“Hokusai believed in the slow / perfectibility of forms” (3), begins Luisa A. Igloria’s newest book of poems, The Saints of Streets. She has been writing a poem a day since 2010, a project archived online and from which this collection was born. Given how prolific she is, I could not help but find in these opening lines a reassurance that the poems collected here are not merely practice but are a practice. For perfectibility, the poem goes on to say, is “the way, // after seventy-five years or more, the eye / might finally begin to understand / the quality of a singular filament—” Indeed, this is a book of single filaments, and in these poems are so much delight and wisdom, often beginning in the mundane but nearly always spiraling inward to the sacred.
We see this spiraling quality first of all in the poems about place, which is one of what I’ll call three clotheslines bending with this collection’s poems: clotheslines, I say, because of the quality the poet gives to everyday activity, weighted with meditations even as it flutters in the wind. The place poems nod most pronouncedly to the collection’s title. In “Repair,” for instance, we begin in the present moment: “Almost at the alley’s elbow, I know the gate . . .” (9). Shortly after that, we move to the wistful past tense, each sentence beginning “There used to be” as a litany. Just as we first graze the alley as a kind of body, so does the speaker name the ghosts of objects as though in mortal lament, counting down structural losses, strippings, and repairs along with the absences of people. But the magic of this poem is in its concluding grammatical shift. See how, in the last three lines, the past tense makes way for something closer to the timeless:
across the south wall, even on the night the child
ran out the side door with bare feet, crying after the figure
disappearing halfway up the rise, beyond the street.
Line by line we move from a definite point in time (“on the night”), to an ongoing and simultaneous action (“ran out . . . crying”), and finally to an image marked by its remove from the rest of the action (“disappearing . . . beyond”). The medial caesura of each line helps us rhythmically, step by step, as do the definite articles. The final “disappearing” is a present participle, non-finite: not quite past and not quite present. And that last image of what is “beyond the street,” in its ghostly way, takes us through the longing into something even greater than the object of the longing, greater than the body of the street.
After a Jason Bayani poem, sometimes all you can say is, “Damn.” At 84 pages, Amulet may cause excessive cursing. And not just to God, but to other “thing[s] just out of reach” (45), all the hollering forged into an object that will protect us from harm. His hands both a curled fist and a prayer, Bayani waits . . . waits for this noise to take the shape of language.
Amulet‘s epigraph invokes Jose Garcia Villa and gestures toward the romantic brokenness and terrific terror of the poems to follow, which are birthed from a lineage of great Filipin@ American writers. I’m not one to go in for beauty in poetry, but damn, the way Bayani “remak[es] the line” (as he suggests in the opening poem to this collection) is beautiful. Consider the lines “Give me the petal that hits like a heavy brick” (35) or “My body is a projection of stone that remembers the mountain it ran away from” (76). Feel the tidal movement of the earth and of time in the line: “all this history in the open veil of your body, / this seed, this push, this silt, / how we been built by a blood procession of so many hands / pulling plough over poverty” (67). On the back cover, Barbara Jane Reyes says that “the language of Bayani’s poems pops and bangs, punches, hurls bricks, and then does not flinch from tenderness,” and I agree that there is a surprising vulnerability here that disarms as much as it reveals its own strength.
The weight of this book is in its silences, in the words “just out of reach,” as it contemplates the impact of silence among men of color when no one really teaches you “what to do with your hands” (75). The palms, then, and the mouth, become heavy weights. While Bayani knows that “A man’s ability to feel is overvalued in Art. / I’ve cashed in on it. / Every woman who loved me / hates me a little for that” (24), he also urges us to “Imagine we’re in a room, and everything in this room / has a mouth except for me. I feel that most days” (22). It is Bayani’s humor and grief made vulnerable, and the felt sense of the body “fall[ing] into a hard focus” (37), that makes us listen to the ringing in that place inside ourselves. Continue reading “Review: Jason Bayani’s AMULET”→
MULDER: When Victor Frankenstein asks himself, “Whence did the principle of life proceed?” and then as a gratifying summit to his toils creates a hideous phantasm of a man, he prefigures the Postmodern Prometheus: the genetic engineer whose power to reanimate matter (genes) into life (us) is only as limited as his imagination is. —The X-Files Episode 5×06, “Post-Modern Prometheus“
Emptied peanut butter jars are evidence of The Great Mutato’s presence in The X-Files episode “Post-Modern Prometheus.” A rejected genetic creation of Frankenstein-like scientist Dr. Pollidori, The Great Mutato’s deformities banish him to a dark cellar, where he eats peanut butter sandwiches and hungers for human connection. Feng Sun Chen’s Butcher’s Tree excavates the cavities in which such mythic, hybrid and feral figures as The Great Mutato, Prometheus, Wukong and Grendel dwell and, by placing a mouth to the opening, “eat[s them] up from the inside” (5).
