“The Symmetry of Missed Appointments” (Helen Wong Huie, 1979)

Helen Wong Huie is another Chinese-American poet whom I discovered through the Sunbury Press anthology American Born and Foreign. I can find almost nothing about her online except that she was one of the guest-editors of that anthology, to which she contributed the poem below, and that she also contributed to the anthology Ordinary Women / Mujeres Comunes: An Anthology of Poetry by New York City Women, for which Fay Chiang was one of the editors. I am sorry that Helen Wong Huie did not publish anything that I can find after these two anthologies; I like this poem by her very much:

The Symmetry of Missed Appointments

There was no answer
to the knock.
The nameplate on the door
reads:

Drinking Apricot Nectar
without the image of the Tree
or its Fruit.
The symmetry of missed appointments.

I am going to get Ordinary Women from the library, so a few weeks from now I will have more poetry by Helen Wong Huie to share, as well as more by Frances Chung, who I wrote about last week.

The Anchoress (Robyn Cadwallader, 2015)

anchoress

I liked the sound of this very much; a novel about a 17-year-old English girl in 1255 who chooses (as real medieval women did sometimes choose) to be walled up in a church, to live a life of solitary prayer and fasting and contemplation, supported by the local community and devoted to praying for that community’s spiritual welfare. It is fascinating that so many women chose to do this — 123 of them in England alone during the 13th century — and I was eager to read Cadwallder’s imaginative evocation of one such woman. Unfortunately, instead of a book which explores the relentless strangeness of the past, Cadwallader wrote a novel that uses its historical setting as a stage set for modern young people coming of age. Both Sarah, the teenage girl who becomes an anchoress, and Ranaulf, the priest who eventually becomes her confessor, could be transplanted to a (not very good) contemporary YA novel without missing a beat. Sarah’s reasons for becoming an anchoress have little to do with relationship to a personal deity, or a desire to enter into a larger spiritual reality by giving up the outside world; she is instead fleeing her own sexual desire, which she is terrified will lead to death in childbirth just as it did for her sister Emma. Ranaulf is a sulky teenage boy (however old he is actually supposed to be) who wants everyone to just leave him alone with his manuscripts, rather than having to go engage in the duties of pastoral care that his priesthood entails. They go through the motions of relationship, and eventually come to the end of the book larger, wiser, more mature people, all against a picturesque backdrop of stone walls and willow trees and self-starvation that leads to symptoms easily mistaken by those foolish medieval people for mystical experiences.

I am sure my mild contempt comes through; it is born of disappointment and frustration with the limits of Cadwallader’s vision. I have read numerous reviews of this novel, all of which enthuse over its psychological realism, its attention to details, its beautiful language. Yes, they admit, it is slow-moving, there is not much plot, but oh, how very relevant it is to our modern day! Even Cadwallader uses the term — in this interview with an Australian newspaper she discusses how her editors felt that the novel was “remarkably relevant” in talking about “issues we can all think about today.” All right, but when I read a novel set in 1255, I want to experience the interiority and perspective of people living in 1255, a time so distant and different from our own that it might as well be an alien world. Cadwallader seems to think 1255 was remarkably like 2015, except perhaps more thatched huts and less rights for women; an utter failure of imagination. This inability to respect the past comes, perhaps, from Cadwallader’s starting place; according to that same interview, when she first read about anchoresses she was “absolutely horrified, fascinated, really thought it was just a terrible, terrible thing.” She is, of course, welcome to feel as she feels, but to write a novel out of horror and fascination without questioning the assumptions which underlie those reactions destroys the respect an author must have for their material. Rather than exploring the beliefs, values and perspectives of people in 1255, Cadwallader writes like a bad anthropologist, coming up with modern explanations for everything she finds uncomfortable. The result is a very frustrating, unsatisfying novel, and I do not recommend it.

