‘Your theory about the epic drive of Lee’s poetry and others is right,’ I wrote to Kent. ‘The poems become a quest for a meaning they already know they won’t obtain and this is their meaning, a kind of negative capability gone awry. Like a lot of language poetry this kind of writing can give us nothing to hold onto. (I just read Graham’s The End of Beauty and you should count how many times she uses the words “hold” and “holding” — it’s like someone writing about their own writer’s block, the space of the page filled with the search for what will fill it, which is maybe why people identify so much with it). Nothing escapes the author’s impressionistic pathos in such writing; the author can’t really decide what’s happening in his or her world and yet remains implanted at its center solid as ever. If we have anything to hold onto it is merely the fact that we know the author is attempting to describe some painfully true story.’... ‘Between the narcissism of this unrelenting self-referentiality (i.e. ‘I can only say that I can’t say much else’) and the equally obsessive investigation by language poetry into its own adorable mediumship and materiality, I don’t know which makes me more nauseous: ‘It goes on and it goes on / the ceaseless invention, incessant / constructions and deconstructions / of shadows over black grass, / while, overhead, poplars / rock and nod’.... it’s a tie.’
In the third part, there are more expressions that don’t achieve the strangeness to which they seem to aspire, but just fall awkwardly flat: ‘The yard heaves, perplexed / with shadows massed / and with shadows falling away. / Before me a tree, distinct / in its terrible / aspects, emerges, reels, sinks, / and is lost’ (17). Is there an earthquake going on, a mudslide? It gets worse when Lee summarizes: ‘How, then, may I / speak of flowers / here, where / a world of forms convulses, / here, amidst / drafts—yet / these are not drafts / toward a future form, but / furious versions / of the here and now.... [Cut! Where is the here and now?!] // Here, now, one / should say nothing / of three flowers, / only enter with them / in silence, fear, and hope, / into the next nervous one hundred human years,’ (19), or the next four sections.
The language ends up destroying, drowning out the emotion, with more clumsy phrasings (though not as clumsy as page 25’s ‘The night grows / miscellaneous in the sound of trees’ or 41’s ‘Forgive me for thinking I saw / the irregular postage stamp of death; / a black moth the size of my left / thumbnail’): ‘It was the pigeons, only pigeons / I’d startled from the porch rafters. / But the dread and hope / I carry with me / like lead and wings / let me believe otherwise’ (21) Back up! Why isn’t it ‘led me to believe otherwise?’ And why isn’t ‘a house, / under whose stone archway I stood / one day to duck the rain’ (43, ‘With Ruins’) not to ‘duck from the rain’?
I’m being nitpicky. Lee’s writing conveys its tale most poetically when he ceases trying to explain how he feels and just tells us what happened, as in part five: ‘Once, while I walked / with my father, a man / reached out, touched his arm, said, Kuo Yuan ? / The way he stared and spoke my father’s name, / I thought he meant to ask, Are you a dream ? / Here was the sadness of ten thousand miles, / of an abandoned house in Nan Jing, / where my father helped a blind man / wash his wife’s newly dead body, / then bury it, while bombs / fell, and trees raised / charred arms and burned’ (23, his italics). Reading this compared to the other passages you can see how images speak for themselves. In parts six and seven, however, Lee returns to narrating his failed search for meaning, using the sea as a symbol for his quest: ‘But sea-sound differs from the sound of trees: / it owns a rhythm, almost / a meaning, but / no human story, / and so is like / the sound of trees, / tirelessly building / as wind builds, rising / as wind rises, steadily gathering’ (25)... can you guess the next two words? ‘To nothing.’ And so on about the ‘meaning’ of his story: ‘At times its theme seems / murky, other times clear. Always, / death is a phrase, but just / a phrase, since nothing is ever / lost, and lives / are fulfilled by subsequence’ (27). But are they?
‘Lorca and Lee,’ I wrote in the letter (Kent and I had been in disagreement about Lee’s poetry in relation to Garcia Lorca’s notion of the duende), ‘may be writing about the same things but their poems are a world apart. Lee has to write ‘I’ll tell once and for all / how someone lived’ to remind or convince himself of his position as teller and writer. For Lorca this is unnecessary accoutrement; he’s already in the midst of the telling, the living, the dying. Lee’s poetry remains firmly on the side of the muse (read ‘The Waiting’ on page 61: ‘Now between your eyes / the furrows shine’... ‘What, I wonder’ does it mean?), the muse being his dead father (or some other relative), the supreme lost object which he must mourn in order to find himself in relation to the death that gives him his poetic life: ‘Here, I stand among my father’s roses / and see that what punctures outnumbers what / consoles, the cruel and the tender never / make peace, though one climbs, though one descends / petal by petal to the hidden ground / no one owns, I see that which is taken / away by violence or persuasion’ (from ‘Arise, Go Down’).
