Thursday, April 24, 2003

Gary Sullivan has thoughtfully posted "70 Lines from the Chinese," the poem that caused the back-and-forth between me and David. I'm glad he did--I was beginning to feel pretty strange having this whole debate about a review of a poem I'd never read...

I actually got a kick out of reading the poem--it does strike me as pretty funnily melodramatic in ways that signal it as parody:

Feeding the crumbling years, I
Sit on the grass & start a poem.
It'd be better for me if I took a
Sword and cut open my bowels.

It's recognizably in the style of what we've come to know as translations of Chinese poetry, but filtered through some self-indulgent melancholic; some of the repetitions and goofy details and line breaks ("Tears of loneli-/Ness rattle on the banana trees") signal the parody, the pastiche. (I'm thinking of Kenneth Koch's parody of Williams: "We laughed at the hollyhocks together / and then I sprayed them with lye. / Forgive me. I simply do not know what I am doing.")

But I think the reason that readers haven't, in Sullivan's experience, "gotten" the joke is that the tone doesn't remain stable. The final stanza, to my ear, moves to a different realm entirely; "sticky pudding" is grotesque but not necessarily jarring in its sentiment, and the final image--which is quite lovely--has precisely the quietness and modesty that David identified as part of the poem's "Asian" tone:

No wind blows. My heart is not
Beating: it is useless. My skin
Is like sticky pudding, my bones
Yellow powder. My spirit hangs
On its little rack: there is no
Place it wants to go. Alone,
Nothing can make it disappear.

I suspect what happened to Sullivan was something similar to what happens to many parodists: you start off fully intending a joke, only to find that you've taken it seriously without knowing it.

A few years back, just after I graduated from college, I picked up a copy of an Asian American literary journal. It was one of my first encounters with Asian American writing, and after reading it, and browsing through an anthology of Asian American poetry, I started to have a weird feeling of repetition. In retrospect this seems pretty snotty of me, but I came up with what seemed to be a few dominant categories of poems I was seeing:

--the grandparents poem
--the family photograph poem
--the exotic food poem
--the erotic poem, usually employing imagery from the exotic food poem

Once I'd done this, I started wondering what it would be like to *deliberately* set out to write an "Asian American" poem, since I felt I didn't have any natural sense of what that should be. So I composed a series of poems facetiously titled "Asian American Poem #1," "Asian American Poem #2," etc. making sure to write one poem in each category. Here was my product for the "grandparent" poem:

Asian American Poem #3

When I was ten, my grandfather
was dead of cigarettes and America.
After the funeral, my mother took me
to Chinatown for thousand-year eggs,
their darkness the purple of the past or the grave.
Later I learned that the eggs are dyed
with chemicals and that I
am a liar. The cultivation of memory
diggs furrows for new seeds; my grandfather
was not a farmer and during the funeral
I was in school reading of a pink cow
whose friends were squirrels. My grandfather
always told me the same story, of his
other grandson in China, nameless, who seemed
to do very little. I didn’t believe him
but listened anyway, needing to sleep. The other boy
was me, was nobody, was an egg
dyed pink and purple, was a lulling lie.

I fully intended this poem to be a parody of the genre, and hence filled it with "lies" (e.g. my grandfather died when I was six, not ten) and with melodramatic ("dead of cigarettes and America") and goofy ("pink cow") images. Finally, in what I thought of as adding insult to injury, I sent the poem off to the Asian American magazine in question--which promptly accepted it.

Now I was confused. Had they missed the joke or gotten it? When I looked back over the poem, I realized I was no longer sure what the poem was doing; the biographical information was really only slightly distorted, and the poem's conclusion certainly had a tone of seriousness and even, dare I say, sincerity, despite its arch message. Ultimately, I think, I outsmarted myself; telling myself that I was writing a parody was the only way I could write a poem that turned out to be pretty damn expressive.

But the question remains: what did I do to the stereotypes I had ostensibly set out to mock and undermine? Did I simply reinforce them, or did I successfully critique them? I'd like to think that the discourse of "lying" that gets set up in the poem produces a critical space in the poem, where a reader might back away from the sentiments expressed there even at the moment that those setiments are being experienced. But in the final analysis I'm not sure I did enough to produce that space; it's probably too easy for a reader ignorant of my intentions to take it "straight." You might argue that that's even more destabilizing than an obvious parody. But such a position can be dangerous when you're trying to critique a stereotype that can have such destructive implications--in this case, a racial stereotype.

I've mentioned John Yau a few times in my posts (I also wrote a review of his latest book, Borrowed Love Poems, for Free Verse), and I think some of his poems provide a good coda to this discussion. Around the same time I was writing these "Asian American" poems, I read my first poem of Yau's, "Chinese Villanelle":

I have been with you, and I have thought of you
Once the air was dry and drenched with light
I was like a lute filling the room with description

We watched glum clouds reject their shape
We dawdled near a fountain, and listened
I have been with you, and I have thought of you

Like a river worthy of its gown
And like a mountain worthy of its insolence...
Why am I like a lute left with only description

How does one cut an axe handle with an axe
What shall I do to tell you all my thoughts
When I have been with you, and thought of you

A pelican sits on a dam, while a duck
Folds its wings again; the song does not melt
I remember you looking at me without description

Perhaps a king's business is never finished
Though "perhaps" implies a different beginning
I have been with you, and I have thought of you
Now I am a lute filled with this wandering description

That stereotypical, recognizable "Chinese" tone is in play again, even labelled as such. Or is it? You've got a poem called "Chinese" but written in an esoteric European form. It has koan-like riddles ("How does one cut an axe handle with an axe"), but how seriously do we take them? It features the lute, both an Eastern and Western instrument; and it thematizes description, which is precisely (in the Poundian dogma) what Chinese poetry isn't supposed to do. I don't think it can fairly be called a satire or a parody; it's some weird hybrid that allows you the pleasure of a "Chinese" style while constantly nudging you back to something more unsettled.


burnt sienna said...

Hi tympan,
I would encourage you to check out Kartika Review, an Asian American literary journal launched this past fall. Our first issue is up in part at

Our interest is focused on finding Asian American writers who seek to transform and innovate within literary art, as opposed to finding literary art that shows off Asian American writers...there's a clear distinction there and our editors are keenly aware of it when we review our submissions. I encourage you to contribute your work.

- Sunny

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