a suddenly autumn night with anna, breezing rain and early sunset, dressed in monochrome and the city with some ideas of how to live
ikejiri, october 2019
KEVIN YOUNG《THE BOOK OF HOURS》
in rilke’s book of hours, there is a poem that begins:
If I had grown up in a land where days
were free from care and hours were delicate,
then I would have contrived a splendid fête
for you, and not have held you in the way
I sometimes do, tightly in fearful hands.
kevin young’s samely named volume of poetry is a similar mediation on loss, the idea of what fits into a quantifiable amount of time, and what transpires when that time expires and vanishes, and there is no proof of their existence save for consequence. it seems to me that an emotional life is incompatible with the idea of temporariness, and young unfurls the endless curls and pathways by which feeling and other immeasurable things reveal, beyond temporality, beyond figuration and assessment, inside bodies unmistakably human.
WANG ANYI《FU PING》
MINA LOY《THE LOST LUNAR BAEDEKER》
mina loy’s poetry reads, on one level, like scripture, and the woman herself like deity. in roger l. conover’s text, he describes her astoundingly intrepid existence with equal parts awe and condolence; that someone with such a largesse of spirit could so easily fade seems an abominable consequence of the world’s apathy towards us, and yet loy’s élan vital seems to resist any sort of permanent location or commemoration. even her texts have such movement. the first poem of the lost lunar baedeker strikes with such immediate intelligence and devotion to living:
There is no Space or Time
And tame things
Have no immensity.
the poems that follow are prolific with imagination, insistent in their assertions, and proceed with an intuitive desire that it is right and essential to create art for art’s sake. and though she declaimed her status as a poet (true that she was a great many other things), she had the crazed poet’s love for words. that innate love of words, that possessed infatuation that leads one to grow the land of language to create something unassailable. so it is that one may find in her work appearances of the ecstatic.
The days growing longer
Fulfilling her of curiosity
R. O. KWON《THE INCENDIARIES》
“if nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do.” this line, pulled from one of my favourite tv shows of all time, embodies the simultaneous nihilist and idealist natures of much of my generation. there is a strong sense of oxymoronic dread and pervading our existence; we are constantly threatened by loss and provoked by desire, bombarded with stimuli of positive and negative extremes, torn between individualistic pursuits and perpetrating a curated image, and concerned with morality both superficial and discerning. in the incendiaries, R. O. kwon evokes faith as the most obvious antidote to this maelstrom of contradictions; after all, with spiritual guidance and the unshakable knowledge of a higher power, then the things we do matter, the choices we make are in accordance with our very existence, and our existence thereby serves our purpose, which is much less stress-inducing than the idea that we have to somehow invent a purpose by way of existing.
certain reviews of the incendiaries have commented on how unbelievable a central character’s religious conversion is, and yet it seems to me a incredibly plausible alternative to drowning in the existential tides of making choices. the very idea of choice is a concept riddled with the myriad anxieties; we are desperate for choice, grateful for choice, and terrified of it. take the recurrence of astrological sensationalism as an indication of how much young individuals are desperate for anything—aside from their own innate, active ability—to indicate their character, thereby their path, thereby some predetermined opportunity and excuse. I haven’t discussed the overarching theme of this book, which is of course religious fanaticism, but it seems to me that what kwon writes of with a greater insistence is the indomitable fear of choosing, and a love of fate that succumbs to its darkest impulses, in allowing oneself to become an object in the ways of the world.
CYNTHIA OZICK《METAPHOR & MEMORY》
the stylistic tendencies of ozick’s criticism is one that is exclusive to her time. the peaks and canyons of personal emotion, the accounts of memory and experience, the occasional address to the reader. it’s dated in the way it speaks to a time in which the individual critic was deemed worthy as a pathway towards the elitism of the intelligentsia, and presumed to be an unavoidable requisite for navigating the cartography of culture. we no longer think this way, to an extent. our compasses are just as often algorithms or self-initiated curiosity than it is the canonized mentorship of a critic. all this by no means undermines ozick’s ability to speak profoundly and with proud authority in the various directions of her knowledge: primo levi, religious texts, communality, and the oral tradition, to name a few. her writing is intimate and unmistakably animate, precise and perceptive, and circuitously concerned with spiritual identity and its manifestations throughout art.
