But there did seem to be something a bit different about this case, in part because it involved a poem written by someone whose work I generally like and defended by someone else I agree with about 90% of the time. And in part it made me think about precisely how images of the "Asian" get used in contemporary poems, and whether one could usefully distinguish between those kinds of uses. I'm going to try to approach this by (empathetically and idealistically) imagining how the "general reader" might receive such issues, before going into how the position of an Asian American reader might differ.
As I've observed before, the most feared epithet in these kinds of discussion is not "Asian," or "Oriental," or "Chinaman." It's "racist." The arguments of those who critique stereotypes or racial imagery in a poem are often reduced to, "So-and-so says the poem is racist," and the charge of racism is seen as so toxic as to end all further discussion. More to the point: there's no such thing (today, at least) as a good, racist poem. The charge of racism is understood to place something outside of reasonable discourse and of aesthetic appreciation. This is not to say that there aren't poems written and published now that, upon closer reading, can be seen to have racist implications; it's simply that no acceptable poem can explicitly claim a racist position--one that openly seeks to caricature, demonize, and inspire hatred or fear of a particular racial group. One can certainly think of any number of historical examples of this kind of writing--for example, Bret Harte's poem on the "heathen Chinee"--but it's nearly impossible to imagine a "serious" poet today attempting such a thing.
So when we do encounter racial stereotypes in a contemporary poem, we tend to assume that "something else" must be going on. (For example, when I critiqued racial imagery in a poem on the Poetics list, the response came back, "Well, obviously we know no one on this list is a racist, so...") I'll attempt to describe two of those "something elses"--two ways in which racial images or stereotypes seem to get used in contemporary writing--before discussing the third "something else" that Magee's poem may or may not represent.
1. Ambivalent. This can best be described as a simultaneous fascination with and repulsion from racial imagery, an unease with the racial other that can manifest itself as mockery, ethnography, or fetish. The writer's intention and attitude toward the subject matter seem to be unstable. The examples that immediately come to mind are two pieces posted to the Poetics list, one titled "WHY DO THE TIAWANESE" and the other infamously referencing the "Filipino crack whore," that I discussed at some length here and here. In these cases, what the author allegedly intended as "realistic" or even "sympathetic" portrayals of Asians seemingly cannot help but partake of the most degraded stereotypes, not least because the author seems to lack any awareness of the destructive power of such stereotypes.
I think also of a story I read a few years ago in the New Yorker in which the protagonist is a young white woman who works as a waitress in a Chinese restaurant, describing the food as dirty and disgusting and the proprietress's communication as consisting of guttural "ngs" and "oks."
It might easily be protested that these writings are straight-up racist--no ambivalence about them. Without a doubt the worst writings in this category lean that way. But their dynamic of repulsion and attraction (the young woman in the New Yorker story describes her attraction to a young Asian man who works in the restaurant) and the apparently unconscious nature of their racism gives them a kind of bare cover that in some cases can allow them to get away with it (at least to some readers).
2. Ironic or parodic. The vast majority of contemporary racial stereotyping in poetry, and perhaps even in popular culture, falls into, or wants to fall into, this category: it's a self-conscious use of racial imagery that holds the stereotype at an ironic distance, ostensibly parodying or satirizing the very stereotype it deploys. (In popular culture, cf. South Park, Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirts, and so on.) In other words, using a racial stereotype is okay if you are aware that you are doing it, since then you couldn't possibly take it entirely seriously.
The simplest example of this is when the irony is provided by the position of the speaker, e.g. when Marilyn Chin refers to the "mega-Chinese-food tropes" of her poems or an African American comedian uses the "N-word." Since it's assumed that these speakers are not being racist toward their own racial groups, it follows that their words must be ironic or appropriative. As Pam Lu has pointed out, this strategy is by no means always, or even usually, successful; an Asian American writer who self-consciously portrays Asian Americans in stereotypical fashion can easily end up reinforcing those very stereotypes.
