Ligature Strain by Kim Koga and Yellow / Yellow by Margaret Rhee | Tinfish Press 2011 | $3.00
In typography, a ligature is the conjunction of two or more letters into a single glyph.
In typography, an index is a punctuation mark indicating an important part of the text with a pointing hand.
Margaret Rhee’s Yellow/ Yellow and Kim Koga’s Ligature Strain meet in a typographical terrain of conjugation and decomposition, where fists appear in the margins. These texts saturate their pages to such a degree that I wish these words could stain my fingers—pink, brown, yellow.
These works are first chapbooks for both Koga and Rhee, and are #5 and #6 in Tinfish Press‘ yearlong Retro Series. Since April 2011, one chapbook has been released per month, each designed by Eric Butler.
In the selective memory of America’s pop tart psyche, 9/11 is a day—a montage of proud flag-waving, “God Bless!” and baseball. In this sense, 9/11 is a memorial that never meant anything to me. But a decade ago, before I had formulated my political consciousness as a queer person of color, I knew what it meant to live in fear, to be a “Transsexual Militant,” as Amir Rabiyah writes, in the anxiety-inducing nightmare of airport security, to move through public spaces as suspect. The exclusive “land of the free” 9/11 did not remember people like me.
AALR’s Special Issue attempts to rupture the dominant narrative of 9/11 by examining, as Rajini Srikanth states in the introduction, the not-so-innocent act of remembering. The voices and visual art in this book and the companion DVD—from youth, students, teachers, social workers, lawyers, DJs, community organizers, neuroscientists and poets in the South Asian, Asian, Arab and Muslim American communities—fight America’s obsession with 9/11 as a fixed tragedy, as a single event after which everything changed.
Their remembrances counteract the ways we are being told to frame 9/11 by contextualizing it as a continuation of historical patterns systemic of broader structures of US imperialism. In these crucial and courageous testimonies, essays, interviews and discussions, 9/11 is framed as a non-event, as a decade of war,  as an “American Century,”  as “homeland security” since 1492. Sunaina Maira writes, “9/11 was not a moment of exception but an ongoing state of emergency.”
In this review, I discuss Ronaldo V. Wilson’s Narrative of the Life of the Brown Boy and the White Man (University of Pittsburgh Press 2008) and Poems of the Black Object (FuturePoem Books 2009). Wilson’s first full-length poetry collection might be more specifically described as prose poetry, as implied by its title. There are really no formal line breaks throughout the collection, so one is forced to consider what makes such a work poetry as opposed to prose. This genre-defying work’s title also clearly derives inspiration from two canonical African American literary texts: Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. In Wilson’s title, there isn’t any mention of the word “slave,” but the impulse to explore the conditions of subjection and domination are still very much there. Wilson’s work thus seems to enact a neo-slave “poetic” as derived through the queer racial minority’s subjectivity. The reference to the “brown boy” and the “white man” in the title also helps situate what actually occurs in the prose poetry blocks throughout the collection. “Brown boy” suggests that the lyric “I” is a mixed-race subject and likely an adult, but clearly one who does not have much access to economic resources. He is engaged in a homosexual relationship with “White Man,” someone likely older and with clearly far more money than the “Brown Boy.” Racial difference, class difference, and age difference, among other such distinctions, generate the rubrics of power and domination that mark the tension between “white man” and the “brown boy.” Wilson’s work is raw, dense, and does not shy away from difficult topics, as demonstrated by the following excerpt, which is fairly indicative of the stylistic impulses of the collection:
“Go Shower. This command reveals [the brown boy’s] relationship to the white man. He follows his lover’s orders like a slave without anything but the promise of being fed and shown a movie” (64).
The title of Tamiko Beyer’s first chapbook, bough breaks, evokes not just the creepy nursery rhyme, but also plant metaphors and motifs running through the poem-sequence. On the very first page there is “deep moss,” “bloomer,” and the “instinct” that “rises / late” from “whatever field”: whatever it is, this field has conceptual dimensions as well as spatiality. Shortly thereafter, the narrator tells us, “I construct syllabic fields,” suggesting with the simple present tense a habit, a pattern, perhaps something involuntary—and in this field, language itself, like foliage, must be attended to “like watering.”
