Ocean Vuong’s first chapbook of poetry, Burnings, is a searing elegy to a deceased motherland that continues to smolder in the memories of those who left her in the wake of war. Although Vuong is a member of the 1.5 generation (the children and infants of Vietnamese refugees with scant memories or no memories of that armed conflict) his writing boldly confronts, grapples with and reflects themes of personal and political dissolution and regeneration.
Do not say our names as this flame grows
from the edge of the photo, the women’s smiles
peeling into grimaces, the boy spreading slowly
into black smudge, filaments of fire
dissolving into wind. No, do not say our names.
Let us burn quietly into the lives
we never were.
What comes forth in the title poem is the shock of tangible, catastrophic loss. It gives you the feeling of being gradually burned down to a nub, leaving behind only a trail of stoic grief, and in order to get on in life and persevere you must transcend it.
An apt Mark Doty epigram divides Burnings into two sections, but the transformative medium of fire is the theme that runs throughout the chapbook. As I read Vuong’s poems, I imagined each one warping and crinkling in my hands, heating up my fingers, as if someone had lit a match at the corner of the page. The slow burn of Vuong’s verse and his juxtaposing and melding of life and death give off sparks in the dark that illuminate truths which one never truly forgets.
Diwata by Barbara Jane Reyes | BOA Editions 2010 | $16
In Poeta in San Francisco, Barbara Jane Reyes’ previous book, diwata was someone “elders say” had once “walked on earth” before the “the nailed god came” (30). These are the traces and rumors from which the titular Diwata of her latest book is resurrected. Then, like slippery oral art, like slips of the tongue, creation stories about men, women, and diwata—a god or spirit in Philippine mythology—are made up and told again and again. The poems in Diwata draw also on, and retell, Judeo-Christian creation narratives, introduced and enforced in the Philippines by the Spanish colonial regime. These retellings of myths and folk tales become a modality through which ahistory is rendered into history, history itself is investigated, and variations of diwatas, their quarries, and their hunters are revealed as inhabiting multiple narrative, linguistic, and cultural sites.
A globe our size, where migrations, displacements, and diasporas have become fairly common, and networked space-time has become a given for its globalized areas, is increasingly in need of transnational, translingual, transcultural mythologies. Diwata is one such transmission, in English, Spanish, and Tagalog. While most poems in the book take the form of story, it also has songs, couplets, pantoums that pick up the motifs of repetition and variation, creating a sinuous overlapping sonic rhythm.
Diwata inhabits many temporalities: it goes back in time before time and to the pre-colonial time and the colonial time; it stays in once upon a time and also strays in the present. By de-colonizing time from its linear, industrial, western model, it recuperates and liberates mythic, folkloric, and indigenous entities historically demonized and suppressed by the Catholic church and the Spanish colonial administration. The deep time of myth and folklore in Diwata is not static; rather, it is like static, a kind of oracular interference that sharpens the reader’s awareness of acts of wounding as well as acts of resistance performed during Philippines’ colonization, first by Spain and then by the USA.
It may be helpful to start by pointing readers to Fenollosa’s The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, the not entirely accurate but seminal work from 1920 that influenced Pound and Williams and stood among the beginnings of a poetic sinology in America. Of particular interest is the claim that Chinese writing is grammatically closer to “the thing itself,” each character inherently a transitive verb subsuming articles, prepositions, etc.—all those deadweight items in English grammar. Fenollosa writes that every Chinese word “is not exclusive of parts of speech, but comprehensive; not something which is neither a noun, verb, or adjective, but something which is all of them at once and at all times” (68).
During his career, Pound translated Chinese poetry into English, but not the other way around. The importing was meant to transform English only. I don’t suppose he gave much thought to bilingual writing, using both Chinese and English discretely in a single poem. For this reason, Eddie Tay’s third collection of poetry, The Mental Life of Cities,is a very interesting new book. In my last review, I showed the payoff of diglossic poetry in “Cities,” excerpted from the third part of the title poem. I’ll say a bit more about this hybrid form.
