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.
The title here is taken from a phrase by Laura (Riding) Jackson, from one of her prose writings after she abjured a successful career in poetry. I’ve been contending personally with her claims against poetry since the publication of my first chapbook, Paradise Hunger (Swan Scythe Press 2012). Jackson makes the case for a language with intrinsic truth-value as a pure means of expression, free from sliding signifiers, free especially from the generic constraints of literary form. She argues that poetry is a medium for accepting the “good enough” under the illusion of a truth that is ultimately inexpressible. This illusion is consummated by the aesthetic gesture, providing, at best, a sense of formal completeness. Poetry, then, is a closed circuit, which never stretches outward to communicate truth or to connect truly through words. In her essay “What, If Not A Poem, Poems?” Jackson writes:
A poem emits something that delights, seeming truth-like. But one learns, at long poetic last, that the poem cannot yield truth itself, truth unqualified: it is too much committed to yielding the semblance to be capable of yielding the pure reality. This, it is hard for the poet to know, for, though the poet perceive that, here and there, truth did not get its full due, such perceptions would lose themselves in the growing satisfaction felt in the coming to be of that extraordinary thing, a poem.
To put this another way, when Yusef Komunyakaa was once asked what sentimentality was, he answered: “Passion without form.” Jackson wants to champion this passion and not the form. Let me rephrase this once more. Toi Derricotte has said that her writing process is the transmutation of an inner storm into an outer object—like a mug—which she can then place on the shelf. Again, the well-wrought form, its source in reality become a regardless matter. The poems I wrote for Paradise Hunger followed a series of family funerals, emerging from what I felt was a sacred process of grief, loneliness, and self-definition. The process came from a “crisis of universal utterance,” a groping in language toward some manner of truth, understanding, consummation. But what I ended up with instead was just a form, an object in my hands. An object for the shelf, yes, but also an object for sale, a suddenly profane thing.
The product in art is always problematic, which may be the source of Jackson’s impatient reservation. It’s also at least one reason why the writing of “Asian American poetry” can be so frustrating, since those air-quotes refer to the generic forms confining profane product, regardless of sacred process. But I wonder if Jackson might not be placing an undue burden on the speaker of language, rather than its recipient—making this the poet’s crisis, rather than that of the reader. We often say, rather vaguely, that reading and writing go hand in hand. I posit, more specifically, that writing is the consummation of reading. That this whole art is not about producing better poetry, but about reading poetry better.
When my family read Paradise Hunger, which is “about” them in more and less explicit ways, I had to step back and recognize the peculiarly ethnographic position in which I appeared: my family looked to me as their historian. But I wasn’t writing prose. I was remapping our reality, distorting it, along a topography more literary than historical. In other words, they thought I was in the position to speak for them, and instead I spoke for myself—or rather, I spoke for a myth, a lyric fiction. Their response to my poems will be familiar to many first-generation writers, especially to immigrants writing in a language other than the mother tongue: “I don’t get it.” More specifically, and I think more meaningfully, their response was: “I don’t know how to read this [language].”
And yet, listen to what my mother did, my mother who came to this country as a single parent, who knows English but is not fluent, who still calls me on the phone to ask about spellings and pronunciations. I left her a copy of the chapbook and she picked her way through it, English-to-Chinese dictionary in hand. Then she called me a few weeks later, after reading my poem “Air Conditioning,” which features her in a hospital room after being struck by a bicycle. In fact, this never happened. But she wanted to say that she understood the poem was performative. After the death of her brothers (which formed the content of preceding poems), she was not, in reality, struck by a bicycle. She was, however, wounded. And I’d given that pain a form. Then she said something which reallly humbled me, because within my family’s ethos we almost never say this: she said, in English, “Thank you.” Someone could read the poem, she explained, and know something of her, enough to be moved, without having ever met her.
In Cantonese, we have two separate phrases for “thank you.” One is thanks for providing a service or exchange; it’s the thanks you say to a waiter on your way out, or to someone who shares an umbrella with you. The other is thanks for a physical gift that’s been handed over. It struck me later that neither version would have been quite right for what she was trying to say. That she would use English to thank me—well, it was a graciousness which somehow breaks my heart to think of.
What is the aesthetic, if not heaven’s geometry? The well-wrought form may indeed be delight enough to distract us from an absent truth. That’s part of the pleasure and the melancholy of encountering a soundly written poem, whether or not you were the one to write it: as a reader, you’re witnessing a beauty in the world, which has nothing to do with you. It is objective in that sense, the mug that by itself holds up its corner of the grand geometry. Yet, when that beauty turns out to be personal, or rather, is made personal by the reading, then, it seems to me, an understanding takes place, which goes beyond mere utterance, beyond the language of the form.
I remember the first literary panel I ever attended. Kimiko Hahn was one of the speakers, and someone asked her what poetry’s purpose was. She responded tersely with a single gesture: she reached over to fellow panelist Norma Fox Mazer’s shoulder, and she gave a little push. Norma Fox Mazer passed away a few years later. To remember that little push now means to me not just reaching another human being, not just moving them gently (like an embrace) or forcefully (like Kafka’s axe for the frozen sea inside us), but also doing what Blake wrote: “kiss it as it flies.” We will ever be limited in time, in forms, in the thingness of our loved ones before they go. This thingness may be nothing more than Jackson’s good-enough ineffable. But I venture to ask if the good-enough might actually be good enough.
Poetry lives as process, rather than object, when the reader takes up the mighty task of engaging personally and critically with the text. Unlike photographs and films (which are bottles of things, unchangeable), poetry is an ontology and a thaumaturgy set into motion by the reader’s shared voice. Unlike fiction, the speaker in a poem is not a character; at most, it’s a persona; and unlike nonfiction, the speaker is not identifiable in the real world. The lyric “I“ is me and not me, exactly as much as it is you and not you. Jackson argues for denotative specificity over artistic ambiguity, but I’m not sure that communication is anything more than dead transmission, if it leaves no space for creation in the process. I don’t know of any intrinsic truth that can exist beyond the formalities of language, yet still be language. And I’m not sure truth matters so much as truthfulness (or “truthiness,” perhaps?). It’s in the silences between notes that the melody is found.