Panax Ginseng: The Compassionate Sentence

Panax Ginseng is a bi-monthly column by Henry W. Leung exploring linguistic and geographic borders in Asian American literature, especially those with hybrid genres, forms, vernaculars, and visions. The column title suggests the English language’s congenital borrowings and derives from the Greek panax, meaning “all-heal,” together with the Cantonese jansam, meaning “man-root.” This perhaps troubling image of one’s roots as panacea informs the column’s readings.

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Isamu Noguchi's "Seated Female Nude: Scroll" from 1930.
Isamu Noguchi’s “Seated Female Nude: Scroll” from 1930.

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Every line and stanza in Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s Hello, the Roses (New Directions, 2013) discharges a single sentence, a mysterious effect.

It’s nothing like the prophetic long line of Whitman’s mad children, no Ginsberg howling on the street corner, saxophonic riffing and swelling, breathless in the moving city as it spills at the seams, flooding forth—

Not quite. Nor is it the disguising work of prose[-block] poetry. Prose poems are camouflaged in continuity, text-wrapped and pressurized without white space. Usually this means, even in narrative prose poems, a sinuous and subterranean movement. This allows an ending to suddenly lift upward out of horizontal motion. (Matthew Olzmann does such sequencing exceptionally well in his lineated poems, using absurd humor for torque.)

But Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s long line in Hello, the Roses is uniquely specific. Observe, from “The Mouse”:

I can’t recall the beauty of the almond trees.

I’m unable to distinguish between seeing trees, my instant awareness of ethereal beauty and trying to remember images of our having been in Greece.

The moment I think of trees, they diffuse into beings whose frequency so differs from mine, I can’t see them.

They connect with each other in groves that seem celestial, yet our worlds unify.

The dawn of the possibility of their appearance as form, stone, shifts probability toward angels. (12)

Continue reading “Panax Ginseng: The Compassionate Sentence”

Editors’ Corner: Books We’re Looking Forward to in 2014 (Part 1)

Books We're Looking Forward to in 2014, Part 1It’s the first month of the new year, and so much news about exciting new books has come across our desk of late that we thought we’d put together a couple of roundup posts in order to put some of the titles that we’re most looking forward to reading in the coming year on your radar.  In today’s post (part 1), I’ll be discussing six recently published titles (five full-length books and one chapbook) that have made top priority on my to-read list for 2014. Part 2 (which will follow next week) will focus on forthcoming books that are due out in 2014.

Note: the books discussed below appear alphabetically by author; the order in which they’re listed does not reflect any sort of ranking or order of preference. (We’re equally excited about all of them!)

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The Arbitrary Sign by Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé (Red Wheelbarrow, 2013)

Desmond Kon is a two-time contributor to LR (his work appears in both issue 1 and issue 5), and both times that we’ve published him, Mia and I had a really hard time choosing just two of the poems he’d sent in each batch. Desmond’s work interests itself in philosophy, visual art, pop culture, and the sounds and textures of language: he is interested in dadaism and in other forms of the avant-garde, and has a unique gift for finding the music in both “high” language (such as academic jargon) and “low” forms of speech—slang, text speak, gossip column patter. The genius of his poems lies in their polyglot nature—the way that he mixes contrasting modes of speech and weaves easily in and out of a variety of languages. His pieces work because there is a delightfully haphazard quality to their approach, a lightness that plays against both the weight of the poems’ scale and subject matter and the deliberate care with which the poet has gathered, built up, and sculpted their many intricate layers of texture and pattern. Desmond, a highly prolific writer, has published multiple chapbooks (both in the US and in his home city-state of Singapore) and has a long list of journal and anthology credits to his name—and for good reason. I’ve no doubt The Arbitrary Sign—a philosophical twist on the form of the classic alphabet book—will be as delightful as the rest of his body of work.

For a sneak peek at The Arbitrary Sign, head on over to Kitaab to read six of the poems that appear in the collection.

