Nonfiction from NER 41.1
There were two things I wanted to do in Ireland. I wanted to go to a bog, and about this I was emphatic, reminding my husband daily that the trip would be a failure if there were no day at the bog. Any bog would do. The second thing I wanted to do was find Wong May, a poet with whom I’d begun corresponding in the months preceding.
I was quieter about this second desire because I knew the trip was precious time: it was our first trip alone after the birth of our firstborn, who had just turned one, and we knew such an opportunity—to wander countless hours through unknown streets and fields, to stay late at a pub and then sleep it off the next day—would not come again easily or soon. It was safe to assume that the last thing my husband would want to do on this trip was track down an elusive expatriated poet I had only just recently discovered.
And yet, since we began planning the trip, I had fantasized about my rendezvous with Wong May. I could take her out for a whiskey at Temple Bar. We could stroll the paths of St. Stephen’s Green, stand side by side in front of the Henry Moore sculpture of Yeats, and recite by heart our favorite lines from his poems. Whatever the scenario, I was convinced that by virtue of our cosmic affinity for each other we would inevitably end up at her house, drinking tea in her primrose garden, sharing secrets about our poems, our ancestors, and our anxieties about reading too much Kafka and Ezra Pound.
But I could not tell my husband about these fantasies, as much as I was sure they were premonitions of what would become a lifelong friendship. It did not escape my attention that Wong May in my imagination had become, like my husband and myself, another rabid literary tourist, enthralled by Ireland’s cultural heritage, despite having lived there for thirty-some years. In fact, I had no idea what she thought of Yeats or Joyce, though in one e-mail she responded indifferently to my query about Seamus Heaney: “How did I manage to spend thirty-five years in Ireland without meeting Seamus Heaney? Well, do I regret not having met the Dalai Lama? There must be—certainly a perverse streak in me.”
Her response was not merely indifferent. She was mocking my fan-girl solemnity for capital-L literature. She was—by nature—irreverent. I found this quality utterly bewitching.
“There must be—certainly a perverse streak in me.”
My correspondence with Wong May began in July 2014. Earlier that year, I had caught sight of her name on the website of Octopus Books, the small press about to publish her first book in thirty-six years, Picasso’s Tears: Poems 198–2013. I was as curious about her name as I was about that span of time, years that comprised nearly my entire life. But I was also embarrassed by my curiosity, which struck me as slightly solipsistic. Born in 1944 in Chungking, China, and then raised in Singapore, Wong May was roughly the same age as my mother, whose family had likewise migrated from China as world and civil wars besieged their country. But Wong May, I conjectured, did what my mother could not. In 1966, she arrived in the United States to attend the Iowa Writers Workshop, staking a claim on an independence that my mother never could. She published her first book in 1969 with Harcourt Brace and published two more with that New York trade house in 1972 and 1977 before relocating permanently to Ireland in 1978. She had an Irish husband and two sons; her fourth book would not appear until August 1, 2014, days before I found myself in Dublin scanning the crowds for a face that looked like mine.
But I’m getting ahead of the story. I had a basic biographical sketch and my superficial projections. The subtitle—Poems, 1908–2013—suggested she had not stopped writing; however, she had, it seemed, stepped away from a particular career trajectory either because of migration or because of marriage and family. Or perhaps it was both. I thought about my own mother, who had felt equally trapped by her immigrant status and by marriage and family. Again, I was projecting, indulging in self-reflection rather than thinking critically. I recognized this and decided then to set aside everything to properly answer the question of Wong May.
In truth, I was desperate for a distraction. There was my infant son, who measured the minutes of my day like a clock. It was always almost time to pick him up from daycare, to put him down for a nap, time for the first snack, the second snack, bedtime, waking. I was in the first year of my second tenure-track job, which was another clock, the seconds ticking away faster and faster with no poems, no new book. And there was languishing alongside all this a dissertation I had managed to still not finish five years into beginning it.
Now time suddenly stopped. I had discovered a poet I had never before heard of. The title of her first book, I soon learned, was A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals. What a coincidence, I thought: I am a bad girl, I love animals—she must, I deduced in my delirium, be writing to me.
In Wong May’s first book, I found this poem:
THE AMERICAN BEST SELLER
“This is me your
murderer calling from
Florida at 3:15
sorry to wake you
up I’m describing
I need your
help.” Let me
I say, and I
to the bathroom
& wash my face
I looked for the animals in A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals, eventually realizing that the poems are the animals. Vivid, evasive, brutally intelligent, and driven by the heat of instinct, the poems baffle, inviting readers to reflect on their unease. The murderer in “The American Best Seller” leads us to a speaker, the designated victim, whose mundane actions make a mockery of various forms of violence: American capitalist culture, the rhetorical tool of irony, and self-erasure as subjugation. Wong May’s response to the threat: “I walk barefoot . . . I wash my face.” Who exactly does the poet mock? Her reader, America, or literary convention?
