Logic of wellness subverted in verse
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Midway through his second collection of poems, Dream of Me as Water (Palimpsest, 78 pages, $20), David Ly writes “He tells himself that he doesn’t need to reference/ race, racism, or queerness in his poems,/ yet spirals in guilt when he wishes to simply/ recount feeling at ease after re-arranging/ the décor in his fishtank.”
In this poem is both the project — to explore the metaphorical and metaphysical limits of subjectivity — and the danger, that this project might be read as a betrayal.
Throughout the collection, Ly deftly subverts the atomistic logics of wellness — the essential oils, pink Himalayan salt lamps and healing crystals. Water counters this cultural pull toward isolation: “Despite efforts to keep us/ apart, to manifest/ an individual way of being,/ the parts that make up who we are,/ in a sense, are part of the same ocean.”
Ly develops this metaphorical connection in the way his lines ebb and flow across the page and in the way water forms the backdrop for surrealist and speculative connections across media, species, time. In Coelacanth, the speaker casts his net “trying/ to catch/ the promise/ of what lies/ ahead” but finds himself haunted by “a living fossil” — a tension that is not so much resolved as embraced when the speaker cuts “time free/ dive[s] in.”
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Pistachios in my Pocket (At Bay Press, 128 pages, $25), Sareh Farmand’s debut, is a multi-generational, poly-vocal memoir of migration and belonging: “the story of humanity/ is that of/ migration/ threaded deep in our consciousness/ DNA strands search/ belonging,” she writes in the closing poem, echoing her observation from the preface. This frame underscores the stakes of her family’s migration and her telling that story.
Farmand fixes her attention not only on her family’s stories, but on how they are told. For example, in a poem in her maternal grandmother’s voice, Farmand opens by foregrounding the frame: “I don’t like riding horses, but I never tell my granddaughters.” What is important here, Farmand emphasizes, is Miriam’s bravery in riding a horse in spite of her fear and her friend’s father, who tries to dissuade her.
This attentiveness to the way stories are told and re-told develops into a concern with which stories are told. In the poem Dear Sally Field Farmand takes on the stereotypes about Iranian culture that abound in the West and that are perpetuated by such movies as Not Without My Daughter, the movie that occasions this poem.
It’s not just that the movie Field stars in “put that barbaric image back into the limelight,” but that in doing so, such popular stories miss the opportunity to foster connection and belonging.
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The poems in Rhiannon Ng Cheng Hin’s capacious debut, Fire Cider Rain (Coach House Books, 104 pages, $23), gather and constellate memory and migration, science and language, intimacy and political critique into a complicated love letter.
Seemingly solid scientific laws intersect the complications of a difficult mother-daughter relationship, each illuminating the other, as they do in the poem Dictionaries in the Sand, where Hin subverts the conventions of dictionary entries, first by using the phonetic spellings that differ from the word she’s ostensibly defining, and then by providing an alternate, orthogonal definition that shifts the meaning of the original.
For example, the section headed Fog drip (n) is accompanied by the phonetic spelling of daughter, and following the expected definition is the following: “I fear the most painful parts of Mama have been lying dormant in my sacrum my entire life and my unborn children can taste them in their sleep.”
The collection’s rhythms follow the flow and catch of tides, currents and inland watersheds: “like matter, time moves only between forms/ each moment a water droplet/ in capillary action.” Underlying so many of these poems is grief caused by the ruptures in the speaker’s family: “I trace lines over memories eroded by/ the versions of her absence.”
Melanie Brannagan Frederiksen is a Winnipeg writer and critic.
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