Tuesday, July 18, 2006

NEW! Review of Yunte Huang

Cribs by Yunte Huang. Tinfish Press.

Reviewed by Victoria Chang

Although biography does not always seem relevant to a poet’s writing, it seems essential to Yunte Huang’s project. Huang came to the United States in 1991, after graduating from Peking University with a B.A. in English. He then earned a Ph.D. from SUNY Buffalo in 1999 and teaches at the University of California-Santa Barbara. He has published several books of criticism, but it wasn’t until 2005 that Hawaii-based Tinfish Press published his first book of poems, Cribs. Tinfish describes Huang’s book as follows:
Cribs is a discrete sequence of critical and poetic probing into the manifolds of the book’s title word: ‘crib’ as a small child’s bed, as literal translation, as plagiarism, as a summary or key to understanding a literary work, as a manger for feeding animals, as confinement, as home, as a memory aid for illegal immigrants, and so on. Speaking in a forked/chopsticked tongue, the author explores translingual and cross-cultural terrains where the inchoate, tangential, and back-translational emerge and diverge to unsettle an adopted diction.

Despite the publisher’s attempt to explain what Huang’s book is “about,” it is precisely the difficulty of articulating the book’s subject matter that is at the core of the book’s intelligence. In Huang’s own words in the long-titled poem “A Crib-ute to Gertrude Stein, who, according to one critic is ‘engagingly childish’”:
what is life
“that” is

caught up
in a narrative

that goes nowhere
but now here

For Huang, poetry is not about a conclusion, an end-point that can be neatly tied into a bow, but rather it is about the playful process of language and all the discoveries and paradoxes along the way. To Huang, “what / is a death sentence.”

Huang’s book is innovative and interesting in many ways. The most obvious way is through his playful punning with language. During a reading at the University of Southern California in February 2006, Huang said: “Language is autoeroticism. It reveals itself.” Language, for Huang, an immigrant from China, is not fixed; the land of signs and signifiers is never straightforward or set in stone. In one poem, “Nearly Half of Crib Deaths Tied to Sleep Position,” Huang begins a poem with a syntactically straightforward phrase: “do you love / a cup of tea / in the afternoon,” but the meaning of such words keeps morphing as Huang prunes the phrases and rearranges words to show the boundless potential variances in meaning:
do you love
a cup of tea

in the afternoon
or do you love

in the afternoon
or just love

the afternoon

as for me
i love

the tea

In another poem, “For MIA, Made in America,” words are only tenuously attached to their meanings. In Huang’s world, words are parts of other words that have vastly different meanings. Here, “bell” becomes “belly,” “nip” “nipple,” and “yes” “eyes.” In Huang’s poems, there is a sense that everything is connected and nothing is connected:
I am
the bell of your belly
nip of your nipple
yes in your eyes
no in your nose
should on your shoulder
so in your torso…

It’s important to note one of the effects of Huang’s punning and playful language, which is humor. Granted, Huang uses language in many poems to depict more serious issues, but Cribs can be outright laugh-out-loud funny. And in a world of deeply pensive, self-reflective, personal Romantic lyrics, funny is refreshing. In the poem: “The Pullet Surprise” (an obvious pun on “Pulitzer Prize”), both emotions intermingle and the poem begins humorous, shifts into pathos, and returns to humor:
“I won! I won!! ‘I’ wins!!!
--the ‘Pullet Surprise’ for poultry,
better than lottery!
for years and years
I have pulled and tried
to get at that fishbone
stuck in my throat;
sometimes I wonder
if it’s just a tape
tucked under my overcoat
--a tape of foreign words
that ‘practical gods’ can use
when traveling
in strange countries.”

This poem shows Huang’s ability to use language for many purposes--to access and unlock the multi-faceted emotions of his speaker.

In a few cases, Huang makes his ideas regarding poetry and language apparent. “The Token Road,” another humorous pun on Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” he states: “poetry is not derivative enough.” Later on in the same poem, he explains his reasons for writing:
I write in order
to pilfer epiphanies
every turn of the verse
serves as
reverse, converse, averse, adverse
inverse, obverse, traverse, perverse
but never universe
I call it nerverse…

In another poem, “The Liver Failure of Poetry,” Huang discusses the problem of the epiphanic moment in a more conventional lyric poem. He likens the epiphany to a “delivery:”
after years of alcoholism
straight shots of “the me”
or on the rocks
poetry finally delivers
having the spongy mass removed

it is a moment
of bilious epiphany
emotional enzymes released
from the hepatic artery
professionals call it a click
otherwise known as delivery

But in the speaker’s mind, nothing needs to click in a poem for it to be a poem. In this way, Huang is questioning the very notion of “a poem”:
…2. It is as though you needed some cri-
terion, namely the clicking, to know the
right thing has happened.