Chen writes of feral creatures that are “[p]eeled from living rock” (65), birthed from stone, petri dish or sea, whether genetically engineered or spiritually divined; that share a certain “fall from grace;” and whose bodies (or whose power to create living forms) usurp the dominion of the immortal. As such they blur the lines between “god” and “man,” and as myths are imagined to possess monstrous shells, scales and hideous skins, but no souls. They are imagined as cavities, or as caves. In these hollowed spaces, creatures (the created) fill the emptiness with hunger. Chen writes, “[s]ilence, which is not additive, / can be filled with anything” (58). This hollowness is completely full of “everything that waiting breeds” (49), like the “trigger of longing” (44) and “alive loneliness” (32). In these cavities, “hearts [grow] teeth” (4).
A series of poems centers on Wukong, a shape-shifting Monkey King born from stone and the main character in the novel Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en. Chen writes that “he felt like a salmon inside a bear” and that “[e]ven in his dreams it was something else that moved / through him”—”[s]omething watched himself dream” (17). The nodes or root beings of Chen’s Butcher’s Tree share the desire to be inside something else, or are outside watching themselves—”When the soul steps from the body // and watches the body / and the body is flayed” (7). They are beings through which other energies move, and are constantly rearranged by grammar and outer skins. In all their hunger, they wish for “the world to pass through [them]” (91), but what they eat is not often easily digested, or easily let go.
When [Wukong] looked at the girl with transparent flippers, he knew that if he looked at her underneath side, he would be able to hear a sound of the wind leaving, or water falling. It would be salty. It would be alive. It would contain a creature with a heart that used no arteries or veins but whose blood bathed its organs in a single cavity. He thought of doors as smacking, windows as puckering. Every opening meant access to the sea now, or the wind on the sea. (18)
Chen’s image of rooted trees or fish bones, with their fern-like accumulation of branches and spines, speaks to a mathematical yet organic pattern. Of all possible reconstructions, Chen invites the reader to reconstruct the body out of “hall[s] of tongues, corridor[s] of knees […] some with just the scalp” (15). In so doing, we question origin. What is birth, really? To be hatched. Chen’s writing is a poetics of mutation and molecular gestation, of cell membranes and excretions, replicating in all cavities of the body. We come to ask, is the generative force of life hunger? And we learn how hunger itself reconstructs the body, how hunger becomes grammar.
But Grendel was hungry. He was hungrier than all the rest. His hunger
made his body magnetic with the rhetoric of hollowness:
Little tiny spikes, little tiny scrapes, rippling with tiny implosions. (66)
In the book’s final section, Chen gorgeously and wrenchingly re-imagines the creature Grendel from Beowulf, not as half man or beast, but as a woman—a trans/gender body. Grendel hungers until all he/she/sie is is hunger, until the body reconstitutes. “[T]his liplessness opened further into the labyrinth” (79), “two silences traveled and made interference waves” (82) and his/her/hir “beautiful beautiful body felt a massive echo” (98). Through each page, each abrupt insertion or amputation or aborted negative space, Chen’s Grendel surprises us with “new splatter” (82), touching us like “a pinprick of sand / within rounded numbness” (81).
Chen’s creatures are here flayed out, “woven into a delicate verge” (60). Take this book and “tuck it in a pocket. / Feel it all day, like a new organ” (41).
