New collections to make life more lyrical.
It’s been a hard month to focus for a variety of reasons: travel, solo parenting, an endless barrage of bad political news that affects all our lives one way or another. As you know, I tend to be critical of months dedicated to the awareness and celebration of a single marginalized culture, but since I needed my own reading gaze guided in some way, I’m happy to give a nod to Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (AAPI).
My first disclaimer, however, is that the three collections featured here cannot even graze the surface of the multitudes contained in the AAPI community. As I always say, more, more, more. Publish more voices from all diasporas. Asia is a huge continent; we need more poetry from every corner of it.
The second disclaimer is that the number of collections published by Pacific Islanders is abysmal. I try to focus on recently published works in this column, yet I couldn’t dig up a single new collection from a Pacific Islander-identifying poet. (I’m always on the lookout for works by poets of color.)
As for the collections below, they could not be more delightfully different from each other in terms of their containment, expansion, narrative, and form. I enjoyed digging into them and hope you do, too.
I think of the chapbook as a small, restrictive form unto itself. It is often under 40 pages, and each poem must be tightly tied to the others in some fashion. Since it contains so few poems overall, each must add to the layers of narrative. I do believe Cameron Quan Louie’s Apology Engine (Gold Line Press) is the tightest chapbook I’ve ever read. It’s a series of prose poems that builds upon the fascinating metaphorical concept outlined in the first poem:
“If you have ever felt the urge to apologize for something you/think you didn’t do, know the name for this feeling is moral/responsibility. It is wise to trust this feeling and apologize/anyways, sincerely.”
With each subsequent poem, he fleshes out the concept of the “apology engine” through both sincere and tongue-in-cheek anecdotes, theoretical arguments, cultural identifiers, and literary references. In one, the idea of the apology, especially for a Chinese American man, takes on a life of its own; it becomes a mechanical thing to examine one’s emotional responses, to assess whether they’re genuine.
Writes Louie in one poem, “As an American, I have learned to be comfortable — but not/too comfortable — in a condition of sorrow for an almost/endless list of atrocities.” In the next, he reflects:
“Yesterday, I was sorry for continuing to eat fried chicken/sandwiches. The obvious environmental catastrophe such/sandwiches are bound to create.”
Ultimately, Apology Engine forces readers to examine their personal motivations and the internal and external forces that influence our perception of events and response to them. Louie compels us to learn how to interrogate these often ridiculous yet real parts of ourselves.
I’m always intrigued by a collection’s dedication page, along with its epigraph, because it’s often there that you find the key to the heart of the book. I definitely gleaned the glue that holds together Shelley Wong’s As She Appears (YesYes Books) when she writes in her dedication: “for the quiet sisters.”
As She Appears is not what I think of as a gentle collection, though. Instead, it contains endless hidden worlds — just like those thoughtful, quiet siblings of ours do. My own quiet sibling, when he does speak, is devastatingly funny, sharp, and kind.
This collection carries those same sentiments, and it also carries the ocean and the fast-disappearing, secret green corners of the earth, with all their unseen depths and moods and teeming life. The poems act as images on the water’s surface, reflecting the world and the poet back at themselves. In “The Ocean Will Take Us One Day,” which references the Indigenous water defenders in North Dakota, Wong writes, “On land I can still lose/my boundary, identifying/with the ocean & not the lake.”
She weaves a narrative of love, loss, and queer identity throughout the book as persistent as waves softly lapping a shore of sharp rocks and broken shells. In “Watch Hill,” the speaker follows a ranger on a tour of protected land and describes what thrives there, native and non-native, and the full cycle of life in all its beauty and pain:
“I ask about
the thin/curved trees leaning at various
angles around us, which I privately name
the queer trees for their arcs & intertwining.
They have three names: Juneberry for timing,
the shad tree for blooming when the fish
are biting & service berry for emerging when
all the ice has melted back into the earth
so we can dig & bury our dead.”
We stay firmly grounded in the natural world and humanity’s struggle to understand it in Hayan Charara’s These Trees, Those Leaves, This Flower, That Fruit (Milkweed Editions). It’s almost an amalgamation of the two other collections presented here; Charara’s experience in life and as a poet (with three other collections to his name) gives his book a “wise elder” tone — not weighty, per se, but mature, with a casual, self-deprecating humor and ruminations on age, along with a well-earned weariness over the terrible cruelties we inflict on each other.
In “Older,” Charara writes of living with the loss of a parent gone too soon — “The dirt, damp with rain, is older than the sprouting grass./And shadowing the grassy spikes, the oak trees/with brittle limbs that never fall/on the mailman walking across the lawn are older/than the house” — and concludes with this heartrending volta:
“O,/mother, I am now older now than you ever would be.”
The epic-like “Fugue,” framed around Western philosophies and canonical texts such as The Iliad, is about what’s truly being said of you when, as the unwitting victim of another man’s war, you’re labeled a “political poet.” Its tone is both condemnatory and contemplative, its language conversational and straightforward, which makes it all the more searing.
What Charara asks the reader to do is truly to think through what it means to be a soldier, whether willingly fighting for freedom or serving as a conscript. He then walks you through the mechanical and emotional reality of killing. It’s a brash, bold, and brave poem, one that forces you to contemplate and penetrate its layers of meaning. It’s just one of many such powerful poems in this collection, all of which merit rereading.
Angela María Spring is the owner of Duende District, a mobile boutique bookstore for and by people of color, where all are welcome. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, and you can find her most recent poems in Muzzle Magazine, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Pilgrimage, PANK, Rust + Moth, Radar Poetry, and Glass: A Journal of Poetry. Her essays and reviews are at Catapult, Lit Hub, and Tor.com. Follow her on Twitter at @BurquenaBoricua.