Poetry, Review, Summer

How Many Ways to Arrive: A Review of not so, sea by Mg Roberts

NotSoSea_Final_Cover2.indd

Durga Press, 86 pages
Reviewed by Muriel Leung

“tell me how to root in sentence form, to distinguish pain from sacrifice

                                                                                                   ::

tell me where to dissolve”

–excerpt from Mg Roberts’ not so, sea

For Mg Roberts in her wildly emotive first book not so, sea, poetry is an attempt to reconcile a messy story of origin. On the one hand, origin is scripted by geographical traversal as the speaker emigrates from the Philippines. However, geography in terms of nation and borders is just one narrative strain. For Roberts, geography is not only the stuff of maps but also the textured landscape of place, the angled hurt of memory, and the indefatigable strength of the mothering body that endures birth, death, and everything in between.

It is why the text within not so, sea appears in the form of non-linear narrative and fragments parsed by white space. Fragmentation is necessary to construct this particular narrative of origin. It disrupts a linear and hegemonic narrative that privileges order and coherency. For Roberts, these fragments are jagged shards that begin with a “cut” in the book’s cinematic opening in which the speaker watches the story of her birth through performative distance. The cut at once signifies the cutting of an umbilical cord as well as the filmic technique of moving from shot to shot. Though these gestures may seem like discordant parts, they are assembled together to forge a new meaning.

This undulating movement between distance and longing characterizes the tonal complexity of the book’s fragments. In between birth and death, there is the narrative of a rich intergenerational history between women—the speaker, her mother, her grandmother, and her daughter as well. There is also the militarization of Asian countries that include the Philippines and Vietnam as well as the violent forces of racism in the speaker’s everyday encounters in the U.S. Frequently torn between spaces and time, the speaker forces herself to engage with what is most difficult in order to better comprehend her own history. She self-flagellates by watching post-Vietnam War action movies “to be closer to” an unnamed American G.I. that she addresses in a letter whose only distinction is by the number one. She ruminates on the Barbie Doll’s proportions and the expectations the toy’s measurements have placed upon young girls, particularly for the speaker’s daughter. In each turn, the speaker attempts to grow closer to violence as a way of touching it—which is a unique way of attempting to know it and master it in the hopes that she could uncover something in return that might make the future safe for her and her children.

not so, sea is a brightly dappled landscape of a text that matches its moments of clinical removal with floods of unrestrained mourn. Despite that grief, it is also a text of hope. In the lines from which Roberts draws for the book’s title, she writes, “Perched on this location, bowed against this site and elsewhere—not so, sea./ Pages turn creating distance. I must retell myself until I can see us in color.” The site that she names is non-specific but the syntactical obfuscation of the phrase “not so, sea” tells us that the sea can be both object and figure of address. The multiplicity of meaning here in the physical landscape is very much a marker of the potential of text. The process of “retell[ing]” though it may be bleak and terrifying, it is also necessary. It needs to be said because the alternative of silence also cuts. But this act of retelling is powerful for it names a distinct suffering marked by the perpetual sense of transiency and distance after immigration, removal of one’s innate sensibilities through the damaging effects of colonialism, racism and misogyny, and the cultural and familial demands in response to all this discord. Though there is a palpable fear of how this suffering will be passed down to a future generation, Roberts offers this generosity—an inheritance of pain is not without the fortitude to persist in spite of it.

***

Muriel Leung

Muriel Leung

Muriel Leung is a multimedia poet and former teaching artist from Queens, NY. Her poetry and essays can be found or is forthcoming in Coconut, TENDE RLOIN, Bone Bouquet, Dark Phrases, and RE/VISIONIST. She is a recipient of a Kundiman fellowship. Currently, she is a MFA candidate in poetry at Louisiana State University where she also serves as the Assistant Editor of New Delta Review.

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Poetry, Review, Spring

Nests and Strangers: A New Anthology Gives Voice to Asian American Woman Avant Garde Poetics

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Nests and Strangers: On Asian American Women Poets, Ed. with an Introduction by Timothy Yu; Afterword by Mg Roberts
Kelsey Street Press, 116 pages

Reviewed by Muriel Leung

In these past weeks, conversations about race and poetry have been especially on high alert, from the enraged responses to Kenneth Goldsmith’s appropriation of Michael Brown’s black body in a piece performed at Brown University to the Mongrel Coalition’s loud denouncement of Goldsmith’s actions as well as their heavy critique of poetry movements like conceptualism that heralds a privileged form of (white) erasure. We ask ourselves what the poetry of the “avant garde” constitutes now that the political discourse of race has continuously ruptured the supposed neutrality of form and poetic practice.

