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Review: AALR, VOL. 2, ISSUE 1

2011 June 15

The Asian American Literary Review | Volume 2, Issue 1 | Winter/Spring 2011

In Gerald Maa’s interview with Arthur Sze in this issue of the Asian American Literary Review, Maa quotes from Auden: “Many things can be said against anthologies, but for an adolescent to whom even the names of most of the poets are unknown, a good [anthology] can be an invaluable instructor.” The same can be said of this 300-page journal, with its wide range of material including: a forum discussion with some of the editors about the “check all that apply” race option on the 2010 Census, an enclosed DVD of Kip Fulbeck’s video short Mixed: Portraits of Multiracial Kids, and a complete bibliography of Carlos Bulosan provided by the Library of Congress’s Asian American Pacific Islander Collection. This is all in addition to fiction, memoir, poetry, interviews with Arthur Sze (on editing Chinese Writers on Writing) and Chang-rae Lee (on his most recent novel, The Surrendered), book reviews, documentary photography, and a short graphic piece.

This issue’s theme is “Counting Citizens” and begins with a discussion about the question of multiracial self-representation on the Census. Jeffrey Yang takes a stance against the very structures of any representation and rejects claims for a ‘post-racial’ present: “not representation but transmutation, alchemy. . . . Representation is the impossible ideal of our democracy, where influence rules.” Srikanth Reddy uses the development of Walt Whitman’s poetry as a model, charting his expansive ownership of multitudes to his subjective position as an individual: “This progression—from the poet as a vatic representative of everybody to the poet as a specimen capable only of registering her own experience—might in some ways be a natural progression, from the exuberance of youth to the epistemological modesty of old age.” He suggests an alternative perspective: that of the Other. Yang riffs on this and together they broach the aesthetic of language arts and “the problem of form—the ‘logic and order’ of an artwork” which seems to find friction between the canon and the margin. A different take on Bloom’s “anxiety of influence,” perhaps, in which the artist is in constant tension between the codified mastery of forebears and the yet unnamed mystery of the present/future individual. Linguistic and cultural transplantation complicate loyalties, heritage, assumptions about audience, and formal considerations. Reddy writes:

To write a haiku or a ghazal in English does not bring us any closer to shifting the grounds of literary representation. In Yang’s memorable formulation, such a literary gesture would fail to “reposition the frame structure.” Rather, our formal labor [as Asian American writers] has to occur beyond the frame, in the abstract conceptual space where form is given particular shapes suited to the particular historical moment.

Other prose in this issue gives us pause for further consideration. Joy Kogawa’s excerpt from Gently to Nagasaki puts the author in conversation with Marjorie Chan, both of them struggling with the atavism of the Rape of Nanking, now generations past: how are they to situate themselves as individuals and as Japanese and Chinese Americans, both in relation to one another and to their respective histories? Kip Fulbeck’s short essay, “Fishing for Identity,” invites attention to, first, the absurdities of race (“everyone is African”) and, second, the complexity of race as an unavoidable layer of interface; he makes a point about proactive identity and distinguishes between “cognizant as opposed to aware.” Eric Gamalinda’s fiction short, “Famous Literary Frauds,” doesn’t touch on race at all, instead examining authenticity and the celebrity-dom of authors, the public face divorced from the art object. And Arthur Sze, in his interview promoting Chinese Writers on Writing, reminds us that the importation of Chinese literature has, since Pound, remained a new business; the number of first-time English translations in the anthology demonstrate how under-represented contemporary Chinese writers are in the Anglophone world.

The poems in this issue span a wonderful thematic and aesthetic range as indicated by the table of contents, which groups poems as sets from distinct poets rather than as individual pieces. The poems begin with Ray Hsu’s subversive political pieces, the first of which is titled “Dear Sir or Madam:” and demonstrates the dizzying effect of formal rhetoric. The content of the poem’s “letter” says very little, using acronyms, pronouns, and vague phrases such as, “to face key policy challenges” or, “We presented / sufficient dignity and overwhelming feeling” without indicating to whom. The lineation only starts to break apart with self-awareness when the collective speaker says, “we are good for the facts.” Hsu’s other poems also appropriate official language, as can be seen from the title “Rights Mix #26,” which responds to each point of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article #26. The two pieces entitled “Sources” are found poems consisting entirely of quotations ranging from Pat Robertson to Oscar Wilde. Through its syntax, “Haiti (an earthquake)” simulates rubble and mess, throwing sentences into a chaotic babble overloaded with articles and prepositions. Even so, impressions of the scene are left in the way that news tickers might bombard us with buzzwords: “us tragic so assistance, people, said, Suffering, confront that economy in on they the own the region.”

Kimiko Hahn’s series, Haibun from the Summer (2009) immediately follows Hsu’s and, in stark contrast, is apolitical. (She sequesters politics into its own aesthetic locus, as she said in an interview at ASU in October 2009: “I don’t look at poems that have political content as being any different from love poems or anything else. For me it’s another topic.”) As always with Hahn’s poetry, these haibun are unadorned, frank, and reveal the process of her work. Her distinctive use of italics shows us the caesura of her thought, the moments where her mind abides in the oddities or emphases of language: “The things mother did that I copied. The things they may recall as well. To make sure I could distinguish their socks. Distinguished socks.”

Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s poems are shaped by tropes of love and motherhood, especially as they express themselves in a fairytale mode. The fairytale quality of “Dangerous” (which begins, “The rooster talks to the donkey. / The turtle whispers to the rabbit. / The mouse conspires with the lion”) overlaps into “I Could be a Whale Shark,” in which the speaker’s imagination and anxieties at the beach undulate with the waves and sealife beneath the surface. In a short few lines, the pregnant speaker imagines herself “a moon jelly,” “a whale shark,” “a flutefish,” and the husband is her “sweet cuttlefish,” the closeness of whom recalls her mind back to familiarity with her human body. “Dear Betty Brown” is a poem of racial protest responding to the Texas Representative’s suggestion that a foreign name of “a rather difficult language” be changed to a simpler one “that we could deal with more readily here.” Nezhukumatathil equates a generic name-change to “draw[ing] a big fat X across my brown face.” She defends her legitimacy as an American citizen with wonderful images that unravel from indignation to love and back to indignation:

It would mean jamming my hand into a bucket
of mulberries with my Kansan husband
to signal summer & the slow scrape
of leaves across our lawn to signal fall.
It means my mother & father gave
me their names from the coconut shores
of their countries & made a girl
who grew up listening to Elvis while
she did her homework & now writes
poems about people who should know better
to question what is easy & what is difficult . . .

Prageeta Sharma’s dense poem, “Neutrality Maki,” examines Japanese maki as a site of objectification and boundaries. The maki’s aim is neutrality “since it will not apologize / for its doublethink nor its sheen” although, in the maki, we glimpse the potential of a “principle maki” (“there is a sheer desire for certain principles not to exist”) and a “small Geneva maki” as well. The speaker asks, “Where is the neutrality in fueled splits? / Where the discourse is false, and the people falser still?” perhaps referring to Sianne Nga’s epigraph on glamorous objects and viewers’ willfully imposed “cutification.” The maki is a complex image for an ambivalently inward- and outward-looking identity aware of its layers and which, as yet, “hasn’t formed a face; it has fish for its brain / and the surface, only the surface, is intended for a forthright simper.” A more lucid poem, “The Other Profiled in Cerulean,” attempts frank explanation of the poet’s intentions but keeps hitting questions instead: “I’m putting pressure on myself to write myself into the narrative, / the word ‘myself,’ what do I mean?” In a surprising sequence of end-stopped lines, she writes:

Perhaps
the claim of words as objects is a kind of ownership of feeling.
This is what frightens me. I do it too.
But I don’t feel like it’s always authentic.
But ownership is interesting—
I have read how mimicry is ironic compromise,
can the poem dismantle this?

Ching-In Chen’s poems, in keeping with the issue’s theme of “Counting Citizens,” follow what may be a mythical Shiny City, which in her history is one among many “assembled atop courtyards of bone.” The poems begin with a bookburning, though its images recall water—buckets, steam, waste—instead of fire. The bookburning suggests the burning of myth, history, culture: “anthems to side-swipe and heroes to depose of.” These are poems of vivid, though unexplained, loss and destruction, of “a body that would not be / broken apart / again,” of a “book of moths, / offstage light, the footstep of a wise / girl with no hair to call her / own.” Of “my history being stewed without me” and a house that “peels itself / in half, then is no more.”

Pimone Triplett’s The Hungry Ghosts is a series of persona poems spoken by the “hungry ghosts” of Buddhist tradition, starving in a limbo on earth: a metaphysical restaurant “[n]estled between the Sit N Spin Laundry and Frenchy’s Adult Book Store.” As explained in the author’s note, in these poems Triplett has fashioned her own pidgin “that’s been mildly tempered into the Thai and Pali poetic forms called kaap yanii and kaap chabang” which allows her to code-shift through proper and ungrammatical expression, often in service of cadence. We end up with lucid and musical phrases such as: “Sometimes I hear scream and suckle birthing up / far edge this wall of luck.” These monologues are striking as the speakers’ eternal inertness, their “many / / gristled millenia to get through,” illuminates the myopic disappointments and disillusionment of our own lives: after all, “they’re just simple spirit folk trying to find their way to the next level” and they wash up on “these hard-but-haven shores you call yours.”

Other great poems and poets make up this volume, including the Mexican/Spanish influences of Rick Barot’s “Oaxaca Elegy” and Michelle Har Kim’s fine translations (the pages are side-by-side bilingual) of work by Japanese Peruvian poet Jose Watanabe. Adrienne Su’s modern rhymes and Jeffrey Yang’s short lyric fragments are also worth the read. This issue of the AALR is a fine book of aesthetic range and topical treatment sure to stimulate and inspire insight. I consider myself sold as a future subscriber.

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