A Guest Post by Stephen Hong Sohn, Assistant Professor of English at Stanford University
In an earlier post, I had the chance to discuss the exciting growth in Asian American cultural production via the small press, especially as it has impacted poetic projects and publications. In this post, I’d like to concentrate on Tupelo Press, another small press that has developed an outstanding catalog which includes both Asian and Asian American poets. Among the offerings in Tupelo’s current catalog are:
Night, Fish, and Charlie Parker by Phan Nhien Hao (translated by Linh Dinh)
Abiding Places by Ko Un
Ardor by Karen An-hwei Lee
Why is the Edge Always Windy? by Mong-Lan
At the Drive-In Volcano by Aimee Nezhukumatathil
Miracle Fruit by Aimee Nezhukumatathil
In the Mynah Bird’s Own Words (chapbook) by Barbara Tran
In this post, I will concentrate most specifically on Barbara Tran’s In the Mynah Bird’s Own Words, Karen An-hwei Lee’s Ardor and Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s At the Drive-In Volcano and Miracle Fruit.
Tran’s chapbook is one that I have chosen to teach for my Introduction to Asian American Literature course. What I find so breathtaking about Tran’s work is her clarity of image, which always imparts a precise sense of a given moment or time through its use of lyric. The chapbook also has a clear sense of lyrical trajectory. The earlier poems seem to be invested in rooting out heritage and ethnic origin, especially as rendered through a growing romantic relationship. The latter poems dig more deeply into the diasporic trajectory. It is here where the chapbook becomes more autobiographically inflected.
Karen An-hwei Lee’s Ardor is a curious collection, described on the book jacket as having a “lyric postmodern aesthetic,” but I suppose I would disagree from this phrasing, only because it does not have the slippage that I generally associate with postmodernism. If anything, the murkiness of Ardor stems much more from an impressionistic approach in which geography, temporality, and lyric voice cannot always be firmly situated, even though there are clear semantic clusters that delineate the collection’s thematic unity. These clusters include: a focused attention to religion (e.g. references to Christ, the Bible, etc), geometry (cardioids, circumference, curves), medical vocabulary (the medical names for bones like radius and ulna) and terminology (atrial flutter, arrhythmia), and fruit (kumquats, pomelos). The opening page of Ardor is instructive in helping the reader to think about the semantic landscape that so richly texturizes Lee’s lyrically conceived world:
As a child I knew how to sketch this
Graph a cardioid around plotted
Birds from real algebraic equations
Conversation images of empirical scent
I slipped this dream out of its own skin
Put its shape inside a bottle, this one
Joined it hands to prayer, this one
Jin wei first tone fourth tone
Merged rivers of contrasting hues
One opaque, the other clear (9).
Here, we already see the importance of geometry to the collection, but in this case the speaker considers the subject through a kind of translation. Certainly, this situates Lee’s poetic as interlingual, since “real algebraic equations” can somehow roughly estimate the shape and morphology of objects such as “birds” and hearts (a cardioid adorns the cover of the collection). As the lines continue, dreams are said to have a “shape” that is then placed “inside a bottle,” and literalized and collided together into different tonalities, different colors, different transparency levels.
Lee does invoke a unique structuring device that leaves the reader relatively grounded, too: she structures various blocks of the collection in prayers, dreams, and letters. At one point, toward the conclusion of the poetry collection, the lyric speaker asks, “How does a Song dynasty poet/ Relate to this Western/Female poet of Asian lineage” (65) and we seem to get a sense of the project engaged by “this Western/Female poet of Asian of Asian lineage,” who perhaps routes the influence of the Song dynasty poet in her movement Westward. This diasporic lyric is especially important to the way that Lee conceives of race relations:
In the ladies circle
White women said
You would have been
A good house slave
Because you can stitch
She owned that property
On this and such avenue
Burned to the ground
A white woman
In the ladies circle
Everyone knew how to stitch
White women, prejudiced
Slave hands with fine hands
I did the stamp collection for them
When I could still see, parting one
From same, their bleached faces
In profile, intaglio, cameo
Placed each one in books
Albums with little pockets
Never understood why
So often photographed
Used bleaching cream [end of 34] Hydroquinone
White enough (35)
Repetition continually brings the reader back to the racialized gaze, as the “white women” are apparently not “white enough.” The slippage and the impressionistic quality of the collection as a whole leave one ungrounded as to where and when this particular lyric “scene” might be taking place. One gets a sense of propriety and class — a group of “white” ladies in a parlor room perhaps — and the repetition of the word “slave” generates tension that places whiteness up against African American oppression. The lyric speaker presents these ladies with an attitude of apparent puzzlement: race already ordains such women through a specific kind of phenotypic privilege and yet, the lightness of their skin must be further enhanced to the extent that one wonders when they might be satisfied with their supposed “whiteness.”
Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s two poetry collections have been a delight to read. Her poems have a witty and often funky edge to them as evidenced by her second collection’s title — At the Drive-In Volcano — which I think is absolutely hilarious and perfect in terms of the book’s general theme of poetic heartbreak. Rather than the drive-in theater, we’re at the drive-in volcano, where we sit down to watch the emotional outpourings that occur in the wake of a long-term relationship gone awry. If there is an arc to the two collections, it would seem that Miracle Fruit is more about possibility and potential, while At the Drive-in Volcano leads us more toward the pessimistic and the problematic in romantic relationships.
