Monday, May 26, 2008

Sight Progress by Zhang Er, translated by Rachel Levitsky, with the author

Pleasure Boat Studio, 2006
Reviewed by Elizabeth Robinson

The Emily Cheung's art on the cover of Sight Progress gives a useful indication of what poet Zhang Er means by "sight" and "progress." The image billows and circles, as though it is both rising above and surrounding three brightly colored "targets," each a nexus in itself. One of the billows is smoky, threatening to dissipate into the atmosphere, while another is a black outline, both better defined and more empty, ephemeral, than its counterpart. Thus it manifests that for Zhang Er, vision–-in both its literal and imaginative terms–-does not function in the mode of linear narrative, but like a rhythmic or melodic pattern, "a thin and tender female voice trailing, almost child-like as it drifts from the other shore as a white wave or mist, coming close, then closer, before slipping away." In keeping with that vision, Zhang Er's poems in this collection couple sharp (especially visual) perceptions with a tidal sense of forward movement and retraction.

The collection, a series of prose poems, makes maximal use of linearity implied in narrative and prose constructions. The language is direct and mostly quite plainspoken. Rachel Levitsky's translation seems right on the mark in this sense, as it abets the poems in doing their work without fuss or unnecessary adornment (though at times it might have been helpful to more strongly assert an idiomatic English syntax). Form and translation coalesce to underline the forward movement of prose even as the poems continually voice doubt at the possibility of such 'progress.' The tone of this writing is consistently controlled and never showy, yet the tension between forward movement and the aporia that places a drag on such motion slowly wraps around the reader to create a compelling tension. The poem "Today," for instance "Goes straight into history, to a day in the future when I'll look back on it. I'll remember how the sea rises, how the heavens condescend, and the moment they meet, a little cloudy . . ." The projective movement into the future is immediately turned on its head as the speaker, in a feat of the paradoxical, anticipates looking back on it. The seam of future and past meets only cloudily, or perhaps as a palimpsest, the writing of which recommences over and over, as in "Begin Again" when one must "Turn over the page, full with writing, begin again on the back with a new line." Here, the meeting of past and present acquires a literally and figuratively painful aspect, as the page flips and "an accidental slice, the hand bleeding again at paper's edge." Thus the tug between future and past, between affirmation and pessimism leads to the necessity of the present, a seam that is variously cloudy and cutting but is, in the end, all that we have. Zhang Er then refashions necessity as resourcefulness, "Only necessity, imagination's necessity, to stretch beyond the restriction of a lifetime."

The reader enters this poetry as a swirling current that moves with acuity, and even frequent pleasure, amid the material details of the world while the poems question what, if anything, moves at the center of experience: "It all happened here. Yet, nothing happens here." Coupled with that doubt is a muted yet insistent critique of the woman's role in society. Often this thematic thread is connected with Zhang Er's Chinese heritage, but opens outward as well to a pointed examination at the feminine in other realms– western religion or familial arrangements in which wives and daughters are expected to sacrifice themselves for the benefit of men. The aptly titled "Sacrifice," makes this especially evident. Zhang Er writes that the woman's "endurance, the drudgery, bearing the weight while abstaining . . . grows his career, social advance, wealth, not her fortitude." At a time when many younger women step back from allying themselves with feminism, even claiming (wrongly, in my view) that gender discrimination is no longer an issue, Zhang Er's certitude is bracing and admonitory: for a woman, "success is survival, not self-sacrifice."

A relevant peculiarity of these poems is that the sentence construction frequently effaces the subject (e.g. "One Just Divorced and the Other Just Married" begins: "Driving together up the rambling, circuitous mountain road . . ."). This may be an artifact of the poem's origins in the syntax of another language; I can't comment knowledgeably on this. However, the results mark the poems in interesting ways. Firstly, by omitting a subject, the reader is implicated in the process of the poem, becoming that subject; at the same time, identity or subjectivity emerges slowly, so that in the aforementioned poem, it only slowly develops that the protagonists are females traveling in Italy. There's a small shock at the end, when one of the emergent protagonists of the poem "notices everyone looking. At the two of them, the only women there." The absent subject is suddenly quite present, multiple, and female. It's a striking way to get across the continuing otherness of feminine experience.