naomi is a difficult text, not for its qualities of language nor its assembly of fine literary inventions and techniques (which tanizaki seamlessly masters), but for its dated qualities and its entrenchment within the well-established patriarchy of japan masquerading as a cultural totem. though on the surface a portrayal of a naive, well-meaning man becoming gradually more entrapped in the inexplicably lustrous and perilous sexual charms of the young naomi, the novel is in actuality a brazenly sharp critique of japan’s fixation on the allures of the west. naomi is most frequently referred in the foreground of her eurasian beauty, her pale skin, and her (bad imitation of) western mannerisms. her garish parade of kimonos serve an allegorical purpose as the “japan-ization” of western imports and cultures, supposedly at once elevating them and making them more palatable to a japanese audience, but resulting in a bastardization of both cultures. the book reaches its satirical peak at the end, when the indomitable naomi appears in a western ball gown, and is endowed with so much inhuman beauty that the male narrator is literally brought to his knees. naomi has received many comparisons to nabokov’s lolita, for fair reason (the dumb and blindly infatuated male with a dangerous possessive desire, the seductress who evolves from unwitting ingenue to masterful manipulator, the question of age, the impotence of reason in the face of sex, etc.), and naomi, especially, suffers from the same issue that i have with lolita—the woman as a set of characteristics. allegory and satire are at its most effective when delivered with full acknowledgment of the involved humanity. to quote from an incredible essay by becca rothfeld: “[The author’s] own inability to betray the demands of his work secures his compassionate treatment of his female characters, thus his deliverance.” good writing demands the assertion of full characters, even in service of a novel’s agenda, even below the weight of the writer’s presumptions. naomi is by no means a failure; its prose shines under tanizaki’s command, and it is in turns strikingly absurd, hilarious, and pitiful. but it is, at its end, tiring. it is tiring to see incredible writers who do not seek to breach the bounds of their own ignorance, in pursuit of this craft that is ever-expansive.
JAMES SCHUYLER《SELECTED POEMS》
john ashbery’s wit and control of diction, william carlos william’s incredible breadth for noticing, frank o’hara’s levity and joy—that’s james schuyler. his poems give us that ultimate gift that only arrive by way of poems: the capacity to invoke that very incomprehensible sense of poetics which arrives at the pinnacle of both emotive and physical understanding.
Each rising new, as though in the night it enacted death and rebirth
As flowers seem to. The roses this June will be different roses
Even though you cut an armful and come in saying, “Here are the roses,”
As though the same blooms had come back, white freaked with red
And heavily scented. Or a cut branch of pear blooms before its time,
”Forced.” Time brings us into bloom and we wait, busy, but wait
For the unforced flow of words and intercourse and sleep and dreams
In which the past seems to portend a future which is just more
MATTHEW ZAPRUDER 《WHY POETRY》
finally a hero has arrived in a zapruder shape and answered the question that constantly serves to exhaust and irritate us. this book is incredibly sensitive, erudite, and comprehensive in the approach towards poetry, and explains with such confidence of its necessity in the life that occurs not only in the “high” realms but in the platitudinous days. what did williams say?
My heart rouses
thinking to bring you news
that concerns you
and concerns many men. Look at
what passes for the new.
You will not find it there but in
I hope his next book will be, what kind of poems do you write.
YU MIRI《TOKYO UENO STATION》
in henri lefebvre’s critique of everyday life, he says: “Withdrawal into the self is passive in relation to an overcomplex social reality which oscillates between innuendo and brutal explicitness, but it appears to be a solution of sorts.” there is something in tokyo that exemplifies this; the immense overwhelm that is not only a product of the urban but also a cultural development that is simultaneously stunted and pressured to advance. in this, isolation—self-imposed or otherwise—is endemic in this city, and yu miri depicts this with incredible deftness in tokyo ueno station, following a homeless man, kazu, whose life, beset by beaucracy and tragedy alternately, resolves in a nameless, placeless cessation. told in a voice that at once haunts of fatigue and hollowness, tokyo is awash in its configurations of its cruelties, its fine delicacies, and its facade of carelessness, under which lies an ocean of painfully human things.
MARIO VARGAS LLOSA 《NOTES ON THE DEATH OF CULTURE》
from a wonderful interview with ana maría rodas:
We used to like Mario Vargas Llosa too. Used to. I remember when Tía Julia y el escribidor came out. “Have you read this one?” I said, holding a copy of the book. I think the first half is wonderful, and beautifully written. But the second half, when he writes about his tía Julia, he never talks about her in a loving way. The feminist in me was outraged. “That’s it,” I said. “No more Vargas Llosa.”
yes, he’s divisive, to say the least, and when I put down notes on the death of culture, I too thought, “no more vargas llosa.” it’s difficult to find the right words to critique a master, but where he undoubtedly fails is in his uncompromising rejection of the present. to lament and romanticize the supposed cultural peaks of times past is to rejoice in the historic suppression of an immense number of voices, and also to moralize their silence. in demanding a hierarchy of culture, vargas llosa is missing the schemata of human society; that culture has no life, only a semblance of living through the people who perpetuate it. when he says, “The idea of culture has broadened to such an extent that, although nobody would dare to state this explicitly, it has disappeared. It has become an ungraspable, multitudinous and figurative ghost. Because nobody is cultured if everyone thinks they are.” but there is an inherent falsity in this statement, because the immense body of culture expands to include all of its participants; is not a bilateral region into which one can cross or uncross. that is, to say, it has always been a multitudinous, figurative ghost. of course, now that platforms have multiplied to the extent that everyone is speaking with not one but several megaphones across time and space and all of the boundaries we previously thought unconquerable, when one skims the surface one finds only the common denominator of mind-numbing, oversimplified, prurient content, but across the cartography (and one does not even have to seek so diligently to find it) are the alcoves in which the very elite continue to self-perpetuate and thrive. there have always been compartments. there have always been multitudes. culture, the whole of it, was never the intellectual elite that vargas llosa bemoans the loss of. so culture has not died, not even vargas llosa’s version of it: his ongoing work (along with the many antiquated thinkers in his vein) is proof enough.
