stephenhongsohn (stephenhongsohn) wrote in asianamlitfans,

A Review of Rita Wong’s Forage.

 Rita Wong’s Forage (Nightwood Editions, 2007) is a delightful read in that in unites language play with a rigorous lyrical meditation on the late capitalist milieu.  Forage is Wong’s second poetry collection after Monkeypuzzle, which was released out of the now defunct Press Gang Publishers.  In her latest, Wong is keenly aware that everything seems for sale in this particular moment, so when she titles her collection, Forage, we immediately wonder about questions of sustenance in an age of globalization, transnational labor exploitation, and the increasing emphasis on profit margins.  In some ways, Wong’s work seems eerily prescient given the global economic crises, the continuing debates concerning global warming, and the widening disparity between the poor and the rich.  Wong is part of the growing Asian Canadian poetry community that includes the previously reviewed Weyman Chan, Fred Wah, Sally Ito, Roy Miki, among many others.  This collection is strongly interlingual where Chinese and Korean characters appear on the page to disrupt a unitary linguistic reading experience.  At different points, the lyrics are highly fractured, reminiscent of the more avant-garde poetic techniques of Myung Mi Kim or Fred Wah and at other points, possessing more of a prose-poem dynamic. 


Wong begins the collection with one lofty aim:  “how to turn english from a low-context language into a high context language” (11), adding later lines that structure her interest in the increasingly technocratic society that distances us from one another: “the internal frontier: my consumer patterns” (11) and “electromagnetic fields of refrigerator, phone & computer hum bewildered static” (11).  How does one make sense of the contemporary “noise” where everything can be bought and/or upgraded, Wong’s lyrics immediately ask us?  The following poems induce a certain chaotic formal element as lines from other poetry collections and other writers spiral around her lyrics, creating a terrain in which the reader must physically disorient the page in order to discern the “high-context” representational environment.  The mix of hand-writing and computer font serve to enhance a different aesthetic toward lyrical presentation, reminding the reader that poetry emerges from an embodied and enfigured source.  In “perverse subsidies,” the speaker asks, “will pay for you to take my garbage away so I never have to look at it, never have to imagine the roaches & rats crawling through cucumber rinds, ragged underwear, clumps of hair & crumbled up toilet paper.  seagulls & crows will feed on rotting leftovers, carrion will reek of fetid life, full, wasteful, extravagant to extinction.  fill my car, our streets, with the corpses of Iraqi civilians, the ghost of ken saro-wiwa, the bones of displaced caribou.  it will clatter down the graveyard that masquerades as a highway, emitting malaise to the tunes of eminem.  disaffect, reinfect me” (21).  The environmental degradation wrought by our “trash” irresponsibilities, the continued havoc occurring due to massive warfare, and finally the reference to the “ghost of ken saro-wiwa,” the ogoni activist whose fight does not remain unremembered here, all concatenate as part of a larger activist politic the poetry invokes.  I am struck most by the way in which Wong is consistently able to weave in these “calls to actions” amidst such densely textured image and sonic “scapes.” 


“damage” is the poem that reminds me most of the current global economic situation.  Wong’s lyric speaker perceives the financial “culture” and capitalist ideology in this way:  “people walk around in various states of damage.  damaged goods.  mismanaged funds.  poverty rampage in corporate attire.  let them eat mutual funds.  the rate of interest is ejaculatory.  eleven dribbles into two.  murderous profit margins.  mowing the law.  moaning the lost.  manning the last financial post.  when did i become a commodity? a calamity?  indemnity?  the trend to credit facilitates fascism.  ATM: automatically tracks movement, a totalitarian market, antagonize the machine & see what happens” (45).  Besides the clear attention to semantic “sonics,” Wong’s lyrics also suggest the violence that comes with the unmitigated desire for money and the ways in which the body is configured in multiply disorienting ways under capitalism, as the speaker asks if s/he might be a commodity, calamity or indemnity, or perhaps some combination of all those elements.  Wong defines ATM not as automatic teller machine, but gives us other options that support her polemic lyric, “the trend to credit facilitates fascism.”  Here, ATM might mean, “automatically tracks movement” or “a totalitarian market” or to that we might instead “antagonize the machine” to “see what happens,” suggesting instead a revolutionary politic.  “trickledown infect” is more evidence of Wong’s gift for wordplay:  “intermittent insistence sinister complicity stillborn mister minister toxic tinctures stinking pistols stricken cysts or cynical sisters strychnine biscuits kiss or desist lore please pucker up and miss or responsible for which mess your dissatisfaction resists bores goriness consists of not cleaning up your mess for centuries nor paying your debts to those you’ve made poor with your thefts sir” (48).  The conclusion of “trickledown infect” seems to invoke a specific person and we can’t help but think of Ronald Reagan and his trickledown economics, now conceived instead as a kind of virulent disease with the power to poison as it is “toxic,” the power to kill through its “stinking pistols,” and upheld by someone “sinister,” his words like their own capitalist religion. 


In “for Lee Kyung Hae Korean farmer martyred in Cancun (1947-2003), Wong pens the poetic elegy for a Korean activist who killed himself in protest of the World Trade Organizations policies.  Wong’s inclusion of the Korean and Chinese characters for Lee’s name does introduce a panethnic politic, which often goes ignored in the consideration not simply of an ethnic politic, but a broadly conceived racial politic.  While the efficacy of Asian American panethnic activism has often been challenged (one of the most obvious recent occurrences being the Yamanaka Blu’s Hanging controversy), Wong takes this element up this interethnic consideration here:  “WTO/ smashes rice farmers into/ the enduring earth” (62).  A final poetic sequence grounds us back in Canada: “biking down the august streets of vancouver i find my pride at powell street.  reverberating into the crowd as exuberant taiko.  walk into a sea of issei, nisei, sansei pride, generations of pride in rock bands, doing park clean-up, serving corn on the cob, making videos, doing a post-atomic dance” (72).  Once again, the interethnic reference is striking.  Wong’s Chinese Canadian background is happily taken up with this larger sense of Asian Canadian “pride.”  In an era where the term “post-race” is often bandied about as if identity politics is inefficacious, Wong’s attention here toward other cultural practices and the embrace of those practices as a way into thinking about difference and the empowerment of difference is considerably refreshing.  We are reminded of course of the importance of nationality and geography to Wong’s lyrics. 


Wong is a highly talented lyrical technician, at ease with the ways that words can construct meaning against each other in almost violent juxtaposition.  At the same time, the wonderfully textured semantic landscape is always-already tempered with Wong’s progressive politic.  The collection would be an easy fit for any course on contemporary poetics or Asian “American” literature. 

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