The book works its own expansion and contraction through varying subjectivities, eras, geographies, and cultures. Zhang Er peers steadfastly into the details that comprise incident and meaning without forcing final conclusions upon what she's absorbed. "Like wind," she writes, "you can hear it, feel its very temperature, but you can't grab its form." At times, this elusiveness elicits feelings of oppression, terror, perhaps awe. To be a an untethered explorer of the world has its perils; "Out past the sight of shore you lose your direction, your focus/aim" and find yourself displaced, "lacking all anchor of support." The risk required here comes of that necessity inherent to survival. And it has its payoff, for in pushing at the boundaries, beyond the progress of what one can daily cull by sight, the explorer makes for a more elastic, if sometimes overwhelming, world. Zhang Er writes, "There is a saying,' Imagination needs room to make art that lives.'" Sight Progress offers a brave and honest engagement at the border crossing of imagination and survival.


Zhang Er was born in Beijing, China and moved to New York City in 1986. Her poetry, non-fiction writing, and essays have appeared in publications in Taiwan, China, the American émigré community and in a number of American journals. She is the author of multiple books in Chinese and in English translation. She has read from her work at international festivals, conferences, reading series and universities in China, France, Portugal, Russia, Peru, Singapore, Hong Kong as well as in the U.S. She currently teaches at Evergreen-Tacoma.


Elizabeth Robinson is the author of numerous books of poetry, including Pure Descent, winner of the National Poetry Series, Apprehend, winner of the Fence Modern Poets Series, Under that Silky Roof, House Made of Silver, and Bed of Lists. She has been awarded the Gertrude Stein Award for Innovative Poetry and a grant from the Fund for Poetry. She is co-editor of 26, a magazine of poetry and poetics, EtherDome, a press dedicated to publishing the work of emerging women poets, and Instance Press.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Chanteuse/Cantatrice by Catherine Daly

Factory School, 2007
Reviewed by Laura Goldstein

Catherine Daly’s 2007 publication Chanteuse/Cantatrice asks readers to grapple with the concept of the binary as soon as they encounter the book itself: the book has two names, two covers and, as listed in the table of contents, each poem has two titles. This very basic setup soon proliferates into a multitude of possibilities for reading and interpreting the text. Daly offers a comment about the book on in an attempt to clarify:

It is called Chanteuse / Cantatrice. It is a two sided book; it can be read either front to back, top of the page to bottom (as one generally reads English) but for a completely different but also "written" book, it can be read from back to front, bottom to top. Hence the odd-seeming title; it is two titles, for two books in one! It is a book of political poetry about collaboration!

Although her statement helps to begin to consider the doubling in the framework as a basis for interpretation, it doesn’t seem to actually be possible to follow these directions. Attempting to read the book from “back to front, bottom to top”, all of the words are upside-down. However, this openness suggests a crucial consideration about our modern political role as citizens given directives: each individual (individual person, individual reader) must ultimately find their own way to cope with the material that composes their lives. The book is ostensibly an extended meditation on war-- its impact, its language, and the difficulty of using language to describe it. Making this an apparent task that can be explored through reading as well, Daly raises the political stakes of the book as she claims that

      The book is a privileged method of exchange

This said (or written) early on, she constructs a space in which she can remain aware of her own involvement in historical process as a poet. Also, through such innovative spacing, she insists on the importance of structure as meaning in the political nature of text as well, and demands that the reader become an active participant.

With both titles, she has announced that she has stepped into the role of singer along with that of poet. The role of the singer is also split in the titles: the word “chanteuse” and the word “cantatrice” have almost the same meaning of “female singer”. However, “chanteuse” tends to imply that the singing takes place in a bar or club, while “cantatrice” refers to an opera singer. So which venue is this, high verse or common language? Daly’s language constantly oscillates, blends and finds new spaces within both, searching for a juncture that may somehow adequately describe our real experiences that exist between ideals and the mundane.