Untitled Poem (Frances Chung, 1979)

Frances Chung was a Chinese-American poet, born in New York’s Chinatown in 1950. She began publishing poetry in various journals during the 1960s, while working as a math teacher in the New York public school system, but unfortunately died in 1990 without having ever published a collection of her work. After her death Walter K. Lew compiled her manuscripts and published them in 2000 as Crazy Melon and Chinese Apple: The Poems of Frances Chung. I have not yet read that collection, but there was a poem of hers I particularly liked in the 1979 Sunbury anthology American Born and Foreign, so I am sharing it here.

do you remember when it seemed the whole world
was closed
on shrimp-gray days
the rain held us in
we saw Lincoln Center from a bus
elegance was a Greek restaurant
the New York Times was too big to fold
with too many dictionary words empty crosswords
they never reporting the killing
down the street
the clothes they advertised were unreal too
who lounged who wore bathrobes
who had a dining room
everything in life being guesswork
cooking without teaspoons
eternal windowshoppers
we women were sometimes like children

I like it for itself, the stream of images saying something clear and a little bitter without being direct, and I like it also that it connects to me; I still have many days in which, “everything in life being guesswork,” I feel that child’s confusion despite my adult self.

Spinster (Kate Bolick, 2015) / Live Alone and Like It (Marjore Hillis, 1936)

SpinsterLiveAlone

Many months ago one of my brother’s girlfriends was reading this Bolick book, so I picked it up, and inspired by this LA Review of Books article read it together with the Marjorie Hillis. In the end, the Hillis was much more interesting to me; it is a guide for women living alone in the 1930s, and provides the dual joys of strange cultural assumptions and gritty practical advice about how to enjoy solitude when possible and, when not, how to make the best of it. Hillis takes it for granted that most of her readers have been taught to define themselves by men, and sets about arguing that this is not only unnecessary but counterproductive for women who, by choice or necessity, are going to be living alone. She tells her readers to develop passionate interests in things (not people) outside themselves, finding one hobby they can do within their own home, another which will be certain to take them outside of it; after all, Hillis says, “the more you enjoy yourself, the more of a person you will be.” She has no pity for women who mope, or who single-mindedly chase after the married state, but she does not assume that a woman living alone will be devoid of male companionship; she presents time with men as a choice, possibly pleasant, but simply one more option amongst many. I loved her insistence on both self-care and self-discipline and her belief that solitary women can live rich, fulfilling lives, discovering that they “are more of a person” than they may have once thought. It is a short, fascinating book, and I highly recommend it.

As for Spinster… well, I found Bolick to be an interesting author, and I enjoyed some aspects of her search for self-identity, but much of it was quite frustrating, the sort of book where I want to sit down and have a long talk with the author about all the things she seems to be missing. As best as I can tell, Bolick’s “spinster wish” that inspired the book is simply the desire to be a fully adult person, self-sufficient and competent, able to ride out the emotional challenges of her life without falling apart. A noble goal, certainly, but Bolick’s struggle towards adulthood is not inherent in being female, despite the many ways in which contemporary U.S. society still infantalises women; it is instead a problem that lies at the intersection of her whiteness, her upper middle class background, her family that has enough wealth and leisure to support her emotionally and financially whenever she wishes it, and her sense of entitlement that underlies her belief that her life must satisfy her in all ways or is otherwise flawed. I was floored by Bolick’s enthusiastic approval of Floyd Dell’s essay “Feminism for Men,” in which Dell argues that women should be allowed to work and be self-supporting so that men will have no responsbility for children and can thus live unfettered lives of adventure. People are, of course, complex, and everyone has values that they do not live, but for Bolick to sing the praises of this viewpoint while returning home to live with her father after a failed relationship is not just ironic, but signals a self-absorption which mars the book for me. Bolick seems unable to connect her emotional ambivalance about modern womanhood to the broader feminist struggles which have been going on for centuries. Women have not only fought for hundreds of years to live without the support of men, but to survive alone when forced by necessity to do so, and to have their lives respected as fully meaningful no matter how they end up living. To be a spinster does not have to mean (as Briallen Hopper puts it in that fantastic LARB essay I linked to above) being “a kind of dream girlfriend for Nathaniel P–type Brooklyn boys: exactly as man-oriented as every other girl, except maybe less interested in commitment.” It can be about living in a lesbian commune, or being asexual, or deciding that celibacy is the way to meet other goals, or it can be a bitter disappointment of never finding anyone interested, or anyone who interests you — and that is just the merest sampling. Women can live a thousand different ways, and for Bolick to position herself as the voice of spinsterhood without considering how unrepresentative her white upper-middle-class urban experience is annoys me to no end. If the book had been titled ‘My realisation that I can have a boyfriend whom I don’t live with’ I might have enjoyed it much more. As it is, I can only hope that the fuss around her work demonstrates to publishers that there any book about actual spinsterhood will have no problem finding an audience.

