Happy New Year! 2019 promises to be another exciting year in the world of APA poetry, and so thought we’d start the year off with a bang—by celebrating three fantastic new books that are the top of our reading list this January. For this month’s roundup, we’ve gathered three collections that explore lineage lost, erased, revived for the poets to come. They are precious works that speak to the interdependencies and support that are central to writing and bearing witness, generation after generation. We hope you’ll enjoy these books as much as we have and that, in savoring them, you’ll be able to engage in your own times of reflection this January—to consider those who came before and those who will come after.
Sally Wen Mao’s Oculus is a jolting lyric study of the white heteropatriachal gazes that have vivisected racialized bodies throughout history. This tradition begins early—Afong Moy, for instance, was the first female immigrant in the US, who was sold to an Orientalist exhibition. In a series of persona poems, Mao envisions Moy aching for home, hollering, and smashing trinkets—small acts of agency even as she is trapped under an exploitative system of tokenism. Then, in “Anna May Wong Makes Cameos,” Mao revives and reimagines the famed Chinese American movie star in movies of the early 2000s, only to illustrate how she would be cut from the scene, crushed underfoot. These poems bring to mind literary scholar Anne Cheng’s Ornamentalism, in which she writes of the defiled body, “Having been made stranger to oneself by unimaginable brutality means that one must reapproach the self as a stranger.” By reencountering the body stripped of self and agency, by reasserting the place of women of color in history, Mao’s poetry stages a form of reencounter that is ultimately protective so that those who follow can be freely generative—to “cross the text out,” to “rewrite this” (10).
The latest collection from Lee Herrick, Scar and Flower, considers what it means to make room in a brutal system of continuous war, climate disaster, mass shootings, deportations, and suicides. As Herrick builds psychic dwellings for repair, the poems in Scar and Flower bring to mind the etymology of “stanza”—a room, a resting point, a space to breathe. By drawing from familiar words and worlds, Herrick gives dimension to these spiritual spaces: the sky’s numerous stars are a reminder of his heritage as a man “born on the other side / of the world” (46); water reminds us of our “resting state” (23); the body is “a song called birth,” venturing out into the world, seeking out and losing its lyrics (48). Lee’s rhapsodic moments return to inherent contradictions of pain and desire—and guide the reader as these knots are worked out through communion with self, other, and world.
Reading Loves You by Sarah Gambito is like thumbing through a grandmother’s scrawled cooking notes, like setting the table for one’s chosen family. Central to Gambito’s collection are poem-recipes, which gain significance through context—“Watermelon Agua Fresca (For When You Need Me),” for instance, takes the form of a list of instructions but ends as a subtle, loving address: “Serve in ice-filled glasses and know how much I love you” (64). At the same time, cooking, as in the poem “Cento,” can just as easily become absorbed, commodified, and twisted into demands for a domestic worker to “do the food,” followed up by: “You cannot cook Filipino food in the kitchen” (18). Even as Gambito never lets her readers forget that love, too, is labor shaped by the legacies of capitalism, imperialism, and colonization, Loves You is a crucial reminder that cutting up chicken and piping lychee cream can be sacred gestures of abundant love, crucial links to homes an ocean away.
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What poetry collections have you been reading to start out your new year? And what books are you looking forward to in the coming months? Share them with us in the comments or let us know onTwitter, Facebook, or Instagram (@LanternReview).
Recently, we had the privilege of speaking with poet, essayist, and visual artist Mary-Kim Arnold about her book-length essay, Litany for the Long Moment (Essay Press, 2018), included in the Entropy Best of 2018 Nonfiction Booklist and as part of the Brew and Forge Book Fair. Litany is a luminous work that yearns for lost parents and homeland, that refashions aesthetic and historical lineage out of an obscured past. Arnold shared with us her reflections on dominant narratives of transnational adoption, the limits of language, and the process of placing oneself under scrutiny. An excerpt of Litany can be found on AAWW’s The Margins.
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LANTERN REVIEW: You title your book Litany for the Long Moment after photographic processes and begin the essay with reflections on Francesca Woodman, who, as you note, transformed photography into a medium for self-discovery and self-destruction. What was photography’s role in your process of composing the book, and how do you view its relationship to language?
