Saturday, January 11, 2014



Mouth by Lisa Chen
(Kaya Press, 2007)

Magnetic Refrain by Nicky Sa-eun Schildkraut
(Kaya Press, 2013)

Water Chasing Water by Koon Woon, illustrated by Sean Chao
(Kaya Press, 2013)

         Over the years, my collection of elegant Kaya Press books has grown quickly from my visits to Berkeley’s Eastwind Books where I purchased Kimiko Hahn’s achingly beautiful Unbearable Heart.  Then I acquired Josey Foo’s Tomie’s Chair and Denise Uyehara’s Maps of City & Body, cutting-edge volumes of new Asian American poetry.  Now celebrating its 20th Anniversary, Kaya Press continues its impressive output under the intrepid leadership of Sunyoung Lee at the University of Southern California.  Recently, I had the pleasure of adding more Kaya books to my library:  Mouth by Lisa Chen (Kaya 2007),  Magnetic Refrain (Kaya 2013) by Nicky Sa-eun Schildkraut, and Water Chasing Water by Koon Woon (Kaya 2013).  Aesthetically distinctive, this trio of Kaya books is bold, eclectic, and visionary – hot lava shaping the landscape of Asian American poetry. 

            Winner of the Asian American Studies Association Award, Lisa Chen’s Mouth (2007) sparks with cerebral electricity.  “You:  radiating glinty stiletto maneuvers” in the poem, “Crossed Signals,” glows with luminous details: “the ring on your finger, which glanced off the world like the emerald skull of a dying houselfy,” interspersed with playful, alliterative imperatives:  “Rotunda, piazza, pavilion, please meet me.”  Lyrical yet irreverent, Chen’s title poem concludes with a lucid challenge to the reader, “Believe me when I say my mouth longs to utter what it does not know:  your name.” 

            With a gifted eye for the expanded image, Chen excavates the slogans of pop culture – “The self storage industry is booming!” – to expose its surreal, near-mystical contents ranging from “pearl-handled victrolas” to “a book on the history of the piano,” and a moth with a “phosphorescence crumbled now like the spice of a half-remembered life, Formosa.”  In the sublime irony of modern life, motel soap is “God’s milk tooth” and a tombstone in Paris, Tennessee reads, “Jesus called and my darling sugarbabe answered –”

A prose poem, “Why I Collect Stamps,” moves fluently amid “flummox and dust” to the names of “obsolete constellations” such as “The Electric Machine” or “The Northern Fly,” then culminates in an otherworldly moment:  “When I am winged, I am worldless.  Grounded, I am dwelling, I am collected.”  At the conclusion of Mouth, we discover a “Poem for Four Hands,” inspired by the avant-garde French composer, Erik Satie.  A profound insight arises in the last two lines:  “Suddenly you are a voyeur / who has a right to the world.”  

            Magnetic Refrain (2013) by Nicky Sa-eun Schildkraut traverses the geographies of war – recounting the terrifying exploitation of a “discomfort girl” in World War II to the letters of the poet’s own transnational adoption --  plus a meta-poetical “Ars Poetica” in a sequence of rhetorical questions:  “Why can’t you write a beautiful poem, / for a change?... / Instead, you take the body apart, as if each / part betrays the other:  the eye blurs, / the ear deafens, the tongue disappears.”  Quietly resisting a sentimental impulse, the poem’s lovely self-deconstruction  ends with a vivid exhortation: “Write the history that you couldn’t bear / to hear, but saw bursting in a dream, blood thinned by water.”

            Schildkraut’s technique of intercalation, or story-within-a-story, richly layers memory, history, trauma, and dreams.  In the following stanza from “Family Romance,” Schildkraut quotes Freud’s essay, “The Uncanny” (1919), which quotes, in turn, the famous opening of Tolstoy’s  Anna Karenina:

Each happy family is alike:  a spring bulb firmly
averted underground like a fossil.  Each unhappy family
is unhappy in its own way:
 beyond seasonal.

            Additionally, Schildkraut alludes to fairy-tales by Hans Christian Andersen in echoes of Hansel and Gretel within “Rehearsing Loss,” which asks, “What doors will our keys open?” and offers magnetically understated lines as follows:

It always begins the same way –
with a magnetic refrain
Our bodies felt like one, fused together,
            but was that only love?
Is it enough                           just to love?

