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Panax Ginseng: Toward a Semiotics of the Body

2013 March 18

Panax Ginseng is a bi-monthly column by Henry W. Leung exploring linguistic and geographic borders in Asian American literature, especially those with hybrid genres, forms, vernaculars, and visions. The column title suggests the English language’s congenital borrowings and derives from the Greek panax, meaning “all-heal,” together with the Cantonese jansam, meaning “man-root.” This perhaps troubling image of one’s roots as panacea informs the column’s readings.

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sharonleeSharon Lee reading one of her father’s poems,
from the eulogistic Bruce Lee VLOG Series.

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Bruce Lee wrote a considerable number of poems, most of which were compiled for the first time in Bruce Lee: Artist of Life (Tuttle, 1999), and I’ve only seen two critical writings on them, both published in The Rumpus a year apart from each other. The first is Dave Landsberger’s “Poetry Kung Fu” from October 2011, and the second is David Biespiel’s “Bruce Lee’s Advice to Poets” from his “Poetry Wire” column in November 2012. Landsberger provides a generous reading of several of Lee’s poems with the intention of expanding the public image of the martial arts superstar, of using Lee as a model of artistic sincerity over artificial self-image, and of expressing his own enthusiasm for his layered portrait of Lee. Landsberger’s readings of the poems’ influences are astute, though his presentation is perhaps overly sentimental, and his exclamatory rhetoric (ironic though it may be) belies the sensationalism he cannot separate from Bruce Lee’s public image even in a treatment of his quieter poetry, as when he concludes an analysis by saying: “Poetry Kung-fu!” Indeed, the essay as a whole—with its demotic reiterations of Bruce Lee not just as a film star, but as a studious “dude who sat on a hood of a car with Steve McQueen eating cylindrical meats,” and sensitive husband to Linda Lee Caldwell—is more of a re-portraiture than a close analysis of poetry, a marveling at more than a study.

What concerns me about Landsberger’s reading, however, is its binary representation of cultural difference. He tells us early on that the above portrait of Lee eating hot dogs with Steve McQueen is “quite possibly the most American image this article will see.” Later, he must preface an explanation of Lee’s themes of longing with, “In Eastern thought . . .” and I’m not entirely sure whether to read this as the same application of aesthetic imperialism common to Lee’s time (merely replacing the word Oriental with Eastern), or as a more modern Orientalism in which the distancing of Lee’s work comes out of praise rather than discredit. In any case, Landsberger feels the need to justify Lee’s longing by noting, inaccurately: “to Western audiences this often reads as insecurity . . .” And he concludes the same section with a line beginning: “Perhaps the only thing Lee traditionally shares with some famous Western poets . . .” The imprecision of his readings aside, these statements are curious to me because even after all this time, even in a modern re-portraiture which addresses the literary sophistication of Bruce Lee’s character, Lee is still a shopworn image representing vast cultural differences and misunderstandings.

Landsberger doesn’t consider the fact that Lee’s poems are written in English, or that born in San Francisco but with a life split between America and Hong Kong, Lee had his choice of languages. That he translated Chinese dynastic poems into English and that his own poems played with Daoist sensibilities doesn’t necessarily place Lee in a position of representing “Eastern thought,” especially in an America which had already seen the popularization of Buddhist Modernism. It may be more apposite to read Lee’s linguistic proclivities as hybrid, not merely on an East/West scale but in the friction of the natural and the urban, a common theme in his early films. Landsberger fixates on the pastoral beauty of Lee’s poems, but neglects to notice the urbanity from which they arise, as in his Seattle poems set on Lake Washington, and especially in “The Surroundings Utter No Sound,” a goodbye poem in which the speaker says, “Anxiously I stopped the car by the roadside,” winding toward a beautiful ending situated somewhere between nature and city:

Like mountain streams, we part and meet again,
Everything is still,
Except the occasional lonely bark of a dog.

