This is Part 2 of a two-part series about Indivisible: An Anthology of Contemporary South Asian American Poetry. You can find Part 1 here.
As the editors of Indivisible: An Anthology of South Asian American Poetry emphasize, there is no way to completely define or capture the South Asian American experience. Yet the politics of identity and language cannot be ignored. As Summi Kaipa, one of the editors, said, “Being South Asian and putting our voice out there is a very political act. What does it mean to do this anthology post-9/11 to get this chorus of voices out there to represent ourselves to defy the stereotypes that may be placed upon ourselves?” In the Introduction, the editors describe the ways in which language can be dangerous or misleading — the power of what is stated but also what is omitted.This suggests that what the contributers’ choose to write (or not write) has weight simply in their decision to do so. The politicalizations are not always intentional or obvious, but subtle insights about the evolving South Asian American identity can be found throughout the anthology.
All three of Sasha Kamini Parmasad’s pieces (“Burning”, “Sugarcane Farmer”, “The Old Man”) reflect this understated social commentary via observation. She uses striking visual imagery to paint the scene, allowing the reader to see what she sees and to draw their own conclusions. In “Burning”, the heat is almost tangible; Parmasad’s repeated images beat down like the sun, as demonstrated by the opening lines, “The twelve o’clock sun sizzles / like onions and garlic the grandmother pitches / into a black iron pot rubbed with butter. / Trees are stingy with their shade. / Moth-winged morning flowers wither on stems.” But we also see the people under that sun — a young girl, her father, her grandmother — three generations all living in that heat. We see the grandmother cooking despite the heat, the father slaughtering a pig in the heat (“Drags it writhing / back to the slaughtery.— / Pig’s blood staining the macadam road forever), and the young girl witnessing it all. Parmasad is able to humanize the difficult and unchanging living conditions of the working class by showing how daily experiences continue despite the unbearable heat.
Indivisible: An Anthology of South Asian American Poetry, edited by Neelanjana Banerjee, Summi Kaipa, and Pireeni Sundaralingam | The University of Arkansas Press 2010 | $24.95
Indivisible: An Anthology of Contemporary South Asian American Poetry—the first anthology solely devoted to South Asian American poetry—features 49 poets and 141 poems from the newly emerging to the long-established, tracing their origins to Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka and spanning generations, cultures, and faiths. Released in April, the anthology is already making its mark, having at one point reached the #1 bestseller spot on Amazon for Asian American poetry. The editors and contributors have been doing readings and signings across the country, including a launch in San Francisco and a panel at this year’s AWP conference.
The anthology is edited by Neelanjana Banerjee, Summi Kaipa, and Pireeni Sundaralingam, three Bay Area poets who started the project in 2002. Initially designed as an initiative to collect community responses post-9/11, it soon expanded into a broader platform to express and reflect the complex and changing nature of South Asian American identities post-9/11. I spoke with Summi Kaipa, who explained that the title—taken from the Pledge of Allegiance—captures one of the tenets underlying the project: “how can we be a pluralistic society and get along and be unified at the same time.”
The editors were very intentional in the way they organized the collection, choosing not to categorize the contributors and pieces into specific genres or themes but instead to create a holistic experience in which the multiplicities of each new piece would lead into the next one. As Kaipa explained, the collection “capture[s] what the voice of South Asian identity is in the United States [along with] what the American experience is, what the experience is as a human being, you know, the universal experience.” And their vision is successful. What stands out are not common styles or recurring themes but the breadth and variation that exists amongst the poems, affirming that there is no single definition that quintessentializes the South Asian American experience.
The editors posit that while popular South Asian American literature continues to center around the more traditional immigrant narrative, South Asian American poetry allows for explorations of what it means to be a South Asian American in a more nuanced way. At a basic level, the forms engaged by the poets whose work is included in the anthology range from the traditional to the experimental, and are rooted in traditions from around the world. The anthology allows the reader to observe how the various styles that are being explored in American poetry are being reflected in South Asian writers. The only limitation, which the editors acknowledge, is that the anthology is not able to fully include the tremendous work being done in the spoken word and performance poetry realms.
