“keats was married to vladimir nabakov
they gave birth to my aunt who spoke no Spanish
and colonized all of western Europe
and that’s why michael’s dad ate my left toe leaving me
(“Lifestyle: I Think I Had a Nice Life and Then I Was Doing Weird Things Like Talking About Having a Bad Life”)
2. I started following Jenny Zhang on her blog Fashion For Writers, back in 2007 or something when I made my living selling vintage clothing to places like France for too much shipping and attempting be less insular by people taking photos of what they were wearing in other places. She was in Iowa wearing coats that made me feel like I could survive winter in Ohio and Montreal, where I was planning to move next.
3. Broke and preoccupied with trying to survive winter by books and digging my car out with hot water to get to the thrift store the morning of 50cent tag day, my Canadian neighbor didn’t own a shovel. “Why doesn’t your city know how to buy salt for their streets?!” I stayed mute and poured water and felt mute that winter, representing a city I had exclusively lived in and identified with and clutched at matryoshka dolls from antique malls lining my shelves and wanting to chuck one at my car for living somewhere that made it requisite.
4. I think I owned, like, 10 vintage coats at one point. I got pretty disgusted with myself that winter.
5. A couple weeks back, Heather Christle reposted the caddis fly larvae works of Hubert DuPrat in Cabinet Magazine and posited the idea that poems are analogous to sheaths, constructed from details of our shifting environments. I didn’t set out to write a companion essay review, but 25 bullet points are hard to extract from concepts this immaculately presented as external, when poetry is thought of as a “internal” and “emotional” when it communicates a lot like clothing. Here’s the traditional review reaction I had if I felt differently:
6. “Dear Jenny makes me feel so many more creepyvoyeurfangirl things, like ‘yikes oh yikes I’m exceedingly aware of how we’re reading ancestrally and seeing the sheaths in their past and future relevant form reading anything, into love poems to things and people and continents dead for centuries!!!!!’” Genuinely felt, but I sound twelve.
7. “Family members are resurrected for a second and then blown back to poppy fields before you can say ‘twat.’ Zhang’s incurably dynastic and reads prosaically in its turns and forms, and they’re bratty and fleshly corporeal in each syntactical bowel movement.” Blurb suited for an
Amazon review: discarding.
8. “We are all find she says
bonjour well because
well she is Chinese and anyway
we don’t use R’s”
(“My Mother Leaves Me a Message Where She Pronounces All Romance Languages in a Deep Voice”)
The semiotic problem of “Asian-American” is the book’s seppuku, which I mean gesturing with misappropriation like Zhang does in so many poems. The inherent difficulty of language in relation to identity as American is as blatant as asking “what are you?” to your face, language can answer that anything but in part. If the audiences of the speaker’s voice heard I was from Ohio, they’d think definitely lived near cows and should have a twangy Gummo accent. How many times did I cringe at Harmony Korine’s decision to film in Nashville? Each and every time I moved.
9. It would be better to use a dung beetle analogy instead of the silk casings Octopus Books gives to its larvae. Dear Jenny’s concerns and permutations of scatology is made legitimately profound, or find its profundity is pointed at without making the profane pornographic. Example:
10. “. . .I’ve been coursing through the finite rivers
the smudge of black on yr fingertips and I’m yrs
ya cunt, I’m yrs, yr the cuntiest
cunt I’ve ever cunted” (“Key Phrase”)
11. The kissoffs to encounters with re and misappropriation are not just “pardon my French” (“French” dressing is a bastardization of the larger vinaigrette); “Asian” in place of “Chinese” is an obsessive confusion that vomits food imagery to demonstrate this throughout. By the time weget to LA FRANCE the streets are littered with new dirty words like “bloodturds” and “comefarts.”
12. NEW YORK
Clips poems-as-text messages apologizing for inadequacies and validate their recipient, digressing into surrealities that prove the only way to potentially pseudo-articulate love-feelings when you’re in the froth of infatuation or a relationship and writing about it. The talking oxytocin stretches excerpts like “Gluing Sprinkles on My Hangbags” to limits of its hyperbole, but the affection reserved for devotionals to and around their target is presented for the figures populating the other poems at an equal volume.
13. A fingernail polish indulgently pained or an expected moon image is intimate and immediately self-effacing to spite vanities, reminding me of the cringe moments writing text messages and spot with “little punctuation marks / to say / ha ha / ha ha / my humor is good / this is a poet’s poem / written by a degenerate / illiterate / literal / piece of crap.” (“Being Jealous For the First Time Since Waking Up a Millisecond Ago”)
14. Affection for lines and stanzas text messages read like a recent relationship, the apologies we forgive hearing prefaces at reading, how we reflexively want to perforate the discomforts of approaching truths we were creating along the way with a “just kidding!” with self-deprecating quote-mark maggots hacking me and my typing, habitually.
15. This section cites jealousy as illness, where the healthy / unhealthy tropes in relationship to relationships where it feels gauzy and necessary and you want to be the scissors cutting his hair and floor touching his hair and how self-conscious and unself-conscious you are that you will only be this one singular thing to this person. New York itself will make you this way, when you’re with someone, someone from somewhere else and going to someone else or somewhere else, but it has nothing to do with it the way you’re indoors and you’re not in a city.