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Kala Pani by Monica Mody (1913 Press, 2013)

This is a book I’ve been looking forward to for a long while now. Monica wrote for us as a staff reviewer from 2010 through 2011, and we later had the privilege of getting to publish a poem of hers in issue 4. Her work is deeply invested in myth and parable, and the textures of her writing are rich and sinuously complex—by turns liquid and transparent, and by others, knotty and grotesque. She has an exceptionally keen ear for music and magic, both of which suffuse her work.  I had the pleasure of getting to read and workshop portions of Kala Pani back in 2009. It is a hybrid piece (partway between poetry and prose) that takes up the narrative of a group of world travellers who converge around an ancient tree.  In it, the poet deftly plies together the fibers of what at first appears to be an allegory-like story, only to tease and unspun these threads mid-strand and remake them again (differently) in the next breath. What I admired most about the manuscript when I saw it in workshop was the way in which the tapestry of the piece’s language shatters and shifts at a moment’s notice—like quicksilver. Monica is a brilliant critical thinker, in addition to being a talented poet, and it shows in the deeply intelligent nature of her writing: though she is keen to investigate notions of trauma,  geography, time, race, gender, spirituality, etc., her writing neither preaches endlessly nor holds to an overly simplistic view of the political: rather, she holds questions up to a mirror, testing them on a knife’s edge. She recognizes that the notions of place and identity are inherently fraught with instability, and she both celebrates and problematizes this complexity: the characters of which she writes transform and bleed into one another, metamorphose and cycle back to avatars of themselves, over and over again, in many different ways. It’s been a couple of years since 1913 first announced that it had acquired Kala Pani, and now that the book is finally out, I can’t wait to read the finished product.

Excerpts of Kala Pani can be found at The Volta, the Boston Review, and Lies/Isle.

Continue reading “Editors’ Corner: Books We’re Looking Forward to in 2014 (Part 1)”

A Conversation with Brynn Saito

Brynn Saito
Brynn Saito

 

Brynn Saito is the author of The Palace of Contemplating Departure, winner of the Benjamin Saltman Poetry Award from Red Hen Press (2013). She also co-authored, with Traci Brimhall, Bright Power, Dark Peace, a chapbook of poetry from Diode Editions (2013). Brynn’s work has been anthologized by Helen Vendler and Ishmael Reed; it has also appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, Ninth Letter, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and Pleiades. Brynn was born in the Central Valley of California to a Korean American mother and a Japanese American father. She is the recipient of a Kundiman Asian American Poetry Fellowship, the Poets 11 award from the San Francisco Public Library, and the Key West Literary Seminar’s Scotti Merrill Memorial Award. Currently, Brynn lives, writes, and teaches in the SF Bay Area.

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LR: Travel, motion, and of course arriving and departing are recurring themes—the scaffolding of the book, even—in The Palace of Contemplating Departure. What was the process by which they became so significant for your collection?

THE PALACE OF CONTEMPLATING DEPARTURE
THE PALACE OF CONTEMPLATING DEPARTURE

BS: Basho says: “I myself have been tempted for a long time by the cloud-moving wind–filled with a strong desire to wander,” a sentiment that resonates with me. Almost more than the journey itself, I love dreaming of the journey–imagining the wonder and existing in the space(s) of desire. Some of that desire fuels the work in the book. Other poems were born out of actual journeys and travels–moves from east to west and back again, departures spurred by broken loves; stories of forced relocations. I wrote most of the book during the [previous] decade of my life, a decade in which I was saying goodbye a lot–to friends, cities, lovers, and myriad versions of myself.

LR: When reading and especially listening to you read from your book, one can hear some strong liturgical cadences, as in “Trembling on the Brink of a Mesquite Tree.” Can you talk a bit about what influenced these prayer-like sounds in your work?

BS: Ah, great insight! I’m only now realizing the extent to which poetry, for me, is prayer–a way of speaking to the unknown and collecting the echoes spoken in return. I don’t consider myself a religious person, but I have a strong interest in religious cultures, most likely rooted in my upbringing in both the Buddhist temple and the Christian church. The “Word” was everywhere, in childhood: chanted during Buddhist death rituals, spoken by the pastor on Sunday mornings. I read the Bible and internalized the cadences: in the Bible, as in many texts created and passed along with recitation and song, the word “and” strings together the many passages, creating a fluid and unstoppable delivery. My poetry is influenced by these traditions, and strives for a sort of spoken quality: I pay attention to how the poem sounds–its rhythms and pacings–much like something sung or chanted.

LR: The Palace of Contemplating Departure is divided into four sections: “Ruined Cities,” “Women and Children,” “Shape of Fire,” and “Steel and Light.” Can you tell us a bit about what each section represents and what led you to this narrative structure?

BS: Organizing the poems was one of the hardest tasks. Two moments come to mind as pivotal in formulating the structure of book: first, sitting in a cabin in the Michigan woods with my dear friend and poet, Traci Brimhall, a bottle of wine, and the pages of the manuscript splayed out before us on the floor. It was so helpful to have an outside eye look at what seemed to be a mess of incoherent voices. The second moment that comes to mind is me in my home in San Francisco taping the pages of manuscript to the various walls in my bedroom, so I could see how it was all literally hanging together.