The poems in the anthology explore a variety of themes, including the hazy nature of memory. Vandana Khanna confronts this in “Echo”, acknowledging the past is not always idyllic with her opening lines, “I cannot make it lovely, / this story of my father.” She suggests that stories are not always ours to tell: “You tell me over and over but I can’t write it: the same story, but I know we are leaving things out. Embellishing.” Ultimately, the poem accepts that we try to remember and share stories even if they are imprecise, and that we translate them into our time and place and language. In the last stanza, she writes, “You have left the spaces empty for me to add / in colors, the smells, to translate to English. / To translate into the present, into beautiful.”
The desire to relate to the unknown or imagined past is echoed in Vijay Seshadri’s four pieces (“The Disappearances”, “Elegy”, “The Dream I Didn’t Have”, “Memoir”), which all speak of absence in different ways. In “Elegy”, he opens with, “I’ve been asked to instruct you about the town you’ve gone to, / where I’ve never been” and in “Memoir”, he opens with, “Orwell says somewhere that no one ever writes the real story of their life. / The real story of a life is the story of its humiliations.” But his pieces also speak to a more poignant and personal loss. In “The Disappearances” he describes a world in which all living creatures have disappeared, suggesting that, for better or worse, all we leave behind are our memories:
The myths are somewhere else, but here are the meanings,
and you have to breathe them in
until they burn your throat
and peck at your brain with their intoxicated teeth.
This is you as seen by them, from the corner of an eye
(was that they way you were always seen?)
This is you when the President died
(the day is bright and cold).
This is you poking a ground-wasps’ nest.
This is you at the doorway, unobserved,
while your aunts and uncles keen over the body.
This is your first river, your first planetarium, your first popsicle.
While these examples speak to a universality of experience, no one example can be completely representative of the book’s project. At the outset, the editors had no idea where the project would lead but, as Kaipa put it, “the cacophony was important regardless of what it was.” Yet what makes the anthology significant is the deft work of the editors, who patiently and skillfully selected a wealth of experiences and styles that underlie the very fabric of South Asian America. In the end, their arrangement of the anthology allows the reader to see the unifying harmonies that exist. This anthology is a brave and important first step, gathering and weaving together the voices that are both defining and re-defining what it means to be South Asian American today.
This is Part 1 of a two-part series about Indivisible. Part 2 will appear in mid-July.
Requiem for the Orchard by Oliver de la Paz | The University of Akron Press 2010 | $14.95
Oliver de la Paz’s third collection, Requiem for the Orchard, is a poignant reminder of both our inability to escape our pasts and our ability to re-write our histories through what we choose to remember. The pieces in this collection are interconnected by the speaker, a young man reflecting on his disenchanted youth. Part meditation on the ways our experiences inform who we are today, part meditation on the ways we cannot shed those experiences despite our efforts, the collection centers around the speaker’s youth spent in a small Oregonian town where he worked a summer job in the orchards.
De la Paz’s tone is often deceptively simple and conversational, as he considers the complex love-hate relationship of the speaker with his hometown as well as the realization that the hate of his youth has dissipated into fond memories. The first poem, “In Defense of Small Towns”, opens with, “When I look at it, it’s simple, really. I hated life there.” Later in the same poem he writes, “But I loved the place once.” As the collection progresses, the reader begins to get deeper glimpses into the process of self-discovery that accompanies the process of reminiscing. In “Self-Portrait as the Burning Plains of Eastern Oregon” he writes: “A blacked-out soda can. Maybe a plastic lid fused to stone. A refusal / to forget childhood’s scald. But also a kind of forgiveness.” As the speaker remembers his childhood, even as he previously resented or denied it, he finds some forgiveness for himself. By the last poem, “Self-Portrait with What Remains”, the speaker reflects on what has stayed with him:
And this? This is what’s left—my night coughs. Slips of news
clippings from the old town sent in the mail. The know-how
of tractor management. Now, where once resided
acrimony for youth’s black seed—nothing except a single wing
opening and closing and opening again to catch the wind.
