Sunday, April 27, 2014

Thinking Its Presence

As a poet, I'd be deeply grateful to any reader who reads my poetry as closely as Dorothy J. Wang does the writings of Li-Young Lee, Marilyn Chin, John Yau, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge and Pamela Lu. The quality of attention in Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry is strongly sympathetic, though never uncritical. Wang shows how the racialized formation of the poets' identity is, not a cause, but a determinant of the form and language of their poetry. To ignore such influence is to read them willfully with one eye closed. Whether the poet treats race thematically, as Li-Young Lee, Marilyn Chin and John Yau do, or through formal means and experimental strategies, as Wang argues for Mei-mei Berssenbrugge and Pamela Lu, he or she has to confront the realities of American racial politics.

In her readings, Wang uncovers the complex deployment of the individual poet's dominant trope. She shows, for instance, that Li-Young Lee is a much more interesting poet than usually credited, by analyzing his slippery use of metaphor. Irony in Marilyn Chin and parody in John Yau are multi-directional, at once defensive and hostile. Even grammar bears the impression of race, in the participial phrases of Berssenbrugge, and the subjunctive subjects of Lu. Wang's analysis is informed by theorists such as Aristotle and Paul de Man on metaphor, Claire Colebrook and Linda Hutcheon on irony, Margaret Rose and Mikhail Bakhtin on parody, and Khachig Toloyan, William Safran and Paul Gilroy on diasporic writing, but she does not forget that poets have things to teach theorists too. So John Yau's poetry displays heteroglossia, a quality that Bakhtin reserves for the genre of novel.

Quite unusually too, in a book of literary criticism, Wang is fearless in calling out prejudice and bigotry in the pronouncements of white critics. Two important chapters deal with the separate involvement of Marilyn Chin and John Yau in two critical controversies over race and literature. The chapters show how avowedly liberal white writers and translators arrogate to themselves the power to decide what is racial, what is literary. These chapters are integral to the thesis of the book. They make concrete the alienating circumstances under which Asian American poets write. "Racialized formation" is a very abstract notion, until one reads what has been so openly said, and nastily implied, in letters to public journals.

As I read this volume, I hear echoes of the ideas that arose in my conversations with Dorothy, usually over brunch. Dorothy is a generous and exciting teacher, as her former students at the book party told me. I always leave her with new things to mull over. This book is the fruit of many years of thought. I will return often to it, and to the poetry that it celebrates.

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