After much guesswork, the form emerged: four parts–two short sections comprised of persona poems (“Women and Children” and “Steel and Light”) and two longer sections comprised of dramatic narrative poems rooted in lived experiences (“Ruined Cities” and “Shape of Fire”). Once the structure emerged, it seemed fated, in some strange way, thought it took years to find itself.

LR: Do you find that your post-MFA writing differs from your pre- and mid-MFA writing, and if so, how?

BS: I’d like to think I’m becoming better at this poetry thing as I get older, but who knows. I’m trying to try less, if that makes any sense–I want the work to be more playful, and less conscious, at the outset, of what it is “about.” More improvisational and surprising. I think the earlier poems were more content-driven: I wanted to write about something and would try hard to do so. Now, I let the writing reveal the subjects; I follow the voices that emerge with curiosity. I hope that makes for fresher, livelier work.

LR: During your MFA at Sarah Lawrence College, you met Traci Brimhall, with whom you co-wrote the chapbook Bright Power, Dark Peace. Can you talk a bit about your collaborative process with Traci? What did you learn about your own writing from the experience? Have you applied any of those techniques or lessons to subsequent work?

BS: Traci and I live in separate states (Michigan and California), so we co-wrote the chapbook using a shared Google document, each of us taking turns writing one stanza at a time until the poem was complete. Waiting for a stanza to appear is a little like waiting for the voice of the poem to emerge so you can follow the voice into the poem’s core energies and desires. It’s daunting, surprising, and a great exercise in letting go, in getting out of the way of yourself and your intentions for the poem. This was the greatest lesson of writing collaboratively: surrendering to the creative act, and seeing what emerges. I now consider all of my poems to be co-written, to some degree: it’s not just me and my intentions for the work in the creative space. There are other voices, other directions the poem might grow in, if I’m daring enough to give in to the moment.

LR: How do you balance your teaching life with your writing life? Does one feed into the other, and if so, how?

BS: As I see it, a classroom is a community–it’s a potentially imaginative, challenging, wild, and inspiring space in which all of us learn new things about each other and the world in which we live. Approaching a learning community with that mindset sustains my own artistic practice: I’m inspired by my students and the ways in which we converse and connect. On the other hand, I’m not sure if “balanced” can describe my writing/teaching (or art/work) life, at the moment! Like many in the arts, I’m in the position of holding a number of jobs, at any one moment, none of which are usually guaranteed past six months or so. There’s a kind of dynamism in the flux, which I’m grateful for–a flexibility allowing for travel and motion. There’s also a kind of low-grade anxiety which can hinder the writing process. I love teaching for the designated spaces of inquiry and transformation. I wonder, now, how to create more spaces like this in my life, in ways that are sustainable.

LR: As a member of an Asian American family that has been American for multiple generations, how do representations of your family’s experience come into play in your work, and what poetic strategies do you employ to handle them?

BS: This is one of the most alive questions for me, at the moment. I wonder how to write about past histories, those legacies of oppression and freedom that live in the present moment, using the tools of poetry. In The Palace of Contemplating Departure, I use persona poetry to tap into the voices of my grandparents’ generation; I hope to do more of this in the new work. There are blankets of silence, gaps in the narratives of my family’s past; there are fruitful tensions and polarities (Japan and Korea, East and West, the occupied cities and the dusty farmlands of my family’s arrival); there are ghosts. I am free–in a way that my grandmother wasn’t free, and my great-grandmother wasn’t free–to take up the pen and write write write into the silences. I aim to pursue that freedom to its end.

LR: You have spoken about the importance of community among poets. What do you think might be some practical measures that poets can take to foster community, especially post-MFA?

BS: I suppose a community is a little like a garden: it requires some tending to, in order to grow–a consistency of attention, accountability, investment. Sometimes, during certain “seasons” of my life I do this well; at other times, I don’t. Last August, for instance, Kundiman poets Dan Lau, Debbie Yee, Mia Malhotra and I formed a virtual writing community, in which we wrote a poem a night and emailed it to one another. It was such a fun and, ultimately, fruitful exercise. The new work that emerged there has formed the basis of my second book. I’d say to post-MFA poets: be diligent about forming online or face-to-face collectives with folks who will forever bother you with the questions: Are you writing? Why not? Want to write together?

Both my experience in the Kundiman fellowship and my friendship with Traci Brimhall have taught me that being a good literary citizen is about cultivating authentic connections and caring about one another. It’s about believing in and championing one another’s work. It’s a model that goes against the individualism so prevalent in a competitive, capitalistic North American social framework. Like many others, I wish I had more concentrated time for such invigorating and care-full spaces. But, as the poet Judy Grahn recently reminded me: little by little. Suddenly, you’ll look up from those stolen moments of writing and realize you’ve written another book.