These language-pastures seem to have once in the past(oral) contained the narrator until this instinct, to be a mother, escapes—pretty much like a protuberance—and causes a being-body to leak through. Queer desire is already a transgression, “chaotic.” By challenging the narrative that queer sexualities are non-reproductive, the maternal instinct turns the queer body excessive over and above its already-excess.
bough breaks seeks to interrogate this protuberance, this leaking, and its limits. It is fuelled by yearning: “will there be / between us a darling?” Yearning pushes through the body of the poem in the form of white space. Forms are invented to strike off authorized definitions of conception (biological as well as artistic), to prefigure the politics of a queer couple raising a child so as to question gender (“we would …. open mother to repetitions”), to consider how options for child-getting are often embedded in contexts of violence and capitalistic greed (and is there really a choice), to destabilize both the “natural” and the “not natural” in “queer” and “motherhood” (and sneaky iterations of everything in between), to circulate even more questions around adoption and embryo adoption (check out that play with “play” and “pay” on page 24!).
In Gerald Maa’s interview with Arthur Sze in this issue of the Asian American Literary Review, Maa quotes from Auden: “Many things can be said against anthologies, but for an adolescent to whom even the names of most of the poets are unknown, a good [anthology] can be an invaluable instructor.” The same can be said of this 300-page journal, with its wide range of material including: a forum discussion with some of the editors about the “check all that apply” race option on the 2010 Census, an enclosed DVD of Kip Fulbeck’s video short Mixed: Portraits of Multiracial Kids, and a complete bibliography of Carlos Bulosan provided by the Library of Congress’s Asian American Pacific Islander Collection. This is all in addition to fiction, memoir, poetry, interviews with Arthur Sze (on editing Chinese Writers on Writing) and Chang-rae Lee (on his most recent novel, The Surrendered), book reviews, documentary photography, and a short graphic piece.
This issue’s theme is “Counting Citizens” and begins with a discussion about the question of multiracial self-representation on the Census. Jeffrey Yang takes a stance against the very structures of any representation and rejects claims for a ‘post-racial’ present: “not representation but transmutation, alchemy. . . . Representation is the impossible ideal of our democracy, where influence rules.” Srikanth Reddy uses the development of Walt Whitman’s poetry as a model, charting his expansive ownership of multitudes to his subjective position as an individual: “This progression—from the poet as a vatic representative of everybody to the poet as a specimen capable only of registering her own experience—might in some ways be a natural progression, from the exuberance of youth to the epistemological modesty of old age.” He suggests an alternative perspective: that of the Other. Yang riffs on this and together they broach the aesthetic of language arts and “the problem of form—the ‘logic and order’ of an artwork” which seems to find friction between the canon and the margin. A different take on Bloom’s “anxiety of influence,” perhaps, in which the artist is in constant tension between the codified mastery of forebears and the yet unnamed mystery of the present/future individual. Linguistic and cultural transplantation complicate loyalties, heritage, assumptions about audience, andformal considerations. Reddy writes:
To write a haiku or a ghazal in English does not bring us any closer to shifting the grounds of literary representation. In Yang’s memorable formulation, such a literary gesture would fail to “reposition the frame structure.” Rather, our formal labor [as Asian American writers] has to occur beyond the frame, in the abstract conceptual space where form is given particular shapes suited to the particular historical moment.
What is spit, taken as the title of Esther Lee’s first book of poetry? It can be derogatory, can be DNA and genealogy, can be sustenance and suckling, can be used to form or deform the sounds we make when speaking. The poems in this collection are preoccupied with the mouth, which functions as a site of stagnation just as much as change. The book begins, “When asked if I believe in absolute truths, I cite the lie.” And a few lines down: “Our mouths were stretched to the floor as punishment . . .” In another poem, the mouth is a “rusted hollow,” an irreparably broken car muffler. Later, in “The Real World Is Like This,” the sound of a mother’s “bird-throat” suggests flight, then suggests the clicking sounds of the speaker’s tap shoes driving a rift between her and her sister and, she says, “what my mouth can’t afford.”
