In M. NourbeSe Philip’s “The Absence of Writing or How I Almost Became a Spy,” she questions the capacity of English as a form of self-expression for the marginalized. Philip asserts that diasporic writers must intentionally reform, subvert, and decenter colonial English that excludes the oppressed from the “fullness and wholeness of language.” Philip writes, “It is imperative that our writing begin to recreate our histories and our myths, as well as integrate that most painful of experiences—loss of our history and our word.”
In 回 / Return, Emily Lee Luan’s first full-length poetry collection (Nightboat Books, April 2023), language, absence, and longing rupture against the linearity of time, finality of death, and limits of a life. Like Philip, Luan excavates ancestral lineage and personal myth, decentering the English language in the process. Luan experiments with language and poetic form, blending the lyric, narrative, and visual to create poems that resist translation. This collection insists on fragmentation and altered realities; the self is muddled and intertwined within a greater ancestral history rooted in storytelling. Due to this inheritance, the poems are wrought with the aftermath of colonization yet markedly dissociated from the experience of the immediate violence: “My grandfather / tells my father a story about the war, / and my father turns to tell my sister / and me.” She meditates on her entry point, noting how her perception of history is “my memory of my father’s retelling of his father’s retelling.” Luan explores the phantasmagoria of memory, the haziness of tracing an unsituated past, and the defamiliarization of the present and future in the pursuit of returning home.
Luan’s voice is authoritative and decisive in her efforts to grasp at the past and resist the pressing force of the present. The title of the opening poem, “Elision,” introduces us into the collection’s space of omission and absence, where language is a site of vulnerability, slippage, and evasion: “When I ask my mother about Taiwan, her life, she waves the question / away, saying, We were just so poor, so poor.” Luan’s exploration of language leads to the dissection of Traditional Chinese characters, aptly mirroring the process of self-examination. In “哭,” Luan writes, “2 mouths + 1 dog = 哭 // 2 mouths = 2 eyes,” revealing the feral wildness and emotive openings of the body embedded within the character. Fragmenting the compound characters unveils interpretive possibilities and evokes the visceral. The collection title, 回 / Return is composed of two mouths (口), a motif that presents a space of self-expression, absence, and opening; iconographically, it resembles two enclosures or a tunneling portal, evoking the collection’s central image of “the family well.”
The poems long for healing, spanning spiritual, medical, and intellectual outlets for prescription. In “Search,” Luan commits the ultimate act of modernity: “Google Search: My Sadness.” The poem is rife with personal musings and Google autocomplete results. Luan captures how the results shift as the question expands—how an algorithm attempts to flatten and simplify the spectral and cyclical nature of grief. Throughout the collection, the “anger rooted in sadness” resists definition and remains boundless. Sorrow is a generationally inherited entity that accumulates alongside the living.
Luan self-mythologizes deftly, weaving displacement into imitations of the familiar. From these spaces of liminality bloom the most vulnerable and human declarations of the collection. In “I Swam in a Cold Lake and Watched My Body Convulse on Shore,” the speaker ruminates on an alternate life as a flight attendant:
I might stare out of one of the windows,
imagine the ocean blue. Or, say, when cleaning
up a toddler’s vomit, I might yearn
for a less solitary life. But otherwise, loneliness
might be okay when surrounded by other
flight attendants in the sky, my body
a body made for tending to bodies in flight.
I’d breathe in the air of neither
here nor there. I’d remember everything
about my lives on earth.
Liminality and performance mirror the diasporic experience, one unmoored from a homeland and assimilated into a colonial, capitalist system: “it’s easy to meet that in-between, where / the something-like-being lies,” Luan writes. She plays with physical, temporal, and spiritual boundaries, emphasizing the fragile mutability of borders and containments. The constant disorientation and ever-present proximity to loss creates a space of pervading instability. In “From what are you separated?” Luan writes, “Oh, I love you, Ling Ling, the man on the street says to me. // I’ve said it before: I don’t know where I am.” For protection, the self dissociates to escape the body, the aperture to external dangers and racialized violence.
In this world, the past maintains itself as memory. Luan grounds the poems in the permanence of elapsed time and recognizes, “I can’t go back.” This certainty escalates the poet’s insatiable desire to unravel the passage of memory. Words transform into portals between points of certainty: life and death, foreignness and home, loss and reclamation. In “If I dig a hole to China—” Luan tenderly chronicles the history of her paternal lineage, tracing from the Chinese Civil War to the present after her grandfather’s death. The poem oscillates between timelines and presents a speculative future where the speaker can dig a “hole so deep I may one day meet him in the middle.” These poems acknowledge the limits of memory and life in their attempts at subversion; language is drenched in grief, attempting to memorialize ancestral history: “I want / to inherit loneliness from the scene, but what do I know of my father’s / dreams? I’m still creating my own mythology of moving water.” Luan draws from familial pain as a point of connection to reality, but the generational distance and inherited experience remain an unstable site of grounding.
Luan’s reversible poems are multidirectional and expansive, allowing readers to read up and down the poem while mirroring between lines. The capaciousness of these poems reflects and refracts possibilities and desire; the poems mirror the process of self-examination and the multifaceted nature of a personal history. She orchestrates a virtuosic, symphonic movement with synchronized collapsing and tunneling of language juxtaposed against a greater cycling of lines and stanzas—the direction always pointed toward an unreclaimable return. These poems turn their heads to the past, wrestling with the present: “[now] [now] [no-] [now] [now] [now] [w].”