September 16, 2016KR OnlineReview

On Lo Kwa Mei-en’s Yearling

Farmington, ME: Alice James Books, 2015. 100 pages. $15.95.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

There is a power to skepticism. A muscular arm. A rhetorical vengeance. A means that means to put an end to everything it steps up to. Have you read Theodor Adorno’s Aesthetics? Have you found yourself alone with a Sophist? The power of logic to negate its own logic by pushing the logical conclusion to a new ground feels like a heist gone in all the right grammatical directions. Yes, you thought logic was a confined space. A wall that a logical person would push off of to help make its point. “Not now, wall.” But what happens when that wall is a movable dimension? Lionel Richie’s “Dancing on the Ceiling” for one thing. And Theodor Adorno’s never-ending musings on the heft of aesthetics on the other. For some, skepticism is a dead-end street where the logician simply proves the utilitarian nature of a dead-end street. But then there is the skeptic eyeing the opportunity folded into logic, because there is, in fact, an inherent opportunity available when you have skepticism probing at that logic. Close down all options that might be available to the sentence, and the sentence opens itself up to you, like a grammatical surprise.

Such is the work in Lo Kwa Mei-en’s debut collection of poetry, Yearling. A volume where skepticism abounds. You could call it a lyric of skepticism. But, then, what lyric isn’t skeptical while it tries needling its way into the speaker’s sensibility. Consider Karla Kelsey’s A Conjoined Book and its investigation into fable, and the pull of fable drawing her in. Consider Lyn Hejinian’s The Book of a Thousand Eyes pulling at the concept of Freudian dream life, holding it in, making it live within a discourse, literally trapping it in discourse, and 333 pages later you get this scope of discourse that’s broad and fulsome and plundered and admittedly still not complete concerning the discourse of Freud.

Mei-en’s dead end is the body. A speaker’s body. Where the biological churnings stirred by desire or love or rejection of love is a vehicle for lyrical thinking, magical lyrical thinking, magical skeptical maneuvers that are part weighted energy natural to a skeptical thinking and part hopeful redemption that the body is hopefully and biologically capable of moving past whatever happened. “Why?” asks the speaker. And, really, Why does this happen? Why did the body let this happen? Why is the body capable of injury? Why is this body so adept at catering to the skeptic and subjecting itself to some hoped for conclusion the circumstances seem so reluctant to offer?

Understanding the relationship “why” creates between speaker of the poem and whatever circumstances brought this poem about is the exercise pushing through this collection. These poems are dense and emotionally fraught. They do not often yield to a clear arrangement of characters and facts. However, there is a consistent relationship between time present and time past. The current speaker of the poem is often looking back, reflecting at what should have never been but, strangely, inevitably was. And the confusion of why this was is, for my reading, where the poems formulate their untiring immediacy. The interplay of speaker with a “you” antagonist that is, in some cases, a character from the speaker’s past, and in some cases the speaker’s body. There is often a “me” in the poems, as well. And this “me” seems to be some objective past-version of the speaker playing through the motions of the scene. Consider this quote from “A Girl Thief’s Illustrated Primer”:

. . . as if your heart shredded its school skirt
and shotgunned over the yard for home.

Be need with a black glove riding the wrist.
Be first-felony Eve in the red telephone booth
outside the garden, a battle coal
dialing herself back into the war.

They kept you on the wrong side all along.
Hold a tension wrench closer. Treat your gates
like they were lovers and listen for the Yes.
And there it is, but look at what you found inside.

In this case, the poem appears to be addressing a past version of the speaker, the occasion: “present-day speaker reconciles with who she sees that she was in the past.” However, I’m unsure of what this present-day you really thinks of this past you, and what does it mean that “they kept you on the wrong side all along”? What does it mean to give permission to this younger person to “be need” or “be first-felony Eve”? For me, the answer lies between the speaker’s present understanding of how a person can make herself feel comfortable with her humanity, but, at the same time, who isn’t so distant in identifying with this past self, and the combining of these two sides is what fully complicates this poem.

The risk Mei-en runs throughout the book is overcomplicating the poems. Yes, poems that propose obvious roles insinuating obvious consequences for the speaker and leading, quite possibly, to the obvious epiphany in the end are easy and dull and formula’ed, and basically written and written and written again all through the 1990s. Thank goodness commenting that these poems avoid such obviousness is no longer a culturally relevant statement. However, the possibility that these poems tie the consequential knots so tightly that a reader will maybe leave some knots unexplored is the true risk, especially as these knots are of the image-based lyric variety rather than Mei-en’s more recent poems where repeated words signal to the reader, “Now, the poem is turning. And now, again, the poem is turning.” Consider “Pinnochia from Pleasure Island,” found in Yearling. For me, this poem and others featuring this character Pinnochia push me to the edge of too many layers:

   Now you make me dress
the wound I turned myself into when I bit into two.
   Now you might get up inside it and show me the whip
-stich anew, or finger-test my tourniquet, bandwidth
   on top of me, make me shake like a head. Now you like

to know my real name, what to say yet louder when
   on the outside for good. What’s not good you can’t get
out of a corset fast enough, here, and I am came unlaced

In me translating Pinnochio from boy-puppet to girl-puppet, then assigning who I think “you” is in analogy to the Pinnochio parallel, then seeing how wound plays out for this Pinnochia, and positioning this wound narrative within the Pleasure Island portion of the Pinnochio story, then, amidst all that ball of knots, bringing sexuality into the picture, and returning at that point to the image from the opening of this quote, where “dress” acts as both noun and verb, the idea of wound, which seems so central to a reading of this poem (is it self-inflicted, was the speaker pushed to where she had to bring the wound on), feels drowned out by all the other layers present. Like the poem thinks it is operating in a padded chamber, with an intense symbolic focus on Pinnochia and her suffered wound, but it keeps stuffing pillows into the chamber, and as a reader, I’m like, “Where do I put all these pillows?”

Ironically, it is when Mei-en releases control of the poem’s exact parameters that I find her greatest lyric insights. There is a series of “Era . . . ” poems where the line endings push to the very limit of disjunction, like they were banners left waving under a strong wind, and yet there is no difficulty in navigating the poem’s sensibility. “The Second Flowering of the Mammals” forgoes grammar completely, and I find the poem lush with grammatical phrases layering on grammatical phrases:

we keep the other warm & by running is no excuse for running

in a line feet that would survive in front & feet that would eat
behind fleeing what won’t survive back off the earth we shed

oxygen like a leash we full tilt until a planetary dawn we dawn

Perhaps another reader would find this overly complicated, but for me it feels so at ease with subject, inviting me inside rather than setting so many terms for my entrance.

In full disclosure, what I am really saying is I like Yearling. I find the dense, dark psychology of the poems revealed more and more with greater attention. And, most importantly, they don’t propose to resolve this psychology with cheap epiphany or even a “I’m this person now, lucky I’m past that time of my life.” Yearling fully understands life doesn’t live in compartments, it is awash in compartment-like structures that we keep spending time in our lives trying to identify. There is another portion to my disclosure, though. I am in heated, convulsed, and definitely pointed anticipation of Mei-en’s next book due out in the not-soon-enough future. I yearn. Lo Kwa Mei-en’s grasp on lyric skepticism, lyric sensibility, and lyric scope appears to be gaining traction, like an NBA basketball player who shows you he can palm a whole basketball in his hand. What might even come next?

Kent Shaw's first book, Calenture, was published in 2008. His poetry has appeared in The Believer, Ploughshares, and Denver Quarterly. He teaches English and Creative Writing at Wheaton College in Massachusetts.