For one thing, all readers—whether or not they know Chinese—will have a curious experience of choice. Poetry, unlike most prose, cannot be skimmed; its rhetoric is shaped as much by lineation and sound as it is by grammar, and therefore the spoken rhythms of its speech must be followed. When we read Eliot’s “Four Quartets” and come across “So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years— / Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres” we may not know French but we can sound it out (even if poorly) and appreciate the rhyme. Eliot was being kind when he cloistered his Greek into an epigraph in “The Waste Land.” For when we read section vii of Tay’s lyric poem and come to “They don’t teach Leaves of Grass, 野草, Howl: / 老師說話你不能不听, / 不能不听” what do we do if we cannot pronounce the words? One can skip the Chinese and go straight to the translations, reading in a straight English scansion. Or pause at the ideographs and appreciate their visual representations—in fecund silence, as if reading a painting. Tay’s political geography is also of interest. In his preface, he gives examples of romanized pronunciations using pinyin; but he’s from Singapore (where Simplified Chinese is used) and writing in Hong Kong (Traditional Chinese). So a bilingual reader is presented with the choice of pronouncing these words in Mandarin (as Tay might) or in Cantonese (as most of the writing suggests).
A Guest Post by Stephen Hong Sohn, Assistant Professor of English at Stanford University
Adamantineby Shin Yu Pai | White Pine Press 2010 | $16
Adamantine, as the title reflects, is a collection filled with luster, gleaming with deep insight, and further characterized by an ethereal landscape, focused on emotional connections, on spirituality, on death, and on the afterlife. Pai’s work travels both within and outside of ethnic and racial frames, thus complicating any transparent categorization of the collection as “Asian American” literature.
Nevertheless, the political character of many of her poems does make Adamantine speak to many of the field’s traditional concerns. I begin this review further into the collection, with what I believe is the larger project of the work. In “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Vulture,” Pai’s lyric speaker considers the responsibilities of one who chronicles the lives of others:
of the witness
the I of the commentator
grubby children at the rim
of a Guatemala dump
stunned orphans in Russia (76)
The homonyms of “eye” and “I” function in different contexts, both on the level of ‘one who watches’ and ‘one who speaks.’ The following lines accordingly consider the issue of witnessing, with respect to the plight of global poverty. What is the responsibility of the lyric speaker, Adamantine continually asks, with respect to voice and sight? In that vein, I’d like to concentrate on one of the overall lyric approaches that Pai takes, which is to place current events and historical figures in comparative perspective. As part of Pai’s relational approach, the collection opens fittingly with an epigraph from Michael Ondaatje’s novel Anil’s Ghost. The passage from which Pai excerpts refers to prayers and mantras and explores how such spiritual inscriptions speak to individual loss and to aesthetic beauty. At the same time, by invoking Anil’s Ghost, Pai sets Adamantine firmly within a tradition that queries human rights and global conflict. Perhaps we are not surprised, then, when we find that the first poem’s title is “This is not My Story,” as if to immediately query the autobiographical impulse of the confessional lyric. The lyric stories of “Adamantine” are often those of Asian or Asian American figures who move beyond the speaker, including Thich Quang Duc in “Burning Monk,” where the lyric speaker repeats, as a kind of mantra, “his heart refusing to burn / his heart refusing to burn / his heart refusing to burn” (19). Of course, Thich Quang Duc is most famously known for his self-immolation in protest of the Vietnam War. The use of the word “heart” arcs out across this collection. We are reminded in the very first poem, “This is not my Story,” that the “human heart is / a wholly different animal, / we must sense when to give in / before the other gives up” (11). The importance of emotion and affect imbues the lyric speaker with a kind of power, leading her toward a pathway that involves spiritual reawakening. Another figure invoked is James Kim, the Korean American who died tragically when he and his family were caught in a winter snowstorm in Oregon. The lyric speaker gestures again to loss, but contextualizes his death within the frame of sacrifice, as James had attempted to situate help for his family despite the possibility that he could have succumbed to the austere weather conditions.
Let’s dive straight in, examining three of the issue’s first poems and their wrestle with words and meanings.
Phill Provance’s interlace poem “St. Petersburg Has Many Churches,” is perhaps the most abstruse, though its diction remains commonplace. The poem’s charm lies not in its form but in its unself-conscious vernacular. Its colloquial voice, inconsistent in a way typical to modern speech, uses contractions here but not there, and lumbers along monosyllabic platforms (many its, thats, and ises). The loftiest word is “ellipticizing,” but this neologism, rather than conjugating the Latinate directly (“ellipsing”), invokes the urban by conjugating gym ellipticals as root. All this results in the naturalization of the poem’s anfractuous form, such that it flows with incidental ease. This is hard to achieve. Provance himself comments that the poem is designed to be accessible despite its layered meanings, which makes it an appropriate gateway poem to the journal. Yet: why is a poem about St. Petersburg, or his second poem remembering lost love, placed as the opening of an “Asian Literary Journal”? The third stanza of “St. Petersburg” describes a vaguely Zen mode of seeing, but the other poem has nothing culturally comparable. We’ll return to this.
Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s “A Talk With Mao Tze-tung,” though also colloquial, achieves a much steadier voice. This poem addresses the quondam Chairman’s mortal absence, because “you are nowhere / until a Swedish journalist recites your poetry / and wonders . . .” Living, and dead, and revived, Mao’s core vitality resides in his words and ideas, which become corporeal by revolutions. Thoughts march, words poison, books are buried. And along the way, vituperation must question itself: “why am I talking to you, dead man?” It seems language persists even when we don’t desire it, and since “history has no last word,” this poem ends in questions, and the talk with Mao must pause until an answer comes alive again.
Kim-An Lieberman’s two poems are among my favorites for their adroitness. “After Ten Years,” a loose-octameter poem, turns list into narrative. The “Because” reiteration chants and expiates, swelling to crescendo; the final line hits the kind of poetic denouement that evokes quiet “hm”s from audiences at readings. In “Harvest,” we begin in miniatures (“single beads, stray buttons, broken twigs”) and end in nature’s enormity. The sound of children’s jubilance masks the tone and the suffocating fish onshore, until the ending when the ominous “sudden true hand” comes forth unveiled. Lieberman distinguishes herself in poetic brevity with truncated phrases like “This is not to sing / a strange-eyed child, some oracular pure . . .” and doesn’t sacrifice clarity for linguistic decoration, or vice versa.
100 Poems by S S Prasad | STD Pathasala 2008 | $10 or INR 100
Art interested in and interacting with technology, and the technology of its production, can pose some pretty intriguing questions. Bangalore-based poet S S Prasad, in his nanopoems, attempts to engage with new technologies of writing and with code as language. Collected in print in the book 100 Poems, these nanopoems were first written for the microchip as surface for inscription: Prasad, apart from being a poet, happens to be an engineer working for a prominent Silicon Valley company. Not all the poems ended up being nanoed (“nano” denotes one billionth of a meter), but even in print, even to the naked eye, they as a group assert their micro-aesthetic. What’s interesting is that their micro-ness is a response to Raul Zurita’s sky poems, which the back cover blurb tells us is an intertext whose scalar proportions Prasad inverted.
The poems, most of them in the binary language of zeroes and ones, are primarily concerned with marking time on, or across, the page space. The binary digits operate as image, as sign, as object. They explore a visual poetics which functions sometimes in the concrete, and other times in the conceptual, mode. Continue reading “Review: S S Prasad’s 100 POEMS”→
Melody S. Gee’s first book of poems has been advertised for its first-generation Asian American experience, a perhaps unfair label that evokes an older generation’s assimilation-preoccupied narratives. Gee’s poems subsume that historical genre and renew it through her family’s multiple generations. Though the poems do aggregate around immigration, they also address the return to motherland and a Pacific-straddling awareness that’s neither here nor there. Most of these poems are trenchant with cultural identity’s complexities, with both China and America composing the poet’s (or at least the poet’s family’s) world-center.
The primary, migratory narrative buttresses each of the book’s two sections, including the “Paper Son” strain, the W poems (“What They Saw,” “Where We Are Gathered,” etc.), and the dated/located poems. The opening poem, “Migration,” uses monarch butterflies to explore estranged inheritance. The monarch is common to an American childhood but foreign to a Chinese one; between two generations emerges a rift of (de-)naturalization, so that the speaker inherits, variously: sacrifice, beauty, foreignness, destination. These lines from the poem elucidate the space this book inhabits:
how much more time have you been given
to learn a language and forget a language, to break
your body over an ocean [. . .]
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.
Karen Tei Yamashita—writer, professor, and globetrotter—possesses an oeuvre that is anything but conventional. From her debut eco-fantasy novel Through the Arc of the Rainforestto her latest novel, the incredibly ambitious I Hotel, Yamashita has time and again demonstrated a preoccupation with offbeat human experiences.
