Tuesday, June 28, 2005

On George Uba's "Unrequited Love: An Essay on Identity, or What Went Wrong, Suzy Wong?"

Only lazy people are, or try to be, "intelligent" all the time. I don't want to be lazy. I don't want to fall into predictable patterns with these reviews -- where you know what I'm going to say and how I'm going to say it. I don't envy people who've made a career out of being op-ed columnists, movie critics, or poets/poetry critics, because they've probably long forgotten the virginity of their viewpoints. Their views must have been malleable once. I think that it's hard not only to remain open to change but to actually remain conscious and wary of one's own potential stagnation. So I've decided not to do a line-by-line commentary here, since I feel like it can get old fast.

Also, in this spirit, I will turn George Uba's "Unrequited Love: An Essay on Identity, or What Went Wrong, Suzy Wong" on myself and say that I, too, have written a poem about the fold around the "East Asian" eye. I called mine "Asian Eyelid Surgery." I am tempted to post it and have people compare, but that may be rather arrogant of me (as in, "hey, you know, I can do it for every poem to make this blog all about ME"). I may still post, though, if only out of curiosity, but I haven't decided yet.

Having attempted to write a poem on this relatively specific subject before, I think that I admire Uba's poem more than if I had come to it as someone who had never done so. I appreciate the difficulty of writing such a poem, or at least I appreciate what I perceive to be difficult. On a similar note, I don't necessarily view a "great" poem as one that universalizes the particular, assuming for the moment that the "universal" and "particular" may be distinguished. I think it is easier for poetry critics and readers to treat a "particular" subject matter, like "a medical procedure of creating an extra epicanthic fold around the eye," as "universal" if they feel a certain intimacy with the experience before approaching the poem. Viola! -- not a great leap from the particular to the universal. For example, having never lived on a farm, I generally find poems about farms particular and exotic, and thus, it may take a special amount of energy and attention from me to keep from unjustly slighting the beauty of cows and sheep (and whatever an ignorant suburban/urban bumpkin like myself doesn't know about farms). And though I'd try my best if I was a poetry editor, I'd also be fearful that I could miss the world's best sonnet ever written on bales of hay.

When I read Uba's poem, it was hard to conceal my knowledge that Uba has long been an underappreciated poet in Asian-American poetry -- a poet who has written intelligent, groundbreaking, moving, sometimes "political" poems. You will seldom witness his name bandied about anywhere outside academic circles. I'm not sure why George Uba isn't more of a household name in poetry. Actually, I'm not sure if this knowledge of mine works for or against him. I don't think this poem is my favorite Uba poem (that honor probably goes to "The Sanity of Tomatoes"), and yet, perhaps the knowledge that he has written poems that I've enjoyed more makes me think that I may be wrong in thinking that this poem is not quite on the same plane.

If this blog was a poetry workshop, and the professor/teacher asked us to make suggestions for improvement, I would have three primary ones: 1) greater experimentation with line breaks, as in, not ending so many lines with commas and periods and trying more enjambment (I never like it when people make this suggestion to me, but eh, I guess they have their point), 2) defining the word "epicanthic" in a footnote (purely speculative here, but I'm imagining that even the "above-average" reader probably will not understand the word in the context of the poem), 3) coming up with a more powerful final couplet (the next-to-last couplet works extremely well for me, but I felt that the final couplet fizzed out for me with "subtle churnings of the heart" and "the turnings of the tide").

The poem's success lies in its taking a difficult subject and rendering it emotionally and intellectually accessible. There are at least several particularly strong lines, such as "for the scent of rosemary touch, scent, persimmon mouth/ agile hips, the play of mysterious words in the dark," "provocative hours/ of thought, feelings disguised as maxims/ from the Orient," and "My whole life I have loved without possessing you." Uba is also daring in the way he assumes a female voice and provides a complex, abstract narrative. In doing so, he provides a fascinating perspective on an issue seldom dealt with in mainstream media.