HAN KANG《THE VEGETARIAN》
the vegetarian, though entrenched in the familiar rages, never roars. it speaks at a whisper, a conduit for its odd, sterile seduction. there is a constant sense of having travelled without making a single move—it is sudden, and malicious, and terrifying, that the mind can escape so far beyond the body, yet this is a culminated event, enforced by the way this world channels the inhuman out of the female. the way that han evokes sensuality and sexuality (seemingly always in a close dance with the violent) is absolutely faithful to how a great deal of east asian women have been trained to view themselves. so it is that the world has created what they fear in women—this unbearable sexual potential—and has used that to exercise all form of constraint, so that it never has to reckon with its inventions: the grotesque, the beaten, and the disappeared.
EMILY JUNGMIN YOON《A CRUELTY SPECIAL TO OUR SPECIES》
this volume—partly a commemoration for korean comfort women during WWII, and part an individual reckoning with an inherited suffering—is distinctly a product of migration: through countries, through time, through narratives. the poems, packed with brief, cinematic flutterings of image, interrogates this movement potently, bordered by notions and influences of identity. yoon is emotive with oration, sensitive to the tones of a voice in memory, and duly concerned with that ultimate poetic notion: noticing.
in a poem titled “Don’t Touch Me,” the last line reads: “I’m being as honest as a woman can.”
XIAOLU《VILLAGE OF STONE》
there are a great number of chinese narratives that begin with a girl leaving a small town, and the reason these stories are so enamoured with abandonment is because identities are so imbued within the land; for a character to change, the place must also. the premise of xiaolu is also like this: simply put, she is thinking about where she came from. for a novel whose majority portions take place in the rapid planes of memory, village of stone does not suffer for its seemingly platitudinous motifs. I wonder whether or not if it’s worth it to make this comparison, but certain elements are incredibly reminiscent of ferrante’s neapolitan novels. there is the same driving overwhelm of circumstance, the indifference of the present, and the environment a living animal. the girl lives—in this sentence alone there proliferate infinite stories.
yan geling is one of the most well-known authors of contemporary china, known for her work in film as well as in the written word. bohemian house, a collection of her essays, betrays her vast life with sincere but primary discoveries, character studies, and anecdotes. perhaps due to her affinity with the visual medium, yan is reluctant to introduce too much didacticism or philosophy into these non-fiction work, relying on one’s interest in the painted scene to hold. though more than occasionally charming, this volume doesn’t survive the lack of mental impressions; jumping from stories of her time in africa to ruminations on her life of letters, the essays never linger to sink, preferring to tread lightfooted toward the next destination.
YIYUN LI《WHERE REASONS END》
the most baldly heartbreaking part of this book comes at almost exactly halfway. in imaginary dialogue with her deceased son, the narrator says:
Pre-living is not living. I will be sad today and tomorrow, a week from now, a year from now. I will be sad forever.
I thought you said you took forever out of your dictionary.
Once upon a time, I said. You put it back for me.
to know emotion is to know, intimately, the limits of reason, and in this book of grief, reason fades then returns, weaving the scene as a needle diving in and out of the cloth comes in and out of sight. one is almost annoyed at it, for its interruption of our comforts. but as li portrays so boldly, even comforts arrive with pain. there really is no peace, or rest, or solace in this book—how could there be? yet the language proceeds with such loving serenity that one is almost lulled into believing that the world—so indifferent to us, so ignorant—can be spun into a different kind of sense. as writers, we take to the page not to write the world in which we wish to live, but to write the world accurately, which is to say the world that makes such wishes possible, that makes wishing possible.
JAN HELLER LEVI《ONCE I GAZED AT YOU IN WONDER》
“there is happiness and there is something wilder than happiness.” this is my favourite line from this book. levi’s poems feel like that, too. something wilder than happiness. they have pace, have this inching forward then jerking back when about to contact the blue centre of the fire, then slowly pushing forward again, so as to be intimate enough to see it totally. her language does resemble that of the totemic contemporary american poet: interludes of the colloquial: indeterminate stanzas and lines, and floods of blurting sentiment as if manic from feeling and knowing and wanting to explain it too much. all of which she utilizes to great effect. when I read contemporary poetry I’m always looking for that precise application of our distilled time; now poets are obsessed with capturing the essences. “happiness and something wilder than happiness.” well, that was it.
the fall 2019 issue of asymptote, as to be expected, is explosive with new work, expansive in its scope and magnitude, and secures the publication’s reputation as a staple in the world of global literature. featuring a stunning selection of poetry (osip mandelstam! sun tzu-ping!), a brilliant microfiction feature, and the other sections equally full-bodied and potent, fall 2019 is a gift to readers all around the world.