At the center of I Hotelis the history of the titular inn, the International Hotel, a low-income housing complex located in San Francisco that became the source of much controversy and conflict when its residents, mostly elderly Filipino and Chinese bachelors, were threatened with eviction in the 70’s. Working with this historic centerpiece, Yamashita crafts a highly experimental novel comprised of prose, screenplay, quotes, analects, and even comics. And in an effort to give it a more comprehensible structure, the novel is divided into ten “novellas,” each corresponding to a year between 1968-1977. For research, Yamashita interviewed residents from the community, and their stories serve as seeds for the novel. Despite her efforts to shape the novel around fictionalized versions of these culled stories, the “fiction” elements end up coming across as secondary to the overwhelming amount of synopsized history and culture that fills the novel in the form of primary source-like documents. Thus, we have a “novel” in which the most compelling sections are the ones that feel least like a novel.
In each novella, we’re afforded glimpses into the lives of various protagonists. In an interview with Kandice Chuh for Discover Nikkei, Yamashita said she roughly structured the book so that each “novella” followed three central characters, with one typically serving the role of a mentor. Characters include the son of activists, a saxophonist, and a dancer, among others. But despite being modeled on actual people these colorful figures feel hastily formed, like participants in a dress rehearsal. The scenes they exist in feel ethereal and unanchored. There’s no sense of settling into moments and scenes and exploring characters and their connection to their settings. Instead, there is mostly dialogue, and not even very effective dialogue. The dialogue often is too heavy-handed or too inconsequential. Despite efforts to spotlight characters and how they negotiate trying circumstances, what takes precedence is an overriding narrative voice that attempts to bridge them all together.
More often than not, what hamstrings the conventional narrative threads is the intrusion of an overriding polemical voice that waxes and wanes about humanistic subjects such as philosophy, history, politics, film, art, and literature. The personal stories are undermined in part because when the novel does digress into the polemical mode, the most compelling writing actually arises. In several of these sections, the language is mesmerizing. There are passages that are so stylistically crisp and stirring that I initially reread them to deconstruct the source of their power:
“Do you command great armies and oversee great territories, or are you the fodder of stinking bodies sacrificed at the front? Do you rule by the will of God or the Mandate of Heaven, or do you grovel in the dirt for your subsistence and share your food with animals? Do you stand at the pinnacle of power, however precariously protecting, with the great umbrella of your powerful arms and silken sleeves, a hierarchy of hapless fools and ungrateful subjects, or are you a struggling peon of unfortunate birth? …The rise and fall of civilizations held in dusty monuments for thousands of years may suddenly be compressed in no doubt brilliant minds to explain the present moment.”
Yamashita is fluent in the language of so many disciplines and subcultures that no matter the subject being explored—whether it’s French poets, Marxist theory, or Imelda Marcos—the writing feels commanding.
The fluency and command Yamashita demonstrates, however, cannot mask the novel’s lack of narrative cohesion nor can it salvage characters that seem never to set themselves apart from the farrago of activity all around them.
But I suspect this lack of cohesion is due less to oversight and more to the progressive aspirations of the text. The novel (if it can even be called a novel) is so brimming with experimentation and historical substance that it ignores more traditional narrative preoccupations, like continuity, character development, and standard conflict resolution structure. But this doesn’t make it an inferior work; it just makes it different, in my opinion. That’s not to say the novel isn’t without it’s shortcomings, but with a certain mindset the shortcomings can be seen as consequences of a different kind of preoccupation, one geared less to achieving the typical objectives of a novel and more towards rendering a kind of spoken word historical epic that captures the zeitgeist of one of the most transformative periods in American history.
While reading I Hotel, I couldn’t help but call to mind Junot Diaz’s critically acclaimed novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Specifically, I thought of a statement Diaz made in an interview, in which he said he initally planned for Oscar Wao to be a multimedia extravaganza filled with comics, web site tie-ins, and other postmodern pyrotechnics. In the end, though, Diaz reigned in his ambitions in favor of a more formally conventional family saga that was distinguished by its unconventional voice. In I Hotel, Karen Tei Yamashita seemingly aims to realize the mega-project Diaz abandoned by creating a novel that combines various formats and syncretizes diverse voices in order to capture the complexities of a community caught up in the turbulent currents of history’s unfolding.
Whether she has created something compelling and worthwhile depends on your expectations going into the book; if you’re expecting clearly rendered stories that will resonate and stick with you, then I Hotelmay not be for you, but if you’re looking for a head rush from reading about a host of interesting subjects in a variety of unconventional formats, then you’re probably in the right place.