Tuesday, August 09, 2005

From Pamela Lu's "Ambient Parking Lot" - A Commentary

This prose poem is one of the few "postmodern," "language" poems that merits the language it employs. By that, I mean that its spare, mechinical, technocratic, unwieldy, and surreal universe matches the tone and word choice, which have an equally distancing effect. But this distancing effect is mitigated by a certain human solitude, because Pamela Lu comprehends that solitude can ironically bring us closer when we can identify with it.

I think that the use of the second person is key here. Completely original lines like "Ours was the first generation to realize the sentimentality of artificial repose," "Art shadowed us with all the fidelity of a non-negotiable accompaniment," and "We succumbed to moisture; we reorganized our sympathies around the civic drain," help us empathize with a world that seems so close to describing our own galaxies of picture frames and gumball machines and gas stations and other artificies that possess all the mechanics of appropriateness without quite embodying human essence. It's a very 21st century world.

This piece is very much about the evocation of mood. But I don't think it would have worked that well if it was only about mood. Mood and language can only carry you so far in a relatively long work. I don't enjoy boring but original combinations of words that go on for sentence after sentence, and I don't think I'm alone here. You may think you're chic and the latest craze in your black top hat with the live robin's nest glued to its shiny black surface, but by the fifth sentence, you've already lost your audience, who will be forced to give you generic praise like "Wow, this poem is so smart and sophisticated," meaning, of course, "I'm going to say something blandly nice, so you won't interrogate me on what this monstrosity really means." But I'm going off-topic here...

There is narrative and setting and character and meaning and politics here, and that elevates the poem. There is a sense of drive and adventure, as "we wept with a bitterness that enfolded the greater plots and vistas of our childhood," "we are humbled by literature," and "shunned by our peers, we lapsed into a general delinquency..." We are taken through many locales. "We" feel. Feeling humans confront a strange world of "titanium and clover," city planners, and "diesel sonatas," from which they are alienated. In this sense, the piece is not too far off from strong science-fiction.

This excerpt does have one glaring weakness throughout, and I'd be disappointed if Pam doesn't work on it in a future draft. What am I talking about here? It's the use of adjectives. There are way, way too many adjectives. The setting, language, characters, mood, and tone of the poem all aspire to a lean, efficient minimalism, and the adjectives are sometimes as out of place as chopsticks at a pizza restaurant.

Revision will admittedly be a little tricky, though. Some combos like "artificial repose," "diesel sonatas," and "civic drain" work, primarily because they are original. But others, like "bold and indolent tomorrow," "cold passion," "parched tongue," "blistered feet," and "desert drone of midnight traffic" are either not original enough or overdoing it, at least to me. And, more generally, I think it does become problematic that almost every single sentence has a bunch of adjectives, even if the combos are somewhat neat. I wonder whether "And yet out of this gridlocked tundra, there emerged a solitary figure, silent and unloved, who stood at the center of each of our lives, who canvassed the non-pedestrian terrain and found hospitality in the desert drone of midnight traffic," would work better as "And yet out of this tundra, there emerged a figure, who stood at the center of each of our lives, who canvassed the terrain and found hospitality in the drone of traffic." Or something like that, something to make a unique phrase like "commercial pity" stand out a little more from the crowd.

Overall, this excerpt makes me want to read more. I'd be interested whether Pam can sustain the linguistic/narrative energy and drive of the poem for a longer distance, because it works so far. It works, because we care where we, and the poem, are going.


Blogger A. D. said...


Sorry to pollute the comment box, but I just stumbled across your Duke 'honors thesis' while doing a little research on the web.

I'm curious as to the title (I haven't read the paper itself). If you like, I could send you the link.


4:54 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey A.D., thanks for visiting! Don't worry, comment boxes are meant for pollutin' :)

Wow, may I ask how you came across the thesis? I'm kind of curious, because that was a little while ago now.

Yes, that was my senior poli sci thesis that I wrote when I was an undergrad at Duke. It wasn't easy integrating political theory and poetry, but I tried my best. I haven't gone back and looked closely at it since graduation, because it's often difficult to go back -- I imagine that I'd feel like at least some of it was inadequate, and I'd have a need to edit/revise/write differently.

Hmmm, don't quote me on this -- but I think that the title was "Chinese American Poetry and the American Political Imagination."

1:24 AM  
Blogger A. D. said...

It was actually a rather convoluted Google path that led me to it. . . .

I recently read a post at another blog mentioning a dream in which the author and Garrett Hongo squared off for combat. From my interaction with Garrett, I vaguely remember discussing martial arts and a period of time he spent in a Buddhist temple—and so I wondered at the reality of the dream scenario. I was hoping to uncover some biographical details to clear some of the haze from my memories.

So, I hit Google with 'Garrett Hongo' and 'martial arts', and found results mentioning GH and 'Bruce Lee'. I was intrigued, so I googled GH and BL together and stumbled upon the body of your thesis in pdf form through the Duke Poli Sci Dept.

I hope to fit Kevin Bacon into the syllogism at some point.

8:12 AM  
Blogger Patty said...

Excellent post. I especially like your description of the prose poem, and the idea that solitude can draw us closer when we recognize the solitude of another.

5:08 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Patty, thanks a lot for the comment. Good luck in Qatar!

9:46 AM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey A.D., six degrees of Kevin Bacon time, from Marilyn Chin to Kevin Bacon:

1. Marilyn Chin, Garrett Hongo, and Bruce Lee all appeared in my paper.

2. Bruce Lee was in the movie Marlowe (1969) with actor Buddy Garion.

3. Buddy Garion was in the movie The Big Picture (1989) with Kevin Bacon.

(Thank you, thank you, please hold your applause. I can't take the credit here. Credit goes to the ingeniously titled, The Oracle of Bacon at Virginia -- http://www.cs.virginia.edu/oracle/).

9:59 AM  
Blogger A. D. said...

Very nice.

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