Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

Memory Moving Forward: House A by Jennifer S. Cheng & They and We Will Get Into Trouble For This by Anna Moschovakis

BY S. BROOK CORFMAN

        A partially disintegrated leaf, its remaining veins reminiscent of a map, seems to disappear from the cover of Jennifer S. Cheng’s House A, winner of Omnidawn’s 2015 1st/2nd Book Prize. Mitsu Yoshikawa’s photograph captures a sense of movement-in-a-moment, how what vanishes might also reveal or become a guide, which became for me a guiding principle for Cheng’s book. House A brings a reader into the ebb and flow of immigrant memory as that memory shapes a present: recalled, inherited, and retold, a tension between stasis and progression.

 

        In the book’s first sequence—a series of prose poem “Letters to Mao” punctuated by photographs of waves on beach—Cheng writes, “Sleep, like childhood, is more of a sense than an experience we can articulate from beginning to end.” And then, slightly later: “For if the world, drowsy, were to be washed in a sheen, perhaps we would all have some intuitive knowledge of the immigrant body.” This is a book full of these lyrical explorations, sentences reminiscent of philosophical language that are not beholden to any rigidity of philosophy’s logic. We do not get “a sense” in House A but instead the relational “more of a sense”; a sheen across the world might offer some “intuitive knowledge,” but, then again, it might not. I carried these two phrases with me throughout Cheng’s work, which is relentless in its renderings both of a childhood home’s emotional space and of a phantom house that settles around a physical one. The poems here asked me many times to consider the difference between a sense and an experience, what it means to move through the world in a “sheen” that blurs times and the things in those times together, and to whom such access is meaningful. Each time I considered anew the wash of difference between fact and feelings.

 

        For me, the presence of Mao serves as a distinguishing marker between these poles; or perhaps, he serves as a moment of collapse across them. He is rarely described in corporeal detail in these poems, instead haunting them as the house does, appearing in memories of parental reactions and in grieved statistics claiming the results of his policies. At the end of the letters, Cheng describes her family’s visit to Mao’s portrait at Tiananmen: “my family traveled northward one summer to an unnamed place and stood staring at a portrait of a man. I cannot recall the expression on the faces of my parents, and I do not remember how long we lingered.” Mao thus becomes a person of details for Cheng’s parents, but a mood or passed-down presence for Cheng—a haunting. Or, in House A, the history of immigration becomes instead redefined as more similar to migration, a constant movement: Cheng’s poems float between Chicago, Texas, and Hong Kong, moving back and forth across the U.S. and the Pacific Ocean, undoing the single-direction that “immigration” too often might suggest. I saw this too in the ways Cheng inscribes history in terms of lived experiences in addition to textbook-like facts:

In school we heard the narratives of Columbus and Pearl harbor, and in college the professor gave lectures on Marxism, but whenever this happened, all I could think of was the dark silhouette of my mother’s hair and how my father taught me to listen to the inside of a seashell.

In this turn to her mother’s hair, the song her father hears in a seashell, Cheng re-links a fact-based historical account of immigration to its emotional effects.

 

        House A is long for a book of poems—the first section alone is 40 pages—and, for this reader, a slow and immersive experience. I came to think of House A‘s three sections as a kind of diptych with a bridge (or, as Woolf described To the Lighthouse, “two blocks joined by a corridor”): “Letters to Mao” on one side, “How to Build an American Home” on the other, and the abecedarian “House A; Geometry B” between them. The taut but tidal sentences of Cheng’s “Letters to Mao” remain consistent from section to section, although the prose becomes progressively more lineated. The “corridor” of “House A; Geometry B”—its shorter length and abecedarian structure, from which the poems spilled outwards, often felt like the architectural pinnacle for the book, the height of its powers to create a text that was a house out of a house that was a text:

an act of a translation: building a house/structure to represent the tone/texture

an immigrant is like this: cirrus, circular, circulate.

As “How to Build an American Home,” the last section of the book, begins, we stay with the phantom, emotionally saturated house, keeping its concerns even as the poem changes its formal choices: each poem, now in lines floating across the page, is titled “How to Build an American Home” and is accompanied by a schematic-like image from the public domain. These images suggest something of the ephemerality of knowledge and mapping, that there are as many ways we might create the sense of a space as there are to physically construct the structures in that space. Although the return of “home” in the title of this section made me wonder if we hadn’t exhausted the metaphor of the house in this book, the poems within marked the empty spaces between perception and the body, between feeling and memory, with the same diffuse urgency, to coin a paradox, of their letter counterparts: “When the father reminds her to exercise the eyes by staring at the horizon, it is a lesson in distance. / As if he knew how the distance to an object is felt as / the distance to one’s body.” As House A ended I found myself re-entering a world simultaneously opening up and floating away, with Cheng’s “inheritance of fractures and cracks” overlain on my vision.

