Dull Jewels Reburied: Poetry of Place in Four Debuts by Women
While the label “poetry of place” is often relegated to regional portrayal within the United States, we alternately use the phrase to describe work that inhabits countries or cultures removed from our own. Yet as a designator, “poetry of place” falters under closer scrutiny. As Steph Burt writes in The Yale Review, with the recent influx of poetry collections engaging with “attitude[s] toward … identity politics and group identification,” we may begin to reconceive of this nomenclature. Given the sense of displacement most Americans feel following the 2016 election, it is no surprise that the poetry landscape now accommodates narratives that are intentionally less grounded in home and heritage. As debuts by Tiana Clark, Claudia Cortese, Michelle Lin, and Shelley Wong show, “poetry of place” must now consider how “home” as a concept includes a poet’s lineage, country, position within the household, position within their selfhood—and so cannot be confined to only one “place.” Be it dreamscape, the American South, the West coast, or generic suburbs, place is inextricably tied to the position of women-identified authors as Other in the works under review here. Through engagement alternately traditional and highly experimental, they inhabit pluralistically while addressing particularly relevant concerns. The immigrant and Black experience in America, girlhood, and queerness are held within sestinas, prose blocks, pantoums, contrapuntals, madlibs, equations, ghazals, highly experimental lyrics, and blank verse and split line poems—all rendered in distinctly lush language and imagery. This is familiar work of contemporary poetry: bend the rules; create new forms. And that experimentation is mimicked in this new consideration of identity as not the subversion of binaries, but as their coexistence. These new homes—for us all—are those of belonging and alienation, of family and sexuality, of trauma and ownership, of shame and pride, and perhaps most significantly, of America and its self-appointed “opposites.” What, these authors ask, is this country? How did we get here? How do we attempt to make it ours?
In Equilibrium’s opening and title poem, Tiana Clark confronts her assimilated desires alongside broader contemplations of belonging: Whose home is America? How do its inhabitants reflect associated myths and truths? The poem ends by asking a seemingly unanswerable question: “What is left / whispering / in us, once we have / stopped trying / to become the other?” What follows in the chapbook are African American coming-of-age stories—some more universal and familiar (“Hair Relaxer: An Origin Story” quotes Gwendolyn Brooks in its epigraph), some highly individuated in their weaving together of Blackness with pop and mythological utterance (“Promethia Remixed” features a third-person reference to the speaker, “Mixed Bitch”). For Clark, questions of identity cannot be answered without considering deep-seated flaws of each system to which she has belonged. To that end, our speaker participates in the exorcism of her allegedly promiscuous “older friend,” and is forced to acknowledge her desire to believe in God as inherently tied to a context she and Sarah share: finding a father only inside the church. Throughout the collection, we encounter women bartering with bodies—their own, each other’s—and our speaker is aware of this toil as connected to that of her predecessors. These poems ask what Black and Mixed girls have to give to be absolved for the “sin” of their Othered existence.
Tellingly, these poems inhabit both Black Christian spaces as well as those overrun by upper-class white women through whom the poet comes to understand religion as mirror in which to see herself as Other. These tropes collide with a coming-of-age narrative in “The Spot in Antioch,” where volunteer Christian maids—“sugar-fresh ladies”—find the speaker’s “stained underwear … period bruising the pearly cotton.” Notably, this moment of exposure manifests as revelatory for Clark. The poem ends, “to have had so much blood in me like a dirty, new sin,” culminating the cinematic drama with the tonal bite of contemporary feminism. In “Antioch,” as in “A Blue Note for Father’s Day,” Clark answers a question she herself poses: “How / did I know / I was different?” For one, yes, being “a dirty, new sin” differentiates the speaker from “good Christian girls” (and by extension, “good American girls”); furthermore, just as God the father is absent, Clark contemplates her biological father’s absenteeism as another marker of her Otherness. “Dear father,” she writes, “I hope you know that I can love / the absence of a thing even more than / the thing itself.” As in “Antioch,” here we are actually offered solace in that which separates the speaker from the typical. If she can find no father through family or church, Clark finds meaning in not-belonging and the act of longing, in “standing by water / my whole damn life / trying to get saved.”
