Rachel Lee and Larissa Lai
[yours truly]: relationality without closure, poethics, and cooking up alternative futures
Larissa Lai’s artful forms continue to lodge deep in the fascia. Her puns, scaffolds and poe-maps witness other species’ suffering as well as all-too-human violations and violence. After riding the initial wave of her poetics in her latest work—64 prose poems interleaved with 64 haikus, that which comprises Iron Goddess of Mercy (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2021)—I indulged my habit of puzzling over how exactly Lai messages through a paperbound folio such stomach dropping feelings –how do we remain attentive through that wild ride?
I was just out of graduate school (so late-1990s early 2000’s) when I read Lai’s first two novels, When Fox Was a Thousand (1995) and Salt Fish Girl (2002), but it was only in the mid 2010s when thinking about the normality of our human selves as chimeras–as biological entities composed of lots of other species and how this insight could bear on Asian Americanist critique–that I looked deeply at Lai’s Automaton Biographies (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2009) and specifically the 33 page poem “ham.” Her own engagement with the cosmonautical travel of chimpanzees, events which preceded the similar trajectories of American humans, uses a rollicking voice—the monkey’s own braggadocio—to witness how the interstellar rocket as testament to White Man’s civilization, delivers animal cruelty and racism alongside this apex (human) technological achievement. If the comedic toggling between the hubris (of Man) and the humble pie (delivered to those giants by bacterial and viral microbes) provides much of the forward motion of “ham,” Lai’s Iron Goddess of Mercy (hereafter Iron Goddess), originally titled Maenad Martyr, dwells more in an unrelenting register of prolonged suffering and grief.
As I wrote in January :
“deciphering the codes and symbols of Iron Goddess—a vortex of perturbed, bewitching, trammeling energy–seems more akin to looking for a composed suicide note after the suicide, a way to stop a death–locate the cause within the individual rather than within an entire sociocultural system– that has already happened. Performing an Asian Canadian feminist “howl,” the (en)chanting voice of Iron Goddess stomps a furious dance across the book’s 180 or so pages–a sanghyang (Balinese spirit possession ritual) responding to atrocities both historical and personal.”
Composed during the period overlapping with US president Donald Trump’s administration (2016-20) and the initial months of spreading infection by SARS Co-V-19, the “Squid Twit”1—Lai’s compact moniker for #45—does indeed make several appearances in the haibun2 but the main focus is Neoliberal Capital, Narco-capital (e.g., the two opium wars linked to Britain’s craze for tea and colonial avarice), Slave Capital, Flesh Capital, and Info Capital, as well as the disregard for Chinese girls’ lives in the bargains of countries and families not to starve.
Scripted as a dialogue between the poetic speaker and her grandmother is also the “poethics” of (noncomposed) possession—sharing that discomforting feeling burden of sexual violation used as a weapon of war—or put another way, of becoming affectively responsive and responsible for these traumas not of one’s own making but still calling upon us to help caretake in the enduring aftermaths:
“The Japanese soldier came for Poh Poh, chased her around a table, Auntie three remembers, laughing to hide. Does that mean she was raped? I don’t want to talk about it, I was so unhappy then, I’m happy now, why would I want to remember” (57).
As (a kind of) salve to these Poh-Pohs and sisters retraumatized by memories of the Rape(s) of Nanking and other military occupations, historians of atrocity hold space for these hard truths by proposing anthropomorphic figures—Benjamin’s Angel of History and Greek mythology’s maenads and furies. These superhuman surrogates will witness for us.
Lai humorously questions the grandeur of even these figures, suggesting that the witness (and sweeper) of Progress’s debris—she who tracks the wake of barbarism that trails the forward progress of History—might resemble something more like a trawling net dragging behind and catching flotsam in the wake of a forward moving Hakka boat (poem #20). Asking “what peace could you lease” (you = this net-like entity), the poetic speaker intimates the exhausting metabolic labor that this witnessing work requires. When can this web-like catcher of fish3 stuck at the back of the boat (and transposed by judeo-christianity into the Angel of history) hang up her hat…or net-like self?