MARIE NGIAYE《MY HEART HEMMED IN》
from the first lines an unravelling occurs. marie ngiaye’s novel is about alienation, ostracization, and the inexplicable, but encompassing all that, it is about hatred. hatred of the self. hatred of the other. as the narrative—exquisitely woven—proceeds, the eventual cognizance; this is a work of race, its tensions, its hierarchies, and its purposefully constructed reverberations throughout the physical body and its environments. though a determined estrangement, no hints are given of nadia’s (the main character) race, but as the pages progress, it becomes quite obvious that she is, on some level, a victim of the imposed isolation and criticism that comes with a society reinforced by purposefully unjust concepts of race. to clarify, however, the true culprit is an innate complex of superiority (to all those who have not risen “above” the ugly stereotypes of low intelligence, bad taste, or cultural impropriety that are often assigned to immigrants) and simultaneous inferiority (to those presupposed judges of character, those comfortable with the indiscreet reward of their birth), festering within nadia herself and therefore in everything she interacts with. this work is labyrinthine in its contemplation of what it means to expect, to judge, and to sentence. daring in both form and content, ngiaye has brought a painstakingly visceral and dizzingly surreal portrait to the table of the consequences of systematic racism, and its distortions resounding chaotic in the expanse of the body.
ROBERT LOWELL《LIFE STUDIES》
what is there to say about robert lowell and his “autobiographical” writings, that he hasn’t said for himself? my attraction to his poetry was always this delight with language, the attraction to that which lies dormant but may be brought to life with a little word. from stoic heirlooms of fantastic origin and people who are unduly surprising, to a somewhat loving and somewhat dismissive depiction of his family’s elitism, the language of lowell is that of his generation: slightly formal yet exuberant, interested and portent with attention, and playful upon the tongue. life studies is a gained product of a poet looking back on his own immensity—without ego, without even an admittance of glory, but simply with the intent of conversing with what lives on in the past.
the poetry of yu xiuhua is absolutely alluring in its perfect application of chinese-language peculiarities. from her resolute use of double adjectives (the precious 小小, or little little), the preoccupation with onomatopoeia, and her insistence on the colloquial. as one of the foremost poets of the “rural” school of writing in china, her work is infused with the more secretive, unadorned aspects of the nation. infatuated with late light of autumn and the shadow of the woman walking in its refrain, the name of this collection speaks well to represent—translated directly, it is “moonlight lands upon the left hand”.
MARY BEARD《WOMEN & POWER》
mary beard, incredibly erudite, forcefully insistent, and possessive of a seemingly endless archive of classic literature within her mind—this brief volume detailing the invention of "woman” to be fundamentally antithetical to the notion of “power” is a must-read for all who are confused with this supposedly simple notion of equality, which is, of course, not by any means simple at all.
ÉDOUARD LOUIS《WHO KILLED MY FATHER》
it is perhaps impossible to not be moved by who killed my father, which is a class polemic interwoven with the admissions of a difficult love. writing acutely and with great composure about violence, the welfare system, and the absolutely destructive qualities of class inequality, louis uses no uncertain terms to bring the perpetrators of his father’s murder (his father is alive in this book, but louis makes it clear that what has happened to his father’s health, his mentality, and his existence is by definition a murder) accountable.
KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH 《AS IF》
this small, densely packed text applies its strategies wisely; moving from our daily rituals of decisiveness and pursuit, to the broader scopes of political theory as it applies to migration. appiah argues that idealization—even done with full acknowledgment of its unlikeliness or falsehood—can still have utilitarian purpose as an instrument by which to navigate the infinite complexities of the world. we all carry inconsistencies and “simplifying assumptions” in order to interact with various phenomena, and to do so while seeking empirical knowledge of our own misrepresentations is an application of these “useful untruths”. as philosophy, this work opposes its genre’s more solipsistic tendencies and resolves on its theories being applied in the active spheres and major industries of the world, as well as everyday life. unfortunately, it adopts the same, slightly professorial and occasionally self-instructive voice that divides thinkers from writers.
