Two Reviews: Barbara Jane Reyes’s FOR THE CITY THAT NEARLY BROKE ME and Timothy Yu’s 15 CHINESE SILENCES

For The City That Nearly Broke Me by Barbara Jane Reyes | Aztlan Libre Press 2012 | $13

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)

FOR THE CITY THAT NEARLY BROKE ME

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 its name 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).

Continue reading “Two Reviews: Barbara Jane Reyes’s FOR THE CITY THAT NEARLY BROKE ME and Timothy Yu’s 15 CHINESE SILENCES”

Review: Karen An-Hwei Lee’s PHYLA OF JOY

PHYLA OF JOY
Karen An-Hwei Lee’s PHYLA OF JOY

A Guest Post by Eugenia Leigh

Phyla of Joy by Karen An-Hwei Lee | Tupelo Press 2012 | $16.95

Eugenia Leigh
Eugenia Leigh

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.

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Review: Kim Gek Lin Short’s THE BUGGING WATCH AND OTHER EXHIBITS

The Bugging Watch & Other Exhibits by Kim Gek Lin Short | Tarpaulin Sky Press 2010 | $12

THE BUGGING WATCH & OTHER EXHIBITS

Within the first three pages of Kim Gek Lin Short’s The Bugging Watch & Other Exhibits, we find “ten thimble-sized hats he had knitted out of cockroach legs,” “the kitchen bloody with her blood or bloody with knifeblood or bloody with the stenciled blood of everlasting sleep” and “pelvis squeaking miracles.” Here is Toland, whose “body like a ball of yarn unwound and fell from the bed into the basement, from the basement into the drain, and met with many accidents, where it did touch many things” (5).

Short’s character Toland reminds me of Sally from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, who jumps from a window of a tower to escape her confinement by a mad scientist (father? employer? lover?) and then takes out a needle and sews her limbs back together. She reminds me of the film Coraline based on Neil Gaiman’s novel. She reminds me of the ballet Coppélia, based on the stories The Sandman and The Doll by ETA Hoffman, about a man who makes a doll come to life (and the friend who mistakes his automaton for a human being). Scenes from at least ten creepy X-Files episodes about killer cockroaches and child molesters flashed through my mind as I read.

So Toland untangled her head from her body and piled it like plumbing in a nest of pot. As Harlan wept up a rainstorm into Toland’s pipes of hair the tiny book became so meaningful all its words were smudged (12).

This book opens with a series of exhibits. Each is like a mason jar containing fermented chimeras, from which threads are extracted and grafted onto balloons, umbrellas, pajamas, leotards and cake, then sewn up with special needles. Breaking the seal of each jar unleashes a particular scent and stench, whose particles attach to your nose hairs. Reading each exhibit is like reading a segment of knitting, with the over and under and the accidental mis-stitch, with its density and breath and porous fabric. Each exhibit is a door, “opened in the afternoon always inside her a window” (25). Continue reading “Review: Kim Gek Lin Short’s THE BUGGING WATCH AND OTHER EXHIBITS”

Review: Sueyeun Juliette Lee’s UNDERGROUND NATIONAL

Underground National by Sueyeun Juliette Lee | Factory School 2010 | $15

UNDERGROUND NATIONAL

Sueyeun Juliette Lee titles the first section of Underground National with an answer that inverts, re-contextualizes and re-defines the Double Jeopardy question: “Korea, What is.” Each page flips like one of Alex Trebek’s blue television screens, revealing answers in the form of satellite images, sound bytes and “ShareThis RSS.” “An impossibility” for 200 may be Lee’s first category and line, but the multiple stains, burials and explosions that gather resonance and color locate a nation—a nationalism—in jeopardy.

But what the nation speaks, we are required to understand.
And that speaking ties us to this sinking ground.
And it isn’t stone at all, but made of blood.

Just as I am, just as you are (53).

Lee re-programs a variety of source materials throughout this book, from the Pledge of Allegiance and Korean-English dictionary entries to blog posts and screenshots to NASA satellite images and the CIA. One page lists two sets of data in square kilometers (total, land and water), subtly implying disparate values for North and South. Another page has a small legend noting symbols for chemical production sites, biological weapons sites and uranium enrichment sites that reference an absent map—itself a legend. The topographical image on the front cover and the series of satellite images of Korea suggest that from this distance it might be possible to see the country without a line through it. The broken promise of “indivisible” and “under god” looms, becoming “a nomenclature of division” (17) and “under ground.”

