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.


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


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)

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Weekly Prompt: Architectural Poem

Part of an architectural plan for a library (via Wikipedia)

This week’s prompt has a shorter explanation than usual.  I was simply very intrigued by Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge’s use of a particular building’s architecture to shape her poem “Permanent Home.”  As Berssenbrugge engages with structural forms and technical language, the walls and beams of the house she’s describing become transparent, windows through which we can peek in at the speaker’s interior life while she peeks at us.

“The water tank sits on a frame of used wood, like a packing crate.

I look through it to an extinct volcano.

The panorama is true figuratively as space, and literally in a glass wall, where clouds appear like flowers, and the back-lit silhouette of a horse passes by.

A file of evergreens secures the cliff amid debris from a crew bilding, as at the edge of the sea.

Oranges, dumplings, boiled eggs take on the opaque energy of a stranger.

Knowledge as lintel, bond beam (model signs) holds the world at a distance.”
I love that last line, in particular. Berssenbrugge evokes such space and light with it.  A home (even an imagined one) becomes a whole world, a place of origin and a vantage point from which one develops one’s perspective.  And the lack of an actual physical structure to which to tie the speaker’s longing transforms the poem itself into a kind of home in which imagination dwells.  A process that, I think, has particular resonance for me, not just as a child of diaspora, but as one such subject who writes.

Prompt: Write a poem that uses the architectural structure of a building as a frame or form by which to shape its content and imagery.