Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Review of Tina Chang's "Libretto"

I'm not sure whether I should be surprised that Tina Chang's "Libretto" was apparently not published in a literary magazine before the publication of Half-Lit Houses. It has all the earmarks of a "bad" lit mag poem. First, it's too short. Second, it makes no sense on a first reading. Third, it does not seem to be saying anything "important," not obviously falling into any readily identifiable theme (e.g., love, death, time, etc.) that poets often like to dwell upon to make themselves seem important to imaginary, illusory readers.

My claim here is that "Libretto" is actually a brilliant poem, original and wildly ambitious. I think of it not as the type of poem that gets anthologized but the type of poem whose genius later helps account for why the poet her or himself was anthologized in the first place.

The "empire" of the opening line, coupled with the [New York, 2000] tagline, reminds the reader of the Empire State Building with all its strange, abstract grandeur. The rest of the opening line and the second and third lines shock the reader with its radical shift in perspective -- the abstractness is reduced to a "smoldering seed" and rendered concrete through the image of red bean pastries. Might Chang be suggesting here a claiming of New York by Asian Americans, if the red bean pastries symbolize an Asian American presence? I also like the fact that the description of red bean pastries is not dumbed down -- describing the filling as "a bit of mud" is empirically accurate in a place where such accuracy is useful if not essential.

In lines four through six, the narrator appears to be standing in front of a Chinese BBQ, but that is my own conclusion. You don't have to arrive at that conclusion, and you probably won't. Line four is the weakest of the poem -- "rotten" is not the most interesting adjective in the world to describe "city," and "smoke flowers" is a cliche that is almost, but not quite, saved by the following half-line, "from her face." The most fascinating aspect of lines four through six is reading it in light of the other poems in the book, where one is often amazed by Chang's intelligent observations of scent and sound, which are two very difficult senses to render plausible in poetry.

The poem ends abstractly and powerfully, not wimping out into a cute image or easily accessible phrase. I have no idea what the "angled little bones" of the ninth and final line refers to -- I want to say Chinese BBQ again, but that may be because I haven't had dinner yet and I'm hungry -- but my guess, which is also an aspiration, is that it hearkens back to the "Chinese characters" of line seven. I really like the idea of each brushstroke of a Chinese character being a bone, the bones constructing the body of the character. I'm also not sure what "the moon fixed/ into a picture" is in reality, but it fits well with the dramatization of urban containment and anxiety present throughout the poem.

Chang's world in "Libretto" is not an easy one to inhabit, because we've seen none quite like it before. I'd say it works on the level of great science fiction by imagining an abstract, anti-narrativistic, anti-chronlogical universe, while rendering it emotionally plausible. It's a bit of a sad, "fixed" urban world, but it's not a sad poem, because the oddness of the imagery represents a hope that beauty not only may be reborn but still exists in New York. And, not being capable of a simple interpretation, the poem itself is a celebration of the idea that wonder may exist in the phenomenon of the common cohabiting with the unusual.


Blogger Bryan Thao Worra said...

I'll try a different tack:

Working from the title, a libretto is the text of an opera.

A play usually emphasizes an integrated plot, but in opera, a libretto is most often a loose plot connecting a series of episodes.

Characterization and emotion are suggested by the words of a libretto but are expressed by the music. Suggested by the words and expressed by the music is what catches my attention for Chang's "Libretto."

To this extent, she succeeds quite well in creating a poem that shows what a libretto is, without being excessively obvious.

Of possible greater or lesser relevance is the fact that there's some additional features and historical significance of the libretto format.

For example, many libretto writers are overlooked in receiving credit for their work.

Some are recognized as part of famous collaborations, including Gilbert and Sullivan. But more often, the composer of the music to an opera gets more credit for the final product, while the writer of the lyrics are confined to a mere footnote. Not that that situation sounds at all like the Asian American experience at all, I suppose. ;)

Taken a ride on the railroad, anyone? ;)

To that end, I'll give points to Libretto on several elements- technical execution, universal accessibility, a good title that is accurate both on the surface but also carries a significant subversive subtext about Asian America and even, arguably, Asian America's art in America.

Kudos for a good poem that still scores one for Asian America.

It IS possible I'm reading too much into this last bit, however.

Without talking to Chang, of course, it's hard to measure the intentionality of this additional subtext, but perhaps, after a certain point, an artist's art is no longer always wed completely to the intention of the artist but the perceptions of the audience, anyway.

A key example of this last point is found in recent history with Langston Hughes "Let America Be America Again," which was hilariously co-opted by politicians who apparently didn't care much for the real message Hughes was talking about. Go figure.

Art always risks being interpreted out of context.

Other thoughts?

10:32 AM  
Blogger pam said...

Well, the opera (light or dramatic) has traditionally been a site for thematic and extratextual encounters between East and West. Witness Madame Butterfly, Turandot, Mikado, or Miss Saigon. With of course the inevitable festishization and orientalism that accompanies the depiction of an "exotic" setting for leisure audiences.

Some of this subtext does seem to loom in the background of TC's poem, particularly in the indefinite reference to "empire" in the first line.

In a different sense, the "Chinese characters/contained in squares" could be the "libretto" that the poem imagines itself to be the music to?

3:44 PM  
Blogger Neil said...

Taking a slightly different approach:

I take the first line to be a reference to opium (and opium dens) and possibly by extension to the results of the Boxer Revolution. I read the poem to be a very well-wrought and concise depiction of the elements of historical Chinatown (perhaps San Francisco's Chinatown).

"Libretto" then might simply be a reference to Chinatown as a text to be read. Or, it may be a reference (as noted by Bryan) to the Gilbert and Sullivan musical "Flower Drum Girl" which takes place in Chinatown and plays with all the expected stereotypes of the Chinese immigrant.

If so, this poem sets aside the G&S's "libretto" of words (and the exoticization inherent in that production) and establishes instead the physical place as text.

12:36 PM  
Blogger pam said...

Right...from empire to opium seed...nice catch!

11:10 AM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey, thanks for all the posts! Following up on Bryan's post, I think that it's mainly important to know the poet's intent for the poem for historical and sociological purposes. But that certainly doesn't mean that poems can't be read and interpreted differently by various people and across different points in time. And I think that Pam, Neil, and Bryan's interpretations are equally plausible.

8:06 AM  
Blogger Lee Herrick said...

I like your idea of reviewing poems such as these, Roger, and I look forward to reading more. I like your insights.


8:20 AM  
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7:47 PM  

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