Dear House that Giuseppe built we ate your plums n figs n blighted pears years after you loved and left them. Dear Turquoise Stucco beside Pink Stucco, Dear Miami in East Van, Dear Brazen Drug Dealer with your array spread over the hood of your good old Chevy in the back alley over which we saw the bungalow fall to the dozer with curtains still in the windows and the grey sixplex burst instantly from earth. Dear Kale and Purple Beans, Dear Salvaged Cupboards, we had so many to choose from. You were all such a pain in the neck but I loved you anyway. Dear Overwork, Dear Racial Representation, your committees have my pity and I bite my thumb. Dear Class Size, Dear Accreditation, your frame drained me, Dear Student Bodies the liver of the system digging your twenty-year-old choice for voice or paycheque, heckling from the back or absorbing from the front, do you remember the day I killed myself laughing over your discovery of allegory?
Hallucinates Heap of Gold
Old ginkgo grows nuts
Calgary writer, editor and critic Larissa Lai’s latest is Iron Goddess of Mercy: A Poem (Vancouver BC: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2021), her eighth book overall and third full-length poetry title, after Sybil Unrest (co-authored with Rita Wong; originally published by Line Books, 2009; new edition with New Star Books, 2013) [see my review of such here] and Automaton Biographies (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2009). Iron Goddess of Mercy: A Poem is a book-length poem composed in sixty-four numbered sections, each with a single block of lyric prose accompanied by a clipped tercet, as Lai offers her own book-length take on the English-language adaptation of the Japanese utaniki. Known as a form of the poetic diary that combines elements of prose and poetry structures, the utaniki has been seen in Canadian literature through multiple poets exploring their own formal takes, including bpNichol, Fred Wah, Roy Kiyooka and even myself, for a time. There’s something of the call-and-response to the paired form, or even the Greek chorus (as well as linkages to work by Margaret Christakos and Joan Retallack, which I discussed recently, here), allowing the main body of speech and the follow-up of a combination of commentary and boiling down. And Lai has much in this collection worth discussing.
Lai’s prose sequence is composed as a delightful play of sound and rhythm, bouncing magically along in a pulse of lyric, even as it describes dark histories and even darker human impulses, as she opens part twelve of her sixty-four pieces: “Dear Murder, herding us like cattle into the lineups of death, / Dear Ship, Dear Quip, brutality of ledger and software, the / orchestration of it conducting death music for deadheads, / generating desire and dearth, converting the dearth to a / machine of suffering, buffering only those you mark as human / in other words other murderers glorifying blonds and bonds / in markets and mansions consumption the gumption in the / pluck of settlement whose betterment pegged first to the / body then collared to the dollar the divide and conk in guns / chains bombs and rhetoric co-opting in the aftermath.”
Lai’s lyric is an expansive, abstract and concrete thing, a narrative built as a complex collage, language propelled and jangly across an expansive structure. “My / Hakka boat sets sail for another coast,” she writes, as part of part twenty, “boasting mushrooms, / scallops and bean curd sheets as though the beasts of your / waters could beat the Manchu occupation. What peace could / you lease? Will the Jesus you’ve borrowed for your vision / release you if the white man won’t let go?” Lai writes on global capitalism and environmental issues, colonization and occupation, pro-democracy protests across Hong Kong, and the umbrella terminology of “Asian” that too often reduces complexity down to a fixed and single, and, often misunderstood and misappropriated, point. She explores Asian-ness as well as anti-Asian sentiment and violence, and histories as relevant now as they’ve ever been. “Here’s a residue,” she writes, to end the prose-block of part fifty-six, “triple occupation as station of my grim asian hum dimming / the lights to find the truth of all that transpired after our / brothers un-ned us, I was so unhappy then, I’m happy now, / why would I want to remember? The secrets of Chinatown are / no secrets at all, ancient or otherwise, when subject’s a split / slit bleeding in the dark.” She utilizes the language and information of occupation as the building blocks of her narrative propelled by an adherence to sound and play. “Say at least the names of the people who / host us,” she writes, to end the prose-block of the twenty-fifth section:
Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh, Squamish, Tsuut-ina, Kainai, Piikani, Blackfoot as soot from the Columbia River Gorge, Squilax, Xat’sull, Williams Lake falls on our heads, are the flakes so snowy or fragile? I’m agile, waving my flag for the SJWS holding the fort against the alt-right bringing blight through the door of the liberalisms we thought we wanted, haunted by the posts of Christmas past.
This is a lively and remarkable book, containing as many multitudes as she also speaks to. Lai speaks and sings and writes to brothers and sisters, money, murders, martyrs, pluralism, silence, thin kings and revolution, as each section speaks directly to someone or something different, offering thoughts that combine into a conversation on human responsibility and cooperation, and the implications of human waste. “Dear Dumpster of Assumption,” she writes, to open part twenty-five, “your gumption stumps me. / I’m bumptious seeking the gumbo of my Biloxi neighbour, we / stray, seeking the how of our connection Acadia to Mississippi / the blue dreams of her unearthed ceremonial mounds.” As she responds as part of a recent interview (posted March 17, 2021), conducted by Sophie Munk, posted at Ricepaper:
My new poetry book, Iron Goddess of Mercy, just out from Arsenal Pulp Press, is social in a different way. It writes letters to a range of human and nonhuman entities including maenads, echo chambers, brothers, masks, murder, and the moon. Sybil Unrest showed readers a sisterly way of being together in difference. Iron Goddess of Mercy takes up another strategy– it whirls through language in order to release grief while opening the possibility for unexpected futures to erupt.