16. Not to say love poems on jealousy aren’t typical, but it isn’t casual here, which is why the connection to Zhang seems as tangible as the reader in the speaker’s clothes, or vice versa:
“I was stunned by these dreams where she appeared as beautiful as 观音. This was when I did not know s/he was a queer. . . you’re dependent on the idea that we ought to ignore jealousy because of how embarrassing it is to say, “Is she nice? You never talk about her.” This, I agree with. This, I am aware of. Though I tell you it’s like a flower blooming from the largest and most useful vein, you must be aware that I’m only attempting to convince myself of ancient nostrums—the low whispered lie, the printed delusion.” (“St Vitus’ Dance”)
17. The contradictions are not so banal as I describe them except where they’re meant to be. I’m jealous of what she’s articulating, the “Jenny” as she appears in the book, with sensations that don’t have verbal translations in our tongues; the uncensored consciousness of orifices and the body before it acquires our blathering self-consciousness and the more vulgar workings of the brain contorting itself into speech. Dear Jenny lives in the space between a bed and a ceiling in a room in each place it’s occurring, and digs to something else ancestral or muted where it winds until there are approximate words, and the forms digress into another and another to dictate and be shaped by and economize ramblage and subject after subject. “…they cut down my legs. I was too small to fit in the metal box they built to stunt me.” (“St. Vitus’ Dance”)
18. Is it completely inappropriate to consider the poet as the speaker in all cases? If a poem has an ethnic or gender identity, do I have to ignore that? Can I ignore that? How am I ascribing these things to the poet, who I know nothing about past my version of them?
19. “if you record us / we will find your books / tear out the pages / devoted to strange oriental lives / we’ll live in graves and make you eat / the still living gizzard / the still living spleen / the heart and the choking and the right brain / we leave and enter the circle when we wish . . . if not that then at least a gesture that your people are sorry / cannot stand it / and will no longer loot from us / when bored (“Founder”)
20. To answer the problem of poet as speaker: I have to address that Dear Jenny is Chinese and American and bodily and profane and female and it’s those things all in the same line. Reading some of her work, this book included, I have to keep in my the (sometimes forcibly) logic-lit regions of my brain Owen Pallett’s response to his work: “As far as whether the music I make is gay or queer, yeah, it comes from the fact that I’m gay, but that doesn’t mean I’m making music about it.” (in 2005, a year before releasing an incomprehensibly genius, Dungeons & Dragons themed concept second record, He Poos Clouds).
21. Paradoxically, a lot of the time, Zhang is making music about it, but it’s not up to me to dissect where and how, and not because I’m not Chinese or didn’t have an identical education, or because I’m able to trace blood to a country that bordered and pulled at the borders of China or because we both live in a country that keeps racial identity in and out and in and out of everything, like all countries physical and metaphorical.
22. “intriguing/ while noticing my age as I fell into a dazzling pit of coal/ a year later/ I still hadn’t taken up any fights/ I’m still in a process of recalibration/ the recovering of my own self was difficult when faced with so many great people/ the ones who spoke well/ the ones who walked well/ the ones who moved well/ I envied every one/ who was well/ here I offer my arm . . . solemn as ceremonial wreaths/ . . . here I offer my hands/ feet/ and knees to have Tony’s superior alienation”
Preoccupation of the erosion of the self and sediment shift of continent-jumping happens in macro twice and in micro with sections.
Ultimately, by the time we’re in
23. “I stand over the seas now, minor as a natural hairline
discovered suddenly after a shower, the pitiful waning:
I plan to march to the seas, I plan to make more plans
the megrims of a carefully recorded life, I will save these pages—
Don’t forget me, I languish between the knots and you stay furrowed.”
(“Relish This Moment. Hope It Will Comfort On This Raining Day”)
The impact of place organizes and disorganizes the sense of what you are and are not. My own family’s history disintegrated in a house fire that consumed the wooden trunk brought over from Russia and this stanza gonged in my head and the sinuses behind my eyes considering it.
24. And always I’m aware of the awareness of my gender here: the world hurling itself up on my gender to reach and grab at the anatomical and subatomic parts of my gender and Rorschach my gender to my abdomen like an xray machine. It tries to deduce things before you can swat its pink away. An inkblot is merely an inkblot, but the “reproductive anxiety” attached itself like an arterial rope to hang myself with, an umbilical cord to my identity asking where I attached and might I feed in some way from this? and should I be thinking about my gender because I am instructed to? and why do I sense magnetized blood of me marionetting from the book’s bundle of veins and nerves demanding attentions to judgements of gender when I want to forget my gender and be neuter in the world of poetry that is so slender and away from the hand-grabby world?
25. “How does human activity / affect landscape?” Through identity and its inevitable attempts and abandonments of the body and the self? Migration carries families with pickled lambs and small funds into a new beginning devastation makes a cracked-open mouth for a starting point. All self-contained mythologies result from the effuse of earlier generations. When it lands a first-generation on a foreign coast, we overlooking the ocean separating the continents and see the gigantic impossibility of reconciliation with a putrid bubbling of its core; the poetry of it’s crust oozes when we call it out for the frazzle-dazzle it all is.
Michelle Sinsky is a writer, interdisciplinary artist and MFA candidate at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, with recent work in ANOBIUM, Bitch Magazine, Red Lightbulbs, Requited and Everyday Genius. She writes frequently on the subject of feminism, popular culture, visual arts and performance and is a co-founder of the forthcoming Matter: A Monthly Journal of Political Poetry and Commentary. @pommespommes