translated by stephen sartarelli
it’s like the sweet must that wasps
cover thick and greedy in the soft october
mist as it drifts into the stables
the sun that here has darkened
the hawthorn berry’s pulp is now violet
over the cone of grasslands where ends
this most beautiful of the Cesana mountains
under the white thorn the naked breast
enjoys the tepid odors in the air
my blood is warm among the humors
I fell with dusk amid the brambles
we were on a footpath brimming with grass
where the chicory still grows blue
in heavy dew in a month not its own
shadows had fallen long across the fallow ground
rising high in the night and upturned
Grace sees the sign that has burdened her
ever since the years when she used to
tie her hair up in a ribbon
I nodded my head and only said
that at times around this hour I heard
a sound sweet and clear among the vaults
we used to thrash the walnut tree at night
the dark hulls opening as they fall
she says she doesn’t remember—certainly
she’s never dipped her long hands in its green—
the blows thundered in the grass
the shells were lost in the darkness
and only your smile went down to the banks
a bit later in the middle of the glade
along the grassy path running through it
the bushes lit up with a singing
first a faint trill then a thunder
bursting through the thicket in reply
October has striped in motley red
the still yellow arbutus berries
from the strawberry tree they fall with long stems
that the wind moves over the billows
I’ve hung one from your lips
and we kiss in its pulp
I had returned with my mother to the place
where virgin’s-bower even twists about the brambles
the thicket is my own and here I’ve looked
for mushrooms that stand thin amongst the hornbeams
when with grandmother we used to get up
at four to mist-covered grasslands
but she sees nothing any more from the whitewashed
house where she has gone to stay
she never used to miss a single walnut
in the grass or nest among the reeds
she’s well past ninety now
and almost all her vision’s gone
at Halloween in late October
I often went down to the Tower
the Cesana flows clear on the glass
the smoke-tree announcing our autumn
in all the thickets beyond the sainfoin
oozes bright red among the oaks
past my house lost beyond the slope
a long narrow road on the way down the hill
plunges deep with the gully below
in the air the sorb now smells almost
like its fruits inside my room
light falls softly on the mountains
only here and there is the sky still bright
at this hour a bit of fog always rises
when slow October changes color
and becomes November’s dark grey mists
Urbino in the valley has few lights
it passes into night and the storm
gathering afar beyond these hills
it’s this somber weather that surrounds it
and threatens us from the various spaces
a profile of grace is all that remains
the water of the gully smelling fresher
a summer like so many other ends
both brief and long
measured in thunderstorm
measured in grapevine
full of perfect questions
vancouver, nihonbashi, nakameguro, mishuku, june-august 2019
FRANK LIMA《INCIDENTS OF TRAVEL IN POETRY》
when I was in the preamble of my falling into poetry, there was nothing I wouldn’t give to write the lines that frank lima seemingly dispensed so effortlessly. “I owe my sadness to things as warm as bread” and “Life as it stands in the moonlight that provides an ambiance in my dreams / which is the best part of sleeping.” and still now, when I digress into the explicable that is poetry (lines on a page with endless worlds between them), it seems that it is frank who understood its magic better than the most of us (better than the best of us). it is their raw, destructive ease. their imitable calling to the surviving in tides beyond the margins of the page. a poem that starts with: “I remembered writing a poem”. the reason I love the “new york school” so is because they knew intimately words and their inherent power. how they sing in chorus and alone to our daily experience of touching the eternal.
MOHSIN HAMID《EXIT WEST》
it is with incredible bravery of imagination that mohsin hamid tackles the subject of migration and asylum in this unbelievable novel. bypasses of form aside, this book ventures into territories prose so rarely goes in fear of losing the definition of prose. it is almost irrelevant to outline the narrative’s plot, because—as fascinating and ingenious it is—it remains secondary to the sheer and gorgeous flow of the language itself. spoken from a third person perspective that gathers its subjects gently within its grasp, it is reminiscent of someone you love telling you a story about the people they loved, with the heightened depth and elegance that is the result of an inherited, immortal lineage of storytelling. this is amongst the most pertinent books of today, as we continue to struggle with mass movement which both challenge and expand our previously unmoveable notions of nationhood, its fundamental errors, and the limits of human compassion.
SHENG KEYI《NORTHERN GIRLS》
though the message may arrive somewhat incoherent to the ears of western feminists, northern girls nevertheless speaks to the way women, especially those transported by the nation’s tumult into urbanism, bravely live in china today. sheng keyi deftly uses the presupposed burden of biological femaleness to paint a visceral and brutal depiction of sexuality, female roles, and romance under the infrastructure of a duplicitous and severe society. as we move through the life of xiaohong (the main character) from rural hunan to the comparably cosmopolitan shenzhen, we shift from factory dorms to grimy hair salons, brothels to hospitals, facing a multitude of individuals who are neither necessarily good or corrupt, but instead exist variously in their own struggles and questionable standards of what life, and living should be. there is no predictable calls to the archetypal female warrior braving hardships and inequality with grace, as xiaohong is herself equally complex and multifarious, but instead, in these pages breathes a woman in constant interrogation with her environment, searching her definition of freedom.
MINAE MIZUMURA《INHERITANCE FROM MOTHER》
the accustomed concepts of mother-daughter fidelity are absolutely confounded in this modern examination of filial piety and romantic loyalty. faced with the death of a mother, the narrative wastes no time with the expectations of grief, but instead traverses the mystifying bonds between generations of women. coming out of east asia, which emphasizes the communal aspect of the family unit especially, this notion is especially groundbreaking. wavering across decades of family legend, platitudinous everydays, and the always available and treacherous dreams, mizumura threads a tale that questions our concepts of sacrifice as something noble, and the self as something individual. beautifully paced, scathingly honest, and the ending, with concludes with a convoluted resignation to joy, is as ambiguous as history told by victors.
DON’T SAVE ANYTHING《JAMES SALTER》
I have long loved james salter’s fiction for their ability to create a masterly landscape of human internalities, and in don’t save anything, his collection of non-fiction, he writes:
To write of people thoroughly is to destroy them, use them up. I suppose this is true of experience as well—in describing a world, you extinguish it and in any recollection much is reduced to ruin. Things are captured and at the same time drained of life, never to shimmer or give back light again.