MARY-KIM ARNOLD: I was interested in the handful of photographs of myself as a child in Korea—a self I could not remember and would never know, a self who really no longer existed. So I knew I wanted to incorporate those photographs in some way, to examine this ghost self who haunted my life as I knew it.
I was taken with the idea of the long exposure and how that process could show motion over time, but the effect was a kind of blurring or obscuring of the subject. I think this is a bit of a metaphor for the life of the adoptee. For me, as a transnational adoptee raised by white parents, the interruptions in family lineage were made visible. My Koreanness amid their whiteness was always visible, always subject to scrutiny, always asked to account for itself.
Despite that constant scrutiny, there is something central to the life of the adoptee herself that remains unknowable. Being visible is not the same as being seen, not the same as being known or recognized as a whole person. Under the persistent gaze, the adoptee becomes flattened, a kind of symbol, not fully human, but a representation. Ultimately, Woodman’s work and the photographic process she was using toward the end of her life provided a starting point for me to consider the role of the female artist, writer, subject. There is a way in which the female artist is simultaneously both subject and object. Woodman’s photographs and the critical writing about her work gave me language to think about myself in relation to the photographs of myself.
IH: In the book, you observe and resist romanticized adoption narratives—from the dream of maternal return to a dissonant press release from the Korean government that presented adoptees as “a precious resource for the international development of Korea.” How did writing Litany shift your own meditations on absence and separation—on both the personal and national-historical levels?
MKA: I think subconsciously, I have always wanted a romantic reunion, too. I think there’s a part of me that has always thought one day, something would happen, things would fall into place, I would have something handed back to me that made sense.
Through the process of writing the book and over time, I have come to recognize that there is no romantic reunion possible. The fantasy of reunion for me, as an adoptee, has been perhaps a kind of self-imposed exile from the realities and complexities of the life I have built for myself here. Recognizing this does not erase or deny the trauma of that initial separation. Nor does it obviate my grief for the life I might have had, the family I might have had. But it perhaps makes certain realities of the life I do have more knowable. If the reunion fantasy made me brittle, inflexible, closed off to the richness of my real life, letting the fantasy go has perhaps allowed me to be more porous. I can take in and absorb more of what is real and possible in my life.
As for the national-historical level, contextualizing my personal story within the larger political and socio-cultural intricacies of US-Korea relations lifted a kind of burden of personal responsibility and shifted the focus to the policies, systems, and institutions that made abandonment and transnational adoption the desirable course of action. I think the dominant narrative around Korean adoption in my generation focused on individual failures and choices—the single woman who was too poor to keep a child, the young woman who had an affair with a married man, the child who was born with health complications too serious for a poor family to contend with. And for the most part, what was absent from the discourse around adoption was the failure of social service infrastructures, systems and policies that made the relinquishment and export of a nation’s children seem not only an acceptable but a desirable course of action for Korea in which families in the US were encouraged to participate.
IH: I was struck by your reclamation of “taking life” as “taking it in”—an act that not only reasserts your own agency to write into rupture but also stakes out territory for Francesca Woodman, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, and Lady Hyegyong, among others. What is the connection between reclaiming the self’s history and body and reclaiming those of another?
MKA: I like to think that the more we try to tell the truth of our experience, the more we make space for others to do the same. I think the increasing numbers of narratives of adoption written by adoptees maybe pave the way for others—so that adoption can be understood as having more than one narrative arc, as being more than the dominant narrative. I think that narrative has historically positioned adoptive parents as selfless saviors and adopted children as forever indebted to them. Perhaps adoptees whose own experience of adoption was not like this, [and/or] did not feel like this, can find permission to tell their own stories, too.
IH: In Litany, you quote Lady Hyegyong: “Many things were hard to speak of . . . and I have left them out.” What are the differences between the excisions involved in self-portraiture versus those required in documentary?
MKA: Lady Hyegyong’s memoirs allowed me to think about memoir and self-reporting as a political act. She claimed the truth of her experience, even though it conflicted with the accepted, official record of courtly life. In self-portraiture, I don’t think I feel the same level of accountability to telling the whole story as I might in documentary. I’m not attempting to talk about the adoptee experience in general; this is just my own story, my own experience, as best I can attempt to represent it at this particular moment in time.