Hoa Nguyen’s As Long As Trees Last is not a book for the city. Shouting concrete and signal siren screech, emit exhaust, make it difficult to “string and feel // wind of wing beats / in your face” (1). Take these poems into the grove and let the “trees be the church” (32). What you have reads like the diary of a hapa witch, a cross-section of all seasons. The shortness of line and breath in Nguyen’s work makes for ritual incantations in a forest clearing, for songs for invasive seeds.
Nguyen utilizes the Chinaberry tree, indigenous to parts of Southeast Asia but later introduced to the southern United States, to hint at a larger discussion around diaspora, transnational economies, transplants, and transracial intimacies. Born in the Mekong Delta, Nguyen has lived for some time in Texas. Of Thai ancestry, I was raised in West Virginia and Virginia. Like Nguyen, I am also a person of mixed race and understand the kind of odd resonance between the Southern states and Southeast Asia that occurs in the humidity, leafy foliage and rolling mountain ranges. The speakers in Nguyen’s poems often feel like invasive species with toxic fruit, growing wild with distant roots, endangered but tasked with “rag laundry day” and “beans on toast,” no stranger to the poetry that halts and swings from their throats.
I am interested in the contraction of line that works in Nguyen’s poetry, which is also apparent in the way her breath designates measure when she reads her work. Her short lines are fragmented by breath patterns, and the breakages are defined by elongated exhales and sharp inhales. Spaces between lines and phrases often expand abruptly and then contract, like a lung muscle.
Green bathroom floor
rug and the yellow mug
you loved Cutting stop
Stop her there like a
We love are
We love are folds
around the stripes of being
We can We love
are slung nests
(from “Dirt-Under-Nails Dirt,” 7)
In the excerpt above, notice how “rug” and “mug” snugly bookend a line, yet how the line immediately following (“you loved Cutting stop”) offers a break, a brief but scary expansion between “loved” and “Cutting,” and a “stop” to counter the preceding rhythm. Notice how “We love are” could be read as “We love our” and how the syntax breaks the relationship between verb and object. In the excerpt below, watch the turns between “pen,” “Open,” “born,” “Horn,” “gown,” “torn” and “train,” as well as the ones between “feathers,” “violet,” “insides,” “heart,” “held,” “cup” and “dark.”
So obvious feathers on a heart pen
or beneath violet insides Open
center when your heart is a
small baby born
Horn cup held inside and you wear
a gown with dark torn
a dark train
and starry yellow
flags for me maybe also
(from “So Obvious,” 12)
As Long As Trees Last writes the stubborn, sassy and slicing survival of a woman that listens to the rage and whisperings of the land—”My soil: alluvial / the fertile where my mother birthed” (25). Nguyen examines the bottom of a pioneer’s foot and knows what it means to be two [verbs, languages, adjectives, emotions] at the same time. From “Adopted” to “Native” to “Thatch,” “Trust” and “Vine,” these are some “Words You Should Know” when learning about the binding contracts and rapid contractions caused by diaspora’s intimacy with our world.
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IMMAby Ji Yoon Lee | Radioactive Moat Press 2012 | Sold Out, Free Download Available
Ji Yoon Lee’s chapbook IMMA is an explosion. It’s a minefield of samples spitting up in your face. It’s your life on a weapons of mass destruction diet. It’s pissed off, cocked and ready to rock. If war wrecks language, then IMMA has been reloaded from the wreckage.
I first saw Lee perform at this year’s Delta Mouth Literary Festival at Louisiana State University. In one piece, she spoke in Korean through a tiny bullhorn that made her voice tinny and mechanical, while playing a recording of the text (put through Google Translate several times) read in English by a computerized voice. I was blown away by her strategies of translation and her efforts to make language strange, a tactic that she uses in IMMA. These poems are made of a mangy, mangled, “commingledlanguage” that is fused and unwilling to be pulled apart. Words merge and clump in the mouth, unapologetically yelling.
The United States’ historical participation in war in the Pacific theater, and all that comes with it (R&R, mail order brides), has shaped so much of what Asian/White and Asian/American intimacies have become and continue to look like in the western imagination. War has directly contributed to the ways bodies of “the other” are carved and cut into and has influenced the readiness to feast on fear and feed into narratives of domination. “[Y]our synergistic globalization is my conglomerate prostitution:” writes Lee, who drops glitter bombs on gendered and racialized fantasies of supremacy and submission in this book and stares you down until you take it.
I’m ok being your diversity plan;
It is my mode of existence: It is my mode of insistence
There is the cityplan under my belt of explosives;
It is my mode of modification: It is my mode of fornication
Defamation of American flag: Defecation of unidentifiable flag
An unidentifiable body surfaces on the level of cheap alliteration
Please do not litter; be a good noncitizen
Please use the container provided; be a good conartist
Is it ok that I am your diversity case? Is it ok that I am your basket case?
Is it tolerable that I am your varsity case? Is it permissible that I am your it-girl showcase? […]
Is it okay I’m in your suitcase? Is it ok I’m your cold case? […]
My belly is warm and I am your forensic case
In the opening poem, “To:,” I love the way “existence” becomes “insistence,” “modification” becomes “fornication,” “Defamation” becomes “Defecation,” “alliteration” becomes “litter,” “container” becomes “conartist,” “flag” becomes “body,” “basket case” becomes “showcase” becomes “suitcase” becomes “cold case.” Each word has a volatility of sound that threatens to transform, changing its molecular structure and its meaning. The references to “diversity plan” or “diversity case” hint at some kind of tokenization or exotification that the speaker fights against through the course of the piece—fighting even past death, the belly still warm.
Imma manhandle my fatbags like a boss
Imma boorish catcall your funsacks like a man […]
Imma torch your house; lit with your beeswax
Imma rugburn your place down; like a boss on the secretary desk
Mind your own baloney business
& Go make me my balcony suicide sandwich
(from “you can’t handle my bloodhole”)
In “you can’t handle my bloodhole,” Lee lets fly more of her “commingledlanguage,” and like a “balcony suicide sandwich” you thought was baloney, it can be hard to chew. Words like “manhandle,” “fatbags,” “catcall,” “funsacks,” “beeswax” and “rugburn” roll around in the mouth but won’t break in two, just like the full-throttle, contractive force of “I am” and “gonna” in “Imma.” Ji Yoon Lee’s IMMA barrels on. It’s not water-soluble, “but you may need to swallow it.”
In Koon Woon’s Water Chasing Water, a river appears in one poem and flows into the next, appearing there as rain, turning up in one place as an ocean and in yet another as a damp and soggy sadness. I was immediately reminded of lê thi diem thúy’s The Gangster We Are All Looking For, and there on thúy’s first page: “Ba and I were connected to the four uncles, not by blood but by water” (3).
Woon’s text gestures toward the meanings of water—as life-giving force, as connective tissue, as that which carries us. lê thi diem thúy explains that “In Vietnamese, the word for water and the word for anation, a country, and a homeland are one and the same: nu’ó’c.” In Thai, the word for river (แม่น้ำ) is made up of the word for mother (แม่) and the word for water (น้ำ). For the diasporic fish/ghost/dish-washer in Woon’s poems, water connects places to other places, traveling from person to person and washing up memories and other debris.
As if glazed in the afternoon heat,
the blackberry brambles are still and
quiet, the steel rail expanding,
and once the roar of a rumbling freight
passes and dies, the slough,
quiet again with its currents,
becomes water moving on
in my unregulated childhood.
[. . .]
In the waters between us are
the gurgling sounds of childhood empires
and paper boats, and in the parcels of land
that sustain us, the memories of stickers
and hand-staining berries;
in nights of sleep,
a child’s reworking of paradise. (“As If,” 5)
China Cowboy by Kim Gek Lin Short | Tarpaulin Sky Press 2012 | $14
Gross and gorgeous about sums up the Kansas City karaoke nightclub and TECHNICOLOR cinema that is Kim Gek Lin Short’s China Cowboy—all “gorge,” gore and zero pretty. Short’s work is often grossly disturbing and excruciatingly seductive, catching the reader in a tense push and pull with and against the text. Sticky and stuck among the fucking and fucked-up, Short binds us within tales of fierce femme survival as her main character, the feisty and fisty La La, avenges the repeated death of Hollywood’s “dragon lady” with her boots, her mic, and her “country superstar humility.”