Whatever ‘that’ is he never shows or gives us, a delay which produces a modicum of mesmerizing (a word Helen Vendler used in her blurb on the back of Graham’s [J.G. being another poet Kent and I were in extreme disagreement about] beauty book — a ‘mesmerizing American voice’) suspense for the reader, enough to sustain interest I guess: ‘it had something to do / with death ... it had something / to do with love’ [50, ‘This Room and Everything in It].’ (Actually, ‘The Waiting’ — I seem to be more irritated by Lee’ technique, his self-questioning without end, than the subject matter, whether love or death (though the father-fixation seems to, er, inflate to Hamletesque proportions) — is a poem about his wife. But still: ‘Love, these lines / accompany our want, nameless / or otherwise, and our waiting. / And since we’ve not learned / how to want, / we’ve had to learn, / by waiting, how to wait. / So I wait / well, while you bathe’ (63). Wait well ? I guess that’s better than wait good.
In terms of form, ‘The Interrogation’ is probably the most effective poem in the book as it uses the Q & A structure to chart and externalize, I almost want to say exorcise, the persisting questions Lee doesn’t have the answers to: ‘Who came along? Who got left behind? / Ask the sea’ (34, his italics). Similarly, ‘A Story,’ which depicts his struggle to tell his son just that, utilizes the dialogue form to portray a relationship that suddenly takes on religious overtones: ‘Are you a god, / the man screams, that I sit mute before you? Am I god that I should never disappoint?’ (65, his italics). Occasionally, Lee does seem to find those images that are able to capture the confusion of place and emotion produced by his experiences as a refugee. Speaking of his brother, he writes, ‘His love for me feels like spilled water / running back to its vessel’ (35, ‘This Hour and What is Dead’). But what does that feel like? Is the poet the floor?
Then we get to the beginning to ‘Arise, Go Down’: ‘It wasn’t the bright hems of the Lord’s skirts / that brushed my face and I opened my eyes / to see from a cleft in rock His backside; // it’s a wasp perched on my left cheek. I keep / my eyes closed and stand perfectly still / in the garden till it leaves me alone,’ (take a deep breath, you’ll need it)...// ‘not to contemplate how this century / ends and the next begins with no one / I know having seen God, but to wonder // why I get through most days unscathed, though I / live in a time when it might be otherwise, / and I grow more fatherless each day’ (37).
Other parts of the book also seem to be about (oral) sex at first glance, but they’re not even that deep: ‘And what / is this / I excavate / with my mouth? / What is this / plated, ribbed, hinged / architecture, this carp head, [when I read this to a friend, they thought I said carpet] / but one more / articulation of a single nothing / severally manifested? / What is my eating, rapt as it is, but another / shape of going, / my immaculate expiration’ (84, ‘The Cleaving’)? This is the poem in which Lee, in a tone of absolute solemnity, proclaims, understandably, that he would ‘devour this race to sing it, / this race that according to Emerson / managed to preserve to a hair / for three or four thousand years / the ugliest features in the world. / I would eat these features, eat / the last three or four thousand years, every hair. / And I would eat Emerson, his transparent soul, his / soporific transcendence. / I would eat this head, / glazed in pepper-speckled sauce, / the cooked eyes opaque in their sockets’ (83). That sounds delicious, though slightly overcooked.
Here’s another blustery paragraph from the letter. After a digression into Artaud’s The Theater and its Double, which seemed appropriate given the dialogic moments that stood out in Lee’s book and its concerns with otherness and selfhood, I wrote: ‘While one may disagree with the particularities of Artaud’s argument (e.g. the mass spectacle of movies being just as bad as the theater or his simplistic call for a return to mythic forms and so forth), his desire to get rid of the dross of culture and get back to what is essential in life, in art, and to make out of this struggle the artwork itself, is indisputable. This impulse — the one which animates so many pages of that pagan book Moby-Dick and perhaps provoked Olson to go on a somewhat Ahabian quest for the primitive roots of language and poetry — is nowhere to be found in between the covers of Graham’s or Lee’s works.