LR: What projects are you working on now?

BS: I’ve become fascinated with the figure of the spiritual warrior–fighting monks, brave women, fierceness in times of brokenness. What are the myths that sustain such strength, such inner resiliency? What does it mean to fight for what you love? I see myself doing some reading, researching, journaling, and traveling, in order to trace this new inquiry. We’ll see what emerges when I “leave and leave into the questing” (as Linda Gregg puts it). More departures, more journeys. But this time, a focus on arrival: arriving to myself, arriving more fully to the things that I love.

Staff Picks: Favorite Reads from 2013

It’s that time again! It’s become a tradition, at the end of every calendar year, for the staff to post a list of favorite reads from among the books that we’ve read in the past 365 days. Without further ado, here are our picks for this year.

Recommended by Iris

 

MEZZANINES

Mezzanines
by Matthew Olzmann
Alice James, 2013

Iris’s comments: I’ve been a fan of Matthew Olzmann’s work since I first met him and heard him read during an AWP panel in 2009, and Mezzanines did not disappoint. Quirky, humorous, and at times profane, but always grounded by dint of its razor-sharp observations about human nature and an underlying sense of deep empathy, the voice of his poems fills up the space of the imagination with a childlike wonder that is at once riotously absurd and insanely beautiful. Few poets could successfully mix tender intimacy with wry, self-conscious humor (such as the “product placement” in the poem “Mountain Dew Commercial Disguised as a Love Poem,” which apparently prompted PepsiCo to send the poet a letter of thanks in real life!), and yet Olzmann does so effortlessly and always with great aplomb.

the-saints-of-streets

The Saints of Streets
by Luisa A. Igloria
U of Santo Tomas, 2013

Iris’s comments: Luisa A. Igloria’s new collection, The Saints of Streets left me breathless. As is par for the course in her work, Igloria writes with beauty, strength, and piercing intimacy, precisely interleaving light and shade like a master of shadow puppets. I am told that the poet has several other collections’ worth of poems brewing (thanks to her poem-a-day project over at Via Negativa), and I cannot wait for the next installment.

LifeOnMarsSMLife on Mars
by Tracy K. Smith
Graywolf, 2011

Iris’s comments: Last, but not least, on my list is an older title, Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars—winner of the 2012 Pulitzer. I’d heard Smith read at the 2011 Page Turner Festival and had been captivated by the empathy inherent in the persona poems that she’d shared. It was no surprise to me, then, that I fell headlong for Life on Mars, a haunting collection that explores science and the domestic/private life of the scientist and the poet. Life on Mars won the Pulitzer for a reason: it is simultaneously tender and steely, masterfully integrating the infinite scale of the particulate cosmos with the particular stuff of the everyday. Smith’s poems about her father, a retired NASA scientist, are especially moving. I began the book while home sick from work one day, read it all in one sitting, and when I finished, I closed its pages and wept.

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Recommended by Wendy

 

THE PALACE OF CONTEMPLATING DEPARTURE

The Palace of Contemplating Departure
by Brynn Saito
Red Hen, 2013

Wendy’s comments: Brynn Saito’s The Palace of Contemplating Departure is a sublime meditation on arrivals and departures, childhood, sisterhood, lost love, and freedom. From cityscape to dreamscape, these poems are deeply felt and fully realized.

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Recommended by Henry

proxyeros_prev-300x437

The Proxy Eros

by Mookie Katigbak
Anvil, 2008

Burning Houses
by Mookie Katigbak-Lacuesta
University of Santo Tomas, 2013

burninghouses
Henry’s comments:
 I first encountered Mookie Katigbak’s “As Far As Cho-Fu-Sa,” a variation on Pound’s adaptation of the Li Po poem, when I was just starting to take poetry seriously. I remember actually getting upset that she had nothing more published at the time. So imagine my joy when I rediscovered Katigbak just this month, whose name has since expanded, and who now has two books of poems which contend with myth and canons in gorgeously clarifying visions. These lines from that early poem (which you can find in The Proxy Eros) have echoed with me for years: “What I am, ever, is this: composure of stones. . . . / /But nothing moves. Somewhere / You are actual. Happen to me there.”

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Recommended by Jai

IslandsLinkedByOcean

Islands Linked By Ocean

by Lisa Linn Kanae
Bamboo Ridge Press, 2009

Jai’s comments: I was blown away by Kanae’s experimental text written in (and about) Hawaiian Creole English and pidgin, “Sista Tongue.” This collection of her short stories is deeply moving, flat-out hilarious, and strengthened by the sharp vulnerability in each character’s voice.

