Yunte Huang

Tinfish Press


Thursday, December 15th, 2005

Cribs spits tart pips of pithy, punny language, so it’s no surprise to find ecstatic blurbs glancing off the book’s back. Yet it is surprising that these blurbers fail to mention the one characteristic that separates this book from most others on the market—an insistent, concrete element that sets every jewel-like bon mot in an odd, beguiling frame.

I’m just going to come out and say it: black, vertical stripes run down every page of Cribs. [NOTE: unfortunately the Constant Critic interface won’t allow me to replicate the stripes on this site—you’ll have to buy the book to see them properly!] Thick stripes, thin stripes, stripes that ink up half the page, pinstripes that sputter out in diminutive asterisks. You could see them as bars, like the bars of a crib, or staffs or staves, in the musical sense. You could see them as ghost images of the lyric itself, with its vertical footprint, or of occluded Asian writing running up and down amid Huang’s English-language lyrics. You could see them as white space, activated; painted black, it acts, pushing the lyrics skinny or letting them spread, slicing down the page to intervene between a joke and its punch line, a stanza and its answering note. You could see them as raw language without letters, or as jittery visual energy, or as abstract form itself, shouldering its way onto the page to force the question of just what these letters are doing here. You could read them as insisting that there is something unreadable in everything we read, something present that withstands our facility, something that withstands the translation from thought into speech.

Less grandly, the stripes create a wholeness and encourage us to read the poems as continuous artistic gesture. They enforce an equality between the page’s readable and unreadable language; the poem, it seems, may be found in the whole. For example,

i feel like blackmouthing someone toda|y
"that in the|face of which one flees"
|one feels as the faceless

To read this poem without its concrete elements (however clumsily delivered in my rendering, above) would be to miss much. The word "blackmouthing" sits oddly in the poem’s mouth. This is a word normally used in accusation; one is accused of "blackmouthing" another. The word "blackmouthing" thus blackens i’s mouth in two senses—he is both speaking inexpertly (and I use that term with all critical irony) and blackmouthing himself. While this line draws our attention to utterance, the asterisks seem to work like utterance—pinched like a mouth delivering or reacting to a slur, or mimetic of a slur itself, the word which has violence, which is an act. Or they are what is unsayable—the breast-piercing desire to wound another. At the same time, the line which splits down the middle might be a way of drawing violence, or it might speed us to the lyric moment at which the turn is delivered—by the end of the poem, the "i" has dropped out and "one feels as the faceless," defaced by one’s own fear. The poem seems to be about dehumanization, and its force reaches us in a cluster of readable and unreadable signs. On a second reading, we might return again to that word "blackmouthing, " to the system of connotations that associate ‘black’ with that which is degraded or defiled, and the oppressive real-world consequences of such associative thinking.

Another set of marks in the above passage points us to another dimension of Huang’s work—that is, the quotation marks. Huang is a celebrated scholar of twentieth-century literature with special attention to Asian-Western Modernist interaction; he is also the translator of Pound’s Pisan Cantos into Chinese. This latter fact prompts us to read Cribs as, in part, a meditation on translation and back-translation, the possibilities for art that are opened up when texts are passed from culture to culture, what is dropped and lost, what may be recovered, what is handed back, almost beyond recognition, what may still be recognized. In this light, the stripes in Cribs may begin to look like bars and sieves, letting only so much through, gesturing to what remains. But they are also boundaries which are nimbly crossed. The epigraph to "Farewell to Farewell" reads "stripped of all articles/we are non-natives." The pun on "articles" suggests the bereftness of exile as well as the mock-pidgin-English Anglos use to slur Asians in America. In the poem that follows, pushed towards the center by delicately irregular lines, the dropped articles and consonants create a poignant, Imagistic surface:

|| | |we don hav
|| | |any
|| | |to say
|| | |
|| | |tho
|| | |so energetic
|| | |those pages
|| | |of snow
|| | |so dreamy
|| | |those letters
|| | |of summer
|| | |
|| | |where is day
|| | |keeper
|| | |tell me
|| | |how to me-
|| | |morize

