode.  Everywhere, there is the sentiment of being halved, whether it be Asian or white, mixed eye-color, and different temperatures within the blood, but at the same time, Roripaugh effectively employs three line-stanzas throughout to suggest that there is always a thirdspace to be considered.  That is, the thirdspace of the lyric and the space that it allows to meditate on the experience of the biracial Asian American subject, who cleaved from the Pacific West grows up in the interiors of the United States.

Another important ordering frame for Year of the Snake lies in the relationship between the lyric speaker and her Japanese mother.  In two of poems most indicative this strain, “Antelope Jerky” and “Transplanting,” the lyric speaker finds herself learning various lessons from a woman that she often finds confounding.  “Antelope Jerky” describes the special recipe that the speaker’s mother employed to construct the titular food: “brown sugar, soy/ sauce, black pepper and Worcestshire,/ onion powder/ The leftover meat was fashioned/ into slitted/ strips, marinated overnight,/ then hung in rows/ over the wire oven racks.  Low/ heat for a day” (30).  One particular time though her mother cuts her thumb and must be rushed to the hospital to be stitched up.  This moment results in the lyric speaker realizing her physical similarity to her mother:

The doctor, he was so surprised
I was cutting
up an antelope, my mother

said later with
a strange kind of pride as she held
up her thumb, bruised

and swollen, the black ends of thread
from the stitches
wiry and poking up like twisted

insect legs—her
tiny thumb that, although without
the hook of purple

scar to interrupt the sig-
nature print’s swirl
and whorl, I see with a startling

flash is the same
thumb I now wear on my own
hand, my very own (31).

Like in many other poems, the three line stanzas reappear to provide a general form to the poetry collection.  This poem is in some ways reminiscent of an earlier poem I reviewed by Cathy Song in that a memory becomes the conduit through which to consider mother-daughter bonds.  Interestingly, this poem employs food as a unique way to lyrically depict ethnic adaptations as the mother creates her own dish, that of teriyaki antelope.  Whereas Sau-ling C. Wong employed the term “food pornography” as a way to describe the problematics of ethnic signifiers within Asian American literature, Roripaugh is constantly expounding upon food tropes in order to clarify the ways in which consumption and cuisine alter in different contexts. 

Year of the Snake glows resplendent in its lyric terrains.  The poems reviewed more in-depth here are just a snippet of the fecund poems that populate the collection.

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A Review of Amy Uyematsu’s Stone Bow Prayer

Amy Uyematsu’s Stone Bow Prayer (Copper Canyon Press, 2005) is an intriguing study in structure in that it employs the Chinese lunar calendar to organize the collection.   Stone Bow Prayer is also Uyematsu’s third poetry collection after 30 Miles from J-Town (Story Line Press, 1992) and Nights of Fire, Nights of Rain (Story Line Press, 1998).  Uyematsu is further known for co-editing Roots: An Asian-American Reader, considered by many to be the “first” Asian American themed anthology.  Unfortunately, for whatever reason, Roots has not received the kind of attention that Aiiieeeee! has generated over the last couple of decades.  Of course, Roots also diverged from Aiiieeeee! based upon a more concentrated focus on poetic selections and excerpts, a genre almost completely absent from the other collection.  Given Uyematsu’s early interest in Asian American poetics, her third poetry collection, Stone Bow Prayer does include influences of what might be termed activist poetics, but there are much more elements to consider in her aesthetics which traces feminist politics, the Japanese American internment, racial self-abjection, and the post-9/11 milieu.  By structuring the collection under the 12 months of the lunar calendar, but also employing the Japanese names for those months, Uyematsu is also able to mobilize a different set of themes within each section.  In this respect, there is a kind of poetic coherence to her work.  That Uyematsu employs an alternative temporal marking system does shift the way in which she clearly wants her work to be perceived.  That is, the poetry collection still operates in some ways with the intention of highlighting different and varied subject positions. 