“Let me / think / about it . . .”
Is it so wrong to want someone to write to you? For you? If I was delirious or distracted or desperate, it was because I sensed in Wong May a possible end to the loneliness that has marked my life as a woman, a poet, and an Asian American. Let me be clear: so many poems and poets, so much art and conversation, certain people, particular nature, have nourished me, made living meaningful, but the loneliness of the Asian American poet can be unfathomable, boundless, acute, and I wanted always—why not?—more.
I was encountering Wong May for the first time in 2014, but I am writing this in 2019, when my attentions have been reshaped by the political emergencies of our contemporary moment. A poem from her second book, Reports, for example, leaps out today with new and startling relevance:
I hadn’t noticed “Testicles” when I first read Reports in 2014. I recognized her humor and the visual orientations of her line breaks, but in my 2019 rereading I saw how the politics of her acerbic wit had sharpened its blade. The deliberateness with which she builds her imagery here is wryly delicate—“plum-colored,” “a blue egg”—and then the poem detours into cute absurdity. Suddenly, we’re asked to imagine testicles as happy campers: “they dream // of unknown countries // in individual sleeping bags.” Such is Wong May’s rhetorical might: she is fearless in her deployment of tone. A master ironist, she cuts to the quick of social convention, reveling in the vulnerabilities of language, that connotations can constellate with abandon and welcome comedy where it might be most uncomfortable. Thus, the poet swerves from blithe meticulous imagery to the danger of the hand in the next lines, weighing her subject matter in full view of readers. Because, the poet suggests, to look is not enough, even if it is safer. The thrills of tone in Wong May’s poetry lie in this engine of risk, which is not only driven by aesthetics but also by an urgency to disrupt the prisons we’ve made of society and culture. The last line, “I know my power,” resolves the poem by force, a subjectivity that finally shatters the poem’s performance of delicacy. These unsparing poems become, for me, mirrors of what I feel: earlier I called this “loneliness,” but it may just as well be pain—pain that is privately and collectively felt.
My private pain came not only from a lack of Asian American poetry, but from the terror that I might not be a real Asian American poet. Based on the poems I had been introduced to in classrooms and anthologies, I was certainly insufficiently Asian American. Neither my race nor my ancestral heritage were my subject matter; worse yet, I could not read Chinese, spoke Mandarin like a five-year-old, and had never studied, formally or informally, the history of China. I was born in New Jersey. It was quite possible I had no culture.
At last, I would come to understand that the institutions supporting— “uplifting”—writers of color often expected our work to confirm stereotypes, to perform ethnographies, and to stay within our designated margins. The few Asian American poems permitted into the canon provided inadequate models because the editors and teachers who chose them could only see them as testimonials of our otherness. Until I read Wong May, I had not fully grasped what I had been looking for and could not find in Asian American poetry: the freedom to write whatever and however I wanted to write and still be an Asian American poet. In the uncertainty of whether or not this freedom exists lies our collective pain.
This was not a conversation I could have with Wong May, but I could have it with her poems. More than any other poem in Reports, “In Memoriam,” an elegy commemorating the assassination of Martin Luther King, haunts my imagination for what it expresses about grief and ambivalence as social conditions:
(Martin Luther King, Spring 1968)
And if you come to my party
I will come to yours
There will always be parties
Evening comes soft and grey like
a gracious hostess
somewhere she dances
for St. John the Baptist
Listen: I am not sick
You are not sick
the in-patients are indoors
the out-patients are outdoors
the world is not sick
After a few martinis
people with glasses in their hands
touch each other
Spring is here
Assassins spring up everywhere like prophets
What is the occasion?
Did someone drive into the cows?
Some white men
Imagine they are in Africa.
if you listen carefully for long you will hear nothing
they want peace
it’s catkins falling off willow trees
At the heart of “In Memoriam” is a refrain of denial: “Listen: I am not sick / You are not sick” and then “the world is not sick.” This refrain demonstrates how repetition in life and in lyric can devolve into nonsense. For, we are all sick, the world is sick—with the grief of King’s death and the grief of an ongoing social discord that makes consolation untenable. Fragmentary stanzas affect a formal incoherence, reflecting a world that will not cohere, and Wong May allows us to believe it may never have cohered: “There will always be parties / and poetry.” The poem’s glib tone contradicts the title’s elegiac gesture, but I suspect the poet laments not only King’s death but also the grievous sense that American society is incapable of doing the work of elegy—to remember, to praise, and to console. What makes American society sick, the poem implies, is our unexamined discomfort with the unfathomable, and this includes everything from grief to racial difference.