High Fidelity (Nick Hornby, 1995)

HighFidelityCover

Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity came out in 1995, when I still resolutely read only genre fiction, and thus although I heard of it as a popular novel that was being made into a movie and so forth, I never read it. I have finally done so, and while it was interesting, I did not enjoy much about it. It is very much of its time, a sort of ‘lad lit’ about men who refuse to grow up, men for whom women are alien creatures to be manipulated into providing sex and companionship and validation. Rob, the protagonist, reminds me of many men I knew in the mid-90s; he wears all black, works half-heartedly at running a record shop, and is an obsessive fan of ‘good’ pop music — that ‘good’ is in the quotes because it is not as though Rob has an aesthetic which is shared with the reader, he knows what he likes and he uses his opinions as ways to judge who is worthy and who is not. The unworthy he mocks; the worthy he half-befriends, but he is always waiting for them to fall from grace, and even more so he is always waiting to fall from their grace. For Rob and his friends, what a person consumes is who they are, taste is self, and those with bad taste are inherently bad people.

As the novel progresses it becomes clear that Rob navigates his life based entirely on these kinds of judgements. Reviewing his various failed relationships, he claims that people “run the risk of losing anyone who is worth spending time with, unless you are so paranoid about loss that you choose someone unlosable, somebody who could not possibly appeal to anyone else at all.” That certainty that people are commodities, objectively comparable with one another and able to be labelled and traded around, is at the heart of the book, and while Hornby makes some effort to question it with an excellent dinner party scene in which Rob really enjoys spending time with a couple only to discover that they have terrible taste in music, on the whole this view is allowed to stand. Indeed, when we finally hear Laura, Rob’s most recent girlfriend, speak at some length, she shares the same point of view; she is dating Rob not for who he is now, but because he has “potential as a human being,” and she hopes “to bring it out.” It is perhaps not an unusual worldview, but it makes my skin crawl.

The novel is not without its pleasures; Hornby is a funny writer, and I did have the sense now and again that he realised how limited his narrator was, that he was telling a story about Rob rather than voicing his own cultural point of view. When the women in the novel begin to speak it is more interesting, although I have my doubts about Hornby’s sense of women’s interiority. Still, in the end I found Rob to be yet another privileged white boy throwing little tantrums because he feels entitled to pleasure without effort, and while there is nothing amiss in writing a novel about such a person, I have known enough men like this in my own life that I do not gain anything by reading about one.

Tiny Pretty Things (Sona Charaipotra & Dhonielle Clayton, 2015)

TinyPrettyThings

I am always in the middle of a dozen books, but I can never resist picking up the ones that the rest of my family is reading & seeing what I think — so when my young sister brought Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton’s Tiny Pretty Things home from the library, I read the first few pages — and then a few more, because with a point-of-view character named Cassie, how could I not? Then Cassie vanished from the narrative, and I kept reading to discover what happened to her, and soon I did not want to put the book down; I ended up devouring it over the course of a few days, reading at all hours the way one does with a guilty pleasure — although I hate that phrase, why the guilt? This is not at all the sort of thing I typically read, a fast-moving novel about ballet students behaving badly, and it is somewhat poorly constructed at the end, but still, it was definitely a pleasure and has stayed with me afterwards, so I have been musing the last few months about why.