Astonishing for a first book, Lee’s signature style is instantly recognizable by the accent she creates visually on the page. The front dedication to her family reads: “I kiss one hundred time[ ].” Generally brackets tell of absence, which can mean revision, loss, or a truncated excess—and in these poems refer to text as much as to personal experience. In the dedication, it is a nod to her parents’ accent. In the “Interview with My [C]orean Father” poems, the bracketed “C” reclaims and reshapes an ethnic label. It also points out how arbitrary are such naming practices, since Corean and Korean sound identical. In “We Are the Happiest Children in the World” and “Ivan / Ivan,” brackets proliferate lines to evoke at once caesura and transition, as we see in:
I tell you I am here mingled [ ] with snow
yellow-white as the page [ ] I suckled from
my grandmother—strange mother—and I [ ] grew
These brackets have a distinct flavor from backslashes, m-dashes, and ellipses; they are a ligature of grammatical pedantry (showing Lee in command of the language) and ungrammatical familiarity (an intuitive, poetic experimentation). They are a punctuation that Lee has made uniquely her own in these poems. Continue reading “Review: Esther Lee’s SPIT”→
In September 2001, The Amazing Spider-Man published issue #477 which has been called, for its emotively blank cover, the “Black Issue.” It opens with a two-page spread of Spider-Man covering his ears in shock over the excruciating collapse of the Twin Towers. What follows is a trauma narrative as New York picks up the pieces, searches for survivors and parents and loved ones. Our pantheon of Marvel Comics gods is down at Ground Zero helping as they can, each one suddenly rendered as miniscule as the citizens: Captain America in silent grief, having seen enough world wars; Doc Doom and Magneto combining their efforts and labor without rancor; Spidey pulling his mask up halfway to drink bottled water with firefighters in the rubble.
I read a blurb once that claimed the three most recognizable characters in the world were: Hamlet, Mickey Mouse, and Superman. The effect of this Marvel shadow history of 9/11, given both the scale of the event as well as these comic book icons, is not unlike that of Ovid using Phaethon’s sun-chariot fiasco to explain desert formations, or Moses using Nimrod’s Tower of Babel to explain foreign languages. Humanity has always written itself into larger, mythical narratives in which we all cohere, in an attempt to familiarize the cosmos. The only difference is that we don’t actually believe Peter Parker and Steve Rogers exist. Yet, reading the Black Issue and getting swept up in its reverent catharsis, I do believe. For that is how literature works. That is how we construct reality in our emotional imaginations. Moreover, that is how we codify our assumptions and stereotypes—what we choose to be believable in these realities we make.
The cover image of this square-shaped book previews the poems well. It’s a photo of a brick tenement bombed with graffiti wildstyles in suburban browns and blues. One letter’s tail stretches generously through a sill in the wall to become a finger flipping us off. Someone has abandoned a road bike in front of the wall and a plain plank laid out like a welcome mat. Reading these poems is an experience of urban ekstasis, an out-of-body splash of sight that stops the pedestrian reader. Lisa Chen sprays up the walls of poetry to show where our grammar and vision have gone dry.
What a wonder it is to see the world through Chen’s language! We see a “face filling the night like a bare back / Turned away from you in sleep.” The look on another’s “as I leave is a porch light left burning at dawn.” And a woman whose “English isn’t so good. Slang, her mouth the color of turned salmon.” Chen writes in “Translators’ Apologia,” “I have tried to approximate a sea with a stream of piss” and that approximation itself opens an astonishingly vivid world. Her phrases seize with naked incisions.
