This is no. 72 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
“Revealing a racial marker in a poem is like revealing a gun in a story or like revealing a nipple in a dance.
After such a revelation, the poem is about race, the story is about the gun, the dance is about the body of the dancer—it is no longer considered a dance at all and is subject to regulation.”
—Monica Youn, “Study of Two Figures (Pasiphaë/Sado)”
What’s the difference between a gun and a racial marker in a piece of writing? A gun is an object; a racial marker—sometimes as innocuous as the word Asian—is objectifying. A gun is an element in a story that becomes significant when used. It focuses the reader on questions of narrative: “Who’s going to fire the gun? Who’s going to be shot?” A racial marker isn’t used in the same way. It takes the reader outside of the narrative: It implicates the society in which the text exists and draws attention to the poet. As Youn says of the two figures Pasiphaë and Sado, “To mention the Asianness of the figures is also to mention, by implication, the Asianness of the poet.” In deploying a racial marker, the speaker reveals themselves as marked. And they can only be marked within the context of racially exploitative society.
The keywords in Youn’s poem are container and contained, which repeat throughout. Contained first appears in the second line: “One figure is female, the other is male. / Both are contained.” And the containment is literal: Pasiphaë is a mythical figure from Colchis (present-day Georgia)—the daughter of the sun god Helios, she was so filled with lust for a white bull that she had a hollow cow constructed that would allow her to trick the bull into having sex with her. Crown Prince Sado is an eighteenth-century figure from the Kingdom of Joseon (present-day Korea) who, in his twenties, started murdering people at the royal court; his father didn’t want to have an official execution so he had Sado locked in a rice chest for eight days until he was pronounced dead. These containers—a hollow cow and a rice chest—betray Pasiphaë and Sado as “figures of excessive desire, requiring containment.” In the poem, they’re also “contained” by Colchis and Korea, by their Asianness, and by race.
For cultural theorist Stuart Hall, racism “operates by constructing impassable symbolic boundaries between racially constituted categories.” The racial marker brings out those “symbolic boundaries,” showing the limits of the “container.” Before a racial marker is revealed, the “I” is a weightless envelope, almost invisible. Afterwards, it is contained: The “I” becomes a physical subject in the world speaking to and from a particular place, a particular body. As Meiling Jin writes in “A long over-due poem to my eyes,” from her only collection, Gifts From My Grandmother:
Poor brown slit eyes
You cause me so much pain
But for you, I would be,
To reveal a racial marker might seem like an aesthetic choice—something that could be done slyly or ostentatiously or not at all—but within a racist society the “choice” is theoretical. Whether or not you acknowledge it, you are marked. The poet Sarah Howe in an interview with the Boston Review says:
A lot of the time I sit down and write poems about fourteenth-century Flemish paintings, or the debt crisis, or rain. But the reception of the book suggests that even when I don’t feel I’m writing race, race is still writing me.
In revealing a racial marker you’re drawing attention to your already-marked state. The question, then, is not if but when and how you reveal it. And this is made more complicated by a white literary culture which, as Howe notes, seeks “unmediated expressions of lived experience, to be consumed for their ‘authenticity.’” So Jin’s description of her “poor brown slit eyes,” though expressed in a poem, is liable to be reduced to its content—read only as lived experience. The racial marker confers authenticity, and that authenticity—in a racist society—is linked to trauma; if not the trauma of a scarring experience related to your race, then the ontological one of knowing you’re always contained, always visible, on the wrong side of “impassable symbolic boundaries.”
How do you resist being made into a fetish object, consumed for your “authenticity”? If you remove racial markers from your work, you risk whitewashing it, acceding to a tradition of authorial invisibility. But if you use racial markers—containing your experience—you risk having your work consumed by (white) readers as evidence rather than as art. And like any piece of evidence, you can be dismissed.
When I feel trapped, marked, incapable of writing from a position that is my own—and, at other times, anxious that I’m making myself complicit in the consumption of my perceived “authenticity”—I read “Tan Tien” by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge.
It recounts a journey, probably to the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. You could read it as a poem by a mixed-race poet, born in Beijing and raised in Massachusetts, traveling to China as an adult. But that reading would contain it within essentializing categories it overwhelms. In Thinking Its Presence, the scholar Dorothy Wang suggests the poem requires a different approach to other “minority texts.” Whereas such texts (and persons) are often read as “fixed”—Jin’s poem, for example, uses clear grammatical structures to echo the blunt trauma of her experience—Berssenbrugge exploits a more fluid and abstract language, largely devoid of racial markers, reflecting a racialized experience characterized, in Wang’s words, by “contingency and relationality.” Take this stanza:
If being by yourself separates from your symmetry, which is
the axis of your spine in the concrete sense, but becomes a suspension
in your spine like a layer of sand under the paving stones of a courtyard
or on a plain, you have to humbly seek out a person who can listen to you,
on a street crowded with bicycles at night, their bells ringing.
“If” sets up a hypothetical that isn’t resolved or that dissolves into the texture of the poem, each clause building laterally on the previous one (“your symmetry” becomes “the axis of your spine” which becomes “a suspension / in your spine”) until the person addressed (“you,” maybe the poet) feels at once alone—seeking out “a person who can listen to you”—and blurs into their surroundings. For me it captures beautifully the sense of being a person in a part-familiar, part-unfamiliar space, constantly aware of your strangeness. I remember traveling to Beijing and finding this sensation heightened rather than lessened, despite being surrounded by people who superficially resembled me. I was both inside and outside of my body, separated from my symmetry, contained by space and floating beyond it.
Wang argues that Berssenbrugge’s poems “have everything to do with her formation as a racialized American, an Asian American. But racialized does not mean ‘fixed’—racial identity, like all identity, is contingent, not positivist.” It changes from setting to setting; it means different things at different times. Wang quotes Berssenbrugge herself: “When I think of myself in poetry, it is multifaceted. It’s inside and outside. It is more like a force field than an entity. We are not one thing.” Within a racist society, it may not be possible to avoid containers but perhaps it’s possible to create poems that allow us to exist “inside and outside” of them.
In “Study of Two Figures,” Youn plays with this possibility. Pasiphaë and Sado may be trapped in their boxes but there is a third figure in the poem: Youn, the artist, who, as she writes in the poem, “can enter each of these containers...touch the hot button and walk away.” It’s a freedom that is illusory, but crucial: It means the ability to look at history and myth and pick them apart, to understand the ways in which they contain us, and still to imagine ourselves beyond containment.
Will Harris is the author of the poetry collection RENDANG (Wesleyan University Press, 2020), which was selected as a Poetry Book Society Choice and shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. He has worked in schools and led workshops at the Southbank Centre and currently teaches for the Poetry School. A contributing editor at the Rialto, he lives in London.Thