Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

Decorated Wall

Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

Decorated Wall

Article excerpt

Mei-mei Berssenbrugge. / Love Artists: New and Selected Poems. University of California Press 2006. 154 pages $19.95 (paper)

Barbara Jane Reyes. Poeta en San Francisco. Tinfish Press 2005. 109 pp. $13.00 (paper)

Shanxing Wang. Mad Science in Imperial City. Future Poem Boolcs 2005. 132 pp. $14.00 (paper)

IT was in the 1980s and '90s, a heady era for multiculturalism and the literary culture wars, that Asian American poets finally started to appear in mainstream publications. James Täte led off his alphabetically ordered Best American Poetry selection with a poem by the Asian American poet Ai rather than the customary Animons. Campuses abounded in conferences that would, for instance, ponder masculinity in David Muras poetry or the effect of the journal Bamboo Ridge on Hawaiian literary culture. Above all, there were anthologies. The Nineties alone saw perhaps a dozen anthologies devoted to Asian American writers, who breathlessly proclaimed themselves to be "breaking their silence," plunging "into the fire," "walking the sky," "making waves," and even "making more waves." Of these, the one that made the most waves was The Open Boat: Poems from Asian America, published in 1993. In his introduction, editor Garrett Hongo proudly ticks off the accomplishments of his contributors:

Cathy Song's Picture Bride won the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition in 1982. John Yau's Corpse and Mirror (Holt, 1983) was selected by John Ashbery for the prestigious National Poetry Series. The Academy of American Poets honored Ai, (Garrett Hongo), and Li-Young Lee with their Lament Poetry Selections for 1978, and 1990. Three of us have been awarded Guggenheim Fellowships, and not a few with Discovery/The Nation Award from the Poetry Center of the 92nd Street Y...

This seems more appropriate to a résumé than an anthology, but one can understand Hongo's wish to impress. His mission was to legitimize Asian American poetry within the larger enterprise of mainstream poetry rather than to compile ethnic, conscious-raising agitprop. Before the Eighties, Asian American poems sprang out of basement workshops and appeared in shoddily Xeroxed packets handed out at protest rallies. Well aware of this tradition, Hongo wanted to debunk the stereotype of the chest-thumping activist poet. "Roughly, the profile was this: The Asian American writer was an urban, homophobic male educated at a California state university who identified with Black power," Hongo writes.

As a writer born in the Seventies, I was at first puzzled by this stereotype, trying to envision a fist-pumping Asian American poet with the testosterone of Ezra Pound. This image certainly jars with my own first encounter with Asian American poetry, in high school, when I skipped to the end of the assigned Norton Anthology and discovered a quiet, poignant poem by Cathy Song about a mother brushing her daughter's hair. By the Nineties, the hyper-masculine agitators described by Hongo were as extinct as bell-bottoms.

Yet The Open Boat fostered a new model even as it dismantled an old, for the poems it gathered are mainly free-verse, artlessly plainspoken, and first-person-focused. Striking a measured and ponderous tone, the poet relates a domestic narrative that in some way addresses cultural difference, whether generational (modier vs. daughter), geographical (Beijing vs. Los Angeles), or culinary (sushi vs. fried catfish). But if cultural difference is the driving subject for many of the Open Boat poets, they deal with it no differently from their white American contemporaries, adopting the mainstream MFA style of that era, which dictated writing "what you know" in clear, accessible language. At its best, this approach yields poems such as Li-Young Lee's "The Cleaving":

Roast pork cut

from a hog hung

by nose and shoulders,

her entire skin burnt

crisp, flesh I know

to be sweet,

her shining

face grinning

up at ducks,

dangling single file,

each pierced by black

hooks through breast, bill,

and steaming from a hole

stitched shut at the ass. …

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