Panax Ginseng: Poems, Places, Habitations

Panax Ginseng is a monthly column by Henry W. Leung exploring the transgressions of linguistic and geographic borders in Asian American literature, especially those which result in hybrid genres, forms, vernaculars, and visions. The column title suggests the congenital borrowings of the English language, deriving from the Greek panax, meaning “all-heal,” and the Cantonese jansam, meaning “man-root.” The troubling image of one’s roots as a panacea will inform the column’s readings of new texts.



The "Fish House" in Berkeley (via



The China Issue” of Cha: An Asian Literary Journal presents itself with an ambiguous title. It is the journal’s literary issue on China, but it might just as well be ‘the issue of China,’ i.e. the problem of it, a claim to authority and singularity; or simply ‘the issue of representing China,’ the question of it, the difficulty. ‘China’ as a thematic boundary is naturally complex for a journal based in Hong Kong—but virtually, over the internet—and presented in English. Most of this issue’s poems are translations from the Chinese, with the originals preserved; of these, few refer explicitly to or narrow themselves by locality—except where those locations become outside points of reference (i.e. Zang Di’s “History of Daffodils” referencing Fukushima, or Zhai Yongming’s “Climbing the Heights on the Double Ninth,” which is self-conscious about the literary tradition of hiking on a traditional occasion). Some of the poems written in English, however, announce their ‘Chineseness’ with archetypal localities, such as romanticized pastorals of farmland China, or romance recalled as manufacture in Sumana Roy’s “Love: Made in China,” or the two poems with Beijing in their titles.

Place is fascinating and troubling to define. Is place a city by name, by reference, or by index? Or a collocation of buildings and objects seen as an outsider might see them, or as an insider might? Within the spaces shaped by buildings are cultures and languages—both mainstream and marginal—and the subjectivity of people and their relationships to history and memory.

Appropriately, a few of the poems in this issue deal with houses and architecture. Continue reading “Panax Ginseng: Poems, Places, Habitations”


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.

Continue reading “Review: CHA: AN ASIAN LITERARY JOURNAL, ISSUE 12”