Ligature Strain by Kim Koga and Yellow / Yellow by Margaret Rhee | Tinfish Press 2011 | $3.00
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 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).
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!).
What is spit, taken as the title of Esther Lee’s first book of poetry? It can be derogatory, can be DNA and genealogy, can be sustenance and suckling, can be used to form or deform the sounds we make when speaking. The poems in this collection are preoccupied with the mouth, which functions as a site of stagnation just as much as change. The book begins, “When asked if I believe in absolute truths, I cite the lie.” And a few lines down: “Our mouths were stretched to the floor as punishment . . .” In another poem, the mouth is a “rusted hollow,” an irreparably broken car muffler. Later, in “The Real World Is Like This,” the sound of a mother’s “bird-throat” suggests flight, then suggests the clicking sounds of the speaker’s tap shoes driving a rift between her and her sister and, she says, “what my mouth can’t afford.”
Astonishing for a first book, Lee’s signature style is instantly recognizable by the accent she creates visually on the page. The front dedication to her family reads: “I kiss one hundred time[ ].” Generally brackets tell of absence, which can mean revision, loss, or a truncated excess—and in these poems refer to text as much as to personal experience. In the dedication, it is a nod to her parents’ accent. In the “Interview with My [C]orean Father” poems, the bracketed “C” reclaims and reshapes an ethnic label. It also points out how arbitrary are such naming practices, since Corean and Korean sound identical. In “We Are the Happiest Children in the World” and “Ivan / Ivan,” brackets proliferate lines to evoke at once caesura and transition, as we see in:
I tell you I am here mingled [ ] with snow
yellow-white as the page [ ] I suckled from
my grandmother—strange mother—and I [ ] grew
These brackets have a distinct flavor from backslashes, m-dashes, and ellipses; they are a ligature of grammatical pedantry (showing Lee in command of the language) and ungrammatical familiarity (an intuitive, poetic experimentation). They are a punctuation that Lee has made uniquely her own in these poems. Continue reading “Review: Esther Lee’s SPIT”→
The cover image of this square-shaped book previews the poems well. It’s a photo of a brick tenement bombed with graffiti wildstyles in suburban browns and blues. One letter’s tail stretches generously through a sill in the wall to become a finger flipping us off. Someone has abandoned a road bike in front of the wall and a plain plank laid out like a welcome mat. Reading these poems is an experience of urban ekstasis, an out-of-body splash of sight that stops the pedestrian reader. Lisa Chen sprays up the walls of poetry to show where our grammar and vision have gone dry.
What a wonder it is to see the world through Chen’s language! We see a “face filling the night like a bare back / Turned away from you in sleep.” The look on another’s “as I leave is a porch light left burning at dawn.” And a woman whose “English isn’t so good. Slang, her mouth the color of turned salmon.” Chen writes in “Translators’ Apologia,” “I have tried to approximate a sea with a stream of piss” and that approximation itself opens an astonishingly vivid world. Her phrases seize with naked incisions.
The collection’s tone is set in the opening title poem, “Mouth.” The speaker is in a situation, literally and figuratively, “where [she doesn’t] speak the language.” The spoken word is stifled yet emergent, gritty and gnarled, as we see variously in lines like: “cocktail boozer slurring the voila delirious,” “the shill slag of bad guitar and motel ashtrays,” and “the sloe-eyed, two-fisted mouth” among others. The speaker resorts to body language, “hands thrust in the air / in grim universal gestures” which translates here to bartering at the market, a game of demonstrating desire and the ability to walk away. Continue reading “Review: Lisa Chen’s MOUTH”→
Ocean Vuong’s first chapbook of poetry, Burnings, is a searing elegy to a deceased motherland that continues to smolder in the memories of those who left her in the wake of war. Although Vuong is a member of the 1.5 generation (the children and infants of Vietnamese refugees with scant memories or no memories of that armed conflict) his writing boldly confronts, grapples with and reflects themes of personal and political dissolution and regeneration.
Do not say our names as this flame grows
from the edge of the photo, the women’s smiles
peeling into grimaces, the boy spreading slowly
into black smudge, filaments of fire
dissolving into wind. No, do not say our names.
Let us burn quietly into the lives
we never were.
What comes forth in the title poem is the shock of tangible, catastrophic loss. It gives you the feeling of being gradually burned down to a nub, leaving behind only a trail of stoic grief, and in order to get on in life and persevere you must transcend it.
An apt Mark Doty epigram divides Burnings into two sections, but the transformative medium of fire is the theme that runs throughout the chapbook. As I read Vuong’s poems, I imagined each one warping and crinkling in my hands, heating up my fingers, as if someone had lit a match at the corner of the page. The slow burn of Vuong’s verse and his juxtaposing and melding of life and death give off sparks in the dark that illuminate truths which one never truly forgets.
Diwata by Barbara Jane Reyes | BOA Editions 2010 | $16
In Poeta in San Francisco, Barbara Jane Reyes’ previous book, diwata was someone “elders say” had once “walked on earth” before the “the nailed god came” (30). These are the traces and rumors from which the titular Diwata of her latest book is resurrected. Then, like slippery oral art, like slips of the tongue, creation stories about men, women, and diwata—a god or spirit in Philippine mythology—are made up and told again and again. The poems in Diwata draw also on, and retell, Judeo-Christian creation narratives, introduced and enforced in the Philippines by the Spanish colonial regime. These retellings of myths and folk tales become a modality through which ahistory is rendered into history, history itself is investigated, and variations of diwatas, their quarries, and their hunters are revealed as inhabiting multiple narrative, linguistic, and cultural sites.