Twerk

TwERK
by LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs
Belladonna, 2013

Jai’s comments: This book is sonic genius . . . Diggs is sonic genius. A multilingual text written in Cherokee, Japanese, Spanish, Quechua, Yoruba and more, it is a (re)sounding “werk” of kinesthetic/kine-sonic delight.

Zong

ZONG! 
M. NourbeSe Philip
Wesleyan University Press, 2008

Jai’s comments: In 1781 on the slave ship Zong, over 150 slaves were thrown overboard in order for the ship’s owners to collect insurance money. Philip grasps at these submerged voices, a drowned language. Reading this book is disorienting and chaotic—letters are jettisoned from words, phrases are cast and broken. In this horror, in this violence done unto language/bodies, the dead arise from the sea.

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For additional reading, we also recommend any of the following titles that we featured here on the blog during 2013:

What were your favorite reads in 2013? Tell us in the comments, or share a link with us on Facebook or Twitter! Have a safe and wonderful new year, and we’ll see you in 2014.

Review: Luisa A. Igloria’s THE SAINTS OF STREETS

The Saints of Streets by Luisa A. Igloria | University of Santo Tomas 2013 | $17

the-saints-of-streets

“Hokusai believed in the slow / perfectibility of forms” (3), begins Luisa A. Igloria’s newest book of poems, The Saints of Streets. She has been writing a poem a day since 2010, a project archived online and from which this collection was born. Given how prolific she is, I could not help but find in these opening lines a reassurance that the poems collected here are not merely practice but are a practice. For perfectibility, the poem goes on to say, is “the way, // after seventy-five years or more, the eye / might finally begin to understand / the quality of a singular filament—” Indeed, this is a book of single filaments, and in these poems are so much delight and wisdom, often beginning in the mundane but nearly always spiraling inward to the sacred.

We see this spiraling quality first of all in the poems about place, which is one of what I’ll call three clotheslines bending with this collection’s poems: clotheslines, I say, because of the quality the poet gives to everyday activity, weighted with meditations even as it flutters in the wind. The place poems nod most pronouncedly to the collection’s title. In “Repair,” for instance, we begin in the present moment: “Almost at the alley’s elbow, I know the gate . . .” (9). Shortly after that, we move to the wistful past tense, each sentence beginning “There used to be” as a litany. Just as we first graze the alley as a kind of body, so does the speaker name the ghosts of objects as though in mortal lament, counting down structural losses, strippings, and repairs along with the absences of people. But the magic of this poem is in its concluding grammatical shift. See how, in the last three lines, the past tense makes way for something closer to the timeless:

across the south wall, even on the night the child
ran out the side door with bare feet, crying after the figure
disappearing halfway up the rise, beyond the street.

Line by line we move from a definite point in time (“on the night”), to an ongoing and simultaneous action (“ran out . . . crying”), and finally to an image marked by its remove from the rest of the action (“disappearing . . . beyond”). The medial caesura of each line helps us rhythmically, step by step, as do the definite articles. The final “disappearing” is a present participle, non-finite: not quite past and not quite present. And that last image of what is “beyond the street,” in its ghostly way, takes us through the longing into something even greater than the object of the longing, greater than the body of the street.

Continue reading “Review: Luisa A. Igloria’s THE SAINTS OF STREETS”

Review: Jason Bayani’s AMULET

Amulet by Jason Bayani | Write Bloody Publishing 2013 | $15.00

AMULET
AMULET

After a Jason Bayani poem, sometimes all you can say is, “Damn.” At 84 pages, Amulet may cause excessive cursing. And not just to God, but to other “thing[s] just out of reach” (45), all the hollering forged into an object that will protect us from harm. His hands both a curled fist and a prayer, Bayani waits . . . waits for this noise to take the shape of language.

Amulet‘s epigraph invokes Jose Garcia Villa and gestures toward the romantic brokenness and terrific terror of the poems to follow, which are birthed from a lineage of great Filipin@ American writers. I’m not one to go in for beauty in poetry, but damn, the way Bayani “remak[es] the line” (as he suggests in the opening poem to this collection) is beautiful. Consider the lines “Give me the petal that hits like a heavy brick” (35) or “My body is a projection of stone that remembers the mountain it ran away from” (76). Feel the tidal movement of the earth and of time in the line: “all this history in the open veil of your body, / this seed, this push, this silt, / how we been built by a blood procession of so many hands / pulling plough over poverty” (67). On the back cover, Barbara Jane Reyes says that “the language of Bayani’s poems pops and bangs, punches, hurls bricks, and then does not flinch from tenderness,” and I agree that there is a surprising vulnerability here that disarms as much as it reveals its own strength.