Chiming in on this dialogue about experimental poetics and race is Nests and Strangers, a forthcoming anthology of essays from Kelsey Street Press on four pivotal Asian American women poets, Myung Mi Kim, Nellie Wong, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, and Bhanu Kapil who have each in their own way altered the conversation of poetics and political possibilities through their artistic practices and life’s works. In this seminal project, Timothy Yu and Mg Roberts, the anthology’s editors honor the poetic contributions of Asian American women poets who have in some way contributed to the legacy of Asian American poetry, art making, history, and activism. Rather than asserting a fixed categorization of an experimental poet, the anthology brings in four contemporary poets and scholars, Sarah Dowling, Merle Woo, Sueyeun Juliette Lee, and Dorothy Wang, to discuss how innovation in poetry in the works of Kim, Wong, Berssenbrugge, and Kapil means more than just what transpires on the page but also through their lived experiences and subjectivities as well.

Perhaps this is where the heart of our current contention over race and poetry lies—the inability of others to see how poetics and marginalized experiences might intersect. In this sense, the project of bringing together these iconic poets and the writers who have so thoroughly been inspired by them bring a sense of organization to when this intersection gets murky when entered into a place of public discourse. Of course, as Asian American women, we know by our psychic experiences and connections that we have certain ties to language that recognize that our individual memories are tethered to a constantly shifting communal one. Yet one of the greatest struggles of writing as an Asian American woman poet in the world is the effort to assert that our presence matters in the way our experiences and memories matter—that they may not exactly take the shape and form one might expect in the performance of a work, but that our expression is derived from a significant and oftentimes omitted history.

Thus, Nests and Strangers grant us that assurance that personhood is not divorced from political or artistic expression for the Asian American woman poet. In Yu’s introduction to the anthology, he asks the pivotal question, “How can personhood emerge from the welter of contemporary discourse, particularly when that discourse continues to be shaped by racism, sexism, and colonialism?” Nests and Strangers traces this question from the early activist and community driven work of poets like Wong and Berssenbrugge to the poetic utterances of Kim and Kapil’s writing that transforms the space of diaspora, immigrant longing, and linguistic ruptures via the page.

Dowling, in her essay on Kim, explores the way in which her poetry makes visible the various denials of personhood when one’s language is constantly subjected to erasure. Kim’s poetics of “stutterance” through emphasis of difficult sounds, repetitions, and fragments, draw attention to the political sensibilities of language, to give voice to “figures who are tasked with simply enduring.” The persistence in struggle is echoed through Woo’s moving dedication to Wong’s work, which she declares as a “truly revolutionary art” for merging familial and community narratives with global politics in the necessary work of seeing one’s freedom as contingent upon the liberation of another. Wong does so through reinvigorating the “I,” which has become the white male American default, through her allusion to Walt Whitman’s famed work in “I Also Sing of Myself.” This reclamation of the “I” to give voice to the marginalized subject can also be seen in Berssenbrugge’s work though her approach varies from Wong’s. In Lee’s discussion of Berssenbrugge’s work, she describes her writing as a series of “porous interchanges between self and the world.” Berssenbrugge’s work maps the various ways in which one perceives the world, which is a political act that exposes our subjectivities through our means of interpretation. Lee’s essay on Berssenbrugge moves from a discussion of her rich biography that includes influences by various communities and artists to her innovative use of parataxis to establish a sense of continuity and discontinuity between human consciousness and the world. If Berssenbrugge’s poetry is about connection, then Kapil’s work explores these tethers in light of the violence of displacement, forced migration, and other ways of identity fragmentation. Wang on Kapil, writes, “What does it mean for an ‘I’ to be destabilized yet always connected to something larger…?” Written in an essay form that pays homage to Kapil’s poetic fragments, this last essay in the anthology offers up Kapil’s work as an example of a “future poetics” that interrogates the “post” conditions of our world and the residues of violence and trauma that it leaves behind. The “post” is not only the historical and political transgressions that mark us but the writing and capturing of them as well, and therein lies the years of poetry work ahead of us.

Aptly, the title of Roberts’ afterword to the anthology, “Notes Toward an Afterword: What Entrails” plays on the notion of final claims as well as the physical remains of such an artistic practice as poetry. If the essays themselves do not make it clear, Roberts’ statements remind the reader that for the Asian American woman poet, poetry is about guts—an embodied process that intimately involves the individual person and is inextricable from a politicized existence. The notion of an Asian American woman avant garde poetics is a continuous one that consistently refashions itself, and it will carry the resonances of not only the staple examples that Kim, Wong, Berssenbrugge, and Kapil have set through their writing and community contributions, but also the Asian American women poets who are attempting to archive the history from which they write and also to practice it so that this poetics is indeed a “continuum”—drawing together past, present, and future, without fear and with absolute daring.

***

Muriel Leung

Muriel Leung

Muriel Leung is a multimedia poet and former teaching artist from Queens, NY. Her poetry and essays can be found or is forthcoming in Coconut, TENDE RLOIN, Bone Bouquet, Dark Phrases, and RE/VISIONIST. She is a recipient of a Kundiman fellowship. Currently, she is a MFA candidate in poetry at Louisiana State University where she also serves as the Assistant Editor of New Delta Review.

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