Short’s La La reminds me of the scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003) when O-Ren Ishii (portrayed by Lucy Liu) severs Boss Tanaka’s head in front of the Tokyo crime council. When Boss Tanaka expresses his disgust at the perversion done to the council “by making a Chinese Jap-American half breed bitch [O-Ren] its leader,” she runs across the table and decapitates him, without hesitation. She waits for the blood to finish spurting from the cut, re-sheaths her sword, and with Boss Tanaka’s blood on her forehead, calmly addresses the other men:
[in Japanese] So that you understand how serious I am, I am going to say this in English. [re-sheaths sword, switches to English] As your leader, I encourage you from time to time, and always in a respectful manner, to question my logic. If you’re unconvinced a particular plan of action I’ve decided is the wisest, tell me so. But allow me to convince you. And I promise you, right here and now, no subject will ever be taboo. [cut to close-up] Except, of course, the subject that was just under discussion. The price you pay for bringing up either my Chinese or American heritage as a negative is, I collect your fucking head. [holds up Tanaka’s head] Just like this fucker here. [crescendo] Now if any of you sons of bitches got anything else to say, now is the fucking time! [silence, returns to calmer tone] I didn’t think so. [drops Tanaka’s head on table] (O-Ren Ishii, Kill Bill Vol. 1)
O-Ren’s swift and deadly gesture, as well as her sweet and brutal speech, is punctuated by the smiling faces of the only other women in the room, Gogo Yubari and translator Sofie Fatale. Here in a world of men, O-Ren reminds us of La La, who “can fly like they do in chop-chop movies,” “bawl in cowboy” and “lasso a noodle” (17). Just under 5’3″ in cowboy boots, La La is a ferocious folk-singer who headlines as “Patsy Clone” in the Kansas City nightclub from which this book takes its name, a nightclub that becomes a kissing-confessional booth square-dance around her “stab-n-steal” life, stolen death and steely fame.
you have become a very beautiful thing in some other version of a thing. or you have become a very beautiful climbing apparatus in a program about something,
Riding the GoToBus from Los Angeles to Oakland, I accidentally watched Rush Hour 3 and The Tuxedo from several strategically placed monitors while listening to the Counting Crows, M.I.A. and Meshell Ndegeocello on my headphones. I discovered that Jackie Chan, muted by a randomly generated soundtrack and offset by a variety of backdrops, is still Jackie Chan, in perhaps the same way Heath Ledger is still remembered as Heath in 10 Things I Hate About You (Modern Shakespearean Heath), Brokeback Mountain (Gay Cowboy Heath), or The Dark Knight (Joker-In-Drag Heath). When I wasn’t accidentally watching Jackie Chan fight somebody, I tried to look at the scenery off the 5, which I wanted to believe was more interesting but was in reality less accessible, and ended up accidentally reading incoming and outgoing text messages on the smart phone of a person sitting diagonally across the aisle. This entire experience—me accidentally looking at the mountains, Jackie Chan on mute, someone else’s text messages; you reading this compiled memory as a paragraph on a blog; followers liking, re-blogging, re-posting, sharing and tweeting this review; and then me importing the HTML into Microsoft Word and putting the whole thing through Google Translate a few times—might actually approach the experience of browsing and forgetting that is assembled in Tan Lin’s HEATH COURSE PAK.
What is HEATH?
plagiarism/outsource Ed. Rev., Notes Towards the Definition of Culture,Untilted Heath Ledger Project , a history of the search engine,disco OS annotated or HEATH, as the project is often referred to, is the revised second print edition of a book authored within a social network. Like following Heath Ledger’s death over the internet—through the rapid replication of speculative information, quotations, paraphrased material, tags and images as they unravel, reproduce and become felt by a social network—Lin’s assemblage of HEATH is a kind of muscle memory for feelings that are erased, re-written, read, scanned and searched repeatedly within a complex system of users, readers, commentators, followers, friends and authors.
