Reviewed by Danielle Pafunda
Crazed as many contemporary readers are for identifying identity in poetry, Timothy Liu (wherein we might mine Mormon, Chinese, American, scholar, gay, missionary) has been a jackpot, a goldmine. But it is a mistake to use identity as the key to Liu’s work, even as Of Thee I Sing tempts us to do that very thing. Of his Word of Mouth: An Anthology of Gay American Poetry, Liu has said, "my anthology seeks to complicate the relationship between one’s sexuality and one’s textuality." Similarly, in this new book of poems, Liu complicates the relationship between the tripartite--one’s spirituality, sexuality, culturality--and one’s textuality. An articulate complication arises in poems such as "Anniversary":
The monthly rent check due.
Camouflaged by smoke.
Could someone open a window in here?
A marriage in lieu of talk.
In the metaphor of self as dwelling, as an apartment, it is stuffy and crowded, the dinner has burned, and the money spreads thin. At the same time, lovers persist. There is a "marriage in lieu [self] of talk." Language is unified where the trappings of identity are not. The language is newlywed, passionate, strained, and through its filter, the dingy surroundings are transformed from lodgings to home.
But this home refutes its own romanticization. On the Poetry Society of America Web site, we find Liu’s "That's what's American about American poetry--a place to call home after all is said and done." Apply this definition to poems such as "Felix Culpa":
Beguiled by excess.
By like-minded folk
in ever tinier courts.
wherein we might read a nuclear family, with whom one shares a lifestyle of ease, but can never be at ease. A family with whom one must retain, in the den or at the dinner table, only those tropes of identity which do not place him in contempt of court. Or consider "Just You Wait," in which "plates came / crashing down on entry-hall tile" in the first two lines, and we recognize:
a tone in us that we had somehow
always known whenever our home
began to sail out of the harbor--
The very structures in which we craft identity may be uprooted and tossed to sea. They house courts and battleground, they are "wrapped up in burnt-out / Xmas lights." The short lines, in couplets, tercets, or boxlike stanzas further evoke the tract house or cramped apartment.
The families who reside in these structures suffer, luxuriate, and construct an ill-fitting solace in their complicated, contradictory labels. We find parents who are not parents, defined by those domestic activities in which they can no longer participate, as in "Marriage":
is also a kind of feeding
that feeds on everything
we have known, our child
already two years dead.
We find "A Blessing" in a sin unrealized:
She does not seem to know her husband
stops at a roadside strip club each night ...
... where those pussies in fishnet
panties hover just inches from his face
"The Gates of Hell" ironically provide shelter for the lovers, who in public, would be scrutinized, perhaps reviled:
room between us opened
wherein we could feast
without anyone’s notice.
Here, in particular, Liu has co-opted a label, has reshaped a prison into a haven. While this may provide little compensation to the object of a violent label, we must acknowledge such a remarkable survival skill. Perhaps language is the site in which such a transformation is most possible. In public, in politics, church, or family, we cannot so easily rid ourselves of the connotations of the labels with which others identify us. We cannot transform the rock through the window into the dove on the sill.
In language, then, in American poetry, one might be alchemist. One might be architect of a home that defies the physics of our quotidian America. On the page, Liu occupies paradoxical space, his tropes of identity rendered vehicles for the language, and the language complicating the vehicles on which it travels. If we enter Of Thee I Sing without our contemporary lexicon, without our cultural pricing gun, we readers might find an anthem, an empathy, might find a lean-to in which to shelter.