Somewhat predictably, Clark’s use of religion—both as subject matter and as a rhetorical device—invokes water as redemptive. “Hair Relaxer: An Origin Story” ends with “Let the water” as an anaphora, aligning baptism with embracement of Black womanhood—incanting first, “Let the water take me back to curls.” But although water retains its familiar symbolism, the poet uniquely envisions food as inherently connected to class. “The Frequency of Goodnight” considers a familial history with the service industry, detailing “open pizza box[es] / dappled in grease stains,” and it is in these poems of socioeconomic forthrightness that the reality of American capitalism, for most, resides. “Flambeaux,” a supersensory document of Mardis Gras, positions “hot sauce / and gators and gumbo” beside friends who “want to dance / to black music, but not with / black people,” calling out white tourism. The poem also positions the speaker as part of privileged systems (she is visiting New Orleans), even as she is tied to the perceived, stereotypical “otherness” of “black women : / spread and melting and greasy.” While “Flambeaux,” among other poems, connects food to race and sexuality, even more compelling investigations of longing reside in “A Psalm for the One,” where the speaker begins to align herself with the church of desire, shedding the religious and systematic trappings of her childhood. Brilliantly, Clark manipulates the language of religion into that of sexuality: “I became Easter poinsettias too, / open & red, shiny with lacquer”; “his mouth: a crucifix for my wet begging.”
It should come as no surprise to readers that its engagement with the awakening Black body makes Equilibrium the timeliest of these collections, nor that the class-struggle-skewed Dream turns decidedly nightmare once we consider the treatment of Black bodies therein. Recalling her first experience with racial epithets, Clark writes: “You never forget / the first time / you are branded / with iron— / seared raw, permanent.” The later poems in this chapbook intentionally sear us, never allowing us the luxury of forgetting. “Sandy Speaks” borrows from Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death,” positioning Sandra Bland in conversation with the speaker:
The body is gone
& the words remain
You can’t tell me God ain’t good
& I want to believe her
but how did she die
& when did the murdering start?
Remarkably, when Sandra and Tiana speak to each other, we are wrenched, spatially, from concrete bodies, and are transported to the inception of African slavery. This excerpt exemplifies Clark’s primary strength—to write the poem as a question to which there is only one answer, to engage readers across now-oft-mentioned “aisles” of belief. “It does not matter what wild honey / drove me here for dark angels to sing: / I’m all Bessie, Billie, and Simone— / black pain swinging, sweet and low.” The heritage of Blackness, of suffering, of the need to sing—this way of identifying both is and is not Black churches in the South. It both is and is not “the color of my husband’s hand holding mine.” The church is this country, and “in some ways,” as people of color, inhabiting the liminal, we are “still walking down this aisle on [our] knees.”
What else do we have to give? The question resonates beyond tropes of religion, family, and class; rather, it is located in an attempt to understand the position of the Black, female body among and despite all of these pressures. If, at their core, Clark’s work documents a speaker constantly holding a mirror up to models—those of Blackness, whiteness, desire, appropriate praise, appropriate daughterhood—then “what is left / whispering / in us, once we have / stopped trying / to become the other?” (emphasis mine). The final three words of Equilibrium implicate the nation within which these systems are sustained, and aptly recall America’s problematic relationship with its Black citizens: “Let freedom bleed.”