Flip through the book once, and the ecology of HEATH shows coffee stains, autographed photos of Jackie Chan and Heath Ledger, images for GSM and RSS, handwritten post cards, post-its, SMS, blacked-out text and pencil markup. A closer look shows cut-and-paste traces of HTML imported into Word, extra line breaks created by absent flash advertisements, links and category tags, click here for details, edit/delete, captured image and text from Google searches, footnotes, text encoding/conversion, markup language, <space></space></CT> and other apparitions and pop-ups. In an interview that appears near the end of the book, Lin says, “These are all just various kinds of writing, where writing extends over a broad spectrum of textual matter and includes things with ‘weak’ author functions […] They all have been outsourced but not necessarily plagiarized, except by some sort of corporate branding structure or legal structure. […] Mistakes, formatting problems, copyright issues, unacknowledged sources are part of text. […] Everything is ‘authored,’ it’s just not clear who.” Continue reading “Review: Tan Lin’s HEATH COURSE PAK”→
. . . Conjoined at the hip, we could
only pretend to be aligned but really
were so frantic to separate. You tried
to saw us in half, after I’d fallen asleep,
then I’d woken to what you’d done,
brilliantly. You’d bandaged the sopping
blood at the split bone and medicated me,
but still, I was pleased by our most recent
attempt at sovereignty. I could not
complain for lack of dishonesty.
It has never been that easy, keeping you
secret, when you keep dividing me.
(from “Dear Other,” series)
In Magnetic Refrain, transnational Korean American adoptee Nicky Sa-eun Schildkraut speaks through folktales and fox-demons, inflatable dolls and war brides, defectors seeking asylum and mothers separated from their children by adoption and military partition, to explore the magnetism of twinning, the conjunction of self and other, and the continued return to the loss of never knowing.
Like the poems “The Unfilial Daughter” and “The Filial Son,” or “Venus and the Martian,” many pieces and personas in this collection mirror each other in their adjacency, like twins. The tension becomes a metaphor for the diasporic longing to come together, cross the water, and belong within a family history that straddles endless divisions.
As an adoptee with two birth dates and two different names, Schildkraut writes of the phantom parallel trajectory of a life that could have been lived, a loss that begins to haunt. Two sets of parents. Mother and other, “multiplying instead of living” (“The Lucky Bastard”). Schildkraut gestures toward a fantasy of joining these two trajectories, a fantasy in which one becomes two becomes one, becomes same.
Twins, siblings and lovers recur, wanting the m/other, “[taking] turns becoming invisible” and then “long[ing] to become visible, again” (“Family History”), “pulling her in half” (“The Twin She Never Knew”). The “magnetic refrain” of the book contemplates what holds two people together—a child to its family—and whether or not these magnetisms could be classified as “love.”
Schildkraut’s collection features many poems in the second person, but the point of view shifts in the final piece, “Vaguely Asian,” where the weight of her explorations via folklore and human/doll hybrids settles into a more personal narrative. Here, Schildkraut’s sharp voice struggles with the diasporic plight of not knowing, and what it means to be given up “out of love, for strangers in a foreign country” (“Oedipal”). Looking at an old scrapbook, she writes, “The pages for early memories from birth to early childhood, date and time of birth, are all left blank.” Visiting a Korean shaman, she asks herself, “What can she tell me about my other, early life in Korea that hasn’t already been made up out of thin air?”
“It’s a different kind of loss, to never know,” realizes Schildkraut. Her poems and personas literally and figuratively become inflated by longing. She ends “Vaguely Asian” with the following revelation regarding origin and place: “And even if those origins are obscured, the drive to search still remains like a lantern sending a fractured pattern of shapes against the wall at dusk, half-shadows, half-light.” These poems breathe into the shell of diasporic desire, and allow us to witness the speaker’s first flickering attempts toward animation and fullness.
* * *
Magnetic Refrain will be published by Kaya Press on February 4, 2013.