David Biespiel’s column has very little to do with Bruce Lee, but also utilizes the sensationalism of Lee’s image and performance to make a claim about poetry in general. He extrapolates the following lesson about poetry from the popular video of Bruce Lee playing ping-pong with a pair of nunchaku: “Like the accomplishment in the pingpong video, poetry must exude the impossible and reveal the practice that achieved it. Poetry must understate and overwhelm.” What is embarrassing to note is that the video is actually a digital invention with a lookalike actor, first released in 2008 for a Nokia advertising campaign; the performance exudes the impossible only inasmuch as it’s entirely fake, which of course precludes any sedulous practice to be revealed. What attracts Biespiel to the video is not poetry in the strict formal sense, nor poetry in the broader sense of artistic sincerity and virtuosity (here I discount CG artistry), but poetry as visual performance. This amounts to the appropriation of a body-icon (the lookalike actor in the film who, for obvious reasons, never reveals his face to us in full) for audience titillation.

The relationship between the martial arts and poetry is not remotely modern. In generic military histories, warlords and military elites tended to be of (or would fight their way into) aristocratic, literary classes by necessity. In Chinese Martial Arts (Cambridge, 2012), Peter Lorge cites a telling instance from the Tang Dynasty in which Li Po was invited to recite a poem before the emperor while a swordsman put on a weapons demonstration or performance. In Legends of the Samurai (Overlook, 1995), Hiroaki Sato reports an early pairing between samurai of all ranks and the practice of renga, or collaborative linked-verse poetry from which the haiku later derived. Thus, the mere custom of a martial arts superstar in the 1970s who happens to write poetry is not interesting to me as a fact in itself; what a close analysis might yield, however, is the way in which a bodily art can inform a linguistic one since they are both formal conceits in apprehending consciousness.

Consider this comment from recent Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize winner W.S. Di Piero, in his title essay from When Can I See You Again? (Pressed Wafer, 2010), on the subject of Italian painter Giorgio Morandi:

The modern sublime isn’t about magnitude or clarion ambition: it rubs perception so close to ordinary facts of physical reality that we feel pressed against a membrane that obscurely separates us from whatever lies on the other side, if there is another side. It intensifies and restores physical reality while suggesting something larger than consciousness.

Now compare that to this passage from Kenji Tokitsu’s stunning translation and annotations of the seventeenth-century Japanese sword saint in Musashi: His Life and Writings (Shambhala, 2004):

During combat, the mind of the adept comes close to a kind of meditation, because his whole space-time is filled by the interactive, confrontational field that forms around his and his adversary’s swords. In other words, in this space-time, apart from this field, there is nothing. This field is emptiness, but emptiness as Musashi defines it in his Scroll of Heaven . . .

The lexicon is different, but these are two artists writing about artists, and both passages speak of an engagement with the world with such density and intensity that immanence gives way to transcendence. Grandiosity, bravado, and sensationalism are obviated. Does this not also sound like Rimbaud writing, “The poet makes himself a seer by a long, prodigious, and rational disordering of all the senses”?

Now let’s return to Bruce Lee’s poetry with “Boating on Lake Washington,” which ends:

I try to conjure up the land of dream where I may seek for you.
But, alas, no dreams come.
Only a moving point of fire in the dark,
The distant light of a passing boat.

Daydreams of a unified consciousness—a Romantic sensibility—are frequent in his poems. But this one, it seems to me, is about more than desire or longing, and is more than “poetry kung fu.” In these lines we see the expansiveness of imagination (not just its dreaming of a person, but its conjuring up a land of dream within which more may transpire) collapsed into a quick regret. And in the final images, the vastness of the speaker’s solitude sights something originary—fire in the darkness—which becomes remote when unveiled as a transient light. That reads to me like a gesture at consciousness, at a body pressing against a littoral membrane. As a whole, Lee’s poems may not have been technically accomplished, but they do exhibit a vision and sensory disruption worth documenting and inhabiting. Many of them also fall into a category of “martial arts poems,” by which I don’t mean the insipid limericks hanging from many a dojo, but rather, poems written by adepts of physical pursuits seeking similar heights of consciousness through a linguistic medium. It is a category, a veritable genre, yet to be curated.

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