In “What Doesn’t Die,” Uyematsu considers the ways in which specific racialized features might be reconceived.

The eyes passed on to me could only belong to an island
of such rare beauty, an accident of rock and fire rising out of
the cold Pacific to become this land grown lush with green,
still constantly fed from rain and stream and ocean mist.
Around any curve of our coastline there’s a pine forest
or waterfall, a sculptured cliff or cypress to greet us.
For as long as we can remember, everywhere we looked
was stunning.  Small wonder that our eyes
narrowed permanently, turning up at the ends as we laugh
with delight.  Only natural that my tribe would name
our members stone, valley, river, mountain tree (41). 

There is an interesting move here in which the genetic traits passed on to the speaker becomes more widely acknowledged through the appearance of the “we” who exists in this poem as “tribe.”  The beauty found all around Japan, whether it be from the foliage or the majestic vistas created from erosion, the speaker considers “Asiatic” ocular features to result from “delight” at so much visual stimulation.  The effectiveness of this poem lies in its focus on concrete images, clearly situating the reader in Japan.  Such a poem can be placed up against “The Fold” in which self-imposed racial abjection appears in the form of cosmetic surgery, specifically the creation of the epicanthic fold not common to many East Asians:

Even simpler than reducing a nose
or rewiring a smile: it takes
one quick hour to reshape the eye,
just a tiny incision,
bigger and rounder eyes growing more
common on both Pacific shores.

As long as most Asian women are born
missing this extra feature, doctors
like my uncle always have business,
five lid operations a week,
five times $3,500 will make everyone happy,
a popular gift from parents to daughters” (47).

What is interesting about this particular poem is that the lyric speaker, who we might understand to be a potential double for the author, has an uncle who participates in this business.  In a certain sense then, there is a profit being made by Asian Americans through cosmetic surgery which purports to make the Asian American woman look more “Western.”  Further, that parents are involved in this process through gift-giving increases the irony that Asian Americans participate in their own racial self-abjection by catering to the normative standards of “Western” beauty.  Whereas Japan as a geographical landscape is clearly delineated in the previous poem, here the United States exists as a obscured surgical location, devoid of certain concrete markers.  Both poems showcase Uyematsu’s rather accessible lyrics, which stand in contrast to the other vein of Asian American poets that borders on the experimental and avant-garde. 

“Simple Division” calls attention to the mathematical nature of the collection, a characteristic already grounded in the structure of the Chinese lunar calendar:

My history echoes
from small diameters—

120,000 issei and nisei
divided among 7 states

equals 10 barbed-wire
desert prison camps. 

In “The Fold,” the lyric speaker states exactly how much money is made through eyelid operations.  Likewise, “Simple Division,” ironically considers the ways in which Japanese Americans on the West Coast were rounded up and sent to internment camps.  The arbitrary and racist nature of these events is considered first through the word “simple” as if to suggest that this mathematically grounded solution would actually provide the United States with a sense of homeland security.  The form of the poem is interesting in that it employs enjambed two-line stanzas that seem to evoke the division apparent in the content of the poem.  Three stanzas with two lines and yet this geometrical symmetry reverberates against the horrors of what is being conveyed.

In “Unexpected Passage,” the lyric speaker grapples with a hysterectomy:

I can’t decide whether to celebrate or cry.
For thirty-five years I took it all for granted—
never questioned my fertility, the female
power to grow a child inside me.
I want to claim this round,
empty belly I’ve become. 

This section from which “Unexpected Passage” comes generates a larger feminist politic related in the collection in which various female figures face problematic challenges and obstacles.  Here, the very definition of bodily femininity is placed into question when the lyric speaker must face the fact that she will not be able to bear a child.  This characteristic seems to be the epitome of the way she considers herself to be a woman and so the loss of her uterus exists as an incredible alienation from her own body.  An earlier poem, “Always Eleven,” explores the intricacies of a girl’s adolescence and the lack of sexual knowledge she was given as a young Japanese American girl.  This failure to acknowledge sexual maturation strikes as a trauma that renders the lyric speaker trapped in that moment.