Ambivalence thus animates the poem’s specific grief. Wong May additionally observes ambivalence in the racial imagination, wherein the intrinsic need to be seen is persistently troubled by the doubt that a person of color can ever truly be seen by a white person. This, too, becomes an object of grief; within the framework of elegy, our inability to console “racial melancholia,” as critic Anne Cheng has identified it, is devastating and further complicates how “In Memoriam” mourns King. After all, who wants to mourn what should never have been lost in the first place? So the attentions of the poem flitter like those of a slightly inebriated party guest, scattering disassociatively once grave truths emerge. When the poem lands on that cryptic couplet—“Some white men / Imagine they are in Africa”—the subsequent leap to hearing nothing is not simply digression but a reflection of white fragility.
Upon initial reading, I was struck that an Asian woman was writing about the death of the United States’s most influential civil rights leader, an African American man. I was stunned that the poem had not been singled out as a Civil Rights-era document of interracial and intercultural solidarity. But “In Memoriam” is a difficult poem; its politics are oblique, its emotions evasive. To read race into the poem is to accept a dare—or rather, a series of dares posing as questions. What does it mean to read King’s race into the poem, and what does it mean to read the poet’s race? What does the foregrounding of whiteness in the poem imply about the poem’s racial consciousness? Are we reading a white perspective or a perspective of color? The reader must ultimately reckon with the lenses through which she reads art and perceives the world. In this way, reading engages a politics and grapples with the possibility that no one authority rules language and the structures language presumes to control.
The interpretive freedom Wong May grants her readers fosters an intimacy with the poet and, more importantly, with oneself. In struggling to understand “In Memoriam”—it is a difficult poem—I found a wielding of difference that was as much conceptual as personal, where obliquity was nevertheless trenchant.
In July 2014, I introduced myself to Wong May over e-mail as a poet and professor working on an article about her forthcoming book, Picasso’s Tears. It was true. I had done the research and then successfully pitched an article, providing professional cover for my unprofessional obsessiveness. She consented, and we remained in correspondence until January 2015, with occasional stretches of silence.
In an interview included at the end of Picasso’s Tears, Wong May explains: “Looking back on my life, I’d say I am grateful to my two sons for having brought me up. . . . For me it was a ‘Poetry Workshop,’ a way of doing poetry by another means (in no sense a continuation of Iowa)—as well as the sort of upbringing I never got from my mother.”
When I asked her about this statement and how having children had affected her writing, she was terse: “The Poetry of Motherhood is the Poetry that survives Motherhood.”
My question about Iowa she ignored entirely.
I asked no questions about her mother and told her nothing about mine. At her request, I sent her a picture of my son.
I wanted to know if she thought of herself as an American poet or an Asian
American poet. Or was she Chinese, Singaporean, Irish . . . ?
At the heart of Picasso’s Tears is a magisterial poem of sixty-nine pages called “The Making of Guernica.” It intertwines the 1937 bombing of Guernica with the 2013 bombing at the Boston Marathon while ruminating on making art out of war. Wong May imagines expansively, as if the poem were both essay and panoramic painting, and posits how the history of violence unites us in a vexed global citizenry. Amidst lyric fragments, the poet laments, “America if you know how much I miss you / How much I miss Manhattan.”
She seemed impatient with my question about identification, writing, “I’d say I’m from ALL the places, All the countries I have lived in.
“& ‘home’ is wherever I happen to write. Poetry is always precarious, hand- to-mouth existence, one never knows where one’s next poem’s coming from, if it comes.”
She elaborated: “Persistently stateless, between suitcases, as between continents, it permits me to say certain things.”
I would be in Dublin in mid-August. Would she be willing to meet me for tea at the Cobalt Café or Merrion Hotel? Another question she did not answer.
Recently, when our trip to Ireland came up, my husband asked, “Why were you so angry at me?”
I don’t remember being angry, not at him. Not quite. I remember one night not being able to sleep as he slept the kind of profound inviolable sleep you only have after having had children, after finally getting away from your children— desperate, greedy, otherworldly sleep. But I could not sleep, dwarfed as I felt by his sleeping, the soundless monolith of his unconscious. I determined then that time would be his alone that night; for, in his dream world I did not exist, neither my wakefulness nor my imperfect solitude—and like that, the list of what no longer was grew. In his dream world, we had no child. There was no ocean to cross and re-cross, no poets to discover, no Ireland, no America, no us, no selves, no life before, and no life after. It was unfair to believe this, but I yielded to it, my late-night belief, as if to new faith.
He could sleep, I decided, because I could not, and this I irrationally surmised had to do with gender and history, with race, with the fate of our world, a world from which I could be thoughtlessly, easily erased.