But of course, the point of the net—with its open latticework—is not to capture all that overflows but to survive intact the rush and barrage of fluid forces that would break apart some more rigid catchment. Who will untangle and care for this net’s weave against such turbulence?
Spilling and overflowing the composure of our writing selves—this frenzied pace and malapropping pigeon (hear: pidgin) that comes to impoenetrate Lai’s audience and that proves also too much for the poet herself to sing aloud4—this unbearable possession, the volcanic blood burst and yang rushing over the insufficiency of cognition, ratiocination, and justice —instantiates a furious tempo to vibrate alongside without diminishing the affective amplitude of grief.5 This approximates the entropic tonality of Iron Goddess of Mercy.
Will you come sip some tea? Because like you, “I’m afraid of what I Feel, the affect of the man zips through me fast and neurotic as my myopic’s ontic, I’m gutted by the flutter of ugly feelings” (51).
This feeling of being gutted like a fish, to be the Liver (104) pecked incessantly and healed again so as to be enervated for another go around, may be an Asian American moody aesthetic that cannot be made to do more work; it is certainly that which our model minority resilience is called upon to suppress/surpass.6 And in that suppression or maybe Buddhist acceptance of all life as suffering, where does this gut(ing) feeling go? Does it need to go somewhere? Where can we, must we, still hold space for it to reel or congeal?
It may be that the meshwork hung off the back of a Hakka boat lives inside us as the fleshy weave of fascia (65)—that communicative and biotensegrative structure of gelatinous folds of collagen and vacuoles that swell and recede in response to the flows of blood and lymph qua hydrostatic pressures produced by the animate viscera of the body’s living interior. I’ve been thinking these days a lot about fascia,7 and not just because Lai writes:
Thin Sticky membrane that slings
The body’s meat” (65)
I’ve been thinking about the speaker of this poem as the net, as the fascia, as the weave. The speaker of the poem, of course, is the she (or it) who follows the unwritten “yours truly”—the signing off partner to the many insistent “Dear’s.” That is, Iron Goddess delivers a procession of epistolary addresses that multiply and molt— “Dear Maenad, Dear Monad, Dear Myna, Dear Moonie, Dear Mourning” (9)—all in poem #1, as well as Dear Migrant (44), Dear Tragic (61), Dear Money (64), Dear Racial Representation (113), Dear Listener (118), Dear Fish (127), Dear Fragrant Harbor (137), Dear Oolong (141) Dear Echo Chamber (157), Dear Dialectic (164), Dear Sister (166), Dear Tong Yan (170), and so forth—all these openings that acknowledge relation and refuse or withhold closing salutations, whether it be “yours truly,” “best wishes,” or “regards.” Without closure.
How shall we sling our fascia, our webbing of internal bodily and planetary relations? How does it sling us? And how much care or bitterness goes into that sling—a holder and perhaps also a molder—shaping what’s inside?
There are graphic elements that precede and follow the 64 prose poems and 64 haikus. I exchanged emails recently with Larissa querying the relation of these images to the poems. The opening image I called an oracle bone design character and the four concluding images I called poe-maps.
RL: Re the oracle bone design:
I have only a rudimentary knowledge re Chinese chars but I think I see the radicals for mouth (kou), deer antlers, woman, and something that evokes for me iron/steel/dagger/digging. If these are totally off, please let me know. Have others given you their guesses? Do you think of this oracle bone design as something dug up from the crossroads as an incipit toward entropy? Or does it function otherwise?
