one of us is wave one of us is shore
Otis Books, Seismicity Editions, 2016
67 pages; $12.95
Maybe we dive past one another without seeing, as in Geneva Chao’s investigative book-length poem one of us is wave one of us is shore. I started to wonder, however, while catching her successive waves of language in English and French, whether a poetry might succeed in drying language off of one’s dancing body.
plié, relevé. to fold and to lift
the mirror’s figure makes
The book’s table of contents itself suggests a structured rhetorical inquiry, which Chao follows more through mood than logic. The sections are named this way: thèse, antithèse, synthèse, doute, hypothèse. Such an organization won my rapt attention, especially with its promise to leave the ending as open as any question, open for further dancing.
Chao, when asked by interviewer Rob McLennan about her practice of writing poetry, answered, “[p]oetry for me is a work of attacking problems, of analysis. This is the place where I live… I like the exploration of a theme through the length of a book — though I write very short books so I can get back to bumping Nicki Minaj or making smoothies or whatever. I have a hard time with the stand-alone poem; I’m not interested in it. I’ve never liked the poems in the New Yorker or those ‘intelligent’ magazines that interrupt their socially pertinent reportage to bring you a poem so you can feel cultured on your way to the tennis club. Not that they are uniformly bad (just most of them), but I dislike this presentation. I suppose I am greedy for more. I want each poem to be the ice cream in the ice cream sandwich in a whole box of ice cream sandwiches, not one stingy truffle all dolled up on a plate.”
In one of us is wave one of us is shore, the sequence feels heavy-handed at the start, as any thesis must, but builds a slow trust through the particularities of voice. The visceral experience of language must be individually peculiar, and Chao succeeds in letting us in on its varying sharpness and tenderness.
a litany in absence. un discours fragmenté. all
the pieces falling en miettes.
we have this language of precision. we refine our precision in
this: not bits but shards, thin, lacerating.
ma mie. when you break me i shatter
still a voice murmurs, a breath hovers just
above the white surface of a sheet
a miette is a bit of that soft center. an acquiescent
crumb. la tremper dans ton liquid. to make
uniform again. vanquished in any rain.
Her images color the nuance of pain along with a sense of bruised moisture. However, in contrast, the sounds of consonants in this fragment of Chao’s investigation heighten between so much alveolar “t” and fricative “s,” which alternate to produce a raw energy current that then flows into the rest of the text. Also note in this first line the way that Chao alternates her languages and zap-evaporates all questions with the word “all” at the line’s end.
Beyond the book’s “thesis” of language versus body, the poem illuminates the many ways that the observer, with nothing more than voice, wrestles and pins down aloneness. In French and English phrases that sometimes translate each other, and sometimes lift each other off the ground, Chao pursues her vision.
non par devoir mais not by
non par amour mais we don’t jump
non par noblesse car whether
ni politesse si one cannot refuse
in this out of this is inevitable
if this in which or i elect
the songs speak to ineluctable.
the books give false maps
we wait for weather le temps qu’on attend
in the moment of lightning a silhouette
If the phrases, prepositions, and conjunctions in the first part of this selection were alternately waving gestures, the reader could envision the movements of the lone, almost-dry dancer. The next section, titled “antithèse,” turns around and plunges straight into the deep water of relationship.
in the silence of waiting there is expression. not of the self, the
self doît se taire should shut up, remember the adage about
valor and discretion, but
in the silence of waiting there are a dozen moments where a
tiny light burns
si je te signale que suis là c’est pas pour if i let you see that i am
awake it’s not to comfort you
a thousand times a day lamps cross. on s’obstine à ne rien faire
we pretend we don’t see. a thousand moments a day a voice is
the éloquence du néant, of absence
how could i the long du jour long for other than
I am fascinated by the bilingual syntax here, the way it creates propulsion. Chao earned her undergraduate degree in French Translation and Literature from Barnard College. She has translated Gérard Cartier’s Tristran and Nicolas Tardy’s (with François Luong) Encrusted on the Living. Her cultural heritage (British-, French- and Chinese-American) inflects her poetic inquiry: “As a bilingual and bicultural person, one of the enduring mysteries/puzzles of my life is the different ways feelings are expressed depending on the language, especially when I am interacting with someone who speaks one of my languages but not the other. The heart grasps at translations, none of which is adequate — as is the point of my deliberately faulty auto-translations in the book — or starts to dwell in a place of foreignness, which is a place I’m quite familiar with.”
In the quote above, the phrase “not of the self, the / self” followed by the reflexive verb in French delighted me, anyway. And again, in the line “a thousand times a day lamps cross. on s’obstine à ne rien faire” Chao abuts the movement of the English, present-tense verb “cross” with the reflexive verb in the French phrase meaning “we persist in doing nothing.” At high speed, the wave motion of Chao’s page of text crashes upon “this you.”
Chao takes up grammar as metaphor more explicitly in a few places, but somehow I didn’t love these as much as her subtle play with the riggings of the languages. The following selection gives a sense of the mode of inquiry:
mood; how already on edge this english
let us say that strictly speaking tense is for chronology
and mood doesn’t give a fig for it
or then; you prefer to indicate
and i cannot help subjunction; this
is cultural. everything i am aware of
including many invisible things
has a mood. it is not my choice
to acknowledge it; whereas (or,…)
tu constates (this verb does not exist
in english; it must lack mood; but the closest
is take note of)
Here, while dealing so directly with the opportunity of the two languages dancing, the poem loses a little bit of momentum in its self-reflexive gloss. Chao doesn’t dwell too long in those lulls, however, and the poem revives in sensory and grammatical swan dives. A stunning example of this use of language, dualistic motion and sensory effect arrives just past the midpoint of the book:
What is translated or not, or lined up or not, between the columns of the poem create a pretty wind-tunnel effect. At the ends of the columns, Chao places meaning on the one side and the body/senses on the other, both glazed with joy.
One page treats the quiet difference of “connaitre” and “savoir” in the peculiar vocabulary of lovers. And another follows the poet’s visceral experience of language as it shifts from pain to a full-on dancing ecstasy:
and the air is
like a song
in the head echoes of
ce qu’on a vécu
what has been lived
that is each moment
a light that sweeps the beach
to turn, turn on
an axis, a pin; to whirl
the needle slice a slight
cry; each time placed
a notch to pass another
note of force, of volume
and yet breath lost only to
whisper plus fort, plus fort
This book keeps its promises by ending with generous and lovingly melancholy gestures: “that the boat goes / before any wind; / tout vent; that’s / physics.” Waving the hands, waving the voice, Chao gives us the body-surfing lesson as dance form, as wild poem. Between languages, lovers, or just mind/body, we can take her advice: “take this / collusion or only risk.”
A. Anupama is a U.S.-born, Indian-American poet and translator whose work has appeared in several literary publications, including Drunken Boat, Waxwing, Monkeybicycle, and Fourteen Hills. She received her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2012. She currently lives and writes in the Hudson River valley of New York, where she organizes literary community (RiverRiver.org), and blogs about poetic inspiration at seranam.com.