I suppose that this is a mark of a great writer, to know the limits of writing and to still create beautiful sculptures of language. in this book, there are no transcendent insights or groundbreaking theories, only the treasures unearthed from good, long days amongst beautiful, temporary light.
In the end, writing is like a prison, an island from which you will never be released but which is a kind of paradise: the solitude, the thoughts, the incredible joy of putting into words the essence of what you for the moment understand and with your whole heart want to believe.
LI-YOUNG LEE《BOOK OF MY NIGHTS》
simplicity is something that must be earned in poetry; within it must live the pure things—awe, truth, reverie. “the birds don’t alter space. / they reveal it.” lee’s poetry is sacred in these ways. in his lines, objects and humans speak into the center of things, and they feel at once ancient and new. amongst poems populated by stones, clocks, fruit, we are stepping to the altar of time paced to night-rhythms. all things slower, more meditative, seeming worthy of conversation, or, occasionally, worship.
I wrote about working with the wondrous Spittoon Literary Magazine—a bilingual Chinese-English literary publication showcasing Chinese contemporary voices—for Asymptote; consider this piece a love letter to Chinese literature, how it has made me ever more curious, ever more devoted, and ever more grateful to be working amongst such brilliant voices in the country of my birth.
Drivers here love talking politics, my aunt says to me after my hour-long ride into Xiaotangshan, the oddly idyllic suburban town in northwest Beijing. Really? I reply. They’ve been telling me the stories of their lives.
Beijing is brimming to burst with stories, occasionally startling, occasionally brilliant, told in voices bred by an immense variousness, from the sandy waters of the Yellow River to the steaming skies of Hunan, the stillness of Heilongjiang winters to glittering Kunming greens. It is a city that collects and bounds the language of its citizens, between circling highways and sky-bound apartments. So it is that one is never beyond the reach of a story, told as regularly as the hour tells the clock.
The literature of contemporary China is represented in the contours of Beijing—a place you must visit a great number of times, an ongoing landscape impossible to traverse by foot alone, wayward beginnings which speak nothing of ending. Any attempt to define it would be a disservice, as it openly resists definition; one is only able to catch at its hems, glancing, in search of openings that allow light to come in, any small light that would lend sense to the vastness. So it is with this knowledge that we, at Spittoon Literary Magazine, set out to compile a selection of China’s most engaging and original literatures, carving a door by which one can visit again and again. This publication is an entryway toward something lasting, a portrait of a national body that refuses to stay still. Within it, we celebrate the immense, wondrous heights of the Chinese language.
The forecast called for a 60 percent chance of rain, but the sun was still wispily gathered in the early evening, so rows were laid out in the courtyard and the fifth edition of Z9Festival, the young literature festival based in Sibiu, began.
Founded in 2015 and sponsored by the Lucian Blaga University of Sibiu, the festival gathers poets from nine countries around the world to share their work with the Romanian public; the name can be read as either New Zone or Zone Nine, in an ode to both its focus on writers under forty and its international reach. So it is that in mid-July 2019, writers from the UK, Poland, The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Italy, China, Russia, and Romania descended upon the picturesque landscape of Sibiu to join one another in a night celebrating poetry, and its inherent ability to dissipate borders.
The wide-ranging lineup started with the prolific Romanian poet Elena Vlădăreanu, whose potent and veridical work regarding motherhood, stereotypes, and the physical costs of poetry gave the festival an air of brilliance from the beginning. She was followed by Livia Franchini, an Italian writer based in London, who delightfully proclaimed how good it was to read poetry in daylight. The celebrated Jakobe Mansztajn, reading in Polish, delivered his work with an assurance and steadiness that gave no hint to the fact that he was suffering from the flu. Up fourth was Jesica Baciu, reading poems punctuated only with breathing, light, and other ephemeral things. Then the lovely Nadia de Vries, from whom an outpouring of clipped, dangerously smart, and brutal lines came forth. Andrei Doboș, hailing from Cluj, gave his reading in Romanian, textured with consonants, and was celebrated by the crowd. Ioana Iacob, who was the winner selected from a pool of young, unpublished poets, read her unrestrained work with an equally enthralling lack of restraint. Richard Scott first charmed the audience, before breaking certain hearts with a series of gorgeous poems on queerness, sexuality, and love. Charlotte Warsen read her poems in German, experimental works which dealt with shame and consequence. Then it was my turn, and when I went up, I felt grateful, and chose to read poems that had something to do with that. Arno Van Vlierberghe gave to us an excerpt from what will become an 101-page opus, and he captured it in one line: “The art of riskless thinking.” When Eta Dahlia, the video poet, stepped up, the new-fallen night was given away by his abstract and startlingly coloured films, heavy with music. Ioana Vintilă cut a sharp shape with her clipped lines broken in purposeful places. Robert Gabriel Elekes ended the night with his grand, dark language.