LL: I really like what you see and can find no reason to disabuse you of such extraordinary visions. The image comes from Stephen Karcher's Total I Ching, for hexagram 49, "Revolution", which I refer to in footnote 61. (I've tried to keep the footnotes to a minimum, since it's not an academic text, nor is it a poem "about" footnotes.) You're the first to ask, or hazard a guess. Karcher (and I) see it as a woman shaman engaged in ritual with a horned animal skin stretched over branches—Karcher doesn't specify what animal, but for me, given the poem's obsessive epistolary mode, in the poem's present it has to be a deer. Ever a search for routes and roots, this diagram looks to the mythic Shang Dynasty sorceress, Lady Fu Hao, whose rituals are long lost and can only be imaginatively reconstructed. The roads that cross are those of lost history meeting poetry practice as ritual, unearthing memory as possibility for an origin that is not one, rustling up a past /present in which confucian/imperial power have to give way to the flows of chance nudged in better directions by the right kind of witch/doctor. So a kind of incipit, yes, or an invocation, an "Our Mother" right in the spot where "Our Father," having driven God or Reason into every dark hole he can find, has abandoned us because he doesn't know what to do with the excess that rushes in as if from nowhere, or everywhere. I hadn't thought about the poem as entropic, but, you're right, it is doing work towards a kind of new balance, a shoe to fit the other foot.
I admire the way these drawings leave “syntax” up to the viewer who puts some of the words and the graphic elements into relation (by rotating the page) but also is restricted, too, by 1) the way you’ve oriented text in space (inside, next to, under, over OR simply east and west, north and south) and 2) the way verbs, tenses, possessives, prepositions, and nouns are also so relational. Can you speak more about “orientation” in these poe-maps? Put another way, how would you characterize “orientation” or “re-orientation” as realized in these poe-maps encountered after the entropic energies of the haibun?
LL: I love your idea of the "poe-map" that refuses, or a least queries the hegemonic order of N, S, E, W. They might indeed be rotated and reorganized in order to draw different possibilities from different orientations. The impulse behind them is a ritual cooking vessel called "cong" in which a woman shaman like Lady Fu Hao, might stew another future in to being. The relationship of circle to square is the relationship of heaven to earth, though on the page the third dimension is flattened to produce, you're right, a map-like effect. A poet with better Chinese language abilities, might scatter characters through the round and square spaces that already form the root of language, in order to orient us toward both depth and movement. The speed of the poe-maps is slower than that of the haibun, which really turn and whirl. They belong, perhaps, to tectonic time, rather that the accelerated, digital time of the furies.
RL: Finally, I see that the Turtle drawing on the last page is by Erín Moure (p. 185). How did this drawing come about (did Erín read parts or all of Iron Goddess…) and do the drawing in response? Is this part of a longer series of drawings?
LL: Erín Moure was the book's editor, and we had several discussions about the I Ching as a turtle oracle, something I learned first from Deena Metzger, which is elaborated in Sarah Allen's book The Shape of the Turtle, a paleographer's careful take on how the Shang Dynasty imagined the earth as a turtle. I've been interested in those "Chinese" modes of knowledge that resonate with Indigenous ways of knowing on Turtle Island. It's my way of doing solidarity work (or at least solidarity thinking) without appropriating, to look for ways through which "we too" can inhabit a different modernity with a different orientation to history than the one the euro-centric, colonial project wants to hand us. That's a kind of entropy, isn't it? To remember Chinese/Shang dynasty turtle knowledge is to do the kind of directed remembering that Lee Maracle calls for in Memory Serves. The "heaven and earth" cong images, are, of course, also turtle images—the cong was a turtle shaped vessel—some of them even have turtle heads attached to them or turtle faces carved in to the corners. But that's pretty obscure—not something I really expect my readers to get. I want there to be room for readers to do as you did—see poe-maps, or fall into a relationship with a certain abstraction that both reduces and multiplies the possibilities of these most basic and most ancient of shapes. But I also wanted a gesture to my original intentions. I wanted a little turtle image to help that conversation along, one that wouldn't be too in-your-face, too over-determined. Erín kindly made that drawing for me from a little stone turtle in her possession.