The “Flowering Eye” mobilizes Uyematsu’s post-9/11, anti-war rhetoric:

The bombing won’t stop but we’re not as fragile as we fear
especially when those faces of anguish an ocean away
can be switched on and off with the evening news
the stage cleared away for a feast of orchids
hundreds in April bloom as we
gorge ourselves on the delicate hues
the stillness of moving water nearby. 

All through the war we’ll be patient as gardeners
obliterate a memory that can blossom at spring (99).

This poem engages the flippancy of the American public who might be said to operate with an “out of sight, out of mind” policy in which one can indulge in the “feast of orchid/ hundreds in April bloom” as others around the world face conflict and death.  The final couplet “All through the war we’ll be patient as gardeners/ obliterate a memory that can blossom at spring” (99) de-familiarizes the nature of growth and fertility as a site of beauty.  Instead, the ways in which certain images can simply be discarded like weeds generates a culture of ignorance that is at-stake in this poem.  Uyematsu’s references to 9/11 appear as a larger thread through Asian American poetics where that event looms as an ordering reference; these works include most notably Genny Lim’s Child of War, Timothy Liu’s Of Dust Thou Art, Meena Alexander’s Raw Silk, and Luisa A. Igloria’s Trill and Mordent.

Amy Uyematsu’s Stone Bow Prayer is an widely-ranging work, tackling personal dilemmas and global conflicts all within its pithy span of approximately 100 pages.  Focused more on lyricisim than on experimentalism, the collection could easily be employed in introductory courses on poetics, Asian American literature, women’s studies among other such organized courses. 

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A Review of Cathy Song’s School Figures (1994), Land of Bliss (2001), and Cloud Moving Hands (2007)

Cathy Song is the author of five poetry collections, including most famously, Picture Bride (1983), which won the Yale Series of Younger Poet Awards, immediately establishing Song as one of the foremost Asian American Poets.  Her poem, “The Youngest Daughter,” was widely anthologized from this work. The title of that collection referred most specifically to her grandmother who traveled to Hawaii as a “picture bride.”  Her second poetry collection was Frameless Windows, Squares of Light (1988), published by Norton.  My review focuses on Song’s lesser critiqued works, her last three poetry collections, all published by the University of Pittsburgh Press: School Figures (1994), Land of Bliss (2001), and Cloud Moving Hands (2007).  Connecting these three poems together are the intense autobiographical nature of the lyrics in relation to the family and morality, death and life, suffering and release, especially for those closest to her.  In this respect, her poetry seems to derive inspiration from the Confessional Poets, especially as she delves into the strange personal and even morally ambiguous reactions that one can have in moments of despair or loss. Over time, Song’s poetry had included more and more references to Buddhism, where this trend reaches its culmination in her latest collection.  Song, born in 1955, is a biethnic Asian American and was raised in Hawaii.  Her father was a second generation Korean American, while her mother was herself a Chinese picture bride.  She attended Wellesley as an undergraduate and later completed a master’s degree in creative writing at Boston University.  She is in many respects a regional poet, drawing upon Hawaiian culture through the use of pidgin dialect and slang phrases.  She is also more largely very aware that her poetry derives out of and finds inspiration through its connection to other Asian American writers, many of whom share a common Hawaiian background.  She has devoted poems to Gary Pak, Wing Tek Lum, Wakako Yamauchi, Juliet S. Kono, Darrell Lum, Eric Chock, among others.  

The recurrent motif that Song’s poetry seems to draw out over the course of the three poems revolve around mortality.  In “Journey” (from School Figures), the lyric speaker begins with: “My father is looking at the end of his life/ and it looks like the end of the world to him.  There is no one left from his town to say good-bye.  His childhood friends are saying good-bye to their own lives” (50).  In “Sunworshippers,” the lyric speaker is warned against staying out too long outside due to the possibilities that the sun might darken her skin, but desire and caution do not always traffic in the same circles.  