 

*

 

        By contrast, the poems of Anna Moschovakis third book, They and We Will Get Into Trouble for This, are fiercely specific—nothing floats in these poems, but rather occurs and recurs with detailed precision. We might call it a book of remembrances and reframings, as opposed to the ways in which House A is a book of saturated memory. In “Paradise (Film Two),” Moschovakis writes, “Being raised in science || under the signs of logic || I never understood how certain promises || could be made || I could say ‘I promise || that unless something unexpected happens || I will do the dishes every night || this week.'” The distinction between the relaying of facts in They and We and a closeness of emotion begins before this poem, on the dedication page, asking in what seems to be a moment of crisis “[ WHAT IS HAPPENING IN THE ROOM ] [ HOW WE ARE IN THE ROOM ].” Although it is not a question of immigration, this opening juxtaposition similarly destabilizes a sense of the present, both in terms of time and in terms of knowledge. How do we know what is happening? How do we inhabit the space? This poem runs along the length of the book and includes the most explicit invocation of the title’s pronouns, sometimes as “we” and “they,” sometimes as a “wethey,” always seeking the question of “[ WHAT IS HAPPENING ] [ WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE ] [ BETWEEN THE DIFFERENCE ] [ BETWEEN ONE PERSON AND ANOTHER ].” This poem feels high-pitched, or perhaps hysterical, with a purposeful nod to that word’s pejorative historical invocation of feminine emotional excess—this undercurrent of a poem picks up some of the most high-pitched emotional weight that “falls out” of the more measured language of the other poems. This poem frees up the more conventionally placed poems to relay a series of experiences without offering an a priori emotional tenor, in lines like these, from “Paradise (Film Two)”:

It turns out my understanding || such as it is || of tragedy || was shaped || during that fateful semester || less by the Greeks than by Cha || the only woman writer I remember || being assigned || It turns out Heraclitus || never said the thing || about stepping into the river again || that it was probably a disciple || forgotten by history

In these lines Moschovakis conjures up with relative detachment two kinds of erasures from the record—that of Heraclitus’ scribe and also Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s murder. Rather than equating these erasures, in noting Cha as the only woman writer assigned the lines both suggest the horror of anyone being lost to history and challenge who as readers we feel that horror about.

 

        This measured quality also pervades “What It Means to Be Avant-Garde.” This poem, styled in part after David Antin’s hybrid talk-poem-performances, unspools from an originary moment in which the speaker receives an unnamed medical diagnosis, a “condition” that seems to have potentially intense energetic and emotional consequences. The poem mixes dashed-prose reflections on the memories this event brings up with language borrowed from self-help and mental health self-diagnosis quizzes, staying studiously removed from the condition as a way of dramatizing a continued life in the after of the diagnosis: “when I went in for the tests they said I was normal—and only after I did a lot of research on the Internet—did I come to understand what they meant by that—was that my condition is unexplained.” And while most of the internet quizzes designed to assess one’s social capacities and mental state are presented in the poem without answers, one offers what seems to be the speaker’s responses. The result is a beautifully unhelpful catalogue of symptoms:

I feel downhearted and blue Most of the time.

Morning is when I feel the best Some of the time.

I have crying spells or feel like it Good part of the time.

I have trouble sleeping at night A little of the time.

I eat as much as I used to Good part of the time.

I still enjoy sex A little of the time.

These answers don’t seem to bode well, per se, but they also don’t indicate (to a layperson, at least) any necessary course of action. This endurance is one reconciliation the poem seeks (“it is possible that I can make peace with my condition”). Another reconciliation the poem offers is that the mental state suggested by these quizzes—in my reading, a kind of depression—is the only logical answer to the present. As the poem ends, Moschovakis writes, “I type what would an ethical happiness look like.”