- A mash-up of caricaturing nicknames: “DimTwit” (referring to Trump’s heavy use of the social media platform Twitter) and “Squid Pro Quo” (referring to Trump’s using mafia-like pressure on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in July 2019—his laying out a quid pro quo to trade timely delivery of US weapons for concocted Ukrainian intelligence regarding malfeasance on the part of Hunter Biden, son of rival presidential candidate Joe Biden).
- According to Lai, the haibun “is a form of travel poem, in which the poet documents the sights seen and conversation had that day, and rounds it off with a haiku to clinch it. It's a form that's been in circulation in an Asian North American context for some time…. This poem is dealing in part with the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, I thought it might be poethically interesting to make the engagement to illustrate the long-standing back and forth connection between Japan and China, themselves not nation states in the Westphalian sense until the late nineteenth century for Japan and the early 20th for China. This back and forth has been sometimes friendly and sometimes hostile.” (Rebecca Peng, “A Rush of Language: Larissa Lai reflects on Iron Goddess of Mercy.” Rungh 8.3 at https://rungh.org/a-rush-of-language/
- “To catch a fish” has the meaning of grasping a fleeting knowledge or as Lai puts it “For taoists, to trap a fish means to glean a moment of fleeting knowledge before it slips away again” (Peng, et al)
- Lai tells of just breaking down when reading an early version of the poem prior to the addition of the haikus: “It didn’t start as haibun. Speaking of that rolling, tumbling, endlessly flowing barrage of language that makes up the prose-y parts of the poem… initially that’s all there was. There was no haiku but just wall to wall block text. It was a rant that went on for pages and pages and pages and pages.” Lai describes breaking down at an early reading of this prose block text: “I was reading the poem; and it was so breathless I just broke down, crying. I just broke down. …it was really quite embarrassing and also… I guess there’s…it’s no wonder b/c there’s so much affect, so much emotion in the thing. So I definitely grabbed onto that thing that poetry has been trying to put aside for some time. It felt like it was impossible to read. I was just receiving all of this language” (https://cascadiapoeticslab.org/2021/10/larissa-lai-on-her-book-iron-goddess-of-mercy/)
- “The angriest woman the room won’t contain institutions’ ablutions insufficient… [T]o expel my hell it gushes rushes the same lava’s river spews rage of all the girls you swallowed. Hot bile of lady fury vile volcanic melts planetary demons” (#34, p. 95).
- As a kind of preface to the play, Songs of the Dragon Flying to Heaven (2006), playwright Young Jean Lee opens with what’s become known as “the hitting video.” The audience first hears in the darkened theater the director, Dean Moss, Lee, and collaborator Yehuda Duenyas discussing what will be a difficult sequence to film: Duenyas will repeatedly strike Lee’s face with his open hand. The shot is tightly framed on the upper shoulders, neck and head of the playwright. As the slap is heard but not seen, Lee’s head jerks to her right, followed by her recomposing herself (and, as Moss directs, fixing her hair, elongating her neck, displaying “debutante” profile) before being slapped again (around thirty times). As a crisp allegory of the purported disciplined bodily capacities of Asian/Americans, the “hitting video” stages a slender woman’s shocking endurance of a prolonged sequence of blows (from a seemingly invisible agent). In Moss’s blocking of Lee’s rapid recoveries, “hitting” also underscores the expectation of (or value in) getting over this hurt rather quickly—that to dwell in the dysregulations of being repeatedly hit would interfere with the work. The energies might get entropic; the sentiments too maudlin.
- My scholarship has turned toward environmental illness and other hard to diagnose diseases and how sick persons narrate (lack) of care and theories of embodiment. The existing literature on fibromyalgia suggests looking deeper into fascia, which acupuncture and TCM has figured as a series of channels for the porting of messages (and which mapping conventions translate as meridians).