The snapshot poem
A review of Frances Chung’s ‘Crazy Melon’
Photographs furnish evidence. — Susan Sontag
In Frances Chung’s posthumous collection of works, Crazy Melon and Chinese Apple, the first book begins with a series of untitled poems. Several reviews following the publication of the collection describe these early poems as, at best, “compact and oddly moving,” or as whimsical poems that nevertheless lack “great virtuosity.” Yet these poems — which evoke the visceral immediacy of the snapshot photograph in subtly complex ways — provoke observations that capture much more than just “things” recorded by the “darting, naming eye.” The virtuosity of the snapshot lies within the contradiction of capturing quotidian, seemingly arbitrary encounters, which unravel structurally rich sociocultural meanings. Chung’s snapshot poems — dense, direct, brief — give way to questions of decoding what exactly is being described, of what Donna Haraway refers to as the "epistemologies of location, positioning, and situating, where partiality and not universality is the condition of being heard to make rational knowledge claims.”
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In one of the opening untitled poems in Crazy Melon, the narrator describes Chinatown as captured through the camera lens of a tourist. We the readers are uncomfortably situated as tourist/viewer:
welcome to Chinatown ladies and gentlemen
the place where you tourists come to look
at the slanted eyes yellow skin scaling fish
roast duck in the windows like a public hanging …
oh look the cute Chinese children with they schoolbags
hurry grab your camera to take a picture
next to a pagoda telephone booth
to show your grandchildren what you know …
Chinatown has long been imagined and represented in mainstream American culture as a place of deviance and difference. An ethnic enclave of crime and vice. A tourist destination defined by Buddhas, dragons and dumplings. When Walsh in Roman Polanski’s film noir classic Chinatown says, “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown,” he invokes Chinatown as a space of inexplicable bad luck. And as once described by San Francisco health officials at the turn of the century, Chinatown’s residents were “unscrupulous, lying and treacherous.” What Chung recalls, reconstructs in this poem, are the racial (and racist) discourses related to Chinatown vis-à-vis visual descriptors: “slanted eyes”; “yellow skin”; “scaling fish”; “roast duck”; and “pagoda telephone.” Each descriptor transforms into a synecdoche of Chinatown, becoming what Roland Barthes might describe as a symbolic objects in photographs. Their connotative meanings arise from the intersection of ideologies — in this case, a racialized ideology shaped by and shaping a systematic body of legislation, ideas and ideals pegging Chinatown as a place of exotic difference – and representation. What then is being captured in Chung’s opening invectives in Crazy Melon; what is captured in the snapshot frame?
In another introductory snapshot poem, the narrator gives a “scenic” description of a Saturday night in Chinatown:
The visitors do not hear
you when you say excuse me. They are
so busy taking in the wonders of Chinatown … They are
busily looking for Buddhas and gifts to take home …
There is a deficiency of Chinese couples …
The irony reeks.
In this poem, “you” has shifted from tourist-consumer to the insider. You become enfolded into the scene as a pedestrian-participant whose worldview coincides with a “‘cross on the diagonal,’ … the laws governing the flow of traffic, across streets, and across ghettoes and ethnic communities.” In this sense, the navigational routes and rules are different for you than for the tourist-consumer, as absence underlies the snapshot of neon lights: the streets noisily jammed with tourists eerily parallel the “deficiency of Chinese couples.” Here the narrator evokes questions related to this absence, which can largely be explained by the exclusionary legislative acts (1882, 1917, 1924, 1934) that banned Asian immigration during the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century. Absence—and persistent loneliness—becomes palpable as much as “Buddha,” “pagoda,” or “dumplings.” In another snapshot poem, the narrator again raises absence hand-in-hand with loneliness as a causal effect shaped by exclusionary immigration laws, as older Chinese men are “seen in different parts of town / scanning windows. . .waiting for a bus / tonight. Womanless.”
If Crazy Melon explores visibility and subject making through descriptive snapshot poems that deftly reframes visibility, Chung’s second and later collection, Chinese Apple, collapses the viewpoint of tourist/reader to that of speaker/insider. Throughout this second collection, the denotative defines the literacy of the image: that is, dumplings are no more than dumplings; Buddhas are Buddhas. Walter Lew alludes to this change vis-à-vis changes in poetic form and narrative strategy: “‘Chinese Apple,’ unlike ‘Crazy Melon,’ contains no prose poems or vignettes, and it could be suggested that this is one perhaps negative consequence of the manuscript being prepared for a conventional poetry competition.” If it has been argued that Chinese Apple displays a greater lyrical finesse than Crazy Melon, the tensions so deftly built within the snapshot poems in the first collection are somehow too easily alleviated into pleasant lyrical depictions in Chinese Apple. There is the danger, then, that ethnocentric descriptors in the second collection reproduce the same ethnographic desires that construct the tourist’s desire to “know” Chinatown through the snapshot image.
For example, like the initial untitled poem/invective that “invites” tourists into Chinatown, Chinese Apple’s “In Search of Chinese Madness,” also acts as an “invitation” to readers. What we get as reader/viewer is more or less a bucolic description of a world defined by “rosewood cabinets sandalwood fans / salty balls sea horses / the ladies on the tea tins / carry baskets of snow pears / meet their lovers by the gate / hear the music of the abacus beads.” In the poem, Chinatown is “open tonight” for “curry tart / shrimp dumplings.” The destabilizing of cultural rhetoric and stereotypes that the early snapshot poems achieves are, disappointingly, romanticized vis-a-vis a lyrical finesse. As in the elegiac elegance of ekphrasis poetry, lines like “the old women in homespun tam o’shanters / move through Tai Chi Chuan / elegant and timeless” freeze actions into essentialized motions; there is nothing to be known or questioned outside of the picture frame.
By reading the two collections side by side, I was left to ruminate on their notable distinctions in poetic strategies, why the latter collection was more “well received” by poetry residencies, and the Romantics’ ideal that poetry was a literary form that could also define itself as a “criticism of life.” Although Chinese Apple might possess a lyrical expertise that has been said to be absent in Crazy Melon, I prefer the rich, abrupt ruptures of the snapshot “photographs” of Crazy Melon. As frames, these snapshot poems powerfully confront the complex contradiction and tensions centered on identity- making in a dynamic space such as Manhattan’s Chinatown. These initial poems are also moments of useful criticism, aimed at the social discourses that have simultaneously constructed Chinatown as “ghetto,” “ancient tenements” and “Chinese wonderland.” As visual descriptors, the snapshot instances in Crazy Melon are not so much voyeuristic as they are indictments.