The first section of the book, called “Chanteuse” is a prelude that lays out the terms of the project by flipping between description and demonstration. Like Muriel Rukeyser, Daly uses both form and content to convey these political messages. In her use of voice, she finds it imperative to include self-examination in this mode. She immediately locates the question driving her method, asking “is singing saying?”(1) Soon, the answers start to roll in on continually varying metaphors connecting the evolution of song to subjects in the world that are in motion, that make sound themselves:

      Croon amphibious landing craft,
      Subatomic particle,
we navigate by sound and range

The poems are themselves suggestions for how one may respond, by finding the sound within language and using it to answer back to forces that act upon one in the world.

In this way, a singer uses the element of projected voice to express personal and social concerns, making the personally traumatic a cause for public examination. In the book, her primary voice consistently breaks into other voices, showing that a contemporary subjectivity has absorbed and must include many. Daly constructs a complex melody that follows traditions, but also strays and surprises. She develops a unique form for these poems throughout the book by creating patterns of text and space, where single words become emphasized in the course of her song, and spaces provide a rhythm.

This kind of play between voice and silence is at the whirling core of her use and examination of the binary, exacerbated into a deep divide between those we identify as other in times of war. In poem after poem, Daly finds ways to use doubling as a poetic that might provide an antidote. For instance, she repeats elements of language in the retelling of an event in order to reveal the double nature of identity when hiding oneself during war:

            accidentally dropped her handbag
      packed with a handgun
      an officer reached to pick it up            for her—
      she managed to beat him to it,
            not beat him with it (4)

So how can the other that is created in war be resolved or what is “collaboration linked with peace”? (20) We are challenged to become her collaborators by bridging the traditional binary created between writer and reader, contributing our decisions about reading in various ways and joining her in this project. Although her directions can’t be followed to the letter to read the book in two ways, the gestures towards such conditions open up even subtler poetics. A new title at the end of each poem provides a profoundly “other” tone for the space after reading a poem, suggesting that rereading it “backwards” means remembering it in the context of the new title. In this new definition, Daly reconsiders the stigma that has been placed on the word “collaboration” as it emerges from contexts of war by showing that war isolates us as far as it can—first into groups and finally into a state of fierce survival as individuals. She writes, “we worked/ together to make/ collaboration a dirty word” (17). However, we are asked to participate in a resurrection of the term and social activity of collaboration, by preventing the song that has emerged from trauma from remaining an individual voice that is simple and directive, and that merely perpetuates the dynamic of trauma. Daly asks us to help transform the poetry into a message that we must not only listen to from many perspectives but must add to with our own actions.

Her procedure is itself a method that ”upsets inherited modes of life, loosens control of traditional authorities” (4) and ultimately provides many layers for various types of readers to gain access to the piece using language play, self-reference, page space, the structure of the book itself and direct political content. Above all, Daly demonstrates the height of human creative freedom through critical thinking that she finds the lack of the most criminal aspect of war, as well as possibly the cause of it. Here, her form creates an awareness of the value and importance of other viewpoints, actually providing gestures towards answers that can only be completed through collaboration.


Catherine Daly is the author of a number of poetry collections, including DaDaDa (Salt Publishing, 2003), Locket (Tupelo Press, 2005), Secret Kitty (Ahadada Press, 2006), Paper Craft (Moria Press, 2006), To Delite and Instruct (blue lion books, 2006), Chanteuse/Cantatrice (factory school, 2007), and the forthcoming Vauxhall (Shearsman Press, 2008). She is a teacher and software developer of online business applications for various clients, s as Fox, Goldman Sachs, NASA, and Universal. She has been teaching on and off since an undergraduate teacher’s assistantship in the History of Mathematics. Daly taught the first online poetry workshops in the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program in addition to critical theory, women’s studies, and literature courses at UCLA Extension, Antioch LA, West LA College, LA Southwest College, and elsewhere. She has written a longtime blog titled “A List, A Misc.


Laura Goldstein is an experimental writer and multi-media artist whose poems have been published in print journals as well as online. Recent work can be found at The Little Magazine and PFS Post. She teaches writing at Loyola University and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and lives and performs in Chicago. Her first chapbook, Ice In Intervals, is due out from Hex Press this summer.