Larissa Lai and Rita Wong's Sybil Unrest

Continuing the trend of reading and reviewing Asian Canadian writers' texts, here is a little bit about the long poem Sybil Unrest (LINEbooks, 2008), co-authored by Larissa Lai and Rita Wong.



As the title suggests, there is much language play in this poem, with meanings sliding around aural similarities and creating knotty, dense phrases geared towards a kind of "unrest" or restlessness with the world today. "Sybil unrest" as a phrase suggests "civil unrest" as well as gestures towards the multiple-personality title-character from the movie Sybil and the Greek seers known as "sibyls." The reference to women who see the future and the truth of today's present deliberately foregrounds how such women often get marked as crazy.

The acknowledgements at the end of the book offer some clarifying comments on the poem, particularly in noting its genesis, form, and destabilization of a lyric "I." The poem began "in a renga spirit," they announce, and unfolds as "a back and forth conversation conducted by email over the course of several months." The renga is a Japanese poem written collaboratively, with two poets alternating stanzas. Lai and Wong's updating of such a form for the email generation is one way in which the poem as a whole continually blends a range of influences, technologies, historical moments and modes, and cultural references.

The authors also note that they began the poem while watching the news on television in a hotel room in Hong Kong in 2003, in the midst of a particularly troubling time characterized by fears of an Asian SARS epidemic and the ramping up of militarization and war in Iraq, all filtered through the "highly interested sources of CNN and BBC." Both authors, in their other work as well, are concerned with global (late) capitalism, feminist critique, and the body. This poem also addresses genomics, agribusiness, and a host of other contemporary manifestations of capitalist and imperialist control over particular (racialized) bodies and the land around us.

As a whole, the poem is comprised of three sections, divided simply by the Chinese words for one, two, three. At a formal level, the poems in the first section are the most uniformly laid out. Each page contains a stanza (or two at most), ranging from a handful of lines to almost the entire length of the page, left-justified and in aligned at the top of the page. In the second section, while the first half contains poems similarly laid out, the second half's stanzas begin to move. Lines are indented; some stanzas are right-justified; and some stanzas are centered on the page. These poems begin to suggest even more strongly the presence of multiple voices within each stanza. By the third section of the poem, some stanzas are laid out on the page in such a way that it is possible to read the lines and words in columns or in alternative orders. It seems as if this use of layout and whitespace furthers the poets' hopes of troubling a straightforward subjectivity and narrative.

The first page of the poem reads:
shrinkwrapped pushy
condemns on sale
dill pickle harmless
let her strap on
law's garters
lend me your tears
cunt remand
loved fist
loose brigand
safe sects
nimble clamps
over and over
just a mother
hole in the wall
tribade's revelations
wet pinch of salt
on the stroke of midknife
As with the title, the phrases that make up these lines are punny (that should totally be a word), drawing on multiple meanings of the words and like-sounding ones. It's worth noting that not only do the words in this poem work through puns and aural similarities but also often through synecdoche and metonymy, those poetic devices that offer one object to stand in for another (or the part for the whole, as specifically with synecdoche). The images created in these multi-layered phrases complexly connect overtly-sexualized bodies to capitalist and imperialist practices, weaving around the parts of a (woman's) body the impossibility of an untainted self. Here, "shrinkwrapped pushy" suggests a pussy wrapped in plastic, the commodfication of a woman's body and sexuality. In a synecdochal move, too, the pussy stands in for the woman as a whole, and that woman is perhaps a "pushy" one (a feminist!). The idea of shrinkwrapping, too, evokes agribusiness's homogenized, sanitized, and sterilized produce all in a line and brightly colored under the fluorescent lights of the supermarket's immaculately clean aisles. The continuing references to sex explore the subjugation of lesbian sexuality. Condoms becomes "condemns" because they are used not for a man's penis but instead on the "dill pickle" in a harness, something that is ultimately not "harmless" as it challenges men's phallic power through an appropriation of the penetrative member. The immediate reference to the pickle connects to the suggestion of shrinkwrapped produce in the first line, but rather than using a fresh cucumber--the kind of vegetable that would be shrinkwrapped--the poem offers instead the pickle, its altered status an indication of a kind of perversion of produce that is yet celebrated and desired. Other phrases in this stanza paint the image of lesbians having sex with various toys (a tribade is a lesbian, by the way), and the stanza ends with a fairy-tale like reference to the stroke of midnight, here slightly revised to "midknife," a curious neologism that also suggests "midwife" and "knife," pairing the thought of birth with that of sharp violence.

The other stanzas read similarly, working through a number of associations to create a vexed critique of power in a capitalist society that rends its peoples through the production of differences based on gender, race, and class. The other significant quality to the language in the poem is its reliance of contemporary issues as references and as the substance of its words. Popular culture icons, political figures, business slogans, transnational corporations, and other presences in our media-saturated world populate the lines. There is certainly that postmodern aesthetic of trafficking in shared (and sometimes unshared) touchstones in these names and phrases, and part of the pleasure that this poem elicits is in recognizing these references. The wide-ranging scope of material that Lai and Wong incorporate also suggests that our investments in various forms of popular, political, and business cultures are all ultimately connected. In this way, Halliburton and Monsanto pop up alongside Sonny and Cher.

(See also stephenhongsohn's review of Rita Wong's Forage.)
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