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Writers-in-Dialogue: Discussing Narrative Poetry with Ray Hsu and Fiona Tinwei Lam12 min read

22 September, 2009 0 comment

By Ray Hsu and Fiona Tinwei Lam

Ricepaper is pleased to offer a new column that features two poets exploring a body of work, discussing craft, exploring form and meaning…

Poet-scholar Ray Hsu looks deeply, and speaks with poet Fiona Tinwei Lam on her latest book of poetry, Enter the Chrysanthemum.

RAY HSU: I’ve been reflecting on how Enter the Chrysanthemum takes apart events, experiences, and incidents and reorganizes them in a new kind of light.  Along the way, I’ve noticed how you use and resist narrative at the same time, exploring how it enables and constrains life.

I was struck by how you begin pieces and how your choices reveal what events we narrate, sometimes consciously, often compulsively. I’m thinking about how a poem may begin with something—a gripe “I need a wife”, a challenge “Screw You”, a gestureCrease, fold, and turn“, a perception “Today, in the rain, I am almost beautiful“—that make us suddenly and lyrically conscious. As surprise flickerings suggests, sometimes these moments irrupt in ways we cannot anticipate. How does the framing of these moments as lyric poems allow us to carve off events—like a tree’s all too brief “attempts at radiance“—as distinct from the constant flow of everything around it?

Beginnings, of course, are only half the story. As fairy tales are interrupted by the dawn or as lives are interrupted by death, a story is marked by its ending. Endings often loop back to the beginnings so we read them anew. Such formal wholeness allows us to feel the lyric poem as a whole, as a unit, more readily than a short story. So we must carry these fragments in boxes. Taxonomized and frozen in their life-likeness, each is a still life that “does not move, / composed and stuck in some precise / slice of light and time.” Wherever we go, we traverse the grids “marking distance, marking time.” As readers, we are as part of the story as the children who wonder reluctantly what to do with the lives of those closest to us:

Complicitous, we wander
into the brimming vacancy
of each room, picking through
a life disassembled and culled
to fit the neat, blank corners
of a nursing home.

We are torn about these containers and cannot see what to do without them. All too briefly, the “walls collapse / before they rise again.” Yet these lyric containers with their “sidelines” also provide a “perimeter of joy” within which we may glimpse a perfectly built stage with just enough “room for one.” At the same time, such perimeters allow us to devote attention to the nearly invisible threads that attach us: as Tomas Transtromer reminds us, “Each man is a half-open door / leading to a room for everyone.” I am reminded of how difficult it is to build a gingerbread house when the house reminds us of the uncertain relationship between a “father and mother” (not “husband and wife“) who hold hands “through their son.”

Stories seem, by necessity, clear and simple: to take apart every detail is to bring to war—such as the maiming of a human being, as had fascinated Homer—the same sustained attention that lyric poets might spend on domestic visions.

The poem Stories invites us to meditate, as its characters do, on what kinds of stories we can bear: “clarity” and “simplicity” are the opposite of the “cruelty” that a mother cannot bring to tell her son about life. Stories seem, by necessity, clear and simple: to take apart every detail is to bring to war—such as the maiming of a human being, as had fascinated Homer—the same sustained attention that lyric poets might spend on domestic visions. Yet even in the apparent safety of these visions, turning on the television brings war home. Given how intertwined all our lives are, a mother may find it increasingly difficult to shield her son from cruelty if she must control multiple words to do so: “Outside, the passing world” and, even in the objects therein, “worlds held within, beyond.” Clarity and simplicity, it seems, requires extraordinary work.

The division of the book into numerical sections rather than explicitly themed sections invites me to notice above all their sequencing, like events in a chain, rather than something that has a thematic logic in their relationship. Yet the sections’ epigraphs suggest that there is something thematic about them.

Perhaps we are left with fragments of time: “Three minutes, three months, three years– / Whatever fragment was given, little persists.” So we are left with the task of organizing them not only in art—as an archaeologist might piece together broken pottery—but in everyday life. Yet even the archaeologist has the luxury of piecing together the lives of others, while we are left with our own work of “Gathering / who we are, crumb by crumb.” It is through these crumbs that we learn who we are: we gather ourselves not simply as narrative, but as fragments that we must respect as poetic.

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