Lee then juxtaposes buying souvenirs at the DMZ with K-pop celebrity suicide; sex tourists at juicy bars with statistics on mental health. These single page “singles” of academic quotes and speculative internet reports release themselves like a myriad of anthems being sung at the same time—different words, same tune. Lee cites a Korean Central News Agency report of an underground nuclear explosion that occurred near P’unggye on October 9, 2006. This uprising, “a tectonic pulse, another way to imagine a breach, or what else stands against the DMZ” (77) rumbles with audible and inaudible echoes in the book—speculation about what is buried, and what is buried—”to bury a thing but not kill it” (52). A voice in the book says, “‘Looking back, I think my body was not mine, but the government’s and the U.S. military’s'” (33), speaking to the split body/split country schisms that are a product of colonization and war, held in the air by a twine called “liberation.” Continue reading “Review: Sueyeun Juliette Lee’s UNDERGROUND NATIONAL”

Review: Christine Kitano’s BIRDS OF PARADISE

Birds of Paradise by Christine Kitano | Lynx House Press 2011 | $15.95

 

“Plain, gray, and though I didn’t / know Latin then, still could guess / what inornatus might mean,” writes Kitano in the closing poem of her collection, referring here to the baeolophus inornatus, or plain titmouse, that flies into her family’s kitchen and is promptly killed. She demands a funeral, identifying with the poor bird:

Plain gray Christine, also known as
the plain daughter, Filia inornata
of the Kitano family. Plain gray
above, paler gray below; crest gray.

The irony of the plain, filial bird emerges when placed in conversation with the title poem of the collection, “Birds of Paradise,” which refers not to birds but to a plantfrom South Africa that looks like the birds. The title also calls to my mind the “false birds of paradise” plant from the Hawaiian islands that looks like the South African plant. I mention all this in order to call attention to the layers of resemblance and recognition—crucial themes to this book of poems. In the title poem, our plain filia inornata cups the bird of paradise plant in her hand, pretending “to be an African queen, the stunning orange / bird my companion, or Sleeping Beauty, / the flower’s sharp stigma a poisoned spindle.” A child of Japanese and Korean immigrants, her marginality and desires push her to imagine a still greater and still more exotic paradise than the one to whichher family has arrived.

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Review: Michelle Naka Pierce’s CONTINUOUS FRIEZE BORDERING RED

CONTINUOUS FRIEZE BORDERING RED

Continuous Frieze Bordering Red by Michelle Naka Pierce | Fordham University Press 2012 | $19.00

Michelle Naka Pierce’s Continuous Frieze Bordering Red is made up of five lines spanning sixty-eight pages. Read the first line of the book all the way through, and then the second line, and so on. Pierce conceived of this project during the study of Mark Rothko’s Seagram murals at the Tate Modern in London. She writes a room with sixty-eight sides. We are surrounded.

Pierce chooses to begin with an epigraph by Rothko, the ending of which leads us not toward the grandiose, but toward the uncomfortably intimate: “However you paint the larger picture, you are in it.”

At first I wanted to see Pierce’s text installed, each page depicting a scene in a sequence of discrete panels. I wanted to see the breadth of such a room—I wanted to be inside of it. Then I realized—I’m in it. Pierce is in it. This sixty-eight-sided room is the spectral polygon we inhabit. Continue reading “Review: Michelle Naka Pierce’s CONTINUOUS FRIEZE BORDERING RED”

Review: Tan Lin’s INSOMNIA AND THE AUNT

INSOMNIA AND THE AUNT

Insomnia and the Aunt by Tan Lin | Kenning Editions 2011 | $13.95

Tan Lin’s Insomnia and the Aunt glows neon yellow—like hilighters, French fries, hot mustard packets from Panda Express, or a Waffle House of scallion pancake-flavored commercial. In this remote control scrapbook Lin grieves the death of his estranged, mixed race aunt, who owned a motel in the middle of nowhere and watched a lot of TV. Tucked among postcards, a photograph of Ronald Reagan bottle-feeding a chimpanzee and footnoted Google reverse searches, Lin tries to extract ghosts from cached pages and remember his aunt’s eyes in the white noise and signal snow of “the Asian American immigrant experience,” which is really just America being watched on TV.

I have watched hundreds of movies with Asians and fake Asians in them, and the one thing that makes them all the same (except the white Asians) is that the Asians never stare into your eyes through the glass of a TV screen and you are never allowed to look too deeply into theirs. I think it is for this reason that whenever I think about my aunt, and TV for that matter, I can never remember my aunt’s eyes (they appear to belong to someone else), and think instead of Robert Redford, who said in an interview that it is necessary for the body to lie to the mind (not the other way around) when acting and that the various strata of lying are continually searching for each other in the wilderness that most people call the truth and that my aunt calls television (11).

Instead of working on this review, I decide to re-watch an episode of the (cancelled) TV series Dark Angel. I think about Jessica Alba in Seattle (driving a motorcycle, and how I always thought she was half-Filipina) and Tan Lin in Seattle (driving 87 miles to see his half-Chinese, half-white aunt), and as I compulsively watch episode after episode on the internet I begin to understand what Lin already knows. Like an addiction, serial television—with its timed commercial breaks, its catchy theme songs, its over-rehearsed staging of the spur-of-the-moment—feeds us with its promise of repetition and allows us to watch from a distance. On TV, sexual tension is always prolonged and people never say what they really mean. When we’re watching, it’s easy to avert our eyes, to lie. Television channels feelings and vends emotions. This is why the corner convenience store sells potato chips and ice cream for one or two dollars more than other places. Thinking about one particular television-consumed immigrant relative of my own makes it difficult to write about this book. Continue reading “Review: Tan Lin’s INSOMNIA AND THE AUNT”

