Poems 1978 - 2013
Octopus Books ($24)
by Daniel Moysaenko
Picasso’s Tears is Wong May’s fourth collection, and her first since 1978. A singular voice shapes this work: from Mozart to 9/11, May carries a global, inherited past. Her poems examine the present while striding forward, and how she regards each concern seems measured—neither sentimental nor didactic. She considers public events, not through apothegmatic solution, but through a lyric estrangement that involves both detachment and empathy. May exemplifies John Stuart Mill’s definition of the poet as one who speaks to herself (even in her apostrophes). To write to oneself necessitates standing apart, and to write a poem about political injustice necessitates communing with private moments and sagas. But the individual does not stand in as an allegory here; it becomes a landscape in which the reader can situate the grander phenomena, whether horrific or beautiful.
“Sleeping with Tomatoes” documents the suffocation of fifty-eight Chinese émigrés in a van carrying produce. “I don’t pretend it’s either human / &/or common,” the speaker says of the tragedy. “These shall inherit your kitchen, / . . . Trust them / Trust us / in time to taste of nothing again.” These lines make nothingness palpable by focusing on what slips into it. As the kitchen does not inherit the tomato, nothingness does not envelop us—we sample it. This poetry is a lens that concentrates light, not in a way that is deifying or accusatory, but clarifying. Granted, expecting to accurately portray reality is dubious, but May seems aware of the inescapability of individual voice and, therefore, of transmutative perspective.
In “The Difficulty of Moonlight in Boca Raton,” the speaker meets absent family members in an eerie setting and addresses them in cascading lines: “My late, / lost brothers, / The swamp is what it takes.” The ardor and drama of alliteration crumple into the last clause’s seeming plainness, but that clause swings. Depending on one’s emphasis, its meaning could be idiomatic: it takes the swamp to bring us back together. Or, the meaning could be definitional: the swamp is composed of the material it takes. The clause acts as a lodestar. Primordial biodiversity—with connotations of danger, disease, and contagious lassitude—is made lovely by its cohesion. This fact spills into the collage-like nature of the swamp, which exists because of articles it collects.
Such accumulation constitutes many of May’s concerns: history, brutality, and humanity build on preceding or appropriated points. May’s even voice avoids coloring the swamp as parasitic, but the lines “My late, / lost brothers” introduce an elegiac tone. Despite reunion, the brothers are still late and lost; this literal and personal quagmire does not relinquish. At the very least, reunion requires a gathering entity that draws bodies into itself rather than into nothingness. Would it be fair to see Picasso’s Tears as a swamp, as it corrals artifacts and events to make its own? Without constituent parts blended together, the work would be monotonous. Instead, it succeeds in pleasing and shocking without lulling the reader into numbness.
This collecting impulse also figures in “The Making of Guernica.” Though not the title poem or even the best in the collection, this sixty-eight-page piece is the book’s vortex. It weaves through essayistic, referential, and reiterative comparison, while incorporating May’s gentle obliqueness. After pointing out a lamp-bearing woman, harlequin hat, and a lightbulb in Picasso’s Guernica, the poem shifts toward the Boston Marathon bombing: “The deadly hat of the bombila / In April 2013, / It is the shade the bomb wears.” These images surface in waves, and May employs both associative organization as well as prosaic development. Expository lines, excisable from others poems, act as punctuation or eddies in a swirling mass of pathos. Her voice is both informational and poetic as those lines quoted above continue with a devolution of directness: “No/But/Yes / But / —Wearing that face?”
Picasso’s Tears offers detail and magnitude, punchy lines and soulful endurance. It manages this range by skipping from register to register and subject to subject, readjusting its focus and pace. May stretches past her immediate concern to involve subjects it touches, each step presenting a surprise, complication, and figuration. She trusts language to spool in fruitful exploration and alternates between grand and unadorned; she drifts toward the nostalgic or monstrous, confident in her risks. Picasso’s Tears has a strange richness that seems accrued over a protracted lifetime or fomented during one afternoon. Despite its historical references, it is outside time—a work of deftness and ease.