            I lingered over countless lyric images surfacing throughout Magnetic Refrain  and will highlight one more stanza as an exemplary motif of Schildkraut’s collection, namely, an investigation of female archetypes derived from mythological or historical origins and oral Korean folkore evidenced in “The Unfilial Daughter,” “Discomfort Girl,” and “Chigop Yosong: Fallen Woman.”  This exemplary stanza appears in “The Unmarried Woman”;

            Yet every night, she knew that flesh
was just flesh, a thick shell parted by the slicing
of muscle burrowed away, brined
in a dream of being opened
and eaten.     No more fish and hooks
to weave together,
the sea whispered.

           The final collection in this group, Water Chasing Water (2013) by Koon Woon, with ink-drawings by Sean Chao, is the only non-debut in this review, although selections from his award-winning first book, The Truth in Rented Rooms, appear therein.   At a robust 140 pages, Koon Woon’s offering is no shy volume.  It encompasses an impressive range of socio-historical moments from turn-of-the-century Chinese bachelors to a drought in Guangzhou, a road trip on Highway 101 along the west coast to the Pacifica, and his personal journey through schizophrenia.  As long-time friend Sesshu Foster notes in the “Foreword,” we are fortunate that “Koon Woon hid out in the Aberdeen, Washington walk-in freezer of the family restaurant to read Joyce and Kafka.  It takes a cross-cultural rebel and sometime outside like Koon Woon to move between worlds, showing us the doors between them.” 

            In a wittily ironized turn on identity politics, “Please Sir, Tell Me Who I Am” draws attention to the diversity of ethnicities within an imaginary pan-Asian body politic:  “Please sir, before you release a bullet against me, / tell me who I am, or if I am who I think I am.”  In other words, the poem resists how the dominant culture “reads” Asian faces.  The speaker introduces himself by wearing a “waiter’s yellow jacket,” one who brings “teapot and tea.”  These multi-faceted “readings” accrue in parodic sequences of hyperbolic Orientalist stereotypes, yielding hilariously incongruous paradoxes or chimeric aphorisms: “one tree going into a forest to / hear false poets in my deaf ear!”

            Wide-ranging and deeply emotive, Water Chasing Water  is a seasoned volume, eloquent in its plain-spoken political subject matter, supremely moving in lyric, and daring in its explorations of individual psychological trauma and socio-historical events.  Koon Woon portrays various Chinese masculinities and turn-of-century bachelor immigrant experiences from a rich personal core – of tender, restrained desire, at other times highly charged with male-centered awareness, balanced with a sense of gender equity issues.  Consider, for instance, this snippet from “Uncle Harry:”  “A man needs his son to write down his legacy, which is transitory / like the summer span of an insect that lands and then takes off again,” and this excerpt from “Bronze Statue in Rain:”

The Chinese say “woman” under “roof” is “peace.”
If you are indeed woman,
The sculptor has misrepresented you. 

            In this anniversary celebration of two decades of creative lava pouring out of Kaya Press – in the spirit of its tagline with verve, “Smoking Hot Books” --  and of redness as an auspicious color across Asian culture -- I conclude with these red-hued lines from Koon Woon’s “Two Persimmons Side by Side”:

Somewhere in the world, two
persimmons sit side by side on a shelf,
ripening quietly through quiet days.
On some day of some month, all guitars will weep,
and the persimmons’ red hues will deepen and deepen.
For every brother there is a brother,
and for every persimmon there’s another persimmon,
but for every boy is there a girl?
And for ever girl is there a promised world?
No one knows except the crimson sky
and the red, moist persimmons…


Karen An-hwei Lee is the author of Phyla of Joy (Tupelo Press, 2012), Ardor (Tupelo Press, 2008) and In Medias Res (Sarabande Books, 2004), winner of the Poetry Society of America’s Norma Farber First Book Award.  Her book of literary criticism, Anglophone Literatures of the Asian Diaspora (2013), was published by the Cambria World Sinophone Series.  She earned an M.F.A. from Brown University and Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Berkeley.  The recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Grant, she lives and teaches in greater Los Angeles, where she is a novice harpist.

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