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.

Continue reading “Review: Christine Kitano’s BIRDS OF PARADISE”

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: 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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Review: Jenny Boully’s NOT MERELY BECAUSE OF THE UNKNOWN STALKING TOWARD THEM

not merely because of the unknown that was stalking toward them by Jenny Boully | Tarpaulin Sky Press 2011 | $14.00

NOT MERELY BECAUSE OF THE UNKNOWN THAT WAS STALKING TOWARD THEM

“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”

Review | Tribalism’s Return: Bao Phi’s SÔNG I SING

Bao Phi's SONG I SING
Bao Phi's SONG I SING

A Guest Post by Greg Choy

Sông I Sing by Bao Phi | Coffee House Press 2011 | $16

Greg Choy
Greg Choy

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.

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Review: Kim Koga’s LIGATURE STRAIN and Margaret Rhee’s YELLOW YELLOW

Ligature Strain by Kim Koga and Yellow / Yellow by Margaret Rhee | Tinfish Press 2011 | $3.00

LIGATURE STRAIN
YELLOW YELLOW

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 Ligature Strain it’s winter; in Yellow / Yellow I want to believe it’s spring. In the way that Koga lays down planks of text and then proceeds to gnaw, Rhee threads Tila Tequila and her father’s ashes, nectarines and arithmetic with critical discourse on race and gender to index the margins. Continue reading “Review: Kim Koga’s LIGATURE STRAIN and Margaret Rhee’s YELLOW YELLOW”

Review: Two Works by Ronaldo V. Wilson

Ronaldo V. Wilson
Two Works by Ronaldo V. Wilson

A Guest Post by Stephen Hong Sohn, Assistant Professor of English at Stanford University

Narrative of the Life of the Brown Boy and the White Manby Ronaldo V. Wilson | U of Pittsburgh Press 2008 | $14

Poems of the Black Objectby Ronaldo V. Wilson | FuturePoem Books 2009 | $15

Stephen Hong Sohn
Stephen Hong Sohn

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).

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Review: Tamiko Beyer’s BOUGH BREAKS

bough breaks

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!).

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