5. We are again and again using this sim-
ile of something clicking or fitting, when
really there is nothing that clicks or that
fits anything.

Here, we also begin to see the structural variances in Huang’s poem. There are numbers, but the numbering is not linear or logical, going from a “2” to a “5.” Part of the poem is in this prose form, while other parts are right-justified. Here, and in other parts of Cribs, Huang places quotation marks around entire prose sections, but there are no references to who is being quoted. Such floating quotations, in a sense, question the very use of references, of authority, of establishment. Some of his poems do not use capitalization and others do. In fact, in one poem called “Polish Central,” Huang points to the arbitrary currency attributed to capitalization: “if i capitalize all the letters / what will the interest rate be?” In our culture, capitalization is equated with importance, but Huang turns that notion upside-down and questions the very value of such rules by pairing capital letters with something seemingly unrelated--interest rates.

Although so much of Huang’s book is not necessarily “about” anything, it would be false to say that the book entirely lacks subject matter. One of the themes Huang confronts in the later sections of his book are those related to racism and ethnicity. But Huang does not recycle ethnic subject matter in an expected way. Many other poets such as Marilyn Chin in the much-anthologized poem, “How I Got My Name” (from Chin’s book, The Phoenix Gone, The Terrace Empty) have already addressed such issues in a more conventional manner:
I am Marilyn Mei Ling Chin
Oh, how I love the resoluteness
of that first person singular
followed by that stalwart indicative
of “be,” without the uncertain i-n-g
of “becoming.” Of course,
the name had been changed
somewhere between Angel Island and the sea,
when my father the paperson
in the late 1950s
obsessed with a bombshell blond
transliterated “Mei Ling” to “Marilyn.”

Instead, Huang manages ethnicity and race issues in a wholly fresh way. In “A Foreign Student,” he uses language and punning as a frame for discussing race: “hey, behave your language / and take out the cabbage / be man, ok? or even manner / did you say you’ve lost / a tooth or truth?” In another poem, “Polish Conrad,” Huang touches on the potentially autobiographical “I” (although we can’t assume the speaker is the poet) but he couples it, unexpectedly, with a story about the Polish writer, Joseph Conrad. Huang follows the passage about Conrad with a quoted prose section that is written a very traditional narrative style:
“My grandparents on my mother’s side, for instance, used to
come over late after work and make my mother wake me up
and take me out of the crib just so they could ask me to perform
something--usually a song or poem, in either English or Japa-
nese (they spoke very little English, so naturally I was bilingual)…”

But then Huang follows this traditional narrative with a more journalistic prose passage on the arrival of Chinese immigrants to America: “They came by boats. Thousands of them, claming to be sons and daughters of native-born U.S. citizens. Paper-sons and paper-daughters….” This factual section of the poem is followed by a printed survey-type dialogue that illustrates the questioning that immigrants received, and how such answers to questions would need to match the answers of other villagers in order to receive immigration. “How many houses are there on your row, the first one?” and “When did he die?” are examples of such questions. Huang ties the theme of immigration and race issues with the idea of “cribs” by noting on the bottom of one page that the Chinese detainees relied on “coaching notes” or crib notes to remember basic facts about their villages so that their answers would match those of other detainees. Huang’s approach to ethnicity and race are entirely new and his fresh perspective allows him to re-approach a dusty topic with new interest.

One final example of Huang’s innovative approach to race issues is his use of humor, a topic already discussed earlier, but worth mentioning again in a different context. Much of topically ethnic poems are more serious. A recent example is A. Van Jordan’s M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A, a book about an African-American girl who, in 1936, was kept from winning a spelling bee because the judge used a word not on the official list. A few representative lines: “I sit alone. / I am Job, a leper, skin / But not flesh, flesh but / Not soul, soul but not human, Human but not equal being.” Unlike Jordan, however, Huang injects his poems on similar ethnicity issues with humor, as in “Not a Chinaman’s Chance:”
One day, in the street of New York City, he was asked
by a white man who was apparently annoyed by his
exotic appearance: “What sort of ‘nese are you? A
Chinese, Japanese, or Javanese?” The famous author
of The Book of Tea replied: “What sort of ‘key are
you? A Yankee, donkey, or monkey?”

And that is how Huang ends Cribs--with humor, the humor of language, and an understanding of the role humor and language plays in the sphere of the human condition. Huang’s book is anything but simplistic, but it is anything but complicated; it is happily both and happily neither. Huang’s work is original and bodes well for Asian American poetry, avant-garde poetry, and poetry at large.

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