Tiny Pretty Things has three viewpoint characters, all students at the American Ballet Conservatory: Bette, who is white, June, who is half-white, half-Korean, and Gigi, who is black. I did not know about the diversity going in to the book, but I am delighted by it, and that the novel approaches race in a way which is realistic without being didactic. Both June and Gigi are aware that no matter how well they dance, they will always meet prejudice for failing to conform to the pale, blonde ideal of their Russian instructors — the ideal that Bette achieves with seeming ease. When one of the white male dancers tells Gigi that he likes how different she is from the other students, she can only hear it as being about her race, knowing “that being different can be a code word for being black, for something that isn’t white.” June, meanwhile, contends with being “the only half-Asian ballerina,” feeling that she is “not quite right anywhere.” Yet while each of these young women is aware of the difficulties she faces, the novel firmly avoids letting the white characters fix it; as June notes, “no one wants to talk to the most privileged boy at school about the stuff nonwhite girls face in ballet.” For June and Gigi racism is an elephant in the room, an enormous obstacle which must be silently navigated around, and I found the contrast between their awareness and Bette’s anxious, angry entitlement heightened my own awareness of how power and privilege were playing out in the narrative.

While I admired the nuanced way the authors focused attention on race, and enjoyed the diverse cast, I think what I loved most about this book is that it shows the characters working. In my own teen years I loved to read novels about actors or dancers, singers or musicians, but very few of them were ever shown practising — that was something mentioned in a sentence now and again, but only shown on-screen when something dramatic would occur to interrupt the rehearsal. Charaipotra & Clayton, however, have chosen to foreground the sheer, unremitting labour of studying ballet at this level. Bette, Gigi and June all spend hours upon hours practising each day, and the authors use this time in a number of narratively clever ways. Each young woman approaches practise differently, and their characters is developed in the details of how they choose to work, when and where, and what else they do with the time — planning for the future, secret rendezvous, a chance to break down and cry, or occasionally simply losing themselves in physical motion and the joy of dance. Yet all this time spent in scenes of practise increases the narrative tension; I could never forget that each young woman is just one mis-timed leap away from an injury that would interrupt their careers for months or years. I loved to see the authors respecting the reality of hard work while making narrative use of it; it gave the book a solidity that so many stories of artists lack.

I have read many reviews which call this a ‘soapy’ book, and I still can’t tell if that is meant as a compliment. The ballet school is an intensely competitive environment; each student is not only trying to outdo her rivals, but also to better her own performances, as each moment of perfection simply creates higher expectations in the adults who have the real power. I found it quite understandable that all the students would constantly watch one another, trying to measure success and failure, judging who their toughest competition is — and some of them go the next step, strategising how to eliminate rivals. Yes, I think the rapidity of revelations, the number of secrets, the timing of events, all of these things push the book towards melodrama, but I found the emotions underlying these things quite realistic both in their high pitch and in their ebb and flow. Some of these young women have suffered real trauma, and Charaipotra & Clayton show that as a factor without allowing it to be an excuse for the bad behaviour. I also liked, very much, the treatment of female sexual desire; it is so rare that a book celebrates the female gaze, where women of any age are shown as partially motivated by physical desire which stems from themselves rather than in response to a man who is soliciting it. There is sexual violence in the book, but there is a great deal more pleasure; desire is depicted as risky, perhaps, and distracting, but also as deeply enjoyable, and none of the three viewpoint characters ever questions her right to feel it.

I mentioned at the beginning of my review that this book is poorly constructed towards the end — it does not really end, or even stop, it just keeps going until suddenly there are no more pages. I am not certain whether Charaipotra & Clayton were already contracted for a sequel, but even if they were, it is poor writing in my mind, and I wish they had troubled to do better. Yes, life does just keep going like that, but narrative is created and controlled, and there did not seem to be any reason to keep moving forward except to entice readers towards the next book — which was unnecessary, this book was strong enough that most readers will want more regardless. I will certainly read the next one, but I hope they will take the time to structure the plot more elegantly; there is so much I like in what they write, I would like to be able to praise their work without reservation.

