Mouth by Lisa Chen | Kaya Press 2007 | $13.95
The cover image of this square-shaped book previews the poems well. It’s a photo of a brick tenement bombed with graffiti wildstyles in suburban browns and blues. One letter’s tail stretches generously through a sill in the wall to become a finger flipping us off. Someone has abandoned a road bike in front of the wall and a plain plank laid out like a welcome mat. Reading these poems is an experience of urban ekstasis, an out-of-body splash of sight that stops the pedestrian reader. Lisa Chen sprays up the walls of poetry to show where our grammar and vision have gone dry.
What a wonder it is to see the world through Chen’s language! We see a “face filling the night like a bare back / Turned away from you in sleep.” The look on another’s “as I leave is a porch light left burning at dawn.” And a woman whose “English isn’t so good. Slang, her mouth the color of turned salmon.” Chen writes in “Translators’ Apologia,” “I have tried to approximate a sea with a stream of piss” and that approximation itself opens an astonishingly vivid world. Her phrases seize with naked incisions.
The collection’s tone is set in the opening title poem, “Mouth.” The speaker is in a situation, literally and figuratively, “where [she doesn’t] speak the language.” The spoken word is stifled yet emergent, gritty and gnarled, as we see variously in lines like: “cocktail boozer slurring the voila delirious,” “the shill slag of bad guitar and motel ashtrays,” and “the sloe-eyed, two-fisted mouth” among others. The speaker resorts to body language, “hands thrust in the air / in grim universal gestures” which translates here to bartering at the market, a game of demonstrating desire and the ability to walk away.
Estrangement—more specifically, strangers in urbanity—is another theme taken up by these poems. “Crossed Signals” is a missed connection at a 24-hour buffet: “Believe me when I say my mouth longs to utter what it does not know: your name.” In “Things That Are Distant Though Near” we blink through quieted observations—makeup on a face, a schism in relationships—while talk goes on, largely unheard and, in these poems, unrecorded. Similarly, loquacity in and out of context composes poems like “Quote/Unquote,” “I Didn’t Always Look This Way,” and “Chinese Ghost Stories” which is a found poem of spliced quotations.
Human injustice demands a global scale in “Human Interest” and “Study for a Border Killing.” In the former, “When you say genocide, my mind goes blank. Numbers are a dumb sum.” For crimes to be non-abstract, that is to say not dumb, there must be an audience, complete with a “take-home message” and a rhetoric of narrative detail. But the poem closes with a tinge of cynicism as the speaker says, after listing atrocities with perverse curiosity: “I think you’re onto something. I’m with you.” In “Border Killing,” we are treated to similarly exquisite detail, but a single interjection, “His family—was this what you wanted to know?—called him Junie,” makes stark the rhetoric of sympathy. I read in this a political dissatisfaction with both cold facts and rosy-warm pathos. It may be of interest that Chen has a history in journalism and also co-authored a book entitled The She Spot: Why Women are the Market for Changing the World and How to Reach Them.
Lastly, if one is to go on making crude categories, a number of these poems address Chen’s background and interest in the Asian American immigrant experience. The second poem of the collection, “The Old Widow,” hushes together the silliness (perhaps eeriness) of modern people and the anachronistic grandeur of ancestor worship. “Songs of Gold Mountain” embeds lines from the Angel Island poems into new soliloquies This is followed by “Parachute Girls,” which disenchants the American immigrant dream stereotypes three girls from Taipei, Seoul, and Hong Kong. Among other qualities explained to us, we are instructed: “You can get them to do just about anything because no one tells them what American girls do” and “They swear at you in their language because the dirtiest words are the ones you are born with.”
Despite (maybe because of) the acuity and talent in this collection, I’m left with a vaguely disappointed sense that Chen is skirting personality. Except in poems like “The Old Widow” and “Seven Chinese Brothers” there is no identifiably personal “I.” This is not the result of an objectivist and disengaged attitude; rather, the often terse and oblique syntax, the prismatic fragmentation of self as subject, seem to be an avoidance or dismissal. Sometimes it feels like watching Wallace Stevens doing a crossword puzzle, putting up his finger not to be approached. This may say more about my aesthetic and philosophy than Chen’s, but these poems in all their virtuosity make me wonder how many personal risks they took. Nevertheless, I’m surprised that this debut collection hasn’t received more attention since its publication in 2007, and I do recommend it—for the poet’s frequently astonishing urban vision and her equally astonishing translations thereof.
Editor’s Note: Interested in reading Mouth? Enter our Prompt Contest for a chance to win a copy of your own. Many thanks to Kaya Press for their generous sponsorship.