All the talk about Michael Derrick Hudson's deceitful use of a Chinese pen name is overshadowing the work of actual Asian American poets whose excellent work also appears in Best American Poetry 2015. I'm thinking of Jane Wong and Monica Youn in particular. Can we talk about their poems and how good they are?
Jane Wong's "Thaw"
It starts like this:
I had half an ice arm
I waved at the sun for warmth and connection
This melting chandelier of mine
A fever grew from my ankles up
A planet fell out of my mouth
My organs bloomed, parachutes in the night
Snowbells rang along my teeth
My verbs were all in disagreement
The poem goes on a little longer, but then ends:
My prized imperatives, my root words: gone
Long live the day
The speaker of the poem takes the form an iced-glazed tree that's simultaneously growing in a body of water and thawing out in the sun. So the tree is a life-in-death / death-in-life figure, which is a kind of symbol that shows up a lot in Romantic poetry and in pastoral poems (i.e. poems about nature and the fields, the kind you'd associate with Robert Frost) in particular. Wong's poem enlivens this tradition by describing the tree in awesome visceral detail that's also kind of charming.
Many pastoral poems idealize nature as a wonderful, sunlit, gorgeous arena in which we're all free-spirited sprites bounding around. Wong clearly likes that part of nature, too, as her lyrical descriptions and her frozen limb "waving at the sun for warmth and connection" attest. But she's also aware that nature is a bloody realm of death and where flowers are associated with teeth (they do eat the dead). Language helps us construct one view or the other, and though the tree's verbs are in disagreement, releasing one's "prized imperatives," one's "root words" (ideologies, perhaps), offers the possibility of renewal.
This poem is cool not only because the imagery is so vivid and immediate-feeling, but because Wong's challenging the aesthetic in which she's writing. The pastoral is a construction, sure, but it's still a place where language can run wild.
Monica Youn's "March of the Hanged Men"
Youn's poem weirdly seems to anticipate the colonialist ideology that spoke through Michael Derrick Hudson when he used a Chinese pen name to get published. Her poem begins with a colony of ants volcano-ing out of an ant mound. Like Wong, Youn's wary of the traditional pastoral lens, and so she uses these ants as an opportunity to mediate on the hellishness of nature:
such a flow of any other thing would mean abundance but these ants replay a tape-loop vision
out of hell the reflexive the implacable the unreasoning rage whose only end is in destruction
She compares these ants to the "dead-eyed Christ" in Piero della Francesca's painting, Resurrection, who walks over sleeping soldiers unencumbered by any sympathy for "human weakness." He's the Judge now, marching, as Youn says later in the poem,
back down to hell because there is no stopping point for what is infinite what cannot be destroyed
The ants, like zombie Jesus, are both figures of "unreasoning rage." Though the colonizing ants (like Michael Derrick Hudson, maybe?) will ultimately end when the world does, zombie Jesus will carry on his inhumane conquest into the Christian version of the afterlife.
Like Wong's, this poem also pushes back on a pastoral trope in poetry. Descriptions of beautiful scenery on earth are often meant to evoke the heaven to come. Here, Youn's ants do the opposite, suggesting that heaven would be a bleak place overrun by colonialist ideology.
You know who else could have been in the book if it weren't for Michael Derrick Hudson taking up space? Any one of these poets who live around here and regularly give readings:
If you're interested in reading up on some Asian American poets who aren't necessarily from around town, check out a group called Kundiman, an organization that exists to create and cultivate Asian American literature.