I was in Dublin, in the lawless hours between midnight and dawn, and I was writhing in anonymity. I was suddenly sure that to count as an individual I had to be with my child, whose animal need for me sparked me into existence. I packed my suitcase, dressed in the dark, and soon was sitting in an unlit alcove on the lobby floor of our hotel scrolling for flights home on my phone. I was overwhelmed. I missed the constraints of my life. I missed my quiet quotidian unhappiness, which was my contentment, too, because, yes, it contained me, marked me as belonging in a space I could neither wholly abide by nor refute. That space called a woman’s life. The space I could not find anywhere in the physical world was the space for a woman who happened to be a writer who happened to be a mother who happened to be Asian American: a woman who happened to be me. Woman, writer, mother, Asian American—these were labels, identities, selves, intentions that described me, and yet, even now, I bristle at the words, their order, knowing instinctively that “writer” should come first and the others ought not matter. Worst was recognizing that though the words together clarified my specific nature, each word further compounded my sense of estrangement. I could not find my space in such darkness; I belonged nowhere. I knew, of course, that I was not going to fly home that night and abandon my husband. It was not his fault that he understood my loneliness even less than I did or that he would later misidentify my feeling as anger.
I was not angry. This was my secret riot, and it was swift, pathetic, and absolutely necessary. After some time, I returned to our hotel room, sleepless still, and checked my e-mail. Nothing. Nothing! Next to me my husband continued to sleep, and I lay awake waiting for the sun to rise.
Does it matter whether I ever met Wong May? Because she was with me days later as we wandered Sligo, where a mural of Yeats on the side of a brick building stood beside a throng of clouds. She was with me when I plunged into bitter cold water, the sole fool of a swimmer in an outcast bay of the North Atlantic Ocean. I expected to see her face on crowded Dublin buses, pictured her popping into every pub and café we paused at. It pained me that I couldn’t find her titles in the bookstores we visited, though until Picasso’s Tears, this had also been the case in the United States.
In her last e-mail to me, she described a dream in which I vaguely figured.
There was a field, maybe fog. I didn’t write back, but I imagined—I hoped—I was with her too.
It was here in her dream that I let our exchange, a conversation that often seemed to live only in my head, rest.
But it is hubris to claim I discovered Wong May. I did not discover her. Like everyone else, I was not paying enough attention.
Years later, I pulled from my shelves Juliana Chang’s seminal anthology, Quiet Fire, a book I’d had since graduate school. There in the table of contents I saw Wong May’s name and the titles of two poems from A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals. The bibliography includes her first three books, though the dates of publication are incorrect. I had done the very thing I’d criticized the canon- makers for: I had overlooked a poet who had the potential to meaningfully complicate and enrich our literary imagination.
What would it have meant for my poetics and my pedagogy had I read Wong May as an MFA student?
In my MFA program, the professor for whom I felt an aesthetic kinship told me my poems reverberated with the voices of the Tang Dynasty. Never mind that I had read scarcely any classical Chinese poetry; never mind that I shared with this man the same heroes. I forgave him because I knew he hadn’t meant to hurt me and because, as I’ve said, I was lonely.
About Wong May, I did discover this: in the September 1969 issue of Poetry magazine, her poems are nestled in close proximity to my professor’s. Their first books would appear around that time, mere months apart. Kirkus Review would describe Wong May’s book as containing “Difficult, unpleasant poems”; whereas my professor won a reprieve from harshness: “Despite his unevenness, he still emerges as a sensitive, accomplished poet.”
On our fourth day in Dublin, we rented a car and drove to the Bog of Allen in County Kildare. In borrowed galoshes too big for our feet, we galumphed across ground that felt like cake batter. As we were the only ones there that afternoon, the woman at the nature center had time to be curious about what compelled Americans to visit a bog. Surely, there are no bogs in the States. I was elated from moving through the air’s cool moisture, exploring the planetary strangeness of this environment, and so cheekily recited the Emily Dickinson poem about nobody, emphasizing the conclusion:
How dreary—to be—Somebody
How public—like a Frog –
To tell one’s name—the livelong June
To an admiring bog!
The woman was not familiar with our American poet but noted that Seamus Heaney had been a “Friend” of the Bog of Allen’s nature center and had contributed money and, once, a poem to their newsletter.
This was not the last conversation about poetry we would have with strangers in Ireland. Of course, my husband and I talked about poems and poets by force of habit. We haunted the hang-outs of Yeats, Joyce, Shaw, and Wilde. And there was that other conversation about poetry that kept almost not happening, each night, when I would check my e-mail again hoping to see Wong May’s name in my inbox, wondering which questions she would answer and which she’d leave for myself alone.
Nonfiction from NER 41.1
from the “Secret Histories” project at the Asian American Literature Festival