read: Split, by Cathy Linh Che
If you’re wondering, that Jenga tower of AWP books did eventually fall. We’re moving anyway, though, so into a box they all went (more on that later!). I’ve been carrying around a few of these books in my purse for over a month since then. I’d like to finally share them with you.
Something I’d been asking myself as we kicked around downtown L.A., Uber-ing to randomly Yelped destinations: What is it really like to live there? If you read the first half of this post, you’ll know we stumbled upon Monterey Park on our way out of town, where we had an awesome lunch and a glimpse at what a Sunday afternoon might be like for locals. Locals, of course, is a word that stretches past immediate geographical boundaries in L.A., that encompasses some of the largest communities of people born in foreign nations outside of those countries’ borders (and many first-generation Americans, too).
I should note that the only way you can “stumble upon” a place like Monterey Park is to be a white girl from Tennessee who is pretty much clueless about the above, about L.A. and the city’s myriad neighborhoods and suburbs, about the local histories of those places, about the dances of migrations and the hardships immigrants have faced. Those histories are, of course, intertwined with the histories of nations across the Pacific and—intricately, irrevocably— with US wars there.
Which is only one of the many reasons why you should read Cathy Linh Che‘s Split. Che’s first book of poems won the Kundimon Prize in 2012 for, I can only imagine, ripping the judges apart and putting them back together again, changed. Each poem opens up, through immediate details that force us to look ever-closer, the interior life of: a daughter, whose Vietnamese parents fled during the war; a girl who grew up in L.A., where she suffered the trauma of rape and abuse and got caught in the sprouting of more trauma from past trauma; a woman who still questions which parts of her remain embodied by that young girl (My story’s an arrow/ pointing back, she writes in “Story,” to when/ he curved my palm/ around his sex….My child-hand/ has not grown up/since then).
And yet, where you might expect to find an absolute lack of hope or light, Che writes with such incredible warmth. Eduardo Corral calls it tenderness; Yosef Komunyakka writes that “…we cross over into a landscape where beauty interrogates, and we encounter a voice that refuses to let us off the hook.” Che’s speaker counts her grandmother’s bedsores; again and again she remembers the gasoline smell of her father, a machinist who had been a soldier and who remains a loved but distant figure in the book. In “Camera,” she writes:
Between us, distance, palpable
as California light at five pm,
caught in the brown of city smog,
the tint of photographs
of my father in youth,
his obscene features:
eyes too bright, teeth lined up
Now he sits
across the kitchen table,
age making him suddenly appear
There are harrowing stories in Split. Che’s poems recall the speaker’s continued abuse by a cousin, in whose wedding she is later obliged to serve as a flower girl. They turn over what details she received of her parents’ escape by boat from the Viet Cong (and later her father’s obligation to play a Viet Cong driver in Apocalypse Now). There are also the smaller dramas that orbit these stories: She sees and re-sees this father while he teaches her how to use a camera; she remembers her mother’s rosebuds in Highland Park, her continued care for them after they moved away (moved from that neighborhood where, it turns out, a local storeowner she remembers by name was later shot “in the face”).
With the horrific and the intimate working together, we get a sense of the speaker’s life as a loving human made of flesh and wrestling with memory. She becomes much more than the object of a tabloid headline, a torrid line in an account of the war. Read the following lines from “Object Permanence: Imprint,” for instance—
The clamor of the Pacific
rises in waves. Love
is whole and unsmashed.
I am three again, too dumb
— and you see a woman looking back to early childhood, searching for a time before abuse and the memory of abuse had a hand in shaping her. See, too, that even what she finds becomes bound in “The clamor of the Pacific,” in its continual rising and smashing. Split reminds me, over and over, why any historian (/human) should turn purposefully to poetry. In an interview at NPM Daily, Che writes that her poetry
attempts to define terms like war, rape, and molestation through my family’s and my own experiences, rather than allowing images from the news, film, or media to dictate what these terms ought to mean.
also read: Uyghurland, The Farthest Exile, by Ahmatjan Osman & translated by Jeffrey Yang
While at AWP, I saw Ahmatjan Osman and his editor David Shook read, in the original Uyghur and in English translation, selections from Uyghurland, The Farthest Exile. Phoneme’s bilingual event was held during the last panel time slot in AWP, so I nearly missed it. I’m ecstatic I did not. While Osman— who is from Urumqi and now lives in exile in Canada— isn’t connected with L.A., this book is my first introduction to Phoneme Media, a new L.A.-based nonprofit publishing and film production house whose mission I can really get behind:
[Phoneme] is dedicated to disseminating and promoting international literature through books and film. Phoneme Media exclusively publishes literature in translation…. Phoneme Media‘s short films—which include book trailers, video poems, paratextual films, and traditional short-subject documentaries—have been shot in Argentina, Bangladesh, Burundi, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, and Mexico. We’re just getting started.
