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Panax Ginseng: The Compassionate Sentence

2014 January 28

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.


Isamu Noguchi's "Seated Female Nude: Scroll" from 1930.

Isamu Noguchi’s “Seated Female Nude: Scroll” from 1930.


Every line and stanza in Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s Hello, the Roses (New Directions, 2013) discharges a single sentence, a mysterious effect.

It’s nothing like the prophetic long line of Whitman’s mad children, no Ginsberg howling on the street corner, saxophonic riffing and swelling, breathless in the moving city as it spills at the seams, flooding forth—

Not quite. Nor is it the disguising work of prose[-block] poetry. Prose poems are camouflaged in continuity, text-wrapped and pressurized without white space. Usually this means, even in narrative prose poems, a sinuous and subterranean movement. This allows an ending to suddenly lift upward out of horizontal motion. (Matthew Olzmann does such sequencing exceptionally well in his lineated poems, using absurd humor for torque.)

But Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s long line in Hello, the Roses is uniquely specific. Observe, from “The Mouse”:

I can’t recall the beauty of the almond trees.

I’m unable to distinguish between seeing trees, my instant awareness of ethereal beauty and trying to remember images of our having been in Greece.

The moment I think of trees, they diffuse into beings whose frequency so differs from mine, I can’t see them.

They connect with each other in groves that seem celestial, yet our worlds unify.

The dawn of the possibility of their appearance as form, stone, shifts probability toward angels. (12)

Each end-stopped line is made exquisite by the singularity of attention given to it. Berssenbrugge took some years, it would appear, to discover her voice in this form. More than fifteen years after her first book, we begin to see in Empathy (Station Hill, 1989) intermittent traces of such long lines. These, however, sometimes squeeze multiple sentences into each line, resulting in a very prose-like movement. Only nine years after that, in Four Year Old Girl (Kelsey Street, 1998) does Berssenbrugge begin to limit a single sentence to each end-stopped line; but in that volume they are versified into thickly crowded stanzas so that the periods serve a metric function. She notes in her Lannan Literary Series conversation in 1999 that her collaboration with artist Kiki Smith (in Endocrinology, later published by Kelsey Street in 2006) forced her to pull her stanzas apart to accommodate the long visual space, and this accidental discovery of the form became a new freedom: “I don’t write in stanzas anymore after that.” In Nest (Kelsey Street, 2003) and now in Hello, the Roses, the form has crystallized: it is distinctly and uniformly her primary poetic mode, one sentence per line, one line per stanza, each poem broken into several sections.

Such singularity in the breadth of each line creates a punctuated effect of silence within movement. Each line begins and ends with pause, not only metrically but also logically. That is to say, each line is declarative—yet because of its equal standing in relation to the surrounding lines, it also comes out as afterthought, a quiet thoughtfulness. Berssenbrugge’s mysterious poetic power lies somewhere in this space; what is most remarkable about her poems is that they take theoretical observations and somehow (without the padded pathos of a personal narrative) turn such abstractions into tenderness. I believe Marianne Moore had a similar superpower, though her high-Modernist work is more often regarded as frigid and calculating. In Moore’s case, I read such calculations not as a veneer behind which she hides, but as a high precision of expression through which she divulges herself. Moore puts this simply and eloquently in this sentence from “The Pangolin,” which is used to launch an intricate, exalted, long, self-effacing passage: “To explain grace requires / a curious hand.”

Not unlike the speaker in Moore’s poems, the “I” in Berssenbrugge aspires to be just that: an eye, dispassionate but careful, observing the observing that’s in process. Even when some biographical context is given (e.g. “our having been in Greece”), this serves not so much of a narrative function as it serves to limn the periphery of what is being seen. The “I” is therefore a medium of perception rather than an emotional subject. And yet, what of this tenderness? Consider this comment in Berssenbrugge’s 1999 interview about her next work in progress. She begins, in reference to earlier comments about art’s relative value and the unrelatedness of things:

I’m questioning very much just what I mentioned before: what work is, what you’re trying to achieve with it, what the person is who’s doing the work, and how much you’re responsible for that. . . . It’s a way of veering away from the central figure, the central person. I don’t know how it’s going to be, but I’m thinking about writing about Kuan Yin. You make so many efforts to get somewhere, and sometimes you can regret that. But for Kuan Yin, when there’s compassion—you never regret when you were compassionate.

Nest was Berssenbrugge’s next book after she made this comment. But Kuan Yin’s presence is not explicit in Nest, except in one mysterious line from the title poem: “Non-comprehension tips ambivalent matter, as if there were two of us, here: one is Kuan Yin, one is mother tongue” (45). Since it was in Nest that the poet’s long line became solidified, I wonder if the presence of Kuan Yin, and thereby compassion, can be read as suffusing the book not as content but as form.