In my California, we know how to party. We Black Panther Party. We 2PAC and Dre. We Dime a Day, we Dollar a Dance. We Fillmore jazz. We Summer of Love. We Barbary Coast. We I-Hotel. We Chinatown. We North Beach howl.
In my California, we no Baywatch babe. We East Los, we South Central LA. We Rodney King video. We campesino. We mighty Sacramento River. Rooted deep sequoia giants, we lovin’ the wind, we kissin’ the sky.
(from “My California” 34)
I met up with Barbara Jane Reyes at Shooting Star Cafe in Oakland Chinatown to chat about her new chapbook For The City That Nearly Broke Me. The project started with a writing prompt: write about a city that saved you, then write about a city that broke you. As Barbara began to think about what it would mean “to be broken by a city,” she decided to approach it by writing about places that “were the most emotionally complicated for me.” The chapbook hovers over and between Manila (“my birthplace but not necessarily my home”) and Oakland, where she has been living for the past decade but is not sure she can claim as her own.
I resonated with what Barbara had to say regarding the internal conflict inherent in claiming place and claiming home. Many immigrants and children of immigrants struggle with a similar tension; our birthplaces (or our parents’ birthplaces), with their histories of colonization, are now tourist destinations, and both the industry of tourism and the good intentions of our families make it difficult for us to “forge a connection” with these places. In Barbara’s case, her “attempts to go deeper are thwarted” by the gaze of the tourist as well as by her own family, who implies that there are things about Manila she might not be able to handle, that “there is only so much we want you to see.”
The title poem of the chapbook has 17 parts, #3 of which, “Junto al Pasig,” references a José Rizal poem and talks about the Pasig River. Barbara spoke about the Pasig as a river that gives itsname to the Filipino people, but a river that is also environmentally dead. Many squatter communities now make their homes around this dead river. Barbara’s “Junto al Pasig” illustrates the sacred decay of the river with a juxtaposition of two “streams,” in a sense; one of “giardia,” “DDT” and “blooming cholera” and another of divine incantation and “divina aurora” (5).
Phyla of Joyby Karen An-Hwei Lee | Tupelo Press 2012 | $16.95
When entering Karen An-hwei Lee’s mysterious world of silver eucalyptus groves and Holy Spirits, the temptation is to dissociate. To keep that ethereal realm separate from the mud-and-waste Earth most of us know. But Lee’s power lies in her ability to unite both worlds. Instead of distancing the Divine from cigarettes and kitchen fires, Lee welcomes the one into the other. But the startling result isn’t a third world tangled with dichotomies. The result is Phyla of Joy, a portrait of the world we live in, but reclaimed through gracious eyes that somehow inject light into everything from famine to girls born with cleft palates.
Lee prepares her reader for this new world with her epigraphs, the first of which comes from a Davidic psalm: “For with You is the fountain of life; / in Your light we see light.” Immediately, the following formula is established: to find light on Earth, Lee’s poems—and we readers—will need to rely on the light of the divine “You.”
This “formula” seems simple enough, but how much effort does it really take for our generally afflicted human selves to seek out that otherworldly light? Lee addresses that tension between being human and craving something beyond-human in the book’s first poem, “Yingri.” In the Tupelo Press reader’s companion to Phyla of Joy, she notes that yingri is a Chinese word composed of two characters. While Lee tells us that the second character translates to “sun,” she allows the meaning of the first character to remain ambiguous in its multiple possible translations: “shadow,” “eagle,” “to reflect.”
The poem’s two stanzas add to our understanding of yingri’s duality. The first stanza, representative of earth and ying with its many meanings, reads:
Inside me is a bridge, or the beams of a house,
and an old ground swell beneath a garden boat.
The speaker’s observations in this stanza reflect the multiple meanings of ying with the word “or,” which reveals both the speaker’s uncertain sense of her human self and also the possibility of additional manmade constructions buried within her.
The second stanza constitutes ri—the sun and its associations with divinity:
Outside, on an acre of snow,
a winter sun, blinding.
What appears to be a small, four-line opening poem speaks volumes when pitted against the rest of the collection. We asked earlier how people can invite supernatural light into a worldly existence. And here is the answer: by blinding.