The fact that their translators— 50% of whom are women— have received national acclaim makes me even more excited about the work that they’re doing, which may serve as partial antidote for the lack of real international representation in US film and publishing.
I recorded and accidentally deleted a short clip of Osman’s reading. Unfortunately, it’s one of those things I have a really hard time describing. The original Uyghur was without logical meaning for me, obviously, but the melody with which he read was transporting. He took his words so seriously, so carefully, but also seemingly without inflation. I may not understand Uyghur, but I can tell you that Osman was *not* reading in the dreaded poet voice. This makes some sense to me, given that Osman writes:
Traditional Uyghur poetry is rooted in shamanism and animism, and poetic inspiration is understood as an actual presence, what is unseen, which speaks through the poet. The speaker of the poem is an inspired other that is not the poet, for the poet exists simply as a vessel for the lyric voice, which assumes the nature of a sanctified being (xiii).
In reading Yang’s translation of Osman’s selected verse, I found most of the poems to be both without ego and somewhat exalted, a rare combination and one I’ve never really seen in the literary traditions I’ve studied. Osman continues his preface, connecting the ancient tradition to contemporary Uyghur poetry:
… one can turn to Roland Barthes’ idea of the death of the author. For Barthes, the poet is essentially a copyist of a text written by an anonymous author who originates in the unknown….The Uyghur poet listens to the absence that inspires speech (xiii).
Many of the poems from this selected works explore a physical loneliness caused by exile. Yang unravels some of the details of his life for us in his introduction: Osman was born in Urumqi, where his father managed a coal mine and was thus”accused of being a ‘bourgeoisie capitalist'” (xiii). He eventually studied Arabic literature in Syria; as Phoneme editors note, he was one of the first Uyghur students to do so after the Cultural Revolution. Osman had become a leading literary figure in Urumqi, contributing poems to the local literary magazine Tangritagh, when Chinese authorities “intensified their cycle of harassment, arrest, imprisonment, and release” (xi). In 1994, he was deported to Canada.
In translation, Osman’s images manage a sense of quiet intimacy. In “Dwelling in the Warmth of Other Moons,” for instance, they write:
Of the strange relationship between a bird, a window, and the moon
In a glance
the bird passed before my window
and divided the moon in half. . .
This happened once
when I was a child in my homeland.
So it goes that through imagery rather than direct narratives we experience the emotional terrain of the poet (an aesthetic that might be more familiar to admirers of Pound, who appropriated a lot of his ideas from Chinese poetic traditions, actually). I am intrigued by the idea that these images are “spoken” to the poet, that his job is to listen. Very few American poets could claim this without a tone of self-mockery or derision. In the title poem of those selected here, Uyghurland: The Farthest Exile, Osman seems to be conversing with this tradition itself. The poem begins:
After days of staring
at lit candles (the flame
no longer burns in the corner
of the old house in the land of memory)
a strange feeling woke me up
to the time of searching
for the birds
In the poem, the birds serve as the bestower of language, helping the speaker to pronounce “Uyghurland, the farthest exile!” As the poem unfolds, the speaker addresses them directly— forgets them, tries to forget them, returns to seeking them, until “Later in sorrow, the birds would often withdraw/ homeward into my heart.” The declaration itself seems to finally become a part of him somehow, as it is “repeated around him without disruption.”
For more eating, see: How to Leave Los Angeles, Part I
For more reading, see:
- “The Moons of Childhood,” by Osman Ahtmajan & translated by Jeffrey Yang, in Molussus, Phoneme’s online magazine.
- If you’re in Southern California, check out Lerry Levis’s posthumous collection, The Darkening Trapeze...
- … so that you can prepare yourself for the beauty that will be A Late Style of Fire. I got to see a sneak peak of this documentary, about Levis’s life, while in L.A. It’s beautifully shot, with endearing portraits of the poet (and some hilarious story-telling).
- Poulos’s documentary takes its title from this poem, featured in Blackbird.