Z9Festival is immaculately organized by a young team consisting of curators and writers Vlad Pojoga, Cătălina Stanislav, Krista Szöcs, Ilinca Pop, Daniel Coman, and grew out of a reading club founded by Radu Vancu, the renowned author whose brilliance is on par with his kindness. It was also almost unanimously hailed by the poets as one of the best we had attended. It had something to do with how genuinely we were thrilled by one another’s work, the low roofs of Sibiu that had eyes, the ripe night curious with our various languages, narratives, selves. Someone told me, during the trip, that if you ask Romanians the silly question of what it is to be Romanian, they will eventually come around to speaking about poetry. It has brought me immense joy to have taken part in and witnessed what will surely become a legacy—built up, line by line, by the courage and dedication of a nation of poets.
fields of endless sunflowers
occasional sun which surprises us when lighting the tips of roofs slanted like the hands of clocks
catalina putting her hand on mine to stop me from scratching a new tattoo
ice cream coloured houses
an abandoned chinese restaurant with hooks on the awning that had held red lanterns
radu’s kind eyes when he told me stories about poetry in the backseat of vlad’s car with the transylvanian mountains rushing by in the background
arno making me laugh whenever I accidentally looked into his wild face
livia’s everywhere curls that she can’t stop touching when she gets drunk
nighttime collapsing on our shoulders and spinning down dizzy into the cobblestone
shivering when I got up on stage, then not shivering
robert pushing his hair out of his face with an open palm
contagious rounds of cigarettes
sitting with daniel outside mango and talking about being happy
a very small window in the hotel at brasov
sour peppers that were the most red
greg rubbing his eyes after staying up all night
richard and danny sharing a bag of french fries
abandoned towns between bucharest and sibiu, in which one dog or one person wandered
sunflowers, sunflowers, sunflowers
by taha muhammad ali
fame, nor wealth,
not even poetry itself,
could provide consolation
for life’s brevity,
or the fact that King Lear
is a mere eighty pages long and comes to an end,
and for the thought that one might suffer greatly
on account of a rebellious child.
My love for you
is what’s magnificent,
but I, you, and the others,
are ordinary people.
goes beyond poetry
beyond the realm of women.
it has taken me
all of sixty years
that water is the finest drink,
and bread the most delicious food,
and that art is worthless
unless it plants
a measure of splendor in people’s hearts.
After we die,
and the weary heart
has lowered its final eyelid
on all that we’ve done,
and on all that we’ve longed for,
on all that we’ve dreamt of,
all we’ve desired
hate will be
the first thing
the stories of summer in tokyo begin with an infinite blueness
yanaka & nakameguro, june 2019
June is despairingly known in Japan as tsuyu, or rainy season—low skies colliding with concrete, damp hems of sleeves, and umbrellas occasionally meeting one another in a multi-coloured tide cascading down the still-avid streets. It is also, on a brighter note, the month in which nominees for both the prestigious Akutagawa and Naoki Literary Awards have been announced. Undoubtedly the most sought-after literary prizes in Japan, with some of the most infamous names in Japanese literature (such as Kenzaburō Ōe, Yoko Ōgawa, and Ryū Murakami) being previous honourees, the two awards are given in partnership, honouring both established and young/rising authors. Winners of the awards will be announced on July 17.
In an unprecedented victory for women in a male-dominated field (as most fields in Japan are), all six of the nominees for the esteemed Naoki Literary Award are women. Included on the list is 窪美澄 Kubo Misumi’s トリニティ(Trinity), which focuses on the subjects of childbirth, infertility, and motherhood by way of three women living from the Showa era to the Heisei era, periods which witnessed an increasing awareness of gender equality while remaining fully rooted in traditional concepts of family, duty, and honour. In a contemporary Japan that is facing a population crisis of falling birth rates, the supposedly personal choice of whether or not to become a mother has become a dominant topic of conversation in the public realm. To be a woman is to have always been criticized externally as to what one’s life should be; this novel is for those who, instead, wade through the straits of self-discovery in attempts to find what is most valuable to them.
DORIS LESSING 《THE FIFTH CHILD》
doris lessing writes women remarkably. by which I mean she writes them fearlessly. in a complicated and entirely unpredictable era of feminism, this book (originally published in 1988) brings forth a chilling truth about the second wave, and sets a brazen foundation for the third wave, as we wrestle now between who we are as women, and who we are as humans. in the fifth child, lessing turns an unflinching lens onto motherhood—the monstrous aspects of motherhood, in which one is forced to reconcile with an impossible fact, that what we make with our bodies by no means belongs to us, yet how is it possible? it is a question that has haunted women. by shattering the familiar totems of happiness and fulfillment such as family, marriage, and motherhood, we are left with the indignity of finding out the truth about ourselves.
HITO STEYERL 《DUTY FREE ART》
there is a certain reluctance, as an aficionado of art, in diving into its worldly existence— a somewhat irritating idea: that art is not creation made transcendent, but instead exists amongst the unromantic nature of markets, technology, and class. hito steyerl, whose work involves intricating gallery spaces within apps, reality-defying projections, and data manipulations, is well known for her themes of exploitation, capital, and both the sociological and technological conditions in visual culture. so it is expected that her writing, discussing the complexities and manifestations of artistic creation in our age of increasingly fractured insanity, is exceedingly technical, intricately humourous, and rife with declarations. from art trapped in freeport storage facilities to the performative nature of spam (data, not the conglomeration-meat), steyerl’s intent of subverting visual culture to combat the catastrophic forces of inequality, digital existence, and currency is conducted throughout this book/manifesto in a fast-paced series of moral consideration. without presenting a single, unified thesis to the reader, this work instead chooses to act in process, relaying into language the moral necessity of an artist creating amidst endless noise.
