Summer Poetry Fridays: white space.
Dictionary.com’s definition of recombinant: of or resulting from new combinations of genetic material.
All week long, the word recombinant, recombinant, recombinant has been bouncing around in my head. Ching-In Chen’s collection was, for me, confusing and dense, but it was a kind of gift and luxury to go through it.
There are many ways to read a book formatted like this, and as such it means that this book has maybe three to seven times the number of poems in it than those mentioned in the table of contents. By reading a poem in a different order, and then another order, the tone and meaning continually shift. Chen says, “I wanted to make poems which a reader could approach in multiple ways and which could change depending on what choice the reader makes. In some ways, this spoke to my own process as a reader of various fragments (missing and present), trying to make sense of them by testing out different combinations. This speaks also to the way that different voices can inhabit the same space and how forcing them together for some type of interaction creates multiple layers of interest to what the poem investigates. This is one of the reasons why I think poetry as a form is an exciting structure to work through its content.”
Last month I helped translate a Japanese painter’s exhibition notes into English, and thus received an invitation up to the countryside, where his paintings were being displayed in a building designed by a famous architect in the spirit of a infamously difficult philosopher. (I am keeping details vague so that no one can pinpoint my location on a map.) It was a curious place to put a renown building, a small town accessible only by car, unknown to visitors and tourists, but I ended up doing one of my favorite activities: blindly exploring an eerily uninhabited, labyrinthine building.
The building was a rejection of any practicality. A needless, curving hall led to an unnecessary staircase, at the bottom of which, a long way down, like an inversed Rapunzel’s tower, was a circular stone room like a prison, featuring a single glass chair in its center. The entire building was designed like this, encompassing abstract principles of a philosophy I had never heard of before encountering the painter’s work. I could draw no conclusion from the building except that it aligned, probably coincidentally, with my own private philosophies. I like feeling as though I am in a dream.
At one point, in the inverse tower room, I was looking at one of the paintings and the artist himself approached me. He said it must be difficult for a person ignorant of the work of the particular Japanese philosopher who had inspired him to interpret his art. Indeed, his canvases were just textured colors to me. He acknowledged that I lacked the necessary reference point.
This is how recombinant was for me as well: many reference points were missing. In an interview Ching-In Chen explained the process of making the book: “This book, and much of my own writing, is fused by a desire to learn what I wasn’t taught – about the history of Asians in the United States and in the diaspora. Much of this writing has been around buried history which isn’t ‘whole’ or easy to access and digest. I had to go out ‘hunting’ and looked for evidence in census records, on insurance maps, in old city books, and other kinds of archives, but there were certain things I couldn’t access, an everyday kind of living which was lost to me. Much of the white space accounts for this process of research and trying to piece together from your limited archives a kind of knowing, which includes an acknowledgment of what you don’t know or might not know through a traditional way of knowing.”
This is a collection about uncovering the hidden and obscured, the lives of the marginalized, but one interesting choice was its lack of accessibility. Chen mentions the white space as an acknowledgment of the blanks in their own Asian American history; it is as though Chen decided to allow the poems to be inaccessible to the poems themselves. To acknowledge that a thing was blotted out and now we will never see it clearly again is bold and courageous. Maybe that act of validation, of seeing the blank lacuna of what is unseen, is more important than being able to say you “got” this poem. Many poets have aims, their own points to make. Chen is largely pointing at a blank space and saying, We don’t know, we’ll never know, but these people were here.
There are poetry collections with similar processes behind them, but they felt more accessible to me than recombinant. In Solmaz Sharif’s Look, she borrows phrases from the U.S. Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, inverted and humanizing sterile military terminology to explore America’s violence in the Middle East. M. NourbeSe Philip wrote Zong!, a poetry collection that aims to tell the hidden history of the slave ship Zong. In 1781 its captain ordered his crew to drown about 150 African people so that the ship’s owners could collection insurance monies. Philip uses words exclusively from “the legal decision Gregson v. Gilbert, the only extant public document related to the massacre of the slaves.”
Both Zong! and Look are powerful and important poetry collections, and Chen specifically says that Zong! inspired their work. However, recombinant feels denser and less comprehensible, and I think the difference is that Sharif and Philip, in their own ways, went in with a goal of making their own points known through the language of someone else. Sharif in particular had a political aim: taking the enemy’s words and turning them back on the enemy. In recombinant, Chen is basically shrugging and saying, “This is all we got.” Except the excruciating and exacting labor behind the work, the hours of research it must have taken, is anything but a shrug.
Fortunately for folks like me, Chen is generous with readings of their work, saying: “I’m one of those writers who love hearing others’ readings of the work and think other interpretations are just as valid as my own intentions for the making of the work.”
At one point during my visit to the art exhibit, my friend asked me which painting was my favorite. I pointed to a blue one. She said, “Why?” I said, “It’s the same color as your car. I like the color of your car.” Sometimes your interaction with difficult art is a kind of mental surrender; the furthest you can go is I like that shade of blue. There were a lot of moments when the furthest I could go with recombinant was I like this unexpected string of words.
Words put together in a surprising order: this, to me, is the basis of the poetry I enjoy. Sometimes the only analysis I can do is say, “a seething in sea lay down detour and archipelago” is not a string of words I ever thought I would read, but I would rather read those words than watch TV.
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