IH: In Litany, you write, “I fear this is asking too much of syntax.” What do you understand as the intellectual and bodily limits of language?
MKA: I wanted language to be this kind of bridge between my Americanness and my Koreanness. I wanted to be able to claim and inhabit Koreanness through learning this language as if uttering words or phrases in another language gave me a sort of bodily access, bodily knowledge to Koreanness. But learning a completely unfamiliar language is very difficult as an adult, and some of the fragmentation, some of the silence arises from that gap—the desire to lay claim to Koreanness but the inability, at the most basic level of language, to do so. All the same, I think we’ve become very removed from knowledge that is not purely discursive and bound by language. There is knowledge that resides in the body, in memory. I think there is a limit to what the body can take in and process through language. I was thinking about the ways in which language is inadequate, particularly in grief. Silence is its own strategy, has its own textures and weight.
IH: How do you step back to gain critical or emotional distance from your research and writing?
MKA: It takes time, I think. Just a lot of time. Lots of stepping away, putting it aside, coming back to it. It was an intense process, but it was also exciting, artistically, to set myself these little problems to solve.
I am reminded of a line I came across in a poem years ago. I don’t remember the context of it, but it was something to the effect of waiting for the words to have soaked up enough. That feels like part of it. Letting the language steep and become its own thing. At some point, it wasn’t as directly, as personally, about me. It was about trying to tell some kind of story and maintaining some sort of devotion—to the story rather than to me and my own feelings.
IH: What has been most challenging about placing yourself and your life under poetic scrutiny?
MKA: I was concerned about how my family members might react—my sister; my aunt (who is my mother’s sister); and even, to a lesser extent, my own children. My family went through a lot of trauma during the period of time I cover in my book, and I did, at certain times and over certain details, feel very protective of us all, of who we were then, of what we were living with.
IH: In your interview with Essay Press, you talk about the various paths of research you took to compose Litany—from Lady Hyegyong and courtly life to US involvement in Korean adoption. What parts of your process for Litany do you want to extend into future projects? How has the process for your second, forthcoming poetry collection, The Fish and The Dove, been related to or different from your process for Litany?
MKA: Some of the research led me to the Korean War, and while I was watching a lot of war documentaries, this notion of enemy and loyalty started taking shape. In that context of war, these questions—who are you, where are you from—demanded a kind of reckoning, a kind of accounting for the self in a public way that’s made visible for approval. Several of the poems in The Fish and The Dove attempt to address divided or complicated loyalties.
In that collection, I have also been thinking about particular kinds of language—institutional language that purposefully hides itself and obscures truth in an attempt to deny accountability. Statements like “mistakes were made” and “lives were lost” purposefully obscure the subjects, the actors. Who made these mistakes? Who took these lives? I am trying to think about and give breath to the casualties of institutional language.
IH: You similarly explore lineage, adoption, and Korean identity in visual art—as with “(Re-)Dress: One for Every Thousand” or “Guidelines for Arrival and Transfer.” Could you talk a bit about how visual art and writing inform one another in your practice and research? How has each medium allowed you to discover, or come to terms with, different aspects of identity?
MKA: I think for a very long time, I had resisted the idea that the fact of my adoption—the rupture of it—was as significant as it was to my sense of self. When I finally was ready to take it on in a meaningful and direct way, it was like floodgates opening. Suddenly, there were all these questions I had that I had only previously considered in superficial ways. Like: Why did this happen? Not just to me, but to 200,000 Korean children, 200,000 families. I wanted to think about that scale. Thinking about that scale allowed me to think beyond the individual level—no longer were the questions: What were the circumstances of my family? Why did my mother feel as though this was the choice she had to make?—the emphasis shifted from the individual to the systems. What was happening in the interconnected political, social, economic, and cultural conditions in the US and in Korea that made this unprecedented separation of families possible? So, I suppose if Litany for the Long Moment is focused more on my own individual experience, perhaps “Re-Dress” is a way to think about the larger forces at work.
IH: You are currently a visiting lecturer at Brown University. How does your emphasis on experimental, interdisciplinary work influence your pedagogy?