In “The Valley Boat” (from Land of Bliss), Song will turn the gaze upon her mother:

I lost my mother once
to sadness
but she returned
and I became her daughter again
My family and I rejoiced at the sound
of her laughter in the kitchen
When sadness rained
a year later,
I knew before she did
that she was going away,
that she would be leaving
us and all
we could do
was make her comfortable,
ease the passage
back into the dark
waters of herself

What is immediately apparent about Song’s poetry is its clarity.  Especially rendered here, the lyrics aren’t intended to obfuscate in any form, nor do they contain particularly problematic or troubling metaphors.  Instead, the poem is almost universalizable in its consideration of the loss of the parent.  However, certain ethnic signifiers do provide “The Valley Boat” with particular as the lyric speaker divulges, “The broth grew strength/ from the oxtail” (36).  The line breaks in “The Valley Boat” are reminiscent to many of the poems in School Figures in terms of their general length and meter, but in Land of Bliss, Song experiments with form and shape of her poems, by choosing to extend some poems out further a la Whitmanian free verse, while others are much more staccato in their delivery.  For instance, two of her early poems, “Pokanini Girl” and “Stink Eye” both employ pidgin dialect as an ordering linguistic mechanism.  As such, the form attempts to mimic the dynamism and musicality of pidgin.  “Pokinini Girl” begins as such: “Pokinini girl, she so skinny!/ Pokanini girl,/ wear size two bikini” (3).  In “The Girl Can Run,” the first lines read as “The girl can run./ We marvel/ at her tongue./ As fast as her little/ legs can carry her/ she suns” (7).  In poems where Song chooses to use longer lines and meter, they carry much more obvious narrative weight as in “Pineapple Fields” and “The Slow Upheaval of Mist.”  Buddhist tropes of emptiness and cyclical suffering appear in Land of Bliss, especially in the title poem’s appearance at the conclusion: “The Pure Land is empty./ There’s nobody here” (122).

The quality most apparent in all of Cathy Song’s poetry is its accessibility.  Her work can easily be taught in general poetry classes and more specifically in Asian American poetry classes.  There aren’t always clear examples of “racialization” or ethnic tropes in all of her collections, so the question of how to define her work is always apparent.  While her poetry does not have the experimental impulses or avant-garde nature of Myung Mi Kim, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, or John Yau, Song charts a direct path toward philosophical inquiries of life and death, a style in which she obviously excels.  In many ways, Song’s poetic oeuvre reminds me of the melancholic nature of Kimiko Hahn’s The Unbearable Heart.  She consistently finds a way in which to transform loss and death into poetic inspiration.  In this respect, there is an amazingly intimate nature to her poetry, especially one that appears in Cloud Moving Hands (2007) where Song’s poems deal very much with the aftermath of her mother’s death.  In “My Mother’s Last Gift,” she reconsiders the productivity related to her mother’s deteriorating state:

Into dementia she slipped,
became brighter.
She lost the defenselessness
she maintained in health,
the core of her becoming
more real than the one
that fended off disappointments,
a husband’s unhappy harangue,
the chiming insults of children.
. . . .
We wanted her back
in her old form,
the one we counted on
as a receptacle for our scorn,
our stubbornness, our imaginary heroics,
unable to be grateful
for what was transpiring
what we did not deserve.
. . . .
Not fully of this world,
she floated above the body,
taken up with the concentration such art required.
In her presence we became more real
to ourselves than we had ever been (41).

Interestingly, this dementia provides a way into a new relationship between mother and children, something not quite expected, nor at first, something that the family members understand.  However, ultimately, this change becomes a “gift” precisely because the family members must also let go of old prejudices that have soured their relationships.  