Claudia Cortese’s debut, too, aligns survival with identity, and can be read as a manual for girls in America who don’t fit in. Wasp Queen compulsively does the work of world-building and persona—an appropriate mechanism, given the characterization of the poems’ protagonist, Lucy. Cortese’s world—Lucy’s world—is, of these collections, the most richly populated with Americana, both corporate and pastoral. Here are witch hazel, Oreos, wisteria, coke’s post drip, Nasonex, Ring Pops, tomato skin, Camels, honeysuckle, Orange Julius, toaster ovens. By comparison with Equilibrium, Wasp Queen’s expansive engagement with eating is possible because it is a full-length collection; however, the edible is still tied to lineage, survival, socioeconomic status, and the erotic. Lucy navigates the world according to food because she is forced to consider standards of femininity and how her body does not adhere to those standards. Or, to use Cortese’s phrasing: “Another name for sixth grade is Nothing Exists Outside the Mirror.”
Though from time to time her forms depart from the prose poem, Cortese’s formal experimentation is still highly controlled—a compelling counterpoint to Lucy’s sexuality and physicality. Certainly, the desire to regulate in accordance with Western patriarchal standards permeates this collection—Lucy tells herself to “eat, but not too much,” “plucks her leg hair with tweezers,” and “fears her father will hear her mouth.” But where Lucy manifests excess is significant, as it speaks to the poet’s own set of rhetorical questions: “What was your favorite place. Where did your shame begin.” In “Lucy Feels the Crotch,” Stephanie—a friend toward whom Lucy feels girl-crush-fueled jealousy, a both platonic and sexual affection—is one locus of Lucy’s Otherness: “no one heard their knees clicking as they kissed no one saw what summered inside them … Lucy slips from skin to skin but some part will always be beside that O of chemical water.” Water stands for a more contemporary baptism than Clark’s early wish to be “saved.” This water, by contrast, is synthetic and American—and it can also hold queered secrets. One might say Cortese’s is water of subversion rather than submersion, were it not for her tendency to subvert even that binary.
Another poem of subversion, “The Dark Quivers in that Corporate Way,” is rendered formally as a split line—two columns that can be read horizontally or vertically. “The Dark Quivers” most strongly connects Wasp Queen to the other books considered here—the language of “blooms” and “teeth-plucked” fits with Clark’s lexicon, and it will prove akin to Lin’s and Wong’s, as well. This poem is remarkable in its lyricism, showing the poet’s range as it engages with reticence more intentionally than other, more overt selections. Consider the poem’s first two lines alongside its ending:
Lucy loved her skin its glow-in-the-dark frame
lit her through dark alleys
cat-lit laugh-lit knife-lit
the distance of payphone booths
that 90’s kitsch our girlhoods died in
These lines, taken together, must be read as an indictment of American spaces as ripe with claustrophobia and fear. Elsewhere, in a block of text with every other line indented, Cortese imagines “Lucy’s Friends” pleading, “someone look someone ask someone keep me safe.” The language of almost-American and almost-safe/saved pulses throughout this book; Lucy tries at “something like patriotism” in her attempts to wear the masks required of girls. Cortese herself is the daughter of Italian immigrants, a fact that illuminates the not-so-quiet alienation that pervades Wasp Queen—and, on closer inspection, intensifies the sense of precarity throughout.
Of the poems in Cortese’s collection, “Lucy’s Guide to Surviving the First Day of 6th Grade in 1993 in an Ohio Town that is 92.3% White, 3.8% Black, and 3.9% Other” most compellingly elucidates white privilege and appropriation as its own kind of survival tactic. Lucy advises herself, “Pretend you’re more than ‘Something American.’ Braid your hair tight at the scalp … i.e., steal another’s shine: your own dulls with eggy rot.” But despite these moments where the speaker is conscious of those with less privilege, the poem’s refrain is some variation of “fat cunt,” or, more scathingly, “Don’t be a fat cunt.” The speaker’s preoccupation with survival as a girl must be a preoccupation with her body and image over all else—there is no room for a consideration of the Other, just as there is no room for more food than “four Ritz crackers garnished with sliced tomatoes dabbed in salt.” Sometimes these poems seem to be set in Ohio; sometimes they seem to be set in Nowhere, America. But their setting isn’t really the point. More compellingly, these poems paint us a non-place where the constant and persistent presence of the political—or the need to engage meaningfully with the political—is overshadowed by the need to survive one’s girlhood and adolescence.