In fact, their poems seem to enact the death of that impulse over and over again by taking us farther away from life and into foggier and foggier realms which are nonetheless mapped out as the authors’ selves: ‘I am that last, final thing, the body / in a white sheet listening, // the whole of me trained, / curled like one great ear on / a sound, a noise I know, a / woman talking / in another room, / the woman I love; and’... (from ‘A Final Thing’). I don’t think I’ve read a poem which takes its own debasement as anal-retentively as ‘The City in Which I Love You’. Lines like ‘the inverted fountain in which I don’t see me’ and ‘stick [this is a misquote; it should be ‘stack,’ though what difference does it make?] in me the unaccountable fire, / bring on me the iron leaf, but tenderly’ and ‘it’s only because I’m famished / for meaning’ and ‘your otherness is perfect as / my death’ immediately remind me of Morrissey’s masochistic spin moves minus the humor which allows Morrissey to mock his own (and others’) anxiety and desire (so that he can fail beautifully at being a proper masochist).
As Marjorie Perloff remarks in Wittgenstein’s Ladder in reference to Stein’s satire of the Italian futurist Marinetti, ‘she does not, as the more familiar satirist would, belittle her subject by exposing his foibles or mocking his pretensions. Rather, she stages the subject’s self-exposure’ (105). In the same way, Morrissey parodies entirely without sarcasm, without distance [though I am not so sure about this now] and is thus able to sing from a variety of social positions. Contrarily, ‘The Cleaving’ repeats the same drawn-out, epic ‘am I me?’ structure as the other poems and could not be written if the author did not see his resemblance in the face of the butcher or imagine himself as the animal that the butcher is slaughtering, all the while remaining separate: ‘Did the animal, after all, at the moment / its neck broke, / image the way his executioner / shrinks from his own death? / Is this how / I, too, recoil from my day?’ ... ‘Was it me in the Other / I prayed to when I prayed?’.’
The long title poem has its moments: ‘My tongue remembers your wounded flavor. / The vein in my neck adores you’ — which is then immediately ruined by, ‘A sword / stands up between my hips, / my hidden fleece sends forth its scent of human oil. // The shadows under my arms, / I promise, are tender, the shadows / under my face. Do not calculate, / but come, smooth other, rough sister’ (52); There are other awkward and unneeded words and exalted expressions, however sincere: ‘That I negotiate fog, bituminous / rain ringing like teeth into the beggar’s tin, / or two men jackaling a third in some alley / weirdly lit by a couch on fire, that I / drag my extinction in search of you....’ (52); more not-really-that-scary scenery that overshadows the previous descriptions of ‘guarded schoolyards, the boarded-up churches, swastikaed / synagogues’ (51): ‘a pie plate spins / past, whizzing its thin tremolo / a plastic bag, fat with wind, barrels by and slaps / a chain-link fence, wraps it like clung skin’ (53) [stop the show! — what, in the world, is clung skin?]; and redundancies: ‘And the ones I do not see / in cities all over the world, / the ones sitting, standing, lying down, those / in prisons playing checkers with their knocked-out teeth: they are not me. Some of them are / my age, even my height and weight; / none of them is me’ (54).
Pause it! The teeth-checkers image is one of the best in the collection, and creates a whole series of associations, emotions and meanings pummeled by the surrounding explanations — they only serve to soften the blow.
Rereading the book, I’m amazed to realize how I stole and modified certain lines and images from it in poems I wrote after my initial reading. While I was excited by the vulnerability of some of Lee’s work — its shattering sense of exile and heartbreak — I was also turned off by its overbearing focus on its story (‘But I own a human story, / whose very telling / remarks loss’ ) with its tiresome pile-up of justifications and explications.
‘If such lines were converted,’ I concluded in the Kent letter, ‘into dialogue for the theater we would see clearly how lame and unmoving they are and yet this passes for good poetry in our day. Despite its unprofessed desire not to, this kind of poetry speaks (only) for itself. If it does deliver any of the ‘violent satisfactions’ Artaud mentions, it is perhaps by providing a site where we can partake in and witness ourselves, through the author’s subjectivity, never attaining satisfaction, thereby reassuring ourselves that we are not alone in our own atomized helplessness and desire. But that’s what rock n’ roll songs are for, right?