Blogger pam said...

I'm interested in the "you" that the speaker is addressing. Who is the "you"? William Holden or some other such concrete representative of Western approving power? A more conceptual self-hating persona of a Westernized image that is impossible to achieve? An elusive, idealized "identity" that transcends stereotype, occidental or oriental?

The satirized, self-mocking tone of the speaker is also enigmatic. On the one hand, there's an admission of self-inflicted racism, as figured by the eyelid surgery. On the other hand, there's also an idea of self-exoticization, as in the "rosemary touch, scent, persimmon mouth," or the "feelings disguised as maxims
from the Orient." A suppression of racial characteristics in one, an augmentation and self-manipulation of "orientalist" qualities in the other.

Makes me think of the double bind of identity, where the repression or alteration of one's identity certainly invites obvious criticisms, but where the exhibition or assertion of one's identity (particularly an Asian identity) can also be mistaken as a sign of self-commodification, as a "selling point," so to speak.

Or, in today's post-PC climate, the concept of identity itself as a sort of political trump card, which can be played when needed to great effect.

As someone who once sat on a grant board and on the board for a community arts non-profit org, I cannot emphasize enough how important a commodity identity has become, esp. with regard to securing $$$ for the arts.

All of which is way digressing from the central concerns of GU's poem I realize, but still sparked by his proposing "an essay on identity."

On a different note, being vigilant and critical about one's own reviewing habits and biases is a very admirable thing.

2:47 PM  
Blogger Bryan Thao Worra said...

With this one- I probably wouldn't recommend it as a person's first George Uba poem, although it may resonate with many.

The topic isn't bad. It's one filled with a great many possibilities for exploration.

The use of couplets keeps the lines light and breezy, easy to wade through, but this won't be one of my favorite poems of all time.

There's a certain crowd to which this poem will be an eye-opener, but it's a common enough topic of discussion in my neck of the woods that it doesn't contain that much surprise or heft to it as I think I would like to see.

Honestly, I feel like this poem requires more with less. Pare it down even more. But as most folks know I like poems that are spare.

But hey, let's take the "distant and objective" hat off here.

Almost everyone reading this is a writer as well, and I think it's helpful and entertaining to show how a poem like this fits into our own journeys. (If at all)

So, in my case, comparing it to my own work, I'd probably consider this one next to three of my poems: Anthology, East Meets West, and To A Chinese Horse Behind Minneapolis Glass. (All of these are included in my e-chapbook Recollection Arrest on my website, if anyone REALLY wants to check it out.)

And, just to shake it up a bit and create the rollicking blog this was meant to be, I'll shamelessly break with "formal review" tradition and post a completely improvised haiku in response:

Eye You

Your eyesight unchanged,
Carve a new face for strangers
At home, my puzzle.

*with thanks to George Uba for inspiring this.

11:04 AM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Pam, thanks a lot for the post -- it fills in an important part of what was missing from my own commentary, which is a discussion of the content of the poem itself.

I think that you are right that the tone of the poem is enigmatic, though I guess I was slightly less troubled by it than you were.

The poem doesn't answer the questions that you've raised clearly, which I thought was consonant of the own ambivalent tensions of the surgery itself in the sense of striving for an "westernized" ideal of beauty vs. being proud of one's outward Asian appearance. The question, at least the simplified version, is whether one should criticize individuals who choose to get "Asian eyelid surgery." I think that the poem wants to say that such surgery is a bad thing, but it's not completely clear about it, perhaps because it also wants to empathize with the female speaker who affirmatively chooses this surgery.

8:26 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Bryan, nice haiku -- "carve" and "puzzle" are esepcially strong words.

As noted in the post, I have read poems of Uba's that I think are better. I will say, however, that he chose a poem that seems very appropriate for this blog. :)

The topic is slightly different from the more traditional topics of food, language, conflicting traditions that one usually gets in an "Asian-American" poem.

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