Akin to Equilibrium’s parental figures, Lucy’s mother is a problematic character, a flawed woman who is embroiled in the same system as her daughter—we get the sense that the mothers of Wasp Queen go to their daughters’ malls, use the same curse words, think the same things (though they’d never admit it). When Lucy lashes out by gluing horns to her head, Lucy’s mother lashes back: “You disgust me!” Here, the mother is just another figure through which society’s values and rules are parroted—and Lucy is an invaluable character not merely because of her excesses, her love of “rust-fucked train[s]” and “wreckage,” but because she occupies the liminal space we too often shy away from in feminist discourse. She is both bound by her desires and bound by their antithesis, that ever-present scolding to abstain. Toward the end of the collection, and despite all that precedes it, “Still, Lucy wishes she were good which means to be without need.” This line holds true as a Western doctrine for women—whether we apply it to food, sex, drink, love, or attention. Cortese’s America holds glitteringly grim futures for girls; “To live here is to be beautiful but very sad.” Lucy can’t escape that with which she is indoctrinated, and neither can we. What we can do is survive.
Like Wasp Queen, Michelle Lin’s full-length debut is “sequined and jeweled, even if in blood” as it reconciles her position as the daughter of immigrants alongside assimilatory trauma and national legacies. A House Made of Water features a more intentional lyricism and formalism (in part due to the collection’s length); fittingly, water’s ability to erase is rarely redemptive, instead casting the act of remembering home as both threatening and threatened. Yes, America tends to erase histories that paint it unfavorably, and our own memories tend to repress trauma, but Lin’s work does not allow us that luxury of escape. Erasure is the silent force these poems flow in spite of, or against. A House Made of Water is, simply, a house made of water, and we, too, are forced to live inside it.
Like Clark, Lin—a Taiwanese American poet—conceives of familial trauma as connected to the trauma of one’s cultures. “Heavy Rain” links her role as a sibling to a consideration of erasure within and by capitalistic structures. Our speaker visits the Vietnamese Veterans’ Memorial, weighing those names’ disappearance in rain against the society we’ve built seemingly to ensure that certain facts of our past are forgotten: “Floods happen when we pave streets and sidewalks … Worms drag themselves out to avoid drowning.” This is no thoughtless juxtaposition. In fact, association is the pièce de résistance of this long poem, in which Lin manages to connect our nation’s treatment of Vietnam veterans, her father’s abusive presence, her mother’s absence, typhoons in Taiwan, her fear of water, nonchalant violence in video games, and being exoticized as a young woman in America. This is no book for the casual reader of poetry; to read this poem only once is to do it a disservice. Lin’s braiding, paired with absolutely fluid, lulling imagery, is a comment on her identity itself—and begs us to look at our own personal and historical pasts, to consider the interconnectivity present there—and to fear, above all, erasure.
Against obliteration—albeit with a healthy dose of reticence—Lin interrogates parental heritage, and is righteously unforgiving in doing so. As with Equilibrium and Wasp Queen, we encounter suggestions of parental abuse throughout this collection, in the form of the father’s sexual coveting, and complicity (at best) from her mother. “Birth of Aphrodite” troublingly documents the speaker in the second person—a distancing tactic mirroring the tendency to erase trauma—age “nine and dancing / his eyes away from your sisters.” Despite the presence of the threatening patriarch, the speaker finds her place, as victims of trauma often do, in the sanctuary of a bath: “You are the blue. You are / the blood. You are made / and made and made.” If, Lin implies, our selves must fight against forgetting only to find that we are ensnared in harmful systems, perhaps our poems of place are ultimately poems of the self, of rebuilding. She writes, “So what if the home / kills me to pieces?” She writes, “I am wearing a dress / of shark teeth and wire.” Our speaker is exposed even as she is adorned with pearls, gold, stones, oceans. Lin’s ability to navigate this dichotomy—trauma and bloom, blood and blue—is the wave holding her dreamscape together. In “Stone,” she writes, “How quickly / I am pointed to as magic, then buried—” an adage that applies both to the experience of girlhood and to the experience of being Othered in this country.
