In this review, I focus on Andy Quan’s poetry collection, Slant (Nightwood Editions, 2001). Quan is also author of Calendar Boy (New Star Books, 2001), Six Positions: Sex Writing by Andy Quan (Green Candy Press, 2005), and Bowling Pin Fire (Signature Editions, 2007). Quan has an impressive personal website and the link can be found here:
Quan’s Slant is a more autobiographically-inflected and traditionally lyric collection in its focus on a lyric speaker assumed to be a kind of double to the writer. The poems take us across multiple continents and geographies, highlighting the complex nature of the Asian diaspora. The collection is broken into six sections. In section one, “Flight patterns,” Quan’s lyric speaker attunes the reader to thematics related to transnationalism, immigration, and how such tropes can be constellated around desire and sustenance. In “En Route,” for instance, the speaker explores the nature of lineage and descent:
arrived on Hawaiian shores
to live and plant rice
sold an empire of shoes
and sent a son to Gold Mountain
Father’s sister lifted out
of Grandfather’s produce store
and became a stewardess
Mother arrived in Canada
with no winter clothes
to be wed to my father (13)
In this excerpt, the lyric speaker positions the way by which immigration can route certain bodies in these “flight patterns,” whether to Hawaii, “Gold Mountain,” or Canada. In all cases, there is the sense of the struggle to make a living and to sustain families, where references to plantation labor, entrepeneurship, and marriage loom large. Of course, the speaker’s mother acts as the perfect proxy for the section’s movement across these wide swathes of global terrain as the flight attendant and thus, mobility and movement will create the collection’s lyric symmetry. In section two, “Growth Rings,” the lyric speaker elucidates the challenges of negotiating an ethnic heritage while living in a country where one of the major languages is English. I focus here on “Gingko Nuts,” which envisions an encounter between a ethnic Chinese and his transnational counterparts:
A dozen figures crouch or kneel, their fingers
dance as quickly as language. Baskets,
plastic grocery bags filled with tiny yellow fruit,
a chattering backdrop of Cantonese like
branches in the wind.
. . .
The young men have no English tongue to reply
but an older man explains “Send, send to China”
and suddenly: “Are you Chinese”
And my countrymen return to work:
gathering, gathering. Hot silver flashes,
rain approaching fast, me wondering
whether by flight or by sea, how the earth
tastes in that country, whether fruit only falls
before lightning storms.
so fierce I picture them as villages
swept away in flooding riverbanks (38).
What is of course central to “Gingko Nuts” is the question of heritage and homeland. How does an individual who has grown up in a country different than his or her identified ethnic heritage come to understand what that other place might be like? The speaker here imagines this connection through the vantage point of food shipments. The inability to bridge more fully the language gulf seems to be a central splitting point in the poem as the connections between one location and another seems brokered not upon a productive relationship, but rather upon a deluge in which the very psychic linkage is itself “swept away in flooding riverbanks.” There is the sense then that the acquisition of some sort of ethnic cultural citizenship is not so simply mediated. Indeed, the labor being employed here in the pursuit of sending food shipments is not one that is simply glamorized. Section three, “men dancing together,” moves Slant into explorations of queer identity. In “men dancing together,” Quan’s speaker therefore moves into different formulation of community and family:
“men dancing together”
every evening in the metropole
men dancing together
the perpetual motion of footwork
making patterns of dust and sweat
against pulsating air and shadow
the machinery constantly turns
the booming lights
flashing sound system
tables sticky with spilt drink
the tightness of posture
proximity of bodies
even the walls, beer bottles
brighter than lights and mirrors
louder than his pounding music
a higher pitch than anything
audible to the human ear
even the saddest boy
sleeping on friends’ sofa-beds
hiding from parents’ rage
while maybe confused
at this spectacle
of skin and rhythm
still cries out “I
have not chosen this
and I choose this
and though I may be
lonely I am not alone (43)
The concluding stanza is, of course, the main gist of the poem where club culture, while seemingly hedonistic perhaps on its exterior appearance, does serve this other purpose. In the space of the queer club, it is a welcoming environment (in theory) where those have not “chosen” their sexualities arrive and choose the club space in order to find a sense of community with other queers. One might be confused only if one does not understand the choices that queer youth might face in the exploration of sexuality and the declaration of such “deviances.” In sections four and five, “Arrangements” and “Condensation,” the poems shift on another intimate register revolving around the nature of death and memorialization. In “Inheritance,” the passing of the speaker’s grandmother requires the execution of her will and the remaining estate. In this case,
When the will was read
all to the eldest son
my mother and aunt
took it stoically
the boat was not rocked (65).
The “boat was not rocked” clearly references the ways in which cultural mores might emerge in distinct forms, but that honoring a specific method ultimately remains unassailable. In the final section, Quan brings the reader into the circumscription of flight and mobility, in the aptly titled, “Journeys.” I end this review with “Passport Problems,” in which the lyric speaker explores how dilemmas related to race can travel across various continents and boundary points:
Certain Scandinavians bow and speak Japanese to me although I am not Japanese.
My last travels in Europe, if treated as a foreigner, I simply switched counties. But this time, I have come to stay and tire of strange curiosity and disdain.
I crave their pigments to darken, for a sudden blooming of Asian eyes, to soften their high curved cheek bones, their European angles.
Christmas holidays they stop me at he border to examine my passport with ultraviolet rays:
“There are many forged passports lately, Canadian passports, many Asians, using forged Canadian passports.”
“There are Asians living in Canada.”
The border guard replies defensively “I know.” On this continent, he knows my destiny better than I, to be stopped at their imaginary borders, my black hair and slant eyes shouting at them brighter than any flag they have ever seen.
Stockholm, Sweden (94).
This poem is vital in establishing the perpetual foreign-ness of the Asian subject and that “race” cannot be thought of simply from a domestic US or Canadian context. What is of course interesting here is the desire of the speaker to change “their pigments” and make skin tones “darken,” as if to demand that these various individuals come to understand his experience.
Earlier on, I had a chance to review Justin Chin’s Attack of the Man-Eating Lotus Blossoms and Shani Mootoo’s Valmiki’s Daughter, two works that constellate both race, ethnicity, and queerness together. At this productive intersectionality, Quan’s Slant stands and offers, in particular, a lyric terrain of contestation and challenge, but also of the incredibly rich journey and a struggle to soldier onward.
Purchase the book here: