‘Disorientation’ By Elaine Hsieh Chou


A funny, terrifying, and ultimately, honestly depressing book.

Ingrid Yang, the protagonist, is an unreliable narrator in her lack of self-awareness, which is part of the comedy and horror. She clearly hates her work as a PhD student working on the oeuvre of a Chinese-American poet that she really doesn’t care for and her bland fiancé is clearly a manipulative douche (Hong’s recent Minor Feelings identified his type, as the sort of middling white guy who has found that racism enables him to find an Asian partner who is much more attractive than he could otherwise ensnare). However, she only barely recognizes any of this.

The novel, which I feel is secretly a horror story, is about her understanding that her whole existence has been gaslit by white men.

It was inspired by a white poet named Michael Derrick Hudson submitting a poem under the name of an Asian woman: Yi-Fen Chou. Chou, in addition to being author’s name, is also the name of the Chinese-American poet in the novel, who turns out to be a white guy who actually indulged is ‘yellowface’ disguise to teach at her university for years.

The whole thing gets worse and worse, with her sinophilic (white) advisor having actually known and conspired in the deception, before turning into a demented Tucker Carlson-esque figure with his own MAGA style movement (DOFO – Defense of Freedom Organization) to protect the feelings of white people.

Chou (the author of this novel) stays true to the story’s movement in that it doesn’t have a happy ending. It’s not unhappy, but essentially, the bad guys win, which feels kind of unhappy.

The publishers also did this thing where you had to flip to book around, relative to the orientation of its cover, in order to read it. I get the metaphor (‘disorientation’) but really could have done without that. The book is good enough on its own.

The Social Life Of Books: Reading Together In The Eighteenth-Century Home


As a scholarly work, it is more a series of thematic anecdotes than the explication of a sustained thesis, but it shows an admirable amount of archival research into the clues left behind by middle-class households in the 18th and early 19th century. It does a strong job of arguing that 18th century England (and this book is almost exclusively about England) was more literate than perhaps we give it credit for, though, as always, we should remember that the plural of anecdote is not data.

I enjoyed those glimpses into these lives and homes and learning about the way in which people read. Which also leads to the most interesting, if only cursorily examined, idea which she tosses out there in the chapter about novels: the rise of of the novel is directly linked to the decline of poetry as a subject of popular reading.

Much reading, she says, was done aloud. It was done by families in the evening, but also at social gatherings. And publications were designed for that purpose, which means not too long and easy to put down and pick up at a later time. If your neighbor came over and stayed while you read to your family, it wouldn’t do for him to hear just the middle of a dense novel, but something like poetry was perfect.

The novel, by its very nature, encouraged solitary reading and this led to the decline of certain shorter forms that were also strongly linked to oral traditions, i.e., poetry.

Christmas With Yevtushenko


While unpacking Christmas ornaments, I found this receipt for a collection of Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poetry, courtesy of Capitol Hill Books.

Studying With Miss Bishop: Memoirs From A Young Writer’s Life


I am a fan of Gioia, but more as a figure than a poet (though his translation of Dante is superb and that, too, is poetry). I enjoyed his novella length essay on the Catholic writer in contemporary times and felt he was one of our best Poet Laureates in terms of actually promoting poetry (I love the poetry of Charles Wright, but he was marvelously disinterested as Poet Laureate). I was pleased to read that he was a young fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs and got his start reading At the Earth’s Core (the first of his Pellucidar books).

Beyond our shared love, this is a lovely little book. I wish that he had delved more into his own experiences around class and race, but I also recognize that this is not that kind of book.

He examines how his interactions (mainly as a young poet) with five poets and writers affected him. While he notes a funny encounter with a drunk James Dickey (who resented a negative review that Gioia wrote), the reminiscences are by and large fond and positive.

My personal favorite was the chapter about the classicist, Robert Fitzgerald (I loved his translation of The Aeneid), but section on Ronald Perry, an apparently talented, but mostly unknown poet, is the most affecting. It is a beautiful meditation on mortality, in the end. Perry’s literary reputation was small and his memory limited, most likely, by the lifespan of those who knew him. Most writers will not be remembered.

A Cruelty Special To Our Species


Just… just a wonderful collection. I missed her when she came to town and read at East City Bookshop, but was glad when I finally picked up book.

