In a Waxwing review of Nests and Strangers: On Asian American Women Poets, Grace Shuyi Liew reflects on trends in contemporary Asian American poetry, namely a resistance of a modernist tendency to patchwork lyric fragmentation towards the formation of a wholistic self. Rather, as Liew argues about the poetry in the collection: “Here the tide turns—identity markers shape-shift and resist mutual recognition; cultural loss and yearning find expression beyond discrete lyric affects; the disembodied self refuses to accrete even as its fragmented representations grow; innocent interlocutions amass into structural alienations.” Over the years I’ve been grateful to grow close with Grace and have been vibrantly challenged by her insistence on a reckoning (for herself and others) with the intersections of poetry and identity formation. Rather than relying on systems of identification for the sake of grounding a self, she demands an interrogation of the socio-political workings of said systems; and this interrogation, while deeply individual, must always include a questioning of the self’s relation to Other, to others. These concerns infuse her debut collection, Careen (Noemi Press), where voice, memory, and time are dislodged from any ordering system by a lyricism that side-eyes even itself.
The collection’s final poem, “The Use of Lyricism,” opens with a glitch: “This morning, the dim skies are halting the passage of time. An error in the weather.” Similarly, the speaker finds their body perceived as an “error” in a capitalist system, which allocates James Baldwin’s former home in France to luxury villas—“Le Jardin des Arts will carry luminous myths / of Baldwin the artist, stripped of any locatable color / or weight.” The speaker is constantly reckoning with not only their own sense of displacement, but a sense of displacement called forth by lyricism itself, the use of the lyric “you.” In “Ars Poetica,” the speaker urges the reader to “find the quality of / a thing in the world / never existed a time / unencumbered / by subjectivity,” and asks, “who does “you” / stand for henceforth?” Identity, here, is a negotiable object, though negotiation implies an equal exchange and the speaker here finds social exchange rates way off kilter. Whiteness reveals its viral hues in “Berlin” as the speaker pushes “your index finger against your lip and / white pus crawls out like a fat worm.” Bodies and the truths they inhabit crash into each other in this collection, over and over; the lyric, though a mode that implicates itself in a system that attempts to coagulate identity in bodies, becomes the only means to navigate this wasteland.
Liew’s images are charged with wind and water, which bring the reader towards essential questions of self and its fluid relation to nation(s). There is an intense investigation of this relationship, and undergirding, an interrogation of how nation, as a system, prefigures how we relate to one another.
Sex between ciswomen is mirrored geography (or out-of-date adage) (?) Bending at the waist (either backward or forward) is still an imprecision so ingrained it can only evoke bondage (take it) or charity (asking for it). Neither satisfies a Syaitan spinning yarn.
This dislodged desire finds the speaker wandering cities that cannot see them, or “face up, physically open” on rock faces, or clicking through videogame fetch-quests. Liew’s lines flux poise and wobble, tight prose blocks and elongated lyric. The sky and rain become central figures, as images of both containment and release—containment of history, narrative, memory, and a release (often invisible or glancing) of the same. “The things passed down pelt us like hail on a sulky summer night; like discrete units of grief; / like an inventory of conquests; / like entire alternated lives;/it is grain by grain that we offer comfort.”
But how do we know true comfort in such fraught states? Is there such a thing? The speaker does not offer a simple answer or a wrought utopian vision, but rather an answer (or movement towards one) seems to reside in an acknowledgement and reckoning with our jagged self. “So: apply spit to gloss the tarnished. Return to our maker this fear of falling.” There is no way out, as Len Lawson suggests in his review of the book in Up The Staircase Quarterly, yet near the heart of the book, in “If This Is Not Possible, Live Twice,” the speaker asks, “To what do you consent once you are surrounded / by superlatives of your own arranging?” This question seems crucial in understanding our own implications as readers hit by the force of Liew’s poetry. Any mercy or beauty we might find can only be through a willed understanding of our self and its relation to the systems that shape us. Liew’s work rips through cloud cover and social haze in an attempt to reveal the tenuous yet vital threads we might hold out for one another.