Another technique of ironic distancing is that of the dramatic monologue: you use racist words but put them in the mouth of a speaker clearly marked as a character, distinct from the author. Think, for example, of the opening scene of David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, in which white male real estate agents invite each other to dine at "the Chink's" and inveigh against "Patels." The usual interpretation given is that Mamet is not himself a racist, but rather is realistically portraying the racism of his rather unattractive characters. (In the context of Magee's poem, this would be the "redneck reading"--that the poem's references to Asians should be attributed to an ignorant and racist speaker whom Magee intends to satirize.) Of course, a closer reading reveals that there is nothing remotely "realistic" about the racist language Mamet puts in his characters' mouths (one describes Indians as "A supercilious race"), which, depending on your view of Mamet, can lead in one of two directions: toward the idea that Mamet is adding another layering of irony in order to satirize us, who believe that we can comfortably distance ourselves from the racism of others; or back toward ambivalence, in which Mamet is not distancing himself from racism as much as we might initially think. (For a fictional take on this scene, see Bharati Mukherjee's story "A Wife's Story.")
For an instance of this strategy of ironic distancing, take a couple of poems that another Asian American poet recently pointed me to: two pieces called "Chinese Movies" by Bernard Henrie in the latest issue of SHAMPOO. (In order to insulate myself against the suspicion that I am anti-SHAMPOO, I should note that I and many of my, um, best friends publish our work there.) Henrie's title suggests the mass-culture source of Chinese stereotypes, and the poems' serial numbering suggests the mechanical reproducibility of such stereotypes. The poems are stocked with what Anglo-American readers have come to expect as the cliches of chinoiserie: silk garments, snow cherries, plum blossoms, bamboo, persimmons. The frame suggests that we are meant to receive these images with a wink and a nod, that they are cliches being used satirically.
But how ironic is it? There's a distinct speaker, but despite his language of cliches it's not at all clear how distanced we're supposed to be from him. When he describes a female artist, "Chen," the imagery is almost comically piled on:
A Mandarin when she works,And perhaps the "I expect" registers this as a product of the speaker's stereotypes.
her oversize smock and sleeves
look like petals. I expect rice fans
to appear for shade, gifts from
her village in rural China.
But the poem never leaves this level, never actually gives us a position from which to critique the speaker. In fact, the poem's conclusion seems to do nothing so much as seek to reanimate the stereotypes, to reaestheticize them and restore their erotic charge:
Her painting dry and bambooThe final words, I assume, are Chen's own; she's actually shown to be participating in her own orientalized objectification. So this is a poem that seems to begin from an ironic position but fails to maintain it; instead, it slides toward ambivalence by seeing the stereotype as a source of attraction and pleasure.
brushes wrapped, she prepares
to bathe, pausing to peel
a fat persimmon, the juice drips
and forms a glistening drop
on her gold thigh:
"Look, another water color."
Irony and parody can, however, be highly successful methods of critiquing and reworking racial stereotypes. The work of John Yau is probably the best example I can think of in the current context. Yau's series "Genghis Chan: Private Eye," like Henrie's poems (which actually seem derivative of Yau series like "Late Night Movies"), signals in its title its sources in mass culture, but the title itself mashes up seemingly incompatible stereotypes: that of the fearsome Asian warrior (Genghis Khan) and of the effeminate and deferential Asian (Charlie Chan); then it places these in a wholly unexpected American context (that of the film noir). The result is parodic but also unstable, not permitting any established stereotype to gain traction, seeking to create a new and hybrid speaking position.
The poems themselves often seem to function as junkyards--or recycling bins--for racially charged language, which is fragmented and reconstructed into something compelling yet monstrous:
shoo warThe result is less an attractive reanimation of orientalism but a pastiche of it whose primary emotion would seem to be a charged disgust.
So what does any of this have to do with Magee's "Their Guys"? My sense is that while most attempts to read the poem have fallen into one of the two above categories, the poem is tryihng to do some third thing; for what that might be, and how successful it is, stay tuned.