De la Paz shows that what lasts through time may not be what we expect, but may instead be the mundane or everyday, and that the speaker’s bitterness has disappeared as he reaches peace with his past. His descriptions of his youth are factual and concrete; the absence that now replaces his anger is beautifully captured in the image of the flapping wing. But to reach this acceptance the speaker must also mourn what is gone. Throughout the collection are a number of poems entitled “Requiem” that truly sing of loss. Although they are ostensibly about the loss of the orchards, they powerfully capture the loss of youth itself. One of these opens with a series of questions that succinctly show the way the loss of the orchards is intertwined with the loss of youth, how the memories for one are tied with memories of the other: “Where lie the open acre and all limns? Where the shade / and what edges? What serrated blades and what cuts? / Where are we, leather-skinned, a spindle of nerves / and frayed edges? What spare parts are we now / who have gone to the orchard and outlasted / the sun and the good boots?” (page 71).
Ignatz by Monica Youn | Four Way Books 2010 | $15.95
Monica Youn’s second book of poems, Ignatz (the prize for our 2010 National Poetry Month Prompt Contest), is based on Ignatz Mouse from George Herriman’s comic strip Krazy Kat. I read the collection without prior knowledge of the comic strip, other then the basic synopsis that the cat loves the mouse, the mouse hates the cat, and the cat mistakes the mouse’s hate for love. Thus, the collection is presented as a series of unrequited love poems. The pieces often present an ambiguous and painful love, where the object of the love is never identified and never responds.
Youn’s language is lyrical and majestic, with images that evoke the highest ideals of love and quickly make the reader forget that the poems are rooted in comic strip characters. She does not hesitate to use romantic or archaic language, and modern references such as Amtrak and CEO come as a surprise when they appear. In “I-40 Ignatz”, the speaker describes the interstate with tanker trucks, stoplights, gas stations, and yet still embeds them in loftier images such as, “A cop car drowses / in the scrub / cottonwoods. Utmost.” What stands out the most throughout the collection is her use of distinctive imagery.
Images of the landscape, the body, and the strange ways in which they intersect recur throughout the collection. In “Landscape with Ignatz”, Youn describes a canyon and the sky as bodies, and the place where the canyon and the sky touch as the meeting of two bodies. Each of the six lines is vivid and unusual, including the opening one: “The rawhide thighs of the canyon straddling the knobbled blue spine of the sky.” Another piece, “Ignatz Oasis”, opens with: “When you have left me / the sky drains of color / like the skin / of a tightening fist.” These moments are not conventionally beautiful, but instead reflect the tension lying immediately under the surface. The poems are like postcards, capturing simple messages across the changing landscape without revealing the depth of emotion behind them.
Youn demonstrates great versatility in her writing, playing with different styles and formats. Most of the poems are written in the first person, invoking or addressing an unknown “you” (ostensibly, the object of the unrequited love). The titles of the poems often reveal their intent; for example, the opening poem is entitled “Ignatz Invoked”. Other pieces include “Ignatz Aubade”, “Letter to Ignatz”, “A Theory of Ignatz”, and “Ignatz: Pop Quiz”. She also experiments with line arrangements, from prose poems to a collection of fifteens words presented in three columns of five words each (“Ignatz Incarcerated”).
In general, the speaker appears to present a certain sense of simultaneous self-awareness and obliviousness. The love expressed is nuanced and complex but with no sense of reciprocity. “Ersatz Ignatz” almost suggests the object of the affection becomes irrelevant to the performance of the affection itself. The poem ends with, “He’ll enter from the west, backlit in orange isinglass, pyrite / pendants glinting from the fringes of his voice.”