One of the most moving poems, “My Beautiful Daughter Calls to Tell Me It’s Snowing,” recalls the cycles of communication between mothers and daughters.  The speaker’s daughter as the title lets us know has called her mother and tells her that’s the snow is “beautiful, she says, and a little sad” (34).  This poem is narratively driven in that it tells the story of how the speaker’s daughter cannot or will not be able to understand how different it was for her to complete her education at a time when her relationship with her own mother was so much more stilted.  The poem clearly evokes the problematics of class as the speaker relays her challenges struggling to fit into a university culture where old money loomed all around her.  The speaker calls the university experience for her, at first, one of exile.  Her letters home to her mother (in contrast to her daughter’s PHONE call to her) are initially filled with wants and anxieties, but later:

At some point the letters changed, a gradual
easing of mind, like soil turned over in a garden bed.
Rather than my usual complaints,
one letter in particular described opening
a book of paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe,
picked off the library shelf of new arrivals.
The presence of light, suffusing each plate,
rose out of the book itself,
like a formless intelligence,
gathering force over distance
to funnel into a single transmittal
words that sparked skin to metal.
Hours passed, or minutes—
when I looked up, outside the wall of glass,
it was snowing (36).

So wonderfully lucid in its aesthetic of exile and adaptation, the lyric speaker comes to view the world around her in a different manner.  Whereas the lyric speaker did not at first find her life in college one of joy or exuberance, this last sequence extends a two-fold reconsideration of her experiences.  First, there is the transformative quality found in books, one that is rendered through the ability of paintings to become animated.  Second, the very strangeness of the college location is re-considered.  Perhaps, the poem seems to suggest, there might be a way to find a home.

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A Review of Luisa A Igloria’s Juan Luna’s Revolver. (this title will not be available until January 2009)

It is a wonderful time to be a fan of Asian American poetry. Often critically underinvestigated, the plethora of incredibly talented contemporary poets makes any oversight of this growing subgroup of Asian American literature simply impossible to ignore.

Luisa A. Igloria’s Juan Luna’s Revolver is a dynamic and explosive work. It is a collection that queries the place of contemporary Filipino American subjectivity as it collides against material histories that require excavation. What does travel and tourism mean in the contemporary moment, especially when placed up against the ways in which Filipinos were once employed as live exhibits at the 1904 Worlds Fair and Exposition held in St. Louis, Missouri, or attended educational institutions in Europe as the ilustrados did? The idea of the Filipino as diasporic subject is clearly figured as the grounding politic of the collection. As the lyric speaker moves from one location to another, various poems situate the movement of Filipinos to all parts of the world, including those that came to America on Spanish Galleons, an artist who travels to France, the movement of the ilustrados to Europe, among other such trajectories.

Structured in four parts, Juan Luna’s Revolver begins first with Indios Bravos, where many of the poems take us to the concluding years of Spanish colonization of the Philippines. Igloria’s lyric speaker situates the mobile bodies that appeared during this time, including the Juan Luna, a painter known for his famous painting, The Spoliarium, a large life-sized depiction of the dead gladiators. A photo of The Spoliarium can be seen here:

The title of this section refers to the impression that Jose Rizal had of American Indians, while seeing Black Elk and others perform in Paris:

In that carnival standing in for the dusty frontier,
Rizal and his friends admired

stages battled and skirmishes, war paint
and feathered regalia. Why should we resent

being called Indios by the Spaniards?
Look at those Indios from North America . . .

Let’s be like them. We shall be Indios Bravos!

This fascinating lyric sequence situates an interracial politic (via Jose Rizal's appreciation of the "native" subject that far precedes many of the pluralist discourses that are appearing today.

At another point, it is revealed that Juan Luna, painter of the Spolarium, shot and killed his wife and his mother-in-law in Paris, for the wife's suspected infidelity. Later on in this poem, the lyric speaker reminds us Juan Luna was also the name of a Chicano individual who went on a killing spree in the United States; this nominal connection situates an interesting concatenation across groups colonially subjugated by the Spanish, an interracial connection made clear in Allan Punzalan Isaac's re-negotiation of American Studies in American Tropics.