《WHAT ABOUT THIS: THE COLLECTED POEMS OF FRANK STANFORD》
there is no one who writes about the moon as frank stanford does. with constant exchange of character, with mood swings shifting as light does, with defiance and placation and negotiation. the moonlight has wet libraries. it abides a dark lake. it is caught flinching behind the trees. it is getting the soul blown out of it by the wind. this is language spoken in muddy dreams, by a man with his voice all smoked-out, while fighting ghosts off with knives. surrealism that you meet on a footpath in the desert, carrying a knife. it is such a cliche to be seduced by trouble, but the way he speaks of trouble, you could listen to him go on about it forever.
You have the feeling
Is like a woman
Who ran off
But your belongings
YOKO TAWADA 《THE LAST CHILDREN OF TOKYO》
tokyo retains a bounty of secret facets by way of its language, and it is language that is the most pervasive character in tawada’s dystopian tale of urban japan. in a world void of external languages, the previously inclusive and adopting diction of modernity has morphed into an oppressive system of unnameable things. of course, the danger is not language itself—it is not language that renders the children sickly and incapable—but it does take the role in softening the edges of the unbearable. all throughout the text language is played to say what it cannot say, and the journey is taken from original, to symbol, and back again; it is unsure as to whether the changing world morphs our language, or if it is our language that enchants and informs our world.
OTTESSA MOSHFEGH 《MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION》
“we are probably the saddest generation in the history of the world,” someone recently said to me. and though that can hardly be true (we must simply be the most emotionally transparent), anyone between the ages of fifteen and thirty, living in the first world with a strong online presence, can hardly avoid the oddly flavoured melancholy that seems to be the flavour of these years, exemplified by a fervour for “sad tweets”, an increasingly open and inclusive discussion on self-diagnosis and self-medication, and anxiety memes. reading this book while acknowledging the rappers who name themselves after the benzos of their choice and endlessly inane articles that either denounce or congratulate a netflix special for portraying suicide “intimately” is to go through a cycle of pity, annoyance, sympathy, and bitter humour. and the lack of truth amidst the artifice is every bit as tragic as it is ironic. pain used to be the most honest— when did it become so hollow? moshfegh has written here a merciless observation on how everything, even sadness, even love, even death, can be rendered into mere stimuli, exhausted by frequency, and muted by our own vapid desire to understand why we hurt.
《PORTRAITS: JOHN BERGER ON ARTISTS》
my chief complaint is that in berger’s encounters with seventy-four artists, curiously, few of them are women. my other complaint, which is really an extension of my first complaint, is that the bold and sensuous painter lee krasner shares her section with her husband, (the admittedly more famous) jackson pollock. that aside, this brilliant volume, comprising of just over five hundred pages, is composed of episode after episode of close-up and intricately portrayed meetings with some of the greatest artists throughout history, whether it is through their work, through their person, or through the wildnesses of imagination. less an introduction to art as it is a diary of a lifetime spent amongst the beautiful and the impassioned, through bergers awareness we are made full with the extraordinary moments that exist in painting.
《AGAINST FORGETTING: TWENTIETH-CENTURY POETRY OF WITNESS》
a totem numbering over seven hundred pages, each of them instilling an arresting and heart-rending sense of the times in which they were written, this compilation is absolutely required reading for anyone writing poetry in the twenty-first century. from the armenian genocide to the revolutions for democracy in china, we are led through the anthological history of human atrocities by the language of great poets who have lived it. certain poems are deadly simple:
as we would open
in our own house.
—vladimir mayakovsky, at the top of my voice
some are unflinchingly emotional:
No longer for me is there anything late. All is late.
—ion caraion, tomorrow the past comes
some are bare-boned and blatant:
The innocent know nothing
because they are too innocent
and the guilty know nothing
because they are too guilty
—tadeusz rózewicz, what happens
and some are heartbreaking, because they are hopeful:
Today they took me out in the sun for the first time.
And I just stood there, struck for the first time in my life
by how far away the sky is,
and how wide.
—nazim hikmet, since I was thrown inside
I am certain that poetry has a responsibility to speak on behalf of what we have seen, what we know, what we feel, and what is just. it is to be rich in understanding and to reject simplification, it is to forego the simple notions of what is personal, what is public, what is political, and to count on, instead, the redemption of speech from silence. this is an extraordinary collection, and anyone who holds it in their hands is in possession of an immense privilege. it is my hope that poems commemorating this era will continue to be discovered, and translated, and dispersed, and that such poems of witness will continue to be written, always in opposition to violence, always in possession of the living part of life.
as carolyn forché says in her introduction; “. . .the poet asks the past and the present to stake a claim on that future.”
by which various things come through
shibuya, may 2019