The book is divided into four sections, each opening with a poem called, “Untitled (Krazy’s Song)” and ending with a poem called, “The Death of Ignatz”. These poems frame the sections, with each “Untitled (Krazy’s Song)” expressing a tangible but unattainable love and each “The Death of Ignatz” evoking a poignant sense of loss. The two modes provide a clear juxtaposition. The four poems entitled “Untitled (Krazy Song)” have an intentional saccharine quality while the four poems entitled “Death of Ignatz” are distilled precision, as the very last piece shows:
The architect leapt
from the bright
and the sea
to her cage
Throughout the collection, the pieces feel like they are building toward a greater realization that never arrives, reflecting the same sense of cyclicity and stagnation that is one of the central themes. Yet Youn manages to create a sense of complicity — the reader’s frustrations parallel that of the speaker — leading to a sense of pity for the speaker’s desperation. This sense of the dramatic, like the extreme caricatures portrayed in comic strips, heightens the carefully crafted sense of excess and futility that Youn presents in Ignatz.
Insides She Swallowed bySasha Pimental Chacón | West End Press 2010 | $13.95
Sasha Pimental Chacón’s debut collection, Insides She Swallowed, brims with ripe, unusual images that linger long after each poem. She explains that the collection is based “on what we consume in order not be consumed ourselves”, and powerfully portrays these ideas with vivid, tangible examples of both physical and metaphorical consumption – recurrent images of life, of seeds and ripe fruit and blooming plants, of animals and the natural world, of the human body as both intimate and gross, in a constant celebration of beauty and biology.
Chacón frequently uses present-tense verbs to evoke a sense of action, creating a quick pace that makes her pieces perfect to read aloud. Her sharp and precise language propels her poems forward. The first poem, “Learning to Eat”, opens with “A pomegranate / is opened like this: / gutted like a fish, / its entrails glow.” She doesn’t gloss over her images. The reader is presented with both the picturesque and the grotesque exactly as they are. The images may not always be beautiful, but they are always apt.
What stands out is her ability to capture these images just at the moment at which they burst from their own confines and blossom into something beyond themselves. Her poems call to the senses: they feel like they can be touched, smelled, tasted. She uses a lot of color, especially brown skin that reminds the reader whose stories she tells and grounds the pieces in the reality of the Filipino American experience. The history and connection to working the land can be seen by frequent references to slaughtering animals at home, and in the third section of “Childhood Parts” she writes, “Seeing the brownness of our joints, did she / think of a wet chicken’s leg, how to pull / the limb from the socket, how easily.” Chacón carefully and intentionally selects images that are rooted in the very identities they portray.
Many of the pieces in Insides She Swallowed meditate on the roles of family/community and of shared memories, taking advantage of the child’s perspective and childlike wonder to make observations that might otherwise remain unsaid. In “Bamboo” the speaker is able to share her mother’s grief over her dying grandfather and the way it brings them together to “ignore the twenty-one years we have held our emotions / like women, like bamboo cupping rainwater in a storm.” She captures the ways in which women often deny and suppress their own feelings as well as the ways in which those feelings may eventually spill over. But most of the poem is spent imagining what her mother might be thinking without talking about it, with lines such as “She counts the memories / she will never have because she moved West” and “My mother thinks of her father’s changing body, / how it breaks like a chicken’s wishbone / in the dampened handkerchief of his bed.” In this way, she shows the ways emotions are hidden and revealed within families.
Chacón possesses a keen insight for the observed but unstated, unafraid to tackle any issue from the personal to the political. “Blood, Sister” is one of her boldest pieces, a social commentary on the state of impoverished women in Manila. In the first section, the speaker observes women on the streets and addresses them as “Blood Sister” even as she observes how they differ: “often, you are outside of them, and they are inside the car, / bus, or pedicab: they / are going somewhere / –you are not, and they refuse your drink because / you are not clean.” As the sections progress, the speaker seeks commonality with these women and acknowledges the slim luck that separates her from them with, “Had you my father with his passports […] would you be / very different from me?” Throughout this piece, the speaker confronts the status and privilege that now separate her from the women of her motherland. In the end, she loses as much as she gains. Her ending lines resonate:
and I am eating you
because you take my place
in the streets.
