We’ve already reviewed a number of University of Pittsburgh Press writers, including but not limited to Cathy Song and Quan Barry, so I’m rounding it out by finishing off the catalog, reviewing here Rick Noguchi’s The Ocean Inside Kenji Takezo, Shao Wei’s Pulling a Dragon’s Teeth, Paisley Rekdal’s The Invention of the Kaleidoscope, and Quan Barry’s newest collection, Water Puppets, out on August 28, 2011.
Rick Noguchi’s The Ocean Inside Kenji Takezo is one of the most lyrically cohesive poetry collections I’ve read in a long time. The title lyric personage, Kenji Takezo, is an avid surfer, and so Noguchi employs this obsession with the Pacific Ocean and riding the waves to root almost every poem. The opening lines of “When for Weeks the Sea is Flat” make the content of the collection very clear: “Wherever Kenji Takezo goes/ He must surf/ The perfect ride/ In things that aren’t waves” (3). Noguchi’s lyric speaker clarifies that Kenji is a surfer both literally and figuratively. Despite the fact that Kenji’s name sounds ethnic, it is interesting how race and ethnicity is not directly coded for the vast majority in the poem. However, section three moves the collection into a different register. This section is a pretty severe interruption in terms of the poetic arc, where something entirely different is going on. The two poems included here, “The Witch of Miyajima That the First Squad Encountered, Circa 1470” and “The Widow Who Was Slaughtered,” clearly require an ethnopoetic approach and background that I do not have, but gesture to an important ethnic history that remains relatively unconnected to the larger lyric trajectory regarding Kenji Takezo. I’d appreciate anyone enlightening me here; cursory research did not yield too much, except for references to Japanese Mountain witches and a famous samurai figure of the 19th century. The other “character” if we might call it that to Noguchi’s poems is the Pacific Ocean, which exudes the kind of sublimity that only a die-hard surfer knows. The Pacific Ocean becomes the canvas for philosophical inquiries and reflections of identity; we’ll catch that massive lyrical wave and eagerly await our bodacious ride to the shore.
In Pulling a Dragon’s Teeth, Shao Wei mobilizes diasporic poetics, beginning with fairy tale poems that root the reader within a fantasy landscape, where a child, presumably living in China, must contend with the chaotic forces of transnational movement. The lyric speaker gradually matures over the course of the collection, where we begin to see bigger ruptures in relation to language and the gradual erosion of those fantasy landscapes. In a particularly and quietly tragic poem entitled “A One-Yuan Fairy-Tale Book,” a youthful lyric personage must haggle with a merchant for the possibility of buying a text she desires: “ ‘Please…” I beg him/ looking back/ as if the mermaid will swim away the next minute” (11). The poem “English + Chinese” makes explicit the interlingual challenges of composition: “I will borrow/ my original voice from Chinese/ then begin to learn your sounds, your spellings, with short or long legs/ I want us to put together then stir-fry steam and cook for a long time/ until everything transforms and redoes both of us” (17). Fantasy creatures return here to structure the lyric speaker’s desire to be reborn into a hybrid language where everyone might be fluent. “Punctuation” is probably my favorite poem of the collection, which ends with these powerful lines:
what I have
what I want
. . . ellipsis (29).
The conclusion to this poem in light of earlier lines that explore thematics of alienation suggest a lyric speaker buffeted by language, desiring some rest from this linguistic assault. Later poems return us to issues of loss and diasporic subjectivity. In “The Absent Goodbye,” the lyric speaker laments the disintegration of a the relationship between the speaker and her grandfather, how presumably has died by the time the speaker has returned to visit in China: “I run through the Streets/ in Wanxian City, through the old houses on Dianbao Road/ as if playing a childhood game among the empty coffins on the dusty top floor/ until I find all your windows are sealed” (48). The “empty coffins” foretell the loss that will occur on the return when they will presumably be filled with those much older who have passed in the time that the lyric speaker has gone on her “transnational” journey. A touching and wide-ranging work of lyric precision!