MKA: I think of formal choices as necessarily political. The decision to make something “accessible” or invisible or easy to read, where the underpinnings of language can be overlooked so that the content is foregrounded—that’s a particular kind of choice and relies on a set of assumptions and internalized values. I talk a lot about the kinds of stories that resist a narrative line. Who gets to tell stories with neat conclusions? Whose stories are interrupted, silenced? When we talk about a conclusion in an essay, a resolution, who is that resolution for? I talk about writing—and mostly I’m dealing with creative nonfiction—as exploratory rather than as persuasive. This shifts the emphasis from conclusion to inquiry.
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Mary-Kim Arnold is the author of Litany for the Long Moment. She is a poet, writer, and visual artist based in Rhode Island, where she teaches at Brown University. Arnold’s work appears in The Georgia Review, Hyperallergic, and The Rumpus, among other publications. She is currently working on a novel, Nine Men’s Misery, and a poetry collection, The Fish & The Dove(forthcoming from Noemi Press in 2020). More of her work can be found on her website: mkimarnold.com
This past summer, the NEH released data that sent news outlets into a frenzy: over the past five years, the number of poetry readers has nearly doubled to 28 million adults. To us, this news was incredibly validating and exciting, given the staggering variety of powerful contemporary poems we’ve been lucky to read and publish over the years. Even as we’ve cultivated Lantern Review as a space for Asian American poetry, we recognize that the lantern is a symbol of enlightenment across cultures, a guiding light that celebrates continued exploration of disparate but interlocking communities. So this month, we pay homage to our namesake and highlight four recent poetry titles that we’ve loved for the ways they’ve challenged exclusionary definitions of “Americanness” in political, social, and literary life. Whether you are a regular reader of poetry or a newcomer to verse, we hope these books can serve as a guide to the diverse traditions of American poetry.
The title of US Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith’s anthology invokes past laureate Robert Hayden and his poem, “[American Journal].” But while Hayden’s speaker is an alien who observes “the americans this baffling / multi people” from the outside in, Smith’s assembled communities of voices consider their various amorphous Americas from the interior. Several of our favorite APA poets—such as Tina Chang, Cathy Park Hong, Solmaz Sharif, and John Yau—appear among the radiant, haunting, and witty voices herein. Wrought from revenge for seized land, the joys of fatherhood, the despair of unimaginable loss, the wonder of what remains, these selected poems—or “reports,” as Smith calls them—consider and coax and challenge borders at a moment when our definitions of “nation” and “neighbor” are increasingly unstable.
Citizen Illegal is a fierce and playful rewrite of America through Chicanx experiences. José Olivarez exposes the quintessential dissonance and violence of everyday America—in one poem, a white partygoer claims the absence of Mexicans in “this part of New York City” even as the speaker beholds a waiter who “pushes his brown self through the kitchen door” (31). But if white supremacy systematically negates black, brown, and indigenous experiences, Olivarez is a cunning new architect who seizes and repurposes that scaffold. By Olivarez’s pen, heaven is no longer the sterile playspace of the white and moneyed. Instead, it is “gross” (a space where Mexican women can finally revel in novelas), and it is intimate (there are no gentrifiers who destroy family and language). Each poem is unsparing, negating white America’s practices of erasure and affirming Mexican American experiences with song.
bury it by sam sax (Wesleyan University Press, 2018)
The crevices between boy and monster, dead and undead are dangerously thin, and sam sax toes the line brilliantly. He concludes this, his second collection, with a hefty question: “how deep am i indebted to the dead?” (83). The book strives to answer this from the beginning. In the first poem, a fisherman perceives a tug and pulls up “boy, // after boy, / after boy, / after boy, / …” (1). The confessional intertwines with the surreal in these poems of mourning, which salute gay teens lost to suicide, forebears consumed by AIDS, and betraying lovers who have in turn been betrayed by others. This collection is sax’s incantation of a vital lineage—including figures like W. H. Auden, James Baldwin, Tyler Clementi—that makes the dead marvelously undead.
If They Come For Us reminds us that the titular question may not be “if” but “when.” Fatimah Asghar writes from her personal and political history as the daughter of Pakistani, Kashmiri, and Muslim diasporas, observing that any sense of material and emotional security must reconcile with the knowledge that “I build & build / & someone takes it away.” In response, Asghar fashions poems that probe brutality while preserving the ordinary: She describes an encounter between her Barbies and stuffed animals, an erotic playdate that devolves into military conquest (35). She points out that perpetrators of ethnic cleansing and genocide during the India/Pakistan partition of 1947 were “Men who wear matching shirts,” “neighbors who like to kill each other” (16). Her measured observations of the ordinary also honor the notions of shelter, kin, and abundance—which are not lost to bloodshed and trauma but are grounded in an auntie’s laughter, a track team’s devotion, and endless jello at the Old Country Buffet. In her essay “Against Witness,” Cathy Park Hong argues that poetry has failed remembrance in this “era of total recall.” Accordingly, Asghar’s poems propel beyond memory and instead stage everyday scenes that grapple with historical atrocity and personal loss. A continuing legacy of violence, she reminds us, “is the cost / of looking the other way.”
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As always, there are so many more incredible new collections than we have space to describe. Here are just a few other other recent books, including a few of this year’s National Book Awards’ finalists, that have been on our radar for the ways in which they push or transform the boundaries of Americanness and American poetry:
What boundary-transgressing collections would you recommend to new readers of poetry? To old-timers? Share them with us in the comments or let us know on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram (@LanternReview).
As summer comes to a close, we wanted to alert you to a number of exciting collections by Asian American poets that are forthcoming this fall. These poems are both luminous vessels of time travel and crucial artifacts of our milieu. They are guides that point out the boundaries between worlds and identities and—with a sleight of hand—expose a hidden latch, revealing unseen horizons. We hope these poets’ offerings of sight, memory, and sound will help to sustain you this autumn. May they inspire you to continued resistance and resilience.
Emily Jungmin Yoon’s collection is a persistent and lucid study of sexual violence, colonization, and war. Over and over, Yoon deploys language, documents its destruction. She returns to mourn; she collects the remains. At the heart of her project is “Testimony,” a section that gathers the stories of Korean women who survived Japanese occupation. In another sequence, “An Ordinary Misfortune,” the speaker asks, “How could I put a child in a haunted place.” This question resounds throughout the pages of her collection, relentless, resilient, and shapeshifting as Yoon’s lyric “I.”
Sardonic and erotic, Monica Ferrell’s second collection reads like a tête-à-tête gone rogue. Given voice, brides and beloveds come alive, unbraiding their limbs from Flaubert, Duchamp, and Tolstoy. Once stripped bare, now decked in furs, the women of Ferrell’s poems stalk and stomp, recognizing the bridegroom’s cry for what it is: “a lost boat’s foghorn bleating.” You Darling Thing arranges the savage dance of courtship, only to split the social contract of marriage: “A woman alone is a cave of violets, / A man alone a squirming rat, who squeaks.”
The Only Country Was the Color of My Skin knits poetry with prose, Tokyo with Manzanar. Probing an elusive Japanese American identity and reaching deep into traditional Japanese poetic forms, past LR contributor Hellen writes boldly, “I have a mouth to tell my story.” The result is a hybrid collection that acts as star chart for the present and enacts a communion with the past.
Isako Isako by Mia Ayumi Malhotra (Alice James Books, Sept 2018)
We’re beside ourselves with excitement for our very own founding editor Mia Ayumi Malhotra, whose first collection just hit shelves yesterday! Inspired by the stories of Malhotra’s own grandmother and great-grandmother, Isako Isako grapples with Japanese incarceration and American occupation, as well as mass displacement and transnational migration.Four generations of women reach across lost decades and burning cities, and they convene in the poems to brush palms, slip tissues, and share war rations. When her speaker calls out, “Isako Isako are you leaving me. How much longer Isako will you remember me,” Malhotra sets forth a yearning that knows no bounds—after all, as the poems remind us, survival is nothing without remembrance.
The Bindery in San Francisco will be hosting a launch event for Isako Isako this evening, September 5, where the author will be joined by Jennifer S. Cheng (author of Moon: Letters, Maps, Poems) as well as experimental improv drummer Paul Sakai. If you’re local to the Bay Area, we hope you’ll consider coming out to celebrate our Mia with us!
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In this season of harvest, what collections are on your reading list? Which poets and what images do you find yourself returning to? Share them with us in the comments or let us know on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram (@LanternReview).