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”→
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”→
“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.
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.”
Tan Lin’sInsomnia and the Auntglows 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”→
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.
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 Mainstream—yet, anonymously, the band continues, and miraculously, they continue to be heard. Continue reading “Review: Pamela Lu’s AMBIENT PARKING LOT”→
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.
“Sewing,” “pockets” and “stories” being things that don’t quite exist in the Neverland, Jenny Boully’s not merely because of the unknown that was stalking toward them sews pockets in and around the mythos of J.M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy. Cutting snippets of Barrie’s source text, including Barrie’s Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens and events in Andrew Birkin’s J.M. Barrie & the Lost Boys, Boully centralizes Wendy’s experience and sews up bits of her story, stitching the make-believe into the made-quite-real. In her pockets, open ends and open endings fit and hover.
“places in the earth are breaking”
Every page of not merely because is footnoted with a section called “The Home Under Ground,” while the rest of the text wraps itself around. Boully is famous for having written an entire book in footnotes, The Body: An Essay (Slope Editions, 2002 and Essay Press, 2007); these footnotes referenced empty pages—a nonexistent text. In notes 1 and 2 of The Body she writes, “…everything that is said is said underneath… / It is not the story I know or the story you tell me that matters; it is what I already know, what I don’t want to hear you say. Let it exist this way, concealed…”
That she chooses to reference the concealed, underground home where Peter Pan, Wendy and the lost boys lived in her footnotes to not merely because made me think of Souvankham Thammavongsa’s Small Arguments (Pedlar Press, 2003). Thammavongsa studies a variety of fruit and insects and reveals, in the words of Bertrand Russell, “the strangeness and wonder lying just below the surface even in the commonest things in daily life.” Boully’s line “A mushroom head here, a celery stalk there, three new baby bird graves, a fiddlehead here; places in the earth are breaking” echoes Thammavongsa’s poem “The Ground”: “You will not leave / or keep from / this ground, a breaking.” Continue reading “Review: Jenny Boully’s NOT MERELY BECAUSE OF THE UNKNOWN STALKING TOWARD THEM”→
After reading Bao Phi’s remarkable collection of poems, Sông I Sing, I was reminded of an incident that occurred about ten years ago when I was an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota. I was attending a panel discussion at UMinn entitled, simply, “Asian American Poetry,” sponsored in large part by Minnesota Poets Society, and was greatly looking forward to listening to two acclaimed Asian American poets speak on the topic. Disappointingly, the only thing the Society members, through their persistent questions about it, seemed interested in was the “poetic process”—and more particularly a process devoid of those nattering issues about race, identity, or politics. Toward the end of the discussion, an elderly white woman, clearly a senior member of the eminent Society, raised her hand and said, “Well, after listening to you both talk about your poetry, I’m wondering why we need to apply the name ‘Asian American’ to your poetry at all.” To my astonishment, at the time, both poets—both award-winning Asian American poets—agreed that the term “Asian American” as it’s applied to their poetry or to them as poets, felt limiting if not downright debilitating.
Such a response has its precedent. It’s reflective of the conundrum of the ethnic writer: how to keep from falling into the binary of either writing to a prescribed aesthetic steeped in a history of political ideology or writing as a fully realized individual shaped by an accumulation of discrete, personal experiences. It ‘s a false binary, of course, as a number of Asian American poetry anthologies have already shown, from The Open Boat: Poems From Asian America, edited by Garrett Hongo, to Premonition:The Kaya Anthology of New Asian North American Poetry, edited by Walter Lew, and Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation edited by Victoria Chang. All three anthologies rally around the diversity of themes and poets as opposed to a unifying call to some singular identity and community. Though anchored from a historical perspective to linear coordinates such as identity construction and political ideology, Asian American poetry is not bound to those coordinates. It is a fluid, changing body of work in time and space.