Loads of Learned Lumber

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Wong May, _Superstitions: Poems 1971-1976_

SO, HERE IS an interesting story. A poet born in China, raised in Singapore, but writing in English, publishes three books with a major publisher (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich) in the 1970s, but then stops publishing. A young poet, Zachary Schomburg, accidentally comes across her first book in a public library, tracks her down, brings out a new collection 36 years after the poet's previous book. I learned all this from the short interview that Schomburg conducted with Wong May and published in the May issue of The Believer.

That is one hook-y story line, I hope you will agree. I, for one, had to go straight to the Octopus Books website and order my copy of Picasso's Tears. There are few publishers I trust more than Octopus, in any case.

I also thought I might pick up some of Wong May's earlier collections while they were still bargains--but I was late to the party, it seems. I had no luck at all finding her first book, A Bad Girl's Book of Animals, and her second (Reports) and third (this one) were already fetching high-gravity prices. I got this one relatively reasonably, though ($16).

So, here I am, with $40 spent on books by a poet I have not read a word of.  All because of a romantic story of artistic vindication. There's one born every minute, you are probably thinking…

…but it does turn out that Wong May is worth reading. Superstitions arrived in the mail yesterday--a substantial hardbound volume, 135 pages, 7" by 10" (you'd have to be Ashbery to get that kind of presentation from a trade publisher these days), deaccessioned (what a word) from the Salt Lake County LIbrary system--and I immediately sat down with it.

Is it astonishing, revelatory, transformative? Well, I wouldn't go that far. Wong May writes out of the territory that, for me, is broadly defined by the Pound of The Cantos, William Carlos Williams, Robert Duncan, Rachel Blau DuPlessis: paratactic, imagistic, engaged in various ways with the physical space of the page, cosmopolitan, chary of explanations. She is well to the left of Pound, though, if the poems here on Victor Jara and the death of Franco are anything to go by, and more a Williams than a Duncan on the visionary/grounded spectrum.

She must have been traveling a lot in these years--the poems are set all over Europe and sometimes in Asia. Glimpses of personal history are few and brief, even though almost all the poems are closely based on her own perceptions; they document not so much her circumstances as her sensibility--its patterns of attention, its varying intensities, its commitments. The actual first-person pronoun does not occur that often, but the sensibility and its voice unify the book.

Among the passages that struck me was this from "Iona, 73":

&          Grace
                     the adjournment of
                           to a later
date               (Who

              vouchsafes this:
All escapes
               being one
being equal

Will,      the will of
                       the vortices

& the hem of spray flung in the sun
             stiff breeze decorous with the smell of thyme

Brecan   Brecan
Gather moss  &   bracken

&       morning to find
            pebbles on the windowsill
                             like eyes
           that hath once shone for
                              St Columba

Effective, no, the way the abstract, slightly bureaucratic diction is suddenly broken by the sea imagery, and the ancient mythic names are placed next to the humble pebbles of the windowsill?

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