You fill my mouth
because I am empty
of memory, birthright,
the bruise of begging,
and this is hunger, this is hunger.
Chacón has a powerful ability to convey meaning with little explication. Her poems are often personal, exploring the relationships within one’s family and community as well as how the Filipino American identity may be at odds with the traditional Filipino or American ones. She fearlessly paints the truth in its raw form, inundating the senses with a rapidity, grittiness and sensuality that, ultimately, leaves the reader satiated.
Water the Moon by Fiona Sze-Lorrain | Marick Press (forthcoming 2010) | $14.95
From the opening poem of her debut collection, Fiona Sze-Lorrain explores both her ancestral and adopted homes from many lenses, including poems that capture the simple moments of a meal or walk down the street as well as poems that embed those moments in the grandeur of history and tradition. This juxtaposition of the personal with the past serves as a poignant reminder of the ways in which history informs individual identity, yet in “A Talk with Mao Tse-tung” she writes, “Clearly history has no last word” and ends the poem with unanswered questions. She reminds the reader that the personal also goes beyond the past and that each person has to find her own answers. In “The Sun Temple”, the speaker revisits the historic Sun Temple with her grandfather’s map, ultimately ending with the lines, “I tremble to realize that I can no longer / remember my grandfather – I am merely a tourist.”
Separation and distance resonate in the intimate moments she conveys. Her poems often begin with the specific and concrete, quietly expanding into a deeper reflections on what those moments represent. In “Breakfast, Rue Sainte-Anne”, she begins by describing congee (porridge) with, “Transfixed, I watch how the chef / shreds dried pork / into fine linear strips, drops / half-quarter slices of century egg / into a bowl of steamed rice.” The simple images soon turn into the speaker’s own relationship with the meal (“Today, I still have no idea / how to eat porridge with chopsticks”), and then into an imagined conversation with her father, in which he complains that both the taste and price of the food are nothing compared to “the rickshaw streets of his old Shanghai.” In this way, she goes beyond the initial preparation of congee to access memories and evoke longing.
Sze-Lorrain’s speaker is not afraid to share her vulnerability, expressing her fears and uncertainties with dark images and sharp, precise language. The poem “Moon” opens with “symbolizes fear in my culture, / a dark force that hunts / until you cower.” These lines launch directly off the title of the poem, immediately plunging the reader into the piece. The poem “Invisible Eye” opens with “Fog / chalks the skeletons / of houses. I pry / open / doors of dusk.” The short lines propel the reader forward, paralleling the speaker’s hurried walk home while being followed.
The Heart’s Traffic by Ching-In Chen | Arktoi Books 2009 | $21.00
Ching-In Chen’s debut, The Heart’s Traffic, is an ideal beginning. The 117-page collection encompasses an amazing breadth of styles, including several distinct forms (e.g., sestina, villanelle, haibun, pantoum) as well as the poet’s own innovative arrangements. But beyond her technical prowess, this work resonates with me in its explorations of community and self, of the process of discovering where we do or do not belong through our simultaneous attempts to blend and resist multiple worlds and identities. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, we all seek to reconcile our personal present with the collective past.
This novel-in-poems tells the tale of Xiaomei — her father’s then family’s move to America as well as her own process of exploration and discovery during and immediately after these transitions. Chen beautifully captures the conflicted relationship of immigrants with the land of their ancestors, with their loved ones, and with themselves. The narrative is nonlinear but linked, with images and lines weaving through multiple pieces. Together, the collection serves as a series of snapshots that only reveal glimmers of Xiaomei’s life. Chen skillfully arranges the collection to build toward a larger understanding of both Xiaomei’s experiences and what it means to be a young immigrant in America. I appreciated re-visiting certain poems and seeing multiple layers emerge as I moved through the overarching story.