Zen priest Takuan Soho (1573–1645) wrote about one particular form of Kuan Yin (or Kannon, in Japanese) which is pertinent here regarding formal representation. Here is Peter Haskel’s excellent new translation of the passage in Sword of Zen (University of Hawaii, 2013):

Consider the Thousand-Armed Kannon: It has a thousand arms, [but] if its mind becomes fixed on the one arm that holds the bow, the other 999 arms won’t work. It’s just because its mind doesn’t become fixed at any one point that all its arms work. . . . One who realizes this is himself a Kannon with a thousand arms and eyes. Yet ordinary, unenlightened persons believe blindly that it’s a marvel . . . (35)

If Kuan Yin’s enlightened ambivalence (which we can read as compassion here) moves like a thousand arms without hierarchy, might not Berssenbrugge’s long lines each be discrete arms in an egalitarian vision too? Is this not a formal practice of compassion, approaching something with full-stopped attention yet also giving it the space to stand separate from the parallel lines of which it is a part? And, because this practice is recorded in poetry, the seeing itself becomes another object to be seen. “Nest” ends with a sudden direct address to a daughter who may as well be the reader: “In this, daughter, you see more than I did at your age, because you see me” (49).

We might also think about Berssenbrugge’s long line in the context of John Berger, who in his Another Way of Telling (Pantheon, 1982) argues against the simplified concept of narrative as simply waiting for what happens next, or as a mere practice of empathy. Rather, he claims, narrative is built from “the fusion, the amalgam of the reflecting subject” (287) especially where it encounters discontinuities, disjunctions, and the white space limned between sentences. (His novel, G., is written in stanzaic paragraphs that are never indented but are modulated with varying degrees of white space between them.) He explains:

The dog came out of the forest is a simple statement. When that sentence is followed by The man left the door open, the possibility of narrative has begun. If the tense of the second sentence is changed into The man had left the door open, the possibility becomes almost a promise. Every narrative proposes an agreement about the unstated but assumed connections existing between events. (284)

I think of Berssenbrugge’s compassionate long line, therefore, as a promise in a field of aspirant connections. Further, these lines have a lateral quality we might expect to be prosaic or narrative (if only by the syntactic consequence of spotlighting sentences in this way), but part of their mystery is that they are able to resist these tendencies. In “Time and Space in Japanese Music,” a lecture recorded at the University of Michigan in the fall of 2011, ethnomusicologist William P. Malm presented an alternative spatial theory as he hears it in traditional Japanese music. Western music, he said, is vertical: it depends on stacked harmonies that become chords. But the Japanese music he presented was horizontal, made up of single and often repeating notes at intervals for which metric rhythms could not account: the music was a stretching of breath, harmonizing not within the closed field of the recorded music but rather with the open field of all the musician’s surroundings. When Berssenbrugge transitioned from long-line stanza clusters in Four Year Old Girl to single-sentence stanzas in Nest and onward, her poems transformed from a vertically stacked lyric into an open and horizontal experience.

All this expansiveness would be difficult to measure, but I hope these ruminations begin to gesture at their frontiers. I’ll conclude for now with two lines from the title poem of Hello, the Roses. Parsing the title (why not “Hello, Roses” or “Hello, Rose”?), I find in it a compassionate form of direct address. The roses are given the dignity of independent specificity with the unusual definite article, and their plural form seems to further decentralize any focus on the speaker with relation to them. Here is the ending of the poem’s first section, which has swelled to the following long sentence:

Then experience is revelation, because plants and people have in their cells particles of light that can become coherent, that radiate out physically and also with the creativity of metaphor, as in a beam of light holographically, i.e. by intuition, in which I inhale the perfume of the Bourbon rose, then try to separate what is scent, sense, and what you call memory, what is emotion, where in a dialogue like touching is it so vibratory and so absorbent of my attention and longing, with impressions like fingerprints all over.

I’m saying physical perception is the data of my embodiment, whereas for the rose, scarlet itself is matter. (59)

I offer one last analogue. In 1930, when the sculptor Isamu Noguchi made an unexpected stop in Beijing, he was able to study with master traditional ink painter Qi Baishi. This period of study went on to inform Noguchi’s later sculpture, but moreover resulted in a collection of “Peking Drawings” in which Noguchi applied his understanding of Qi’s techniques to local subjects. What is deeply affecting about these drawings is the way in which two visions are layered: in lighter ink, the “realistic” form of the subject is outlined; in heavier ink, sweeping, swift strokes show the subject’s inner gestures. It is as though these human figures, for an instant, had spines of wind that were caught on x-ray. In the above lines from “Hello, the Roses,” I see the same double brush strokes: one for the body of the perceived phenomenon (i.e. sensory encounter with a rose) and one for the very perception of the phenomenon as a body in itself. Both become visible and concrete in the poem, inseparable, beginning and ending with the same gorgeous pause of breath.

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