The weight of this book is in its silences, in the words “just out of reach,” as it contemplates the impact of silence among men of color when no one really teaches you “what to do with your hands” (75). The palms, then, and the mouth, become heavy weights. While Bayani knows that “A man’s ability to feel is overvalued in Art. / I’ve cashed in on it. / Every woman who loved me / hates me a little for that” (24), he also urges us to “Imagine we’re in a room, and everything in this room / has a mouth except for me. I feel that most days” (22). It is Bayani’s humor and grief made vulnerable, and the felt sense of the body “fall[ing] into a hard focus” (37), that makes us listen to the ringing in that place inside ourselves. Continue reading “Review: Jason Bayani’s AMULET”

A Conversation with Ed Bok Lee

Ed Bok Lee
Ed Bok Lee

Ed Bok Lee is the author of Whorled, winner of the American Book Award, and Real Karaoke People, winner of the PEN/Open Book Award.

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LR: After working in the fields of fiction and playwriting, as well as journalism, how did you come to poetry and how did you eventually come to compose a poetry manuscript?

EBL: I wrote a poem about God when I was four or five, then didn’t do much of anything, until I was seventeen, and started writing again. Sometimes I think people who love poetry wander around this world missing a certain layer of skin that others seem to naturally have. Whenever I write a poem, I suddenly feel completely fortified, with language. Language, word by word, forms a kind of extra layer of skin, and, for a while, things seem to make sense. I think it has to do something with an impulse to preserve some lesser-heard, lesser-lit kind of integrity out there in the world and simultaneously within, that you feel is being compromised.

And then, after a while, you have all these shed skins accumulated, and it’s time to de-clutter and turn them into a collection.

LR: Do you find that elements of journalism and playwriting filter into your poetry, and if so, how?

EBL: It’s the opposite. Poetry kept creeping into those forms. It’s probably a two way street, I’m not sure. What I do know is if there isn’t poetry, or a poetic quality, or a poetic mode of consciousness filling the vessel, whatever genre/form, boredom begins to creep in for me.

LR: In your first book, Real Karaoke People, music seems to act as metonym for the voices, language, and preoccupations of regular people. What was it about those voices and sounds that asked to be written in poetic form rather than as a play?

Continue reading “A Conversation with Ed Bok Lee”

Review: Feng Sun Chen’s BUTCHER’S TREE

Butcher’s Tree by Feng Sun Chen | Black Ocean 2012 | $14.95

MULDER: When Victor Frankenstein asks himself, “Whence did the principle of life proceed?” and then as a gratifying summit to his toils creates a hideous phantasm of a man, he prefigures the Postmodern Prometheus: the genetic engineer whose power to reanimate matter (genes) into life (us) is only as limited as his imagination is.
—The X-Files Episode 5×06, “Post-Modern Prometheus

BUTCHER'S TREE
BUTCHER’S TREE

Emptied peanut butter jars are evidence of The Great Mutato’s presence in The X-Files episode “Post-Modern Prometheus.” A rejected genetic creation of Frankenstein-like scientist Dr. Pollidori, The Great Mutato’s deformities banish him to a dark cellar, where he eats peanut butter sandwiches and hungers for human connection. Feng Sun Chen’s Butcher’s Tree excavates the cavities in which such mythic, hybrid and feral figures as The Great Mutato, Prometheus, Wukong and Grendel dwell and, by placing a mouth to the opening, “eat[s them] up from the inside” (5).

Chen writes of feral creatures that are “[p]eeled from living rock” (65), birthed from stone, petri dish or sea, whether genetically engineered or spiritually divined; that share a certain “fall from grace;” and whose bodies (or whose power to create living forms) usurp the dominion of the immortal. As such they blur the lines between “god” and “man,” and as myths are imagined to possess monstrous shells, scales and hideous skins, but no souls. They are imagined as cavities, or as caves. In these hollowed spaces, creatures (the created) fill the emptiness with hunger. Chen writes, “[s]ilence, which is not additive, / can be filled with anything” (58). This hollowness is completely full of “everything that waiting breeds” (49), like the “trigger of longing” (44) and “alive loneliness” (32). In these cavities, “hearts [grow] teeth” (4).