The most common theme is alienation in some of its most disturbing forms. There is the alienation of being non-white seeking affirmation and a place in a white world, but the heart of the book are series of naturalistic biographical poems (often a form of prose poem) describing the lives of Korean comfort women, kidnapped by Japanese soldiers in World War II, and of Korean women who were abused by American soldiers during the Korean War (should I say, what we call the Korean War). The most heartbreaking parts about the emotionally and physically damaged women living in the long thereafter that followed the end of hostilities.

Black Mountain Poems: An Anthology


My father knew one of the figures associated with Black Mountain College. He and his older brother had been friends with Fielding Dawson, a writer. While Dawson’s poetry is not in this anthology, he is name checked in the introduction, though perhaps it would have been better for everybody had they chosen to include something by him instead of whatever Buckminster Fuller was writing that he mistakenly believed to be poetry.

Rightly, the poet who gets the most space is Robert Creeley (though none of the included poems featured the off kilter pastoralism that I associate with him). Charles Olson, featured early, was the best surprise. Of course, I know who he is, but I really haven’t read him, and the long poems with their swaybacked stanzas and shifting thoughts really are amazing and clearly, I need to read more.

‘Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning’ By Cathy Park Hong


I borrowed this from the library (after a reassuringly long wait; people wanted to read it) partly because I like Hong’s poetry and partly because my daughter may experience some of what would be discussed.

First of all, a great book, beautifully, painfully written. Some remarks that delivered some deeply personal pain (some paragraph about how white men date Asian women because they can find Asian women who are much more attractive than the white women who would consider them and how Asian women, because of low self-esteem, will date a white man that no white woman would consider; as a white man with an Asian wife… yikes… but let’s just say, not without truth and move on).

The meditation on the erasure of the violence done to the writer Theresa Has Kyung Cha was devastating, but what I really kept coming back was something not in the book, but relevant.

My better half spoke about wanting me to take our daughter to school and to pick her up and be present whenever possible so that the roost-ruling white children and white families would see her white father and accept her as not being othered by race. Trying to make her safe and accepted by blessing her with my whiteness.

The Anxiety Of Influence


This book has been on my list for years, but was almost impossible to find, but there it was at Solid State Books. Even more amazing, after I bought it, they replaced with another copy on the shelves!

For a critic famous for his defense of the traditional canon, the pre-post-colonial canon, as it were, The Anxiety of Influence is a brilliantly, desperately sincere text of postmodern play.

Is Romanticism after all only the waning out of the Enlightenment, and its prophetic poetry only an illusory therapy, not so much a saving fiction as an unconscious lie against the difficult human effort of holding the middle ground between instinctual existence and all morality?

I was caught by the quote because the question of Enlightenment and its successor, Romanticism seems to keep coming up, though this answer seems inadequate in terms of history, if not literature.

If here were a poet, his bête noire (or perhaps, I should say daemon) would be Milton (he wants it to be Dante, but it’s Milton). While he praises and respects poets like Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens, his idea of poetry was forged between Milton and Keats. In the end, the whole book is about how the sublime is achieved by the great poets. While we can talk about the sublime today, he means it in a sense in which we rarely speak of it – the way Burke spoke about it.

I do not know if I ever will (my to be read stack is quite high), but the highest praise I can give this book is that I want to read it again. Not right away, but when I am older, to sit down in a comfy chair and read this dense, slim labor of love one more time.

More Flower Fairies


My daughter and I loved reading Flower Fairies of Autumn, so I put the other three seasons on hold a the library. Then, you know, COVID stuff happened and we couldn’t go to the library.

Well, we still can’t go in, but we can stop by and pick up holds and these two were available. We read them at bedtime over a few nights and I want to say again, these are a fantastic way to introduce your children to poetry.

 

Ordinary Misfortunes


A wonderful, moving work of recreated memory. Emily Jungmin Yoon‘s poems (mostly; there’s a glaring exception at the end) cohere around two related themes: the so-called Korean comfort women, taken by Japanese soldiers; and a Korean-American woman navigating race and gender prejudices (and the predatory gaze of men, mirroring, perhaps, the Japanese soldiers).

She tells, in verse form, specific stories of specific women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese army, mixed with prose poems (each one titled Ordinary Misfortunes) focusing on the second theme.

There are some variations thrown in and the final poem, The Transformation, though written as more traditional verse, follows the pattern of the prose poems in subject and theme. However, the opening epigram (In early 2016, thirteen sperm whales beached themselves on Germany’s North Coast, their stomachs full of plastic litter.), while timely important, so bluntly introduces ecopoetics into a book about something else, that it badly jarred me out of the melancholy reverie the rest of the book had settled me into.