A globe our size, where migrations, displacements, and diasporas have become fairly common, and networked space-time has become a given for its globalized areas, is increasingly in need of transnational, translingual, transcultural mythologies. Diwata is one such transmission, in English, Spanish, and Tagalog. While most poems in the book take the form of story, it also has songs, couplets, pantoums that pick up the motifs of repetition and variation, creating a sinuous overlapping sonic rhythm.
Diwata inhabits many temporalities: it goes back in time before time and to the pre-colonial time and the colonial time; it stays in once upon a time and also strays in the present. By de-colonizing time from its linear, industrial, western model, it recuperates and liberates mythic, folkloric, and indigenous entities historically demonized and suppressed by the Catholic church and the Spanish colonial administration. The deep time of myth and folklore in Diwata is not static; rather, it is like static, a kind of oracular interference that sharpens the reader’s awareness of acts of wounding as well as acts of resistance performed during Philippines’ colonization, first by Spain and then by the USA.
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).
A Guest Post by Stephen Hong Sohn, Assistant Professor of English at Stanford University
Adamantineby Shin Yu Pai | White Pine Press 2010 | $16
Adamantine, as the title reflects, is a collection filled with luster, gleaming with deep insight, and further characterized by an ethereal landscape, focused on emotional connections, on spirituality, on death, and on the afterlife. Pai’s work travels both within and outside of ethnic and racial frames, thus complicating any transparent categorization of the collection as “Asian American” literature.
Nevertheless, the political character of many of her poems does make Adamantine speak to many of the field’s traditional concerns. I begin this review further into the collection, with what I believe is the larger project of the work. In “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Vulture,” Pai’s lyric speaker considers the responsibilities of one who chronicles the lives of others:
of the witness
the I of the commentator
grubby children at the rim
of a Guatemala dump
stunned orphans in Russia (76)
The homonyms of “eye” and “I” function in different contexts, both on the level of ‘one who watches’ and ‘one who speaks.’ The following lines accordingly consider the issue of witnessing, with respect to the plight of global poverty. What is the responsibility of the lyric speaker, Adamantine continually asks, with respect to voice and sight? In that vein, I’d like to concentrate on one of the overall lyric approaches that Pai takes, which is to place current events and historical figures in comparative perspective. As part of Pai’s relational approach, the collection opens fittingly with an epigraph from Michael Ondaatje’s novel Anil’s Ghost. The passage from which Pai excerpts refers to prayers and mantras and explores how such spiritual inscriptions speak to individual loss and to aesthetic beauty. At the same time, by invoking Anil’s Ghost, Pai sets Adamantine firmly within a tradition that queries human rights and global conflict. Perhaps we are not surprised, then, when we find that the first poem’s title is “This is not My Story,” as if to immediately query the autobiographical impulse of the confessional lyric. The lyric stories of “Adamantine” are often those of Asian or Asian American figures who move beyond the speaker, including Thich Quang Duc in “Burning Monk,” where the lyric speaker repeats, as a kind of mantra, “his heart refusing to burn / his heart refusing to burn / his heart refusing to burn” (19). Of course, Thich Quang Duc is most famously known for his self-immolation in protest of the Vietnam War. The use of the word “heart” arcs out across this collection. We are reminded in the very first poem, “This is not my Story,” that the “human heart is / a wholly different animal, / we must sense when to give in / before the other gives up” (11). The importance of emotion and affect imbues the lyric speaker with a kind of power, leading her toward a pathway that involves spiritual reawakening. Another figure invoked is James Kim, the Korean American who died tragically when he and his family were caught in a winter snowstorm in Oregon. The lyric speaker gestures again to loss, but contextualizes his death within the frame of sacrifice, as James had attempted to situate help for his family despite the possibility that he could have succumbed to the austere weather conditions.
100 Poems by S S Prasad | STD Pathasala 2008 | $10 or INR 100
Art interested in and interacting with technology, and the technology of its production, can pose some pretty intriguing questions. Bangalore-based poet S S Prasad, in his nanopoems, attempts to engage with new technologies of writing and with code as language. Collected in print in the book 100 Poems, these nanopoems were first written for the microchip as surface for inscription: Prasad, apart from being a poet, happens to be an engineer working for a prominent Silicon Valley company. Not all the poems ended up being nanoed (“nano” denotes one billionth of a meter), but even in print, even to the naked eye, they as a group assert their micro-aesthetic. What’s interesting is that their micro-ness is a response to Raul Zurita’s sky poems, which the back cover blurb tells us is an intertext whose scalar proportions Prasad inverted.
The poems, most of them in the binary language of zeroes and ones, are primarily concerned with marking time on, or across, the page space. The binary digits operate as image, as sign, as object. They explore a visual poetics which functions sometimes in the concrete, and other times in the conceptual, mode. Continue reading “Review: S S Prasad’s 100 POEMS”→