The following sections continue to query mobile bodies, but the lyrics increasingly consider the vantage point of the lyric speaker, a contemporary figure who queries his or her place while having to interface with histories of subjugation and colonialism. In “Riddle,” a button is found in the floor of a summer vacation home, to which it is realized it used to be the way in which the masters of the house summoned servants from the basements below. Museums and artifacts abound in this collection. In one of the most moving poems, “La Americana,” the lyric speaker recalls a young woman as a child, the clear by-product of an American GI and a Filipina woman, who is ostracized for her blond hair and light features. The lyric speaker then considers this individual, called La Americana, against a portrait completed by Rembrandt, showing how one face might have substituted for another. Even given this similarity, changing the context of a person’s features necessarily alters their social standing and symbolic meaning. The collection ends with a sonnet series that challenges the reader to hopscotch across an entire century from the 1904 Worlds Fair to the contemporary moment in which the lyric speaker has traveled to St. Petersburg, Russia. The impression that the speaker grants us from these moments suggests that the passage of time forces one to look at the landscape more closely to see evidence of past history, of struggle and oppression. One does not necessarily need museums or exhibitions to understand the complicated planes of power and subjectivity that structure our lives. The lyric speaker only asks us to look harder and deeper into the “practice of everyday life.”

Igloria takes us on an amazing journey and Juan Luna’s Revolver joins the ever burgeoning ranks of my favorite poetry collections. I'm sure to teach it in the future!

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[identity profile] sa-am.livejournal.com

Indran Amirthanayagam’s The Splintered Face: Tsunami Poems embodies its own lyrical deluge. Poem after poem takes up different subject positions: a family who was able to escape by train after the initial tsunami waves roll in, or the bodybuilder who was not strong enough to hold on to his family members as they were ripped from his hands and cast out to sea. The reader is pushed outward and into a poetic watery churning, trapped beneath undertows, and almost at some points, drowning in painful lyrics. Amirthanayagam is one of the few Sri Lankan American poets that have produced a number of works, including The Elephants of Reckoning and Ceylon, R.I.P. Not surprisingly, The Splintered Face takes as its central locale, that of Sri Lanka, and then gradually extends outward from that location, calling attention to India, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and various other South Asian locations devastated by the tsunami. In the preface to the poetry collection, Amirthanayagam writes “I hope these poems made in the urgent hours, days and weeks after December 26th—with the distance now of time and the sad accumulation of other disasters—will help the reader remember, bear witness, pray, kiss the beloved, run outside and shout to the birds and flowers we are alive and we are grateful for the borrowed day, the extra time.”

The question of memory is fascinating as it seems as if in the wake of other events that the Indian Ocean tsunami already had seemed distant when I opened the first pages, however, the lyrics immediately bring one back the horrific nature of the event. As with any talented poet, Amirthanayagam twines an incredibly beautiful aesthetic to trauma and tragedy. In this respect, the dissonance between content and style energizes the reader forward in a grotesque manner.

A representative poem appears here:


Bodies float in my silence,
trees are uprooted, waves
masticate timber, split
roof beams, in my silence,

babies tossed into palm
fronds, old man alone
on a beach engulfed
by seething mobs of foam

and spray, in my silence,
moments of clairvoyance
seeing whole populations
of islands and coastal wetlands,

inlets and lagoons, splits
and wedges of sandbars
and sandy points, convulsed
by churning of dirty grey

water, this starfish-laden
fish-spouting sea
turning blue again slowly,
in my silence.

I find this poem indicative of the collection’s larger aesthetic. The refrain, “in my silence” that appears in numerous lines stands in stark contrast to the motive nature of the lines in which the tsunami becomes personified. The speaker’s mind experiences a psychic transference where walking through the coastal areas serves to trigger a “re-memory” of the event itself. However, from the exterior, the speaker appears “in my silence,” as if there is not much going on, yet internally, there is a will to un-forget. In this respect, this poem embodies exactly what Amirthanayagam desires out of this collection. Importantly, proceeds of this book go to victims and families affected by the tsunami—truly an activist-centered work that yet twines together an aesthetic texture.
[identity profile] thebowlerhat.livejournal.com

Kelly's in the blue shirt on the left.
I'm in the center.