A series of poems centers on Wukong, a shape-shifting Monkey King born from stone and the main character in the novel Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en. Chen writes that “he felt like a salmon inside a bear” and that “[e]ven in his dreams it was something else that moved / through him”—”[s]omething watched himself dream” (17). The nodes or root beings of Chen’s Butcher’s Tree share the desire to be inside something else, or are outside watching themselves—”When the soul steps from the body // and watches the body / and the body is flayed” (7). They are beings through which other energies move, and are constantly rearranged by grammar and outer skins. In all their hunger, they wish for “the world to pass through [them]” (91), but what they eat is not often easily digested, or easily let go.

When [Wukong] looked at the girl with transparent flippers, he knew that if he looked at her underneath side, he would be able to hear a sound of the wind leaving, or water falling. It would be salty. It would be alive. It would contain a creature with a heart that used no arteries or veins but whose blood bathed its organs in a single cavity. He thought of doors as smacking, windows as puckering. Every opening meant access to the sea now, or the wind on the sea. (18)

Chen’s image of rooted trees or fish bones, with their fern-like accumulation of branches and spines, speaks to a mathematical yet organic pattern. Of all possible reconstructions, Chen invites the reader to reconstruct the body out of “hall[s] of tongues, corridor[s] of knees […] some with just the scalp” (15). In so doing, we question origin. What is birth, really? To be hatched. Chen’s writing is a poetics of mutation and molecular gestation, of cell membranes and excretions, replicating in all cavities of the body. We come to ask, is the generative force of life hunger? And we learn how hunger itself reconstructs the body, how hunger becomes grammar.

But Grendel was hungry. He was hungrier than all the rest. His hunger

made his body magnetic with the rhetoric of hollowness:
Little tiny spikes, little tiny scrapes, rippling with tiny implosions. (66)

In the book’s final section, Chen gorgeously and wrenchingly re-imagines the creature Grendel from Beowulf, not as half man or beast, but as a woman—a trans/gender body. Grendel hungers until all he/she/sie is is hunger, until the body reconstitutes. “[T]his liplessness opened further into the labyrinth” (79), “two silences traveled and made interference waves” (82) and his/her/hir “beautiful beautiful body felt a massive echo” (98). Through each page, each abrupt insertion or amputation or aborted negative space, Chen’s Grendel surprises us with “new splatter” (82), touching us like “a pinprick of sand / within rounded numbness” (81).

Chen’s creatures are here flayed out, “woven into a delicate verge” (60). Take this book and “tuck it in a pocket. / Feel it all day, like a new organ” (41).

Editors’ Corner: On the Practice of Ordering Things (A Reflection)

Issue 6 poems up on the wall, ready to be "ordered."
Issue 6 poems up on the wall, ready to be “ordered” during editorial meeting.

As the days have begun to grow shorter and colder, I’ve found myself delving more and more into “housekeeping” mode. Perhaps the barrage of commercial hoopla heralding the distant holiday season is partly to blame (astoundingly, the “seasonal” marketing seems to have started in September this year), but there is also something about the circumstances inherent in this particular change of seasons that seems to have kept me in a constant state of culling and curating, collecting and planning. This month, I’ve found myself flipping my closet; ruthlessly meal-planning to accommodate busy weeknights; moving and arranging furniture (I’ve just moved into a new office space at work); plotting out a steady stream of gifts (baby gifts, wedding gifts, Christmas gifts); and in the midst of it all—editing poetry.

These past couple of weeks, Mia and I have been hard at work puzzling out the order in which the poems in Issue 6 will appear. “Ordering” the poems in an issue is often one of the toughest parts of the editorial process for us, but it’s also one of the most significant (and the most rewarding!). It’s the first time in the process when an issue begins to take on a rough shape, and it’s this shape that serves as a guide for us as we develop and implement the visual elements of the issue (decisions about layout, typesetting, etc.) during the production process. When we think about ordering an issue, we consider not just the overall “arc” (with respect to things like theme, sonics, pacing), but also how each poem will speak to the poems on either side of it. Some poems automatically suggest points of entry, or finality, while others can help to build the energy of a sequence, or to create needed moments of breath or pause.  We’re aware, of course, that as we are an online literary magazine, most people who encounter us are probably not in the habit of reading a given issue straight through (such is the nature of the internet, in which content is infinitely compartmentalize-able). But it is still important to us that there be a type of logic to how each issue is arranged—a sort of underlying lyric argument, if you will—to delight the reader who does choose to start at the front matter and read straight through.

