Writing, ordering, shaping a poetry manuscript is a complex art. Assuming one has the right army of words, one wins the right war. Or assuming the cartographer has the right reportage and measurements, the right map can be made of the poet’s interior landscape.
Even trickier, however, is creating language that alters the triptych as it is traveled, and shifts the battle for memory and body to entirely new terrain within the reader. Three recent books of poetry by Asian and Asian American women poets create this elegant mutation, evoking places we think we know—only to show us what is rising up from underneath.
Ye Chun is an accomplished writer, who has published a novel (Peach Tree in the Sea) in her native Chinese and a prior book of English poetry in Travel over Water. In her latest book of poetry Lantern Puzzle, the first section is poems of place—but each locale is an emotional portrait of short, sharp stabs.
From “Olympia, Washington:”
“My drunk friends drop pebbles on me as I lie/
on the couch losing water. Be happy, be happy, be happy.”/
China magnetizes, draws Chun back. There are expected motifs: bamboo, rice, moon, dragon, hungry ghosts, figures from Chinese history. But these tropes are only the externals of the maps Chun is making for us, ripping up the landscape as she goes. She’s not content to take us to the imagery we’d find in a Chinese restaurant placemat; once she’s set up the details she presses to go deeper in.
Dragon boats have newly-painted, sharp eyes. A girl prostitute has a sheen over her shoulders as she waits for an old man like her father to emerge. Elders sort chrysanthemum flowers (“each petal a sad shoe”). Memories harden even as the gaze does—in the poem “March” the “eye is a drop of resin.”
How does the poet resist everything turning into shards of dark crystal? In the book’s final poem, Yun lays out a possible means of redemption. In contemplating the dual curves of the crescent moon, “one floats on everything becoming tender” and that gesture alloys and softens even as the poem takes its leave.
By contrast, Korean feminist poet Kim Yideum recommends us walking a different road—less precise, more modern, confessionally haphazard, messy, and human.
In Cheer Up, Femme Fatale, bodily fluids, neurotic twitches, and agonies are encapsulated inside short prosaic shocks. The closing poem doesn’t leave us lingering with the silent moon’s sighing; it leaves us prowling like a lion:
A Flower Bouquet
When these stop sounding like an attack
When someone ties a flower bouquet
or slowly unties it
when nobody is screaming or crying
or when I can’t hear anything at all
I will walk on this path.
It’s a protected area, a path made for animals to roam.
Yideum’s work as translated lends itself to the prose poem and storytelling, and Cheer Up Femme Fatale makes use of this form most often. In the chilling “Discovery of a Daily Life” the narrator describes the brutality of a working pig farm that is also a prison—and the fluid references between what is done for and to the pigs, and what the inmates themselves are required to do, somehow shifts the speaker between man and animal: “We fall asleep together but we are in our own individual cages.”
In “Also Today,” Yideum bemoans everyday entropy, casting a cool, cynical eye at fate’s transformations:
I’ve gone back and forth/
snoozed and dreamt millions of dreams/
ate, drank, and slept with hundreds of guys while awake./
If I die I’ll probably turn into a water bottle./
And concludes, in the final transformation: “This is my life./ A pathetic pebble.”
In thoughtful notes at the end of the work, translator Ji yoon Lee explains to keep the power of the poems working in English, ambiguities of referent and language in Korean had to be pinned down in a way that is unnecessary in the Korean language. In Korean, poems like “Discovery of a Daily Life” or “Also Today” are even more angular, violent, slippery—because the language allows this deconstruction.
loose strife by Quan Barry subverts yet again. Many of the poems were meant to be displayed with accompanying works of art by Michael Velliquette, as part of a two-person exhibition called “Loose Strife.” Barry is also more pointedly map-making, but the undiscovered country is also embodied near the text, changing the relationship.
The first poem of the book begins “Somebody says draw a map” and by the end of Quan’s litany dangerous places and lack of survivors, we must conclude that even though there are human bones in the well, “don’t be afraid. It was not the work of wild animals.”
Barry, unlike Chun and Yideum, pushes for different visual patterns of words on the page, challenged by this invisible artwork. She varies the spacing, stanza breaks, uses erasure in big chunky black blocks over her texts to create a poem, creates a literal box of narrative in “craft” where one of the characters disembodies at a touch. Even the relationship of the text to what the reader sees, can change.
One poem begins, “At ninety-seven Mimi says she can’t even look any more” and the poem proceeds then to show us the twisted wreckage of the road, and the way the street lights turn on they are carried down the street. Another poem in the loose strife series paints a dream of a man contemplating fragments of his self and someone throws a rock, war rolling in shortly after. Quan is creating a world where we cannot look away, and we can’t forget the changes that made us see.