Review: Bhanu Kapil’s SCHIZOPHRENE

SCHIZOPHRENE

Schizophrene by Bhanu Kapil | Nightboat Books 2011 | $15.95

Schizophrenia (literally, “to split the mind”) is defined as a breakdown in relation between thought, emotion and behavior, leading to a sense of mental fragmentation (Oxford American Dictionaries). While fragmentation and the diasporic experience are hardly strangers within the lineages of Asian American literature, Bhanu Kapil’s Schizophrene maps crucial connections between schizophrenia, im/migration, racism, trauma and mental illness. This book arcs through the air in a perpetual state of departure, “[a]nd the line the book makes is an axis” (5) around which perception begins to whirl. Without much visual formatting on the page, we see that the whole image is broken. What is extraordinary about Kapil’s writing is that we experience it as a texture—the psychosis of her narrative registers in us as a sensation.

Partition, schism. Split or division, cleft. Schizophrene focuses on the Partition of British India in 1947 “and its trans-generational effects: the high incidence of schizophrenia in diasporic Indian and Pakistani communities; the parallel social history of domestic violence, relational disorders, and so on” (1). Kapil’s research into migration and mental illness can be traced back to her chapbook Water-damage: a map of three black days (Corollary Press, 2006), in which previous versions of some of the text in the “Partition” section of Schizophrene appear.

In Water-damage Kapil chooses an informative epigraph from Elizabeth Grosz’ Architecture from the Outside: “The psychotic is unable to locate himself or herself where he or she should be: such subjects may look at themselves from the outside, as others would…They are captivated and replaced, not by another subject…but by space itself.” Replaced by space itself, occupied. Replaced by segregated grids and militarized nation-state borders, lines that “split the mind.” “Because it is psychotic not to know where you are in a national space” (41), Kapil cradles the colonized psyche, imprinted by occupation, in her hands.

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Review: Pamela Lu’s AMBIENT PARKING LOT

AMBIENT PARKING LOT

Ambient Parking Lot by Pamela Lu | Kenning Editions 2011 | $14.95

Parked in a corner of Pamela Lu’s Ambient Parking Lot, I turned up the volume on my headphones and listened long past the comfort level of both my bladder and my thirst, testing the limits of the quickly fading sunlight. I chuckled and tick-marked at record speed, drunk with the spot-on parody and ridiculous brilliance of her lines. What I love about Lu’s work is her sharp wit, subtle delivery and deadpan hilarity, which you have to slow down and listen for in order to fully appreciate. Thus, parked, I listened.

Lu’s characters, all of them, are also listening. This book is a mock-documentary novel that tracks the mid-highs and mid-lows of a band of ambient noise musicians, the Ambient Parkers, who record in parking lots and garages and sample car trunk thuds, gridlock traffic honks, revving engines and the like. Aspiring to capture the nature in the machine, their material is capitalism and its doomed, sublime ambience.

Reading this book is like watching an indie webisode spin-off of “Behind the Music” (“Behind the Noise”) run by a group of nerdy, over-enthusiastic volunteers and bored unpaid interns with MFA degrees. Lu tracks the Ambient Parkers’ absolute mediocrity in awkwardly-awesome crescendos and geeky-fantastic loops. Parts of it read like an overly self-conscious, overly detailed fan blog with absolutely no web traffic, which is crafted with earnest, superb engineering and is as addictive as low-calorie reality TV. The band’s fits of self-induced melodrama and cheesy enlightenment register as mere blips and farts to The Alternative Mainstreamyet, anonymously, the band continues, and miraculously, they continue to be heard. Continue reading “Review: Pamela Lu’s AMBIENT PARKING LOT”

Review: How Do I Begin?

How Do I Begin? A Hmong American Literary Anthology | Heyday 2011 | $16.95

The NY Times began the new year with a piece about the Hmong American Writers’ Circle and the cultural context in which it operates. And our most recent issue of the Lantern Review put a spotlight on HAWC in Community Voices. This is only the beginning of much-deserved attention for this unique generation of new writers.

How Do I Begin is an apt title for an anthology of writers whose ethnic identity is doubly marginalized: though the Hmong roots are in southwest China, most emigrated/fled to the US from places like Laos or Vietnam after the Vietnam-American War. Burlee Vang, in his introduction to the book, describes himself as “born into a people whose written language has long been substituted by an oral tradition.” The written language of the Hmong was lost after assimilation in Imperial China long ago; this is not to mention assimilation into Thai and Lao culture, where most Hmong are provided an education only in their host countries’ official languages. The Hmong language has remnants in traditional embroidery but they have become indecipherable. Writers identifying as Hmong American today, therefore, have the tremendous task not only of writing themselves into history and literature, but also of gathering their names and identities from the pieces available. English is their adopted language, and so these writers must weave a warp and woof through multiple traditions.

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