The collection’s tone is set in the opening title poem, “Mouth.” The speaker is in a situation, literally and figuratively, “where [she doesn’t] speak the language.” The spoken word is stifled yet emergent, gritty and gnarled, as we see variously in lines like: “cocktail boozer slurring the voila delirious,” “the shill slag of bad guitar and motel ashtrays,” and “the sloe-eyed, two-fisted mouth” among others. The speaker resorts to body language, “hands thrust in the air / in grim universal gestures” which translates here to bartering at the market, a game of demonstrating desire and the ability to walk away. Continue reading “Review: Lisa Chen’s MOUTH”→
In this emotive issue of Kartika, the primacy of the first person is immediately apparent, and the “I” spotlights the issue’s family theme. Except for one second-person narrated story (which perhaps entreats the reader’s I), all the pieces here are borne from their speakers’ personal narratives. Fiction editor Christina Lee Zilka says her goodbye to the journal by telling a memory of goodbye. Matthew Salesses in “Slowed Time, Normal Time” develops a first-person fiction so deft and sincere it reads like memoir. David Mura’s memoir piece, “My Daughter At 18: Leaving Home,” uses first-person texts as a set of resonances: Mura narrates, and quotes from his daughter’s personal statement for college, in which she quotes not just her past self from a journal but also Mura’s description of her from thirteen years ago—all the I’s of which give an illusory choral effect. Like when you strike a guitar’s middle E and the other E strings hum sympathetically. The issue ends on an email interview with Sumeir Hammad (Woan was right in her editorial to guess, “Like me, you will probably turn to read her interview first”), and Hammad’s insights are given us by a characteristically uncapitalized i.
The two poems of this issue are also told from the first-person, and both pieces are occasions of identity. Rajiv Mohabir’s “holi lovesport stains (krishna-lila)” takes its stylistic theme from the Holi festival tradition of throwing colored powder at one another. From the first, syntactically blurred stanza, disparate bodies are conjoined and selves are multiplied:
Nietzsche once wrote: “That for which we find words is something already dead in our hearts. There is always a kind of contempt in the act of speaking.” This dilemma poses a particular challenge to new poetry: can one ever speak truly—much less write?, much less sing?—when language is a prejudice of precedent, when there is nihil sub sole novum and all sayable things seem already said? This question is also poetry’s great virtue, for no other medium is so self-aware and self-justifying. Successful poems are their own apologia, and, by exhausting the fecundity of words, strike at the experience of mystery that lies behind words. I want to keep this in mind while examining some of the poems in Cerise Press‘s fall/winter issue. Every poem published in this issue is written with a mature handle on craft, which means each is already pushing the limits of the medium and approaching quiddity. The poems are of high quality, and for me to select one over another will be merely a matter of taste. For this reason, rather than praise what is already self-evidently praiseworthy, I want to approach this review with rhetoric in mind, with the goal of evincing how my favorite poems from this issue work and what they have to say about their own process.
Retelling the Expected
Patty Seyburn’s “A Year on Mars” is a kind of model of the conflict I’m describing. Seyburn takes up a tired theme—disillusioned love—and makes it linguistically new. Thematically, the human world is narrated with a vernacular of astrology: “I orbited you,” “this igneous adventure,” “everyone . . . bumping into the sun,” “lass stranded on that mythic isthmus,” “Mission Control // is still giving orders,” and so on. This naturalization of metaphor is a conceit of modern poetry, a fantastical irony: we know that people do not orbit one another, but the poem’s liveliness convinces us that indeed they do. The poem’s speaker narrates her courtship and breaking-up, which we can generally deduce, and makes it vivid precisely by depicting what it is not. Each time we ‘get it’ and connect metaphor to perspective, we undergo a constructive experience that brings the poem to life. The language of the poem (at its most distancing when “stranding a preposition, / widowing a noun”) is regulated and balanced by the speaker’s playfulness. The opening fact about Mars stretches into a metaphor—“as I orbited you / before I began to degenerate”—which would be hard to take if not for the next line, which is cute and colloquial and grounds us in the speaker’s personality: “You must be awfully affable . . .” Thus the language keeps us straddling what we may call the common and the poetical. Alone, either would be prolix; juxtaposed, we synchronically experience both a relationship and a cosmos. Metaphor functions on a physical level, as studies have long shown; when we think of ‘hot’ as in ‘sunny,’ we are activating the same part of the brain that thinks of ‘hot’ as in ‘spicy.’ So, when the red color-theme emerges in this poem, our perception is adjusted to include all that it encompasses, not merely that which it refers to.