By Will Freeney | firstname.lastname@example.org
Fresno’s inaugural poet laureate and Fresno City College English professor, Lee Herrick, and Leah Silvieus, his co-editor, have wrought a thing of wonder. The wonder is in the reading – wonder both in the sense of magic and in the spirit of awed contemplation. That is as it should be, for this collection of poems from a wide array of Asian American poets is, as the subtitle indicates, a consideration of the confluence, the intersection, of body and spirit, world and beyond. The insights are as varied as the authors and their voices, but they have been gathered in thematically imagined sections.
The opening section (“When the Sky Unhinges, How Will We Survive: Poetry as Spiritual Witness”) seems uncannily apropos to this time of publication (coronavirus et al.), although the book project took years to come to fruition. Li-Young Lee’s poem, “The City in Which I Love You,” opens the section, with a statement that could be a description of our pandemic plight: “But in the city / in which I love you / no one comes, no one / meets me in the brick clefts, / in the wedged dark.” Ocean Vuong’s poem, “Notebook Fragments,” carries forward the contemplation of problematized life with a series of etymological considerations, personal historical realities, and epiphanies sublimated in “Yikes.” There is prayer there, though, and it is “Dear God if you are a season, let it be the one I passed through to get here.” The first line of Eugenia Leigh’s “Selah” provides the title for this section (“When the sky unhinges, how will we survive?”) and carries forward the contemplation of spirit in these times, declaring that “to worship is to survive is to be / wholly human, wholly / gripping the other hand.” The second poem in this section by Li-Young Lee (“Arise, Go Down”) inspires the book’s title (“I didn’t make the world I leave you with”).
What is the nature of this world? It is “only this world, in which there is always / a family waiting in terror.” There is a strong temptation to include an excerpt from every poem/poet – in this section and throughout the book – for each of their unique expressions of their reality, sometimes expressed literally, sometimes metaphorically, always evocatively. Take, as the final example from this section, the words of Fresno’s own Brynn Saito (poet and MFA Creative Writing faculty member at Fresno State): “Slow-moving creatures with full bones and focus/lunge through the understory – / what do they know about flower-walking, flight moons.” (“Reincarnation”)
Brynn also leads off the second section (“Waiting to Get Clear on her God-Thinking, She Went Out Into That Meadow Again: Locating the Divine in the Natural World”) with “How to Prepare the Mind for Lightning,” which finds a more whimsical voice for a no-less-serious contemplation, beginning with “In the recesses of the woman’s mind, / there is a warehouse. The warehouse / is covered in wisteria. The wisteria wonders / what it is doing in the mind of the woman. The woman wonders too” and ending with “When she bleeds the wisteria, the warehouse / in her mind is free and empty and the source / of all emptiness. It is free to house the night sky. It is free to hold nothing / but the boundless, empty, unimaginable dark.” This contemplation of nature takes on a slightly more serious tone and direct conceit when Li-Young Lee’s speaker in “Have You Prayed” finds himself “reminding myself / a flower is one station between / earth’s wish and earth’s rapture.”
The third section, “Who Will Pray for Me When You Are Gone?: Relationships with Cultural History and Ancestors”, is – like each of its predecessors – fairly thematically self-explanatory in its title. Patriarchal misogyny – no unique phenomenon to Asian cultures – is addressed by several poems in this section. From the opening “How to Eat Your Love” by Jennifer Kwon Dobbs, which concludes “You discard the extraneous girl / hide and scoop up the boy” to “Televangelism” by K-Ming Chang, which clarifies that “[w]hat a daughter costs / a mother must pay / out of body: she reaches / into her blood / like a wallet … one man’s daughter / is another god’s revenge.”
The fourth section, “We Were Brown and Immigrant: Spiritual Practice as a Form of Political Resistance,” deals extensively in elegies and dirges – an unfortunate and seemingly ceaseless necessity in these times, but definitely a fulfillment of that subtitle. That spirit is captured (at least in one of its manifestations) in the final stanzas of Shin Yu Pai’s “Burning Monk”: “arhat folded in / the stillness / of full lotus / his body withering / his crown blackening / his flesh charring / his corpse collapsing / his heart refusing to burn / his heart refusing to burn / his heart refusing to burn.”
The penultimate section, “Dearest Father, Forgive Me For I Have Seen: On Doubt and Questions of Faith,” opens with the power of Ocean Vuong’s “Prayer for the Newly Damned,” which posits the eviscerating question, “what becomes of the shepherd / when the sheep are cannibals?” That is followed up with Matthew Olzmann’s “Nate Brown is Looking for a Moose,” a poem with a far more whimsical voice but no less serious a contemplation: “When I was a teenager, several of my friends / suddenly found God. / I tried but found only found pocket lint and angst … What we’re looking for are miracles.”
In the final section, “I Will Unlock the Latch of These Lips and Praise: Poems About Prayer and Ritual,” various poets’ perspectives on the practice(s) of spirituality are presented. From Oliver de la Paz’ sardonic condemnation of the Holy Roman Catholic church in “Dear Empire” (“Blessed be those who are smote by the light of its countenance. Blessed be them. As God speaks, the terrible imposition of his glare shuts the eyes of the believers settled in the pews”) to the direct simplicity of Rachelle Cruz’ opening line (“God loves you on your knees.”) to “How to Pray.” There are also less condemnatory, more hopeful expressions of faith, like Mia Ayumi Malhotra’s “Psalm” which lends its opening lines to the title of the section: “I will unlatch the lock / of these lips and praise, / press them to the crack / of light as it widens / in the jamb.”
This limited selection of excerpts does not suffice, but it does offer an introduction to the broad expanse of Asian American poetry dealing with – as the collection’s title states – spirituality and faith. These are honest and evocative poems by admirable poets. That honesty requires that they not always be upbeat or easy. But they are necessary and appreciated. As Lee and Leah wrote in the book’s introduction, “It is always the right time for faith and the spirit. It is always the right time for poetry … Poetry endures. Our faiths and spirits endure too. [We hope] that you receive these poems as artifacts to be explored, contemplated, and savored as gifts.” Make it so.
The World I Leave You: Asian American Poets on Faith and Spirit, Orison Books 2020. orisonbooks.com