Stylistically speaking, Paisley Rekdal’s The Invention of the Kaleidoscope is probably the most prose oriented of the four reviewed her and she takes the unique approach of tackling what I would call the “longer” lyric poem. They are longer in the sense that they often take up three to five pages of length, rather than the more standard one or two pages that I see in other contemporary poets’ writings. In terms of my own personal interests as the occasional poetry writer, I am incredibly impressed by the density of Rekdal’s work: it’s simply a smorgasbord of words I do not often see in tandem with each other. The title poem makes effective use of the dramatic monologue in exploring the life of David Brewster, the inventor, who did have a part in inventing the kaleidoscope: “I’m out for inversion/ invention/ re-/ construction; myself/ disunited yet same enough to point/ any hour across the room and still say, Me (5). The splintering of the “self” that is metaphorically related through the kaleidoscope is a lyric motif that functions through the collection. One of my favorite poems, “Armor on Display,” takes place in a museum where the lyric speaker wants to find out the narrative behind the titular armor on display: “But it’s the nightmare I’m most interested in, wanting the dregs of battle still smeared in the dents, tufts of wood/ caught in the ragged steel, tears where pegs/ of iron shattered through” (28). The split occurring here pushes for a different relationship to history and memory, highlighting the lack of complexity potentially offered in artifactualization. The sequenced long poem, “Night Scenes,” is pretty much the only poem of the entire collection that gestures to an ethnic heritage recognizably Asian, making this work potentially more difficult to situate in terms of content within “Asian American” literary realms, whatever that might mean. In part four, the final section, entitled, “The Matriarch,” we get the grandmother-mother-daughter lineage and the tragicomic elements of getting older. In some ways, this poem is reminiscent of Wei’s “The Absent Goodbye,” where there is an expressive lyrical melancholia; the poem ends with these lines: “The you/ who were everything and nothing to me both, gone but for the details now,/ the sentimental. Remember?” An impressive collection! Must get to Rekdal’s other works.
Quan Barry’s Water Puppets is her third collection, after Controvertibles and Asylum. I reviewed Barry earlier on this blog and what I appreciate about Barry is that she’s always pushing herself poetically to try different forms. In Water Puppets, Barry distinguishes her collection from earlier ones because she is more invested in lengthier poems, some stretching to over ten pages. Despite the length, Barry is pretty consistent about the basic geometry of her stanzas. Most poems remain uniform in terms of lines per stanza, whether or not that might be three lines per stanza or four. The other quality that I find undeniably seductive about Barry’s work is that she’s particularly talented in creating lyric density. Here’s an example that appears early on in which the lyric speaker describes a lion: “Shagged-gold, at rest the great haunches/ as if axled, fur sleeked like a butter rug” (1). I delight in the way that both colors of the animal and its aerodynamic and powerful quality are all referenced. The lyric speaker will go on in this description:
See the deliberate walk, cool as a criminal,
the multi-jointed forepaws placed consciously
even by the usurped king, his eye teeth blacked,
his tail rotted off, tired wag of a bloody stump
as he finally falls dying, the crucified face bedded
in its wheel of hair, the tawny miscegenated eyes
binocular in breadth” (1).
The second poem in the collection, “learning the tones” references the fact that “Vietnamese has six tones. . . diacritical marks used on certain vowels indicate their particular quality” (3). Barry sets us up for what will clearly be a strain of ethnopoetics that will filter through the collection. Especially powerful will be the series of unnamed prose poems that appear at the end of the collection that evoke contemporary Vietnam in all of its complexities. One of the poems obviously considers the long lasting toxic effects of Agent Orange on the reproductive systems of Vietnamese women. It would seem that the lyric speaker in the third unnamaed poem has traveled to some sort of museum, which displays various fetuses that have been deformed: “Pick a jar off the shelf and clasp it in your arms. Sing to it. Rock it to sleep, the liquid softly sloshing like blood through the heart. Despite their monstrousness, they are unmistakably human; one with his intestines on the outside of his body floats sucking his thumb” (57). One of the strongest throughlines of this collection is its post-9/11 sentiment, where lyrics continually reveal a subject torn by her politics and response to wars in the Middle East. In Thanksgiving, the lyric speaker reveals, “I will admit that I was in favor of war and now look what’s happened” (25) and later, in the phenomenal stream-of-consciousness long poem, “Sunday Essay,” the lyric speaker admits, “The realization that among my cadre/ I am the only one who will admit I wasn’t necessarily against the use of force though I never believed/ in the existence of WMDs” (40). What this poetry collection seems to be grappling with is a rapprochement between Vietnam War and Iraqi/ Aghani War politics. We are not surprised then that the last poem, “Ode” sends us to Afghanistan: “Leached and pitiless in the Hindu Kush mountains—his home./ Over the border, Afghanistan slowly debacling./ Thus refuge here in the blasted moonscape” (69). If this is an ode, then we see the lyric speaker with her attention on the collateral damage, as a man attempts to survive in a “blasted moonscape.” Another powerful work by Barry.
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