Brandon Som’s first book of poems, The Tribute Horse, won the 2012 Nightboat Poetry Prize. According to the copyright page, it was published in 2014, so I don’t feel too badly about being so slow to read it. I remember initially being put off by its blurb from Marjorie Perloff, who, on a different occasion, stated:
I do not see why we must make an either-or choice between reading Beckett or reading Aimé Cesaire, between calling out and into question “cultural desires, drives, anxieties, or prejudices,” or analyzing metonymy, chiasmus, sprung rhythm, lineation, anaphora, parataxis, trochees, and so forth.
By this standard, along with the fact that Perloff blurbed the book, I wrongly assumed that Som agreed with her. I don’t know what world Perloff lives in, which seems to demand that “we must make an either-or choice,” because I have never lived in that world; I am not part of the “we” she is writing about.
According to Kenneth Goldsmith, reporting on Perloff’s keynote address for the Conceptual Poetry Conference in Tucson, Arizona:
[Perloff] also questioned the values of a poetics based on identity in a time when neither phone numbers nor email addresses tell us where caller and recipient are actually located, nor does an email address provide vital statistics about its possessor; when an AOL or Yahoo address, for example, reveals neither nationality, ethnicity, race, religion, age — and often not even gender. We are moving away, she claimed, from a geographical, from identity politics to shifting identities and communities, all this being reflected in the new poetry.
Again, Perloff’s use of the word “we” feels suspect. Does she really think she is speaking for everyone when she questions “the values of a poetics based on identity?” Aren’t there plenty of other ways to go, plenty of other paths not on Perloff’s limited map?
There are a lot of Asian American writers and writers of Asian descent working in English whose work challenges the binary choice that Perloff puts forward. Here is a short list of those working within Oulipian constraints while addressing the slippery subject of identity: Cathy Park Hong; Michael Leong; Brandon Som. What about Brian Kim Stefans, Timothy Yu and Monica Youn? What about the translation of Athena Farrokhzad’s White Blight (Argos Books, 2015) from the Swedish by Jennifer Hayashida or the fiction of Eugene Lim and Sesshu Foster? What about the publication of Wong May’s Picasso’s Tears: Poems 1978 – 2013 (Octopus Books, 2014)? This is just the tip of the iceberg. So much is going on, and it has been for along time.
I mention this because Perloff gives herself permission to be contradictory but, by advancing the very notion that there is an either-or choice in literary studies, she implies that same right does not pertain to writers concerned with identity. By contrast, this is what is great about the current situation: a lot of writers are finding their own authority without taking their cues from literary theorists. They are mixing everything up.
Som knows that language and sound contribute to identity, especially if immigration is part of one’s current family history. Wasn’t this also true of Louis Zukofsky, who grew up on New York’s Lower East Side speaking Yiddish and didn’t begin to learn English until he started school? Doesn’t Som’s musical and linguistic terseness, his use of found text, and homophonic translations suggest that he has learned from the Objectivists? Isn’t his “debt of sound” also true of Zukosky and others who grew up in a household where English wasn’t the primary spoken language? Or is the avant-garde tradition not open to Asian American writers?
In a recent interview with Interlochen Review editors Nim Holden, Ray Kearns and Sarah Arnett, Som said:
I’m both Chinese-American and Mexican-American, or Chicano. I grew up in these households where Chinese was primarily spoken or Spanish was primarily spoken, and I wasn’t fluent in these languages at all, so I grew up really hearing the music of these languages more so than understanding their meaning. That was really important to me and I think it probably led to me becoming a poet because I spent a lot of time developing a kind of interiority, a kind of inner life, a kind of meditative life. I think it’s also led to me foregrounding and prioritizing music within my own poetry. I’m really interested in what your question suggests, this kind of multi-lingual experience on the page. I think that’s the experience that so many of us have, and I really see the poem as a space for recording all of these languages and their music.
In citing that his “interiority” developed partly in response to growing up in a household where he “wasn’t fluent” in the language spoken by his parents, Som speaks about an immigrant experience. His opening prose “Elegy” gets right to the heart of this book: “My grandfather, aboard at twelve, practiced a paper name.” He was an illegal immigrant, who found a way to bypass the Chinese Exclusion act of 1882, the only law in American history that denied citizenship or entry into the United States based upon a specific nationality. The term “paper son or daughter” refers to Chinese people who purchased fraudulent documents stating that they were blood relatives to Chinese Americans who had citizenships in the United States. Such faked documents likely required you change your name as well as memorize a fake family history.
In the series, “Coaching Papers,” which is named after the crib sheets Som’s grandfather memorized on the ship carrying him to America, the poet returns to this world of sounds in 12 poems comprised of four two-line stanzas. Som uses clusters of close sounds to string words together:
A ship’s bow’s shapes writes an A
To mark the indefinite way. A name
Is a persona, per son, per song.
Sonar searches the sea by singing
Som uses sound, rather than narrative, to access a little-known history of the illegal immigration of Chinese into America. The voice of the poem is multiple and changing. When Som uses “I,” he becomes his grandfather. In another poem in the series, he writes:
At sea, a boy recites a name.
The sea records it in waves.
The boy is Som’s grandfather but also all the other Chinese youths who came to America as a paper son or paper daughter.
There are tight and open lyric sequences as well as prose poems in The Tribute Horse. The reader will encounter Spanish, Latin, and Pinyin, the official Romanization of Standard Chinese. There is a sequence, “Seascapes,” that brings together “the horizon” and “our own inarticulate selves.” In “The Nest Collectors,” Som connects finding a “twig nest” with the Chinese delicacy of soup made from the “blood-spittle” of “swift nests.” This isn’t just another poem about exotic or native food, because Som includes different histories for each of his subjects. The music of the lines shifts throughout the poem. In “Oulipo,” comprised of 18 four-line stanzas, the poets writes a homophonic translation of a Li Po verse he saw carved into the wall on Angel Island, which is in the San Francisco Bay. The island housed a US Bureau of Immigration inspection and detention facility, where Chinese immigrants might spend years before being granted entry to the United States. Many of these immigrants carved poetry into the walls of their barracks. Som’s poem carries some of the sounds of Li Po’s poem into English: it is an act of historical recovery, but it is more than that. Sounds are promiscuous: they will mingle with any other sound and with silence.
Trundled nights of a nun
Fissures between rival tongs
You sell wontons here
Detuned doo-wop songs
In the collision of different sounds and cultures — which Som has no doubt experienced his whole life — he recognizes that there is no pure moment to return to, no essential identity to define, and that such ideals are sentimental illusions. Right from the start, Som seemed to know that it was never an “either-or choice between reading Beckett or reading Aimé Cesaire,” that one’s writing practice is always about both and more. He seems to have taken Zukofsky’s formal radicalism (or poetry guided by sound, which also infuses the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Harryette Mullen) and steeped it in the particulars of his life and the larger history of immigration. The lines sing and hold their own within any stanza or overall poem. The results are ravishing.