Every time we finish ordering an issue, it feels like a red-letter occasion. I feel as if we’ve been given our first glimpse of a baby via ultrasound: the issue has begun to grown limbs; soon we will be able to see its tiny fingers and toes. Something about the outcome of the process feels life-giving, sustaining. I get a deep sense of satisfaction from experimenting with different arrangements, from asking how different configurations of the pieces in front of us might communicate differently as a whole, depending how they are arranged. Perhaps it’s partly my obsessive nature speaking (I am, after all, the kind of person who does not like the salad to touch the rice on her plate), but I think there is also something to be said for the benefit of this process of ordering, of arrangement—essentially, the act of editing—as a discipline for myself as an artist, as well.  In stepping back from the work before us and considering how it operates in a greater context, I’m forced to think outside of myself and my own experience of any particular piece. I’m forced to think about the argument of the work we are presenting as a body, to craft an experience for the reader that is not only enjoyable and surprising, but also strategic in its emphasis. Do we want to place this very short poem between these two much-longer pieces? Perhaps yes, if there is enough of a sense of space in the short poem to create a needed pause or breath—but then again, perhaps not, if the shorter poem will be unfairly dwarfed by the longer pieces on either side of it. Do we want the reader to enter the issue in medias reswith a poem that provides the feeling of being invited along on a journey that’s already in progress? Or will the overall arc of the issue be better served by an entry poem that can serve as a sort of prologue for the trajectory of the work to come? If we place these two poems next to one another, do we risk the reader misunderstanding the first line of the latter because of the way that the former ends? If we don’t keep this group of poems in the order in which they came to us, are we violating the author’s intended sense of narrative? Or do we need to arrange these poems differently in order to create a more seamless transition between the group and the mood of the pieces that come before and after it?

In some sense, this type of conversation is not so different from the ongoing one that I, as a writer, must continually have with myself about my own work—whether on the level of the line, or on a more macro scale (at the level of a manuscript, or even at the level of archetype, or genre, or the critical fields of study with which my work is concerned). How do the elements that make up my body of work speak to one another, and how do they speak to the conversation that is already being held out there in the rest of the world? This is a set of questions that I must constantly ask myself if I am to remain engaged and grounded as an artist. Editing the work of others—and in particular, working on each new issue of LR—has simultaneously sharpened me as an editor of my own work. I’m a better artist for it, and I’m grateful for the opportunities it’s given me to challenge myself and to grow.

Panax Ginseng: A Crisis of Universal Utterance

Panax Ginseng is a bi-monthly column by Henry W. Leung exploring linguistic and geographic borders in Asian American literature, especially those with hybrid genres, forms, vernaculars, and visions. The column title suggests the English language’s congenital borrowings and derives from the Greek panax, meaning “all-heal,” together with the Cantonese jansam, meaning “man-root.” This perhaps troubling image of one’s roots as panacea informs the column’s readings.

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photo of mug, poem, & smokes courtesy of Rachel Richardson

Photo of mug, poem, & smokes
Courtesy of Rachel Richardson

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The title here is taken from a phrase by Laura (Riding) Jackson, from one of her prose writings after she abjured a successful career in poetry. I’ve been contending personally with her claims against poetry since the publication of my first chapbook, Paradise Hunger (Swan Scythe Press 2012). Jackson makes the case for a language with intrinsic truth-value as a pure means of expression, free from sliding signifiers, free especially from the generic constraints of literary form. She argues that poetry is a medium for accepting the “good enough” under the illusion of a truth that is ultimately inexpressible. This illusion is consummated by the aesthetic gesture, providing, at best, a sense of formal completeness. Poetry, then, is a closed circuit, which never stretches outward to communicate truth or to connect truly through words. In her essay “What, If Not A Poem, Poems?” Jackson writes:

A poem emits something that delights, seeming truth-like. But one learns, at long poetic last, that the poem cannot yield truth itself, truth unqualified: it is too much committed to yielding the semblance to be capable of yielding the pure reality. This, it is hard for the poet to know, for, though the poet perceive that, here and there, truth did not get its full due, such perceptions would lose themselves in the growing satisfaction felt in the coming to be of that extraordinary thing, a poem.

To put this another way, when Yusef Komunyakaa was once asked what sentimentality was, he answered: “Passion without form.” Jackson wants to champion this passion and not the form. Let me rephrase this once more. Toi Derricotte has said that her writing process is the transmutation of an inner storm into an outer object—like a mug—which she can then place on the shelf. Again, the well-wrought form, its source in reality become a regardless matter. The poems I wrote for Paradise Hunger followed a series of family funerals, emerging from what I felt was a sacred process of grief, loneliness, and self-definition. The process came from a “crisis of universal utterance,” a groping in language toward some manner of truth, understanding, consummation. But what I ended up with instead was just a form, an object in my hands. An object for the shelf, yes, but also an object for sale, a suddenly profane thing.

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