Between the world and the poem

On Dorothy Wang's forms and formations

Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry

Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry

Dorothy J. Wang

Stanford University Press 2013, 416 pages, $50.00, ISBN 978-0804783651

The last sentence of Dorothy J. Wang’s Thinking Its Presence — “It must change” — is a call to action in its redeployment of the title of Marjorie Perloff’s 2006 MLA address. By invoking this address, in which Perloff exhorts scholars to return to more rigorous training within literary studies, “no matter how culturally and politically oriented [their] own particular research may be” (686), Wang attempts to engage with the continued opposition of the aesthetic and social within literary studies and to push back against what she sees as the exclusion of the sociohistorical and political contexts of race from broader conversations about classifications within American poetry studies. Wang begins her text by close reading Perloff’s address, along with an accompanying series of exchanges in the PMLA, in order to show that certain terms like ‘identitarian’ and ‘identity politics’ operate as “placeholders for larger assumptions and beliefs” (10). By rendering the subtleties of these assumptions explicit, Wang reveals the ways they circulate in a discourse that dismisses the value of minority writing in favor of other kinds of writing which are not perceived to bear the burden of representation (10).

Asian American poetry, in particular, serves as a limit case for this problematic institutional opposition of the “literary” and the “cultural” or “political” because of the unique relation that racialized Asian American subjects have to the American body politic, particularly with the memory of historical events like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the internment of Japanese Americans. Even the term “Asian American” — a product of strategic institutionalization — is itself fraught with difficulties, as Wang is well aware. Wang observes, however, that “in order to interrogate the category of Asian American, one needs the category to begin with” (28).

Wang’s study, which traces the work and critical reception of Li-Young Lee, Marilyn Chin, John Yau, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, and Pamela Lu, is not simply a reconsideration of poems by these authors but an interrogation of the very terms and conditions of the either-or manner in which these poems and poets have been read. Noting that these writers and their works are often caught between the rhetoric of “yellow peril” and that of “model minority,” Wang asks, “How then does an Asian American poet situate herself in an Anglo-American tradition when she is marked as constitutively alien and unassimilable and excluded from the category of ‘native speaker’ of English? How does [she] labor under and contend with the foregone conclusion that her English will never be ‘good enough’?” (27). Wang attends to the absence of analysis of formal techniques in works by more “mainstream” Asian American writers like Lee and Chin and links these techniques to the reception but also the rethinking of identity through Asian American poetry. Her reading of Lee’s works, for example, foregrounds Lee’s use of the metaphor of “cleaving” as a way of understanding alterity that can “[hold] sameness and difference together in tension without reducing all to sameness” and collapsing into assimilation (89). Similarly, her attention to form in Chin’s poetry reveals how irony codes Chin’s political interventions, making them more “palatable” to a wider audience than her more obvious forms of critique — even as it serves as a “structure [that] captures the rivenness of subjectivity wrought by immigration, diaspora, the violence of assimilation.” Chin’s ironizing of themes like the repeated figure of the “barbarian” challenges ideas of linguistic purity or cultural “authenticity” at the same time that it acts as a “rhetorical means to contend with the trauma of history” and method of grappling with racial melancholia (118).

Alternately, Wang also puts pressure on the tendency to read the work of more explicitly avant-garde poets’ work like Yau, Berssenbrugge, and Lu, who do not thematize or provide proof of ethnicity, as either playing “the race card” at the poet’s convenience (as Yau was accused of doing in a particularly acrimonious exchange with Eliot Weinberger in American Poetry Review), or somehow “post-race,” “a retreat to the idea of a universal subject” which Wang rejects (280). Indeed, for Wang, the questions of how linguistic mastery or credibility is signaled is intimately related to notions of aesthetic “difficulty,” particularly as it intersects with classifications of “mainstream” or “avant-garde.” Yau’s use of parody as well as the vexing of lyric subjectivity in his Genghis Chan poems makes, for Wang, the “erasure of the subject [register] as a generic postmodern move,” aligning his formal experimentation with an American and European avant-garde. But, as Wang notes, the tradition of this avant-garde often leaves little room for discussing how form relates to the politics of “ethnic self-identification” (181).

Given the absence of autobiographical material in Berssenbrugge’s work, as well as her play with linguistic conditionality and exploration of the liminalities between human consciousness and natural phenomena, her poems, like Yau’s, do not straightforwardly disclose information about the poet’s identity; Wang argues, however, that this does not excuse critics from the necessity of engaging with the “impress of the racializing pressures and structures that shaped her subjectivity” (269). Wang observes of Pamela Lu’s Pamela: A Novel that it similarly needs not “announce its concerns with mere thematic markers because its very language […] is inseparable from this subjectivity and worldview” (276).

While Wang does not intend to “[posit] a simplistic causal or reductive link between the world — in this case, being ‘Asian American’ — and the poem,” her project is directed at recuperating the relationship between social formation and aesthetic form and demonstrating how the latter in particular is either occluded in the reception of Asian American poetry, or itself occludes the subject of race (35).

Wang concludes by looking forward to a rethinking of the forms of critical conversation themselves, whether in digital forums where institutional constraints do not weigh as heavily as they might elsewhere. Wang, who points towards a future poetry criticism in which Asian American poetry is read with both an attention to formal qualities as well as the realities of racial interpellation in mind, reminds us that “Poems are never divorced from contexts and from history, even as they are, among other things, modes of thinking philosophically through an engagement with formal constraints. Likewise, what constitutes the social, the cultural, and the political must be analyzed for their linguistic and structural forms” (19). Whatever shape future dialogue about aesthetic form in American poetry may take, Thinking its Presence insists that it cannot do so without accounting for the racialized particularities of Asian American and othered identities.