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Friday, May 30, 2008

Reader's Diary #363- Andy Quan and Jim Wong Chu (Editors): Swallowing Clouds, An Anthology of Chinese-Canadian Poetry


The last time I read a cultural-based poetry anthology was Native Poetry In Canada. I had similar reactions to both: that the poetry escapes its confines. It's really interesting that while the aim of any anthology is to corral a collection based on some supposed similarity, yet the poems in these two books jumped the fence. It's not that I'm harboring any latent racism, that I'm shocked to find that not all Native Canadians or Chinese-Canadians are alike, it's that it's hard to pinpoint a commonality running through either anthology. Sure many in the Native anthology mentioned such figures as Helen Betty Osborne, and sure many in Swallowing Clouds mention Chinese cafes, but finding a single theme is impossible. In fact, the only unifying threads are declared right there in the titles. One is a book a poetry written by Native Canadians, the other is by Chinese-Canadians. But this is a good thing: no culture can, nor should they, speak with a single voice.

And because there are such differences amongst the poets themselves, the poems are often radically different as well, not just in themes, but also in structures, tones, and so forth. In "grammar poem" for instance Rita Wong presents a shape poem that could be so many things: is she using the position of the tongue's taste receptors to discuss grammar? Does it represent a gust of wind? I'm not sure, but I did appreciate her experimentation with linearity (it reminded me of Jeannette C. Armstrong's "Green" poem from Native Poetry). Another form I loved was the one found in Louise Bak's "Double-Take":

yellow earth scorched red

red sorghum dusted with blood

blood of thin white hare shot

shot by sake-gunners retching

retching over bleeding flesh

(read the rest here.)

Yet while Wong, Bak and a few others take liberties, others were more structured or at least conventional. That's not to say the rest were boring. In Kam Sein Yee's "Pierced Ears" for example, there is nothing overly adventurous going on with the form. However, I really enjoyed the story being told: of a woman remembering how lucky she was to get a chicken leg just before having her ears pierced as a young girl. As it gets increasingly more tense, the pain of an ear-piercing becomes associated with the girl's wedding night and the abusive relationship that followed for the next 40 years, Yee offers up some comic relief by saying, "she might have wanted/ to return the chicken leg."

There was also a pleasant surprise in the book in Goh Poh Seng's "Gate of Heavenly Peace." Newfoundland, where I grew up, does not have a large Chinese community, so I wasn't expecting any of these poems to be set there. The narrator and his family are spending the weekend at the cabin of some white locals as the news of the massacre at Tian An Men comes over the radio. The contrasts, and similarities, of the two cultures and peoples becomes palpable after the broadcast:

"Some bad, bye!"
Calvin said, shaking his head.
"Two thousand people killed,
three times the population of Cow Head!"

As with any anthology, some poems were better than others, but fortunately I enjoyed most. Published by Arsenal Pulp Press in 1999, the poets included within are Marisa Anlin Alps, Louise Bak, Lien Chao, Ritz Chow, Glenn Deer, Sean Gunn, Jamila Ismail, Gaik Cheng Khoo, Lydia Kwa, Larissa Lai, Laiwan, Fiona Tinwei Lam, Jen Lam, Evelyn Lau, Paul Ching Lee, Leung Ping-Kwan, Pei Hsein Lim, Andy Quan, Goh Poh Seng, Thuong Vuong-Riddick, Fred Wah, Rita Wong, Jim Wong-Chu, Kam Sein Yee, and Paul Yee.

1 comment:

TadMack said...

That was tough to read - horror made beautiful by form. A great choice.