back toJacket2

Jacket 20 — December 2002   |   # 20  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |

David Hess

Letter to Kent Shaw, Revisited

This piece is 4,000 words or about eight printed pages long.
It was first published, in a shorter form, in Quid magazine, Cambridge UK, number two.

In the early summer of 1999, a poet by the name of Kent Shaw and I decided to enact a conversation about poetry on the page. At the time, Kent, now a student in Washington University’s writing program, had been running a Friday night ‘open mic’ at a coffeehouse adjacent to Left Bank Books in St. Louis’ Central West End. We promised to write each other a letter on Li-Young Lee’s The City in Which I Love You (Boa Editions, Ltd.,Rochester, NY, 1990). The letter was soon published in the second issue of Keston Sutherland’s and Andrea Brady’s Quid magazine. What follows is not an edited version of the published missive, but something totally different that, in addition to excerpting parts of the letter, strives to further reveal how Lee’s poetry puts me to sleep, i.e. flips my lid.

What first caught my eye when I picked up the book three years ago was the packaging or rather its base of production, as laid out in the Acknowledgements and ‘About the Author’ pages which present the reader with a mantra-like list of awards, grants, fellowships and places where Lee taught and studied. The City in Which I Love You, as the cover states, was the 1990 Lamont Poetry Selection of The Academy of American Poets. Kent took the position that Lee was not an academic poet. It was obvious that he was. No one need even look at the poetry to know that. Taking a broad view of the ‘poetry field’, one could criticize Lee’s book, and his subsequent memoir, as a form of careerism riding the crest of the multiculturalism biz in which packaging and promoting oneself, however ambivalently, as ‘other’, comes with its rewards, however contradictory. (Think, for instance, of Adrian C. Louis’s protest poetry, rooted in his experience as a Native American, yet hilariously bound in book covers designed with the most stereotypical Trading Post-like icons, images and fonts).
      Nor would it take the acumen of a Marjorie Perloff or Charles Bernstein to point out how Lee’s poems are variations on a mainstream confessional lyricism, derivative romantic idiom and prose-with-line breaks verse libre — e.g. ‘The trains came, then / the rains, and then we got separated’ (41, ‘For a New Citizen of These United States’) — that is disseminated through most university workshops (though not as strictly now as, say, 10 to 20 years ago), such as those Lee attended. Such critical methods just glance the surface. What interested me more were the psychological aspects of his poetry and how form and subject matter, more often than not, took to each other like oil and water — which is to say, the poetry tended to be pretty bad. Let’s take a closer look at why that’s the case.
      Lee’s poems, whose style I want to call the private- or interior-abstract (as opposed to other trans-subjective poetries that go by the names ‘visionary,’ ‘vatic’, ‘orphic’, ‘outside’ and so on), are unabashedly humorless (though there are a few moments in the book which transcend this drive), which is not the same as saying they are not comical. Humorlessness (again, I am not merely speaking of amusement, laughter) — another word might be spirituality — itself wouldn’t be the problem if there was some intensity or psychic flight to give movement and energy to the terrifying, heart-breaking experiences of being an outsider, a son of Chinese parents, political exiles, who fled Indonesia when he was a child, eventually settling in the U.S. when he was barely seven years old. The poetry refuses to recognize the irony and redundancy of its own language and the social propriety circumscribing its metaphysical speculations. Perhaps I am only stating a cultural difference or divergence in taste, but I doubt it.
      ‘Furious Versions,’ divided into seven parts, is the first poem in the book and begins: ‘These days I waken in the used light / of someone’s spent life, to discover / the birds have stripped my various names of meaning entire: / the sparrow by quarrel, / the dove by grievance. / I lie / dismantled. I feel / the hours. Do they veer / to dusk? Or dawn?’ (13).
      Now hold it right there! Why isn’t it ‘I awaken’ or ‘wake (up)’ — isn’t ‘waken’, most likely chosen because it’s the least colloquial of the three, a verb that needs an object, as in ‘I waken the sleeping baby bunny’? The grammarians will probably say no. But what is ‘used light’ and where might I find a used light store? Apparently, the birds have rebelled and stripped the poet of his name (s), actually they’ve stripped it/them ‘of meaning,’ and not just a little, but ‘entire.’ Not ‘entirely,’ but ‘entire.’ All of this seems very felt but not very real. What are the sparrows quarrelling about? What is the dove’s beef? And what or how does it mean to feel ‘dismantled’? Who took the poet apart? Whatever happened to Humpty-Dumpty? And to answer his last question, yes: The hours veer to both dusk and dawn. Every pre-schooler and sleeping baby bunny knows that.
      The next lines — ‘Will I rise and go / out into an American city? / Or walk down to the wilderness sea? / I might run with wife and children to the docks / to bribe an officer for our lives / and perilous passage. / Then I’d answer / in an oceanic tongue / to Professor, Capitalist, Husband, Father’ (his italics) — make the reader believe Lee is writing from the position of his father, who, with wife and children, probably had to bribe an officer in order to be granted passage elsewhere.
      But immediately we are confronted with this: ‘Or I might have one more / hour of sleep before my father / comes to take me / to his snowbound church / where I dust the pews and he sets candles / out the color of teeth. / That means I was born in Bandung, 1958 [the book actually lists his year of birth as ’57]; / on my father’s back, in borrowed clothes, / I came to America.’ Are we in line at Customs? Lee acknowledges the confusion when he later writes ‘and I confuse / the details’ (14), before going on to ask more big questions — ‘Is paradise due or narrowly missed / until another thousand years?’ — and tell us of strange mis-perceptions, as at the beginning of part two: ‘I wake to black / and one sound — / neither a heart / approaching nor one shoe / coming, but something less measured, never / arriving.’ Neither a heart ‘approaching?’ Nor one shoe ‘coming?’ There’s also the Raven-riffing, ‘a bird sits like a blacker / question, To where? To where? To where?’ (his italics), the frightening ‘While a rose / rattles at my ear,’ (contrast that to Wieners’ unforgettable, ‘Dogs bark in my ears’ from ‘The Waning of the Harvest Moon’) and this horror: ‘A door jumps / out from shadows, / then jumps away. This / is what I’ve come to find: / the back door, unlatched. Tooled by an insular wind, it / slams and slams / without meaning / to and without meaning’ (16).

      ‘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’[25].... 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?’[79].’
      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’ [26]) 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?


Check out this author’s work: Bookstores in Britain, and in the United States

Jacket 20 — December 2002  Contents page
Select other issues of the magazine from the | Jacket catalog | read about Jacket |
Other links: | top | homepage | bookstores | literary links | internet design |
Copyright Notice: Please respect the fact that this material is copyright. It is made available here without charge for personal use only. It may not be stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose

This material is copyright © David Hess and Jacket magazine 2002
The URL address of this page is