Staff Picks: Holiday Reads 2010

Last year, we asked our staff writers to recommend books that they’d read in the last year and thought were worth passing on.  This year, we’ve decided to continue with this tradition.  In light of that, here are our holiday staff picks for 2010 (poetry, prose and more—yes, we read more than poetry!)

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Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry Since 1965 | Timothy Yu | Stanford University Press (2009)

Recommended by Mia: “This is one of the key critical texts on my reading list for the holidays.  I’ve only skimmed the first few chapters, but thus far have found Yu’s argument compelling, his analysis rigorous, and his wide-ranging knowledge of Asian American and Language poetry in the United States to be informative to my own work—not to mention useful in historicizing these two movements/moments in contemporary poetry!

From the Tinfish Editors’ Blog: ‘Using a definition of the avant-garde that has less to do with aesthetics than with social groups composed of like-minded artists, Yu argues that Asian American poetry and Language writing formed parallel movements in the 1970s. […] Both presented themselves in opposition to the mainstream; both were marked by questions of form and racial identity. Both meant to create art out of social groups, and reconstitute the social through the reception of their art.'”

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Radiant Silhouette: New & Selected Work 1974-1988 | John Yau | Black Sparrow Press (1989)

Recommended by Mia: “Yau is one of the two major poets that Timothy Yu addresses in Race and the Avant-Garde (Theresa Hak Kyung Cha is the other), so I’ve been reading through his New & Selected Work for an introduction to the thematic and aesthetic scope of his early career.  He’s a fascinating figure in Asian American poetry and, as Yu points out, ‘might best be read as a restoration of the links between politics, form, and race that characterize the avant-garde Asian American poetry of the 1970s [… providing] the first opportunity for most readers to recognize […] the presence of that avant-garde back into the very origins of Asian American writing.'”

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Man on Extremely Small Island | Jason Koo | C&R Press (2009)

Recommended by Iris: “Jason Koo’s style is very different from my own, but this book (his first collection) managed to completely charm me with its quirkiness.  The voice of the book’s primary speaker manifests a world-weary exhaustion that is, on the surface, darkly melancholic and painfully self-deprecating.  He obsesses over his dirty apartment while eating a tuna sandwich, dreams about floundering clumsily through an encounter with Lucy Liu, envisions himself stranded on an island in the middle of an ocean, worrying about the size of his nose.  But beneath the speaker’s (at times endearingly hyperbolic) self-consciousness lies a striking vulnerability and a luminous ability to evoke the fantastic within the mundane: BBQ chip crumbs echo the ‘fine grains / of my slovenliness,’ becoming ‘barbecue pollen,’ and later, ‘orange microbes’ (9); Lucy Liu becomes a motherly goddess figure who guides him through a secret mission, ‘pulling you after her diving into the stage,’ which becomes the arena for an undersea showdown complete with battleships, lingerie models, and harpoons (22) , the island transforms into the kneecap of a giant woman who ‘has no nose. Just a space where mine / can fit’ (77). Part Frank O’Hara, part tragic hero of his own sardonic comic-book series, the speaker’s sense of humor, whimsy, and wonder, as transmitted by Koo’s craft, paint a picture of a world that reinvisions the now-archetypal image behind John Donne’s famous ‘No man is an island’ with simultaneous irreverence and tenderness. ”

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The Mental Life of Cities by Eddie Tay | Chameleon Press | HK$119

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).

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Cha: An Asian Literary Journal | Issue 12 | September 2010

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.

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