“His Long Tapered Fingers” (Fay Chiang, 1979)

Fay Chiang is a Chinese-American poet, artist and community activist. Born in 1952, she began publishing in the 1970s, and has released three collections of poetry that I can find: In The City of Contradictions (Sunbury Press 1979), Miwa’s Song (Sunbury 1982), and 7 Continents 9 Lives (Bowery Press 2010). It is through the Sunbury Press that I discovered Chiang, in fact — this was a press founded by Virginia Scott in 1974, to publish under-represented poets — women, people of colour, working class writers. Sunbury published not only collections by individual poets, but also anthologies under the imprint Sunbury–a poetry magazine. I found one of these anthologies, American Born and Foreign, at the library while looking for Asian-American poetry, and thus discovered Chiang, who is one of the guest editors Scott invited to work on the book. There are three of Chiang’s poems included, and this is my favourite of them:

his long tapered fingers
  guide my young hand curved around
  bamboo brush pen
      to form my name
         in chinese:

              family name, chiang; from northern china
               we came south on
                 tamed wild horses and became
                                  farmers
              middle name, wei, shared by you and your
                sisters, intelligence
              and your own ping, for peace or plains of green field

bits of characters:
    green, heart, three dots of water, woods, home

write again and again, your name,
   that you may never
             forget it.

The Nanjing Massacre: Poems (Wing Tek Lum, 2013)

NanjingMassacrePoems

Yesterday I posted some work by Wing Tek Lum, a Chinese-American poet living in Hawaii. Today I am looking at his 2013 book, The Nanjing Massacre: Poems, which is his second collection of poetry; the first, 1987’s Expounding the Doubtful Points, won an American Book Award. This is not a review, because I have not read the book; it is not available in any library I have access to, although I have filled out the appropriate forms in the hopes that it will change. But from the glimpses I have seen it is an interesting and powerful collection, one I wish to talk about here, and so I will use the online interviews and excerpted poems in order to enter a little into the book I do not have.

In an interview with Jocelyn Richards at Brown University, Lum describes the beginning of his interest in the Nanjing Massacre:

I knew about the Sino-Japanese War, I knew there were these atrocities, and I knew there were hard feelings by my parents’ generation about the war, especially among the Chinese-American population, where I grew up in Honolulu, but I didn’t know about the specifics. So, in 1997, when Iris Chang’s book came out, I was outraged, so, I started writing one poem and then it cascaded into another poem and another poem.

He continued writing for the next fifteen years, studying photographs, reading diaries and memoirs and academic histories, and when possible speaking to survivors of the massacre. His poems encompass a variety of perspectives, seeking entrance into the historical reality of the atrocity by examining perpetrators as well as victims, collaborators as well as soldiers and civilians. Lum is not writing from a neutral standpoint, however; he is writing what Jane Wong, in her review of the book, calls “the poetry of witness.” In this she echoes Lum’s own goals; as he says in the interview following her review, he is determined to “to speak for the dead, for they could not speak for themselves.” In doing so, Lum hopes to turn the eyes of others onto this moment of history which it is far more comfortable to look away from. The few poems I have been able to find online are harrowing; they demand attention even while the brutality they recount makes it difficult to keep reading. Here is one:

The Nanking Safetyzone

Eyes red beyond tears
darting, filled with crazed hope
her voice so choked, past sobbing
past exhaustion and despair
that she can barely muster a whisper
her plea hoarse and deliberate
as she shoves through the ornate gate
through a narrow opening of cast iron
the bundle of her young son
just old enough to walk
but not yet weaned
wrapped tightly in a large padded jacket
a long scarf and woolen cap
squeezing him through the grating
into the surprised arms of strangers
those already crowded around camps inside
fortunate enough to have arrived earlier
inside the sanctuary walls
these walls shielding them from plunder and rape
the slaughter outside
even of infants bayoneted
or their heads dashed to the ground
in front of parents
an imaginable horror to this mother
now desperate to complete her last act
and then race away from the wall
vowing never to look back
as if it would be bad luck
her will so strongly focused
even against her own maternal instincts
that she could at all costs
care for him forever
but now she knows that this can never be so
and so for this one final chance
she takes control of her son’s life
by giving him up
his survival with better odds than her own
a lone woman on the street
now unburdened and resigned
stealing away through the rubble of her wounded city.
before the night that soon will come.

I do not find it easy to read, easy to contemplate the experience of having to make such a choice, but I am glad for the chance to bear witness through art, to try to hear what has been silenced. Sooner or later I will have the entire collection; when I do, I will write about it again. In the meantime, if anyone who reads this blog is familiar with Lum’s work, I am curious to hear.

Three Early Poems by Wing Tek Lum


I will write more about Diana Chang when I have finished reading her 1956 novel, The Frontiers of Love, but in poetry I am moving on to Chinese-American poet Wing Tek Lum (林永得). He was born in Hawaii in 1946, graduated from Brown University in 1964 with a degree in engineering, and then went on to the Union Theology Seminary, graduated with a masters in divinity in 1973. After spending some time in Hong Kong to learn Cantonese he returned to Hawaii, and has spent much of his life there, running a running a real-estate business with his brother and serving as the business manager for the Bamboo Ridge Press. Through all that time he has been writing poetry; as he put it in an interview published last year in the Hawaiian magazine Summit:

When I was young I was not noted as having much talent as a writer. Nor do I have formal training. But occasionally when I have a thought, I try to write it down. Sometimes I am lucky enough that it turns into a poem. I have been doing this for 40+ years; so I persevere.

His first collection, Expounding the Doubtful Points, won an American Book Award in 1988; his second, published in 2013, is The Nanjing Massacre: Poems. I am planning to write more about that second collection tomorrow; for now, here are three of his poems I have found in Asian-American Heritage: An Anthology of Prose and Poetry (1974):

Blessings

I write best in wintertime
when I’m cooped up;
she can corner me at will.

I stay up all hours of the night.
When I try to go to sleep
she dreams my dreams.

I’ve got it down to a science now:
a tensor lamp by the bed.
It beats scribbling her last traces in the dark.

My muse is quite jealous,
If I ever found another true love
there’d be poems to pay in hell.

That is the lightest poem of his I have seen; the others are all much graver, darker, although these next two have a sting of bitter humour as well.

To Li Po

I liked that poem
—the one about getting drunk,
three hundred cups of wine,
to drown away the sorrows
of generations.
                         In those days,
for every poem you wrote
a million Chinamen suffered to die.

         pen from bone
         brush from hair
         ink from blood

They were illiterate, you knew.
Better than words,
cheap liquor was solace for them.

Minority Poem

For George Lee

Why
we’re just as American
as apple pie—
that is, if you count
the leftover peelings
lying on the kitchen counter
which the cook has forgotten about
or doesn’t know
quite what to do with
except hope that the maid
when she cleans off the chopping block
will chuck them away
into a garbage can she’ll take out
on leaving for the night.

I like the clarity of each of them, the objects which come into focus but are not the focus themselves, and the emotions that come through strongly. I am glad he has persevered these forty years.

“A Dialogue With My Own Temperament” (Diana Chang, 1984)

Here is my favourite of the poems in Diana Chang’s collection What Matisse is After:

A Dialogue With My Own Temperament

Must you, I sigh again,
must you disturb the peace I also garden?

     Small aspects detach themselves from a field
     the dog’s color matches the wheat
     but in motion and thought
     he parts from the unawakened sheaves

My nature replies, I know you come and go.

(Am I hers
or is she my soul?)

Ah yes, I remember with relief,
glad to see nothing down the road of promise and will.
I can do without me very well, she mockingly reminds me
yet walks alongside like a montage
The lanes oblivion all the way

Stray knowledge laments
in trees likes doves.
We’ve each offered more than our hand:
Striving, grief, patience and love

I’ve nothing to say. I am deaf
and single and dumb.
This peace I need, pure and plain,
is such a joy,

Is dismay.
I am away again—
cast far like a long shadow

Go. Stay gone. Why do I keep returning,
large with new time?

But she unfurls
her breath in my sleep
And I have things to say to myself again.
I’m the very rain she rains and weathers.
Once more

we are

one another.

How can I judge a poem that feels so close to my own experience that I recognise my thoughts in many of the lines? Not at all, so I only share it, and wonder as I read it over again if I might grow large enough to be always the rain.