In her engagement with Otherness, Lin is perhaps the most overtly skeptical of assimilation of these poets. In “Borders,” she writes: “We live in memory because we need to … What does it mean to be born / in the dream land? / Where do you go? // What do you choose to know?” The poet’s rendering of this liminal space relies on the inability to ground—both in a sense of belonging and in an inheritance of cultural knowledge. She acknowledges “the contradiction in my veins” as “dull jewels reburied. // Histories that do not belong / to me.” What does belong to Lin, and by extension women of color, is the self as island, surrounded by a home and culture warped and made fluid by the “dream land.” Simultaneously, though, the poet is driven by the desire to “call home / this entire world.” The desire to be grounded, in these works, is the desire to survive. These are not poems of false empowerment; rather, they are important precisely because of their ownership of nuance. “Delicacy,” one of the stronger poems in the collection, considers its titular quality as stereotypically feminine, rhetorically asking the unanswerable question, “What does it mean / to be delicate?” Between the question and the poet’s attempt at an answer, Lin joins Clark and Cortese in connecting “class” to lobster “we can buy unshucked and sweet.” But here, too, are moves toward reclamation, where the languages of class, country, and immigration are repurposed for the speaker’s survival:
Step inside the country
of my body. Would you like
me empty as a bird?
Would you like me alive or
singing? I, curated,
I, caricatured, this is
how I orient my
Fittingly, Lin’s turns toward playfulness occur in her book’s final poems; “if I could just run on two legs / on heels,” she pleads, “I could rule these woods beautiful.” Shelley Wong’s debut chapbook, Rare Birds, can almost be seen as a logical extension of Lin’s penchant for the lush. Wong’s poems are populated by rare creatures—human, animal, pastoral: all familiar in their strangeness. Here, “the girls look like night trees;” here are “disco naps” and “many-petaled ships.” But the reader is cautioned against making any fantasy out of this surreality; the poet counters: “We are not a myth.” Deftly our author sneaks in mention of “gentrification / buy[ing] its own bitters,” asking of the reader, as of herself, “why / the world is so broken.” And in the world of Wong’s poems, any attempt at holding a mirror up to our own reality must, by definition, consider the position of women within each.
The girls of Rare Birds embody a space of defiance and admission, of strength and petals. In “Courtship,” the poet writes, “Don’t tell me what’s unbecoming / for a woman: I was raised / on magazines,” harkening back to Cortese’s engagement with standards of femininity. Throughout, our speaker acknowledges the trends to which women adhere, even as they queer those trends. These characters remake womanhood using American trappings—fashion, pop culture and utterance, film noir. They remake loss with language. They remake our world as a jeweled mirror. In this sense, Wong’s collection almost reads as an engagement with an older, seasoned Lucy, who has more tools with which to navigate the systems both of her oppression and her desires. In one poem, Wong writes, first playfully, “Oh dear, / I left my dream girl in the woods,” a line that recalls the lost preteens of American milk cartons; and just six lines later, “Women teeter / in bird of paradise pose.” This type of tonal shift—from the indulgent to the precarious, all while maintaining its bite—mimics the position of women on a larger scale; women must engage with systems like fashion, like patriarchy, even though these systems keep us off-balance, keep losing us both literally and symbolically (because, after all, no one asks to be born in the “dream land”). What I admire most about Wong’s work, though, is her disrupting of the strong-versus-weak binary. Later, she writes, “The men carve me, but my bones / cut back.” Here, making women into hunted objects makes women, simply, ready for the hunt—rendering vulnerability a source of power. The poet further extends this contemplation with the language of bureaucracy: “In the courthouse, / what words bear justice? Ask who was left open / to the sun.” These rhetorical questions remind me of Clark’s; this political engagement with safety need not bear reminding. In “Women after Midnight,” “Another man deletes a gagged / woman from the closet. The / camera says nothing,” implicating the patriarchy, viewers, and even the reader in this violence. Throughout these poems, women are posed “like floral question / mark[s],” and are objects of artifice, subjects of desire, and sites of the speaker’s reconciliation of her own position within those systems.