One of my favorite poems in Miracle Fruit takes “fruit” literally, using it as a prop in the background of a lyric “scene” in which the speaker regrets having turned down a cherry farmer’s offer of a date:
The Woman Who Turned Down A Date with a Cherry Farmer
I was dusty, my ponytail
all askew and the tips of my fingers ran, of course, red
from the fruitworms of cherries I plunked into my bucket
and still—he must have seen some small bit of loveliness
in walking his orchard with me. He pointed out which trees
were sweetest, which ones bore double seeds—puffing out
the flesh and oh the surprise on your tongue with two tiny stones
(a twin spit), making a small gun of your mouth. Did I mention
my favorite color is red? His jeans were worn and twisty
around the tops of his boot; his hands thick but careful,
nimble enough to pull fruit from his trees without tearing
the thin skin; the cherry dust and fingerprints on his eyeglasses (24).
The language here is so lush that we understand the speaker’s deep regret, even though the farmer is a perfect stranger, offering up a tour of his orchard, to perhaps someone who is on a New York vacation. Nezhukumatathil’s poetry is felicitously rendered, and has a musical texture that threads her lines together. Take for instance, the lines: “he must have seen some small bit of loveliness / in walking his orchard with me. He pointed out which trees were sweetest, which ones bore double seeds.” Here, Nezhukumatathil employs alliteration of the “s” sound, first in “seen some small” and later in “sweetest” and “seeds.” We also get assonance in “seen,” “me,” “trees,” “sweetest, and “seeds,” as well as consonance in “must,” “bit,” “pointed,” “out,” and “sweetest.” Such sonic clusters are not unique to this poem, but can be found throughout the collection.
The concluding poem from Miracle Fruit interrogates Nezukumatathil’s admittedly unwieldy surname:
In New Guinea, to identify a person’s family, you ask,
What is the name of your canoe? My seventh grade
social studies teacher made up a dance to help him
remember how to pronounce my name—he’d break it
into sharp syllables, shake his corduroyed hips
at roll call, his bulge of keys rattling in time.
I don’t remember who first shortened it to Nez,
but I loved the zip of it, the sport and short of it,
until the day I learned Nez means nose in French.
Translation: beloved nose. My father tells me part
of our name comes from a flower from the South Indian
coast. I wonder what it smells like, what fragrance
I always dabbed at my neck. Scientists say some flowers
don’t have a scent, but they do—even if it’s hints of sweat
from blooms too long without drink or the promise
of honey from the scratchings of a thin bee leg, feathered
with loosestrife and sage (73).
Here, again, I would call attention to the playful quality of both the sound and the lyric images, whether in this line that shows some internal rhymes, “but I loved the zip of it, the sport and short of it,” or in the mental picture of the teacher who literally “shakes” out the speaker’s name. The teacher’s physical movement reminds us of the way in which Nezukumatathil consistently integrates music and dance into her poems’ sonic choreography.
I mentioned earlier that At the Drive-in Volcano primarily finds its footing in poems about the heartache of a broken relationship. One of the poems that I would argue best dramatizes some of the unexpected collateral “damages” of a broken relationship is “Dog Custody,” which negotiates the custody battle that can arise over the pets who have come to be defined as pivotal to the conception of family:
But after we broke up, we couldn’t make choices
regarding who gets to see him without being mean.
I can’t sleep in the dark. What are those scary noises?
What about the Sundays we left him to rejoice
at church? Can you forget how you leaned
toward me in love, how you sang faith’s praises?
In my car, I found one of his frayed old leashes
from the last time at the park—he came back unclean.
He barked at the geese, a cloud of winged voices.
You win. I give up—he always listens to you best: chases
squirrels, but never returns. If a new girl comes, I’ll turn green.
When you fall out of love, you make silly choices.
Three hundred miles away, I still hear your voices (21).
Nezhukumatathil makes continual use of the villanelle throughout At the Drive-in Volcano, as if the poetic form might be able to contain the chaos that arises out of her speaker’s trying personal circumstances. The villanelle is a difficult form not only because it requires a very specific set of line repetitions, but also because its tricky rhyme scheme can result in the production of an overly repetitive and hackneyed poem. Nezhukumatathil texturizes “Dog Custody” by slightly changing the lines that must be repeated, all the while relating the precarious attachments the speaker has made to her pet in the course of her relationship.
I will end my consideration of Tupelo Press with an excerpt from Nezhukumatathil’s poem, “Oriental.”
Oh this is the perfect ruby, O from the velvet you can’t see, O my goodness, what big eyes you have, considering your mom is Filipina, O my goodness, how light you are, considering your father is Indian, O egg roll, O general Tsao’s chicken I cannot eat with chopsticks, O how I love dim sum (39).
This poem the introduces the intricacies of a mixed-ethnicity background that can be mapped onto Nezhukumatathil’s own heritage: she is Filipina-Indian (South Asian) American. As an “Oriental,” or one who can claim multiple ethnic heritages, the poem’s lyric speaker challenges any claims to authenticity, joyfully proclaiming her love of Chinese food, while admitting, “I cannot eat with chopsticks.” The poem’s humor succeeds through its repetition of “O,” an invocation that affords an almost divine status to the racialized and ethnicized images being addressed. One is reminded of Frank Chin’s concept of “food pornography,” which Nezhukumatathil claims with disobedient lyrical abandon. Whether interrogating racial identity, the date that never was, or the pet she cannot forget, Nezhukumatathil’s collections are a real treat.
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