I managed to successfully bring Kelly Tsai to K College for her "Move This Earth" spoken word performance Wednesday night and a writing and activism workshop yesterday morning. She is a Chinese Taiwanese American spoken word artist, playwright, essayist, and choreographer, and her poetry and music discuss issues of growing up Asian American, cultural pride, political activism, immigration, sexual assault, and violence against women. Her performance goals are described as "inspiring the audiences to live their lives out loud and to answer the call to social change through words, works, and self." Anida Esguerra says of Kelly Tsai: "Experience one of her performances and you will understand that fierce artists do not need to scream to be heard...that the world matters too much to let things just slip by." Tsai's work and dedication to activism, women's empowerment, cultural understanding and diversity, and ethnic pride through poetry, hip hop, and song make her a unique voice for moving us "toward a just world." Tsai's performances speak to themes of intercultural understanding, social justice, and self and societal empowerment.

Her performance was very inspiring and several students, particularly students of color came up to me after the show to tell me how much her work spoke to them. She is able to connect to the audience in a very real way, and I'd highly recommend bringing her to your campuses if you can. She's awesome. I hung out with her quite frequently the past two days, and she's also very down-to-earth, easy-going, and fun. She got only minimally stressed when her luggage was lost. Sorry, if this sounds kind of like a proposal, followed by a love letter, that would be because that's what it is!

By-Standing: The Beginning of an American Lifetime video )

[identity profile] sa-am.livejournal.com

Product Description

“Sassy, tough-girl humor. . . . [Brenda] Shaughnessy’s voice is smart, sexy, self-aware, hip . . . consistently wry, and ever savvy.”—Harvard Review

“Brenda Shaughnessy . . . writes like the love-child of Mina Loy and Frank O’Hara.”—Exquisite Corpse

In her second book, winner of the prestigious James Laughlin Award, Brenda Shaughnessy taps into themes that have inspired era after era of poets. Love. Sex. Pain. The heavens. The loss of time. The weird miracle of perception. Part confessional, part New York School, and part just plain lover of the English language, Shaughnessy distills the big questions into sharp rhythms and alluring lyrics. “You’re a tool, moon. / Now, noon. There’s a hero.”

Master of diverse dictions, she dwells here on quirky words, mouthfuls of consonance and assonance—anodyne, astrolabe, alizarin—then catches her readers up short with a string of powerful monosyllables. “I’ll take / a year of that. Just give it back to me.” In addition to its verbal play, Human Dark With Sugar demonstrates the poet’s ease in a variety of genres, from “Three Sorries” (in which the speaker concludes, “I’m not sorry. Not sorry at all”), to a sequence of prose poems on a lover’s body, to the discussion of a disturbing dream. In this caffeine jolt of a book, Shaughnessy confirms her status as a poet of intoxicating lines, pointed, poignant comments on love, and compelling abstract images —not the least of which is human dark with sugar.

Brenda Shaughnessy was raised in California and is an MFA graduate of Columbia University. She is the poetry editor for Tin House and has taught at several colleges, including Eugene Lang College and Princeton University. She lives in Brooklyn.

About the Author
Brenda Shaughnessy's first book of poems, Interior with Sudden Joy (FSG, 1999) was nominated for the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award and the Norma Farber First Book Award. Her poems have appeared in Best American Poetry, Bomb, Conjunctions, McSweeney's, The New Yorker, The Paris Review and elsewhere. She is poetry editor at Tin House magazine and lives in Brooklyn.

Buy here: http://www.amazon.com/Human-Dark-Sugar-Brenda-Shaughnessy/dp/1556592760


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A Veritable Literary Feast

April 2019

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