In a series of self-portrait and persona poems, Wong inhabits Frida Kahlo, whose presence asks us to think about the consequences of heteronormativity and marriage—structures that are lacking. “The Concert” enacts Wong’s incredibly lush imagery in Frida’s voice as she dreams of an unnamed woman. In “Dear Frida,” Wong writes of Diego, “He approves of your dresses / when your skirts turn / into a temple.” As in Clark’s South, the feminine is acceptable only when tied to piety or purity. But though Frida calls herself a “domestic creature,” her function involves a larger conversation around alienation and race. “Epithalamium,” a poem “to Frida,” deals with whiteness, as many of Wong’s poems do—a concept one can almost take for granted in these poems. “Epithalamium” ends with us all “knowing that what is colorless / is not innocent, nor safe.” And we have seen whiteness enacted accordingly in Clark’s work, and to a lesser extent in Cortese’s, and measured not by whiteness but in conceptions of Otherness in Lin’s.
As in previous collections, these poems involve water, taking place by seas, cliffs; and these places situate the self on a precipice, wildly. Wong and Lin are thinking concurrently about water’s ability to render the self as ship, or island; their poems allow our heads to bob just above the surface, though Wong’s undeniably permit us more air. In “Perennials,” the Chinese American poet addresses her own failures to engage fully with her mother culture, as a model immigrant would. Ultimately, that failure to cross a real border is reflected in the speaker and her lover’s failures to communicate meaningfully and claim ownership of their queer love:
What I couldn’t learn from her:
how to tell Mandarin from Cantonese, blend
chilies into perfect fish sauce, and proclaim
how we lived and loved each other. How easy it is
for the tree to find its color. Lies and omissions
diminished me. What remains in my memory are
our common silences. The years have transposed
into any year. It’s my first year in Ohio. She lives
on a foggy peninsula and I hear she’s smoking
again. I see the spring as a closing throat.
If “Perennials” is a poem of place, it is a poem of intersectionality, a markedly immigrant and American poem, where our only grounding force, ultimately, is the speaker herself.
Wong’s treatment of identity struggles differs from previous authors’, in that she considers lineage more broadly and less in terms of direct or parental inheritance. For instance, like Lin’s “Chink,” Wong’s “To Yellow” addresses Asian stereotypes, successfully dissociating derogatory terms from their harmful implications by considering their other, original meanings. This, too, is an attempt at reclaiming space and place, as these poets reinhabit language that has been weaponized against them. Note Wong’s consideration of yellow: “that which you should not / be named for: my skin, my people.” This is language of ownership, not of debate or questioning. Wong embodies the Other, queerness, and the liminal space of assimilation by “peacock[ing] in the in-between,” and by doing so boldly, elatedly. Rare Birds is exceptional precisely because of Wong’s knack for countering lament with praise; “I can’t say why / the world is so broken. Exalt / all women.” “To Yellow” concludes with a simultaneous push toward our yet-unsung selves, while acknowledging and revering the space deep within us that is cultivated by our respective heritages. It is almost as though Wong offers a conclusive response to the question posed above: How do we attempt to make this country ours? Maybe we haven’t yet fully inhabited the new language of our grounding; but if the world is broken, surely the new place is our identities. I venture that Clark, Cortese, and Lin would welcome Wong’s mantra, as I know I do: “We are the new names, / the ones we have always known.”
Raena Shirali is the author of GILT (YesYes Books, 2017). Her honors include a Puschart Prize, a Philip Roth Residency at Bucknell University, a Gulf Coast Poetry Prize, a Cosmonauts Avenue Poetry Prize, and a “Discovery”/Boston Review Prize.