 

        Ethics returns importantly in “Flat White (20/20),” the third poem in the book and a kind of ethical attempt at a translation of Samira Negrouche’s “Café Sans Sucre.” The poem intersperses Moschovakis’ translation of Negrouche’s work in twenty numbered sections with twenty new sections dramatizing the questions around that act of translation—the poem is increasingly interrupted by slashes as Moschovakis notes that “the security system of this translation has been compromised.” The added sections dramatize the space created (or perhaps, that already existed) by their presence in numbering themselves with more space. That is, we get { 3 } instead of {3}. Like all the typographic moves of the book, this directed my eye in a particular way, creating an expanding and contracting sense of the poem as it moved in and out of Moschovakis’ translation and reflections. Toward the end of this poem Moschovakis describes trying to translate Negruoche’s title of “Café Sans Sucre” to “Flat White,” a kind of associative move that retains a connection to coffee but also exposes a particular kind of emotionally flat whiteness:

I tried Flat White /\ at a reading and somebody laughed /\ then I learned of the flat white economy in London \/\ flat meaning affect and white meaning White used metonymically if not intentionally for settlers /\/\ and is often the case I don’t know which sense to keep.

But, of course, she gets to keep both.

 

        If They and We is not exactly about collaboration, it is about admitting that “they” and “we” are in our consciousness—the ways in which our mind collates and collects the things and associations around us—and the book is directly about considerations of race and inherited ethnicity. (In the poem across the bottom, Moschovakis writes, “[ THE ROOM IS VIBRATING ] [OF PEOPLE W/ BROWN HAIR ] [ OF PEOPLE W/ PALE ] [ SKIN ] [OF PEOPLE W/ PALE HAIR ] [BROWN ] SKIN ] …[ TO BE RADICALLY ] [ REFT ] [ OPEN BRACKET ].) The most challenging component of They and We for this reader was the recurrent account and engagement with Jan Yoors’ book The Gypsies in “What It Means to Be Avant-Garde.” The jacket copy of Yoors’ book (I googled it) indicates that the author “ran away from his privileged Belgian family” to join the Romani, and then later published this best-selling account of his time there—which Moschovakis characterizes as in part an account of the Romani cultural philosophy. The politics of Yoors’ book are questionable at best, enmeshed in pressing questions about who is allowed to write what stories and who benefits economically from those stories. Even though I was uninterested in reading the original book, what I found fascinating in Moschovakis’ work is the way she carefully refuses to deny the presence this book seems to have had in her own life and yet avoid a kind of exultation. “For fifteen years I’ve been trying to recall the name of the boy or of the book,” she writes, emphasizing the space Yoors’ description of the Romani’s ethical practices held in her life, as at least one voice (perhaps even vaguely remembered) in her internal conversation on how to live a life. It was important to me that Moschovakis does not recuperate Yoors’ book as an object of present importance, and also that she does not attempt to validate Yoors’ claims alongside other histories of the Romani, even as she does include other moments in which her life intersects with the history of the Romani people. Instead, in a move reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, Moschovakis uses memory to think about how her own ideology interacts with the ideology created by Yoors. That is, in the way Morrison seeks out the “Africanist” presence in canonical American literature—not a true African or African-American presence but a creation of the white imagination—Moschovakis wrestles with Yoors’ projection of the Romani and the presence of the book in her life. She never lets one of Yoors’ claims about the Romani get too far from the positionality of Yoors himself, in one moment writing, “the Gypsies hold a Kantian belief about ethics —this according the European who spent his youth among them —”

 

        This taking seriously of the thing remembered, of being open to and taking responsibility for its error, is—along with its typographical contouring—the great success of Moschovakis’ play with time in a poem. (In “Flat White (20/20)”: “the second Samira wasn’t Samira at all \ but Samia / it’s been seventeen years no excuse.”) As in House A, memory is slippery. But if in House A, Cheng’s memory served as a swirling inchoate experience contained in the body, touching down at particular moments and passed down from parent to child, memory in They and We Will Get Into Trouble for This is influential and deceitful, seeming to be held nowhere in the body even as it shapes the mind. Both books root in a present moment which the past is always moving towards; both books face down the paradox of unfolding the past as the past moves farther and farther away. That they have different emotional logics for doing so is no surprise, and is something both books take seriously—each offers a reader the chance to sit with the experience of memory as it shapes the world. Each offers an experience from which a reader might glean an “intuitive knowledge” of how to trace and filter the histories overlaid onto the present.



S. Brook Corfman is a poet who also writes plays, and the Editor-in-Chief here at Hot Metal Bridge. More information and links to other work can be found at sbrookcorfman.com.