By the end of this poem, the speaker/poet seems to step back from this beauty, but comes down on the side of resonance and redolence, given the final urinous pun:

so farewell to farewell
go back
there your seat, and
hear me
no swan dirges
but broken words
peas in shower

This final image—pee in the shower?—suggests another kind of fluency, a refusal to mask oneself in the pretty image Pound et al derived from Asian culture. The schoolboy quality of this pun is another strain in Cribs, and may provide us with yet another reading of the stripes—as rivers (of whatever substance you wish, dear reader), as figures for fluency. Throughout the book, the speaker of a second language has second sight; English words are anagrammatized to draw out meanings which were there, after all, all along. In "For MIA, Made in America, " subtitled "A Song of Love That Goes Nowhere,"

I want to be
the ring of your spring
sum of your summer
all of your fall
win of your winter

But would you be
the can of my canto
net of my sonnet
ant in my chant
dog in my doggerel

The least snazzy words in this passage, the hinge words, "But would," turn out to be critical. Syntactically, the speaker could be asking the addressee to become his lover or muse—as in the candy-heart phrase, "would you be mine?" But the "But" implies that this addressee might not agree to this power reversal. If the American "MIA" isn’t willing to strike this deal, American English seems to have helplessly yielded itself to Huang’s speaker’s maneuverings. At the same time, it’s impossible to miss the primary meaning of the military acronym "MIA"—missing in action. If the title is read this way, presence and absence compete in a single space. The poem is addressed to that which is absent, and language floods the empty channel. In this regard, "For MIA" reveals the implicit failure and the compensatory accomplishment of all love lyrics, and the empty channel formed by double lines to its right underscores this notion.

For all the breeziness and aestheticism of Cribs, it is the sense of the real-world consequences of these wordgames, their connection to politics and to history, that gives heft to the volume. As one poem asks

* | ||
what is a good sentence | ||
like when you say | ||
what | ||
| ||
| ||
| || *
| || what
| || is a death sentence

The difference between "a good sentence" and "a death sentence" is fatally slim. The plight of Chinese immigrants detained at Angel Island in the 19th and 20th centuries, which is given some pages in this book, is a case in point. Their confinement is perhaps evoked by the book’s jail-like bars, or this concrete element may be a tribute to their secret practice of carving poems into the walls that confined them, thus converting these barriers into tablets for expression and agency. Among other humiliations, the inmates of Angel Island were subjected to complicated quizzes about their home villages in order to determine if they were indeed the blood relatives of extant US immigrants they claimed to be; one such interrogation is recreated in Cribs. Paradoxically, these quizzes were so detailed that a genuine relative would have failed them; to answer as a genuine relative, then, would be to fail the test. Instead, the "paper sons" and "paper daughters" passed as genuine by being inauthentic, more knowledgeable than an actual relation. To do this, they relied—you guessed it—on notes to aid memorization, on crib sheets, or "cribs." In their canny scramble for fluency, these immigrants serve as an unlikely double for Pound in this book. Like him approaching Chinese poetry for the first time, they entered America "with an enormously learned crib but no dictionary."

The reach of Huang’s Cribs, then, exceeds the stylistic verve of his lyrics considered in isolation from their complicated concrete settings. Cribs is a complex; it grows in resonance when it is taken as a whole, taken for its stutters and repetitions, its utterances, asterisks, stripes and ellipses. If there is one thing Huang’s poetics appears to oppose, it is the moment of "bilious epiphany,": "the professionals call it a click/otherwise known as delivery." His poems don’t close like well-made boxes; instead, they continually open. Rather than one ‘earned’ epiphany, his poems steal several.

I write in order
to pilfer epiphanies
every turn of the verse
serves as
reverse, converse, averse, adverse,
inverse, obverse, traverse, perverse
but never universe
I call it nerverse

The punchlining energy of this last line is also typical of Huang’s aesthetic—there is always one more line to be written, a way to ironize, rewrite, comment, or extend. The limited image of the child’s crib evoked by this book’s title is overwritten by the volume of questions, ideas, images, and language issuing from the work itself. These slippery cribs are loud writing, codes that want to tell all, photos remembering their negatives, texts that ask us to consider what we are cribbing in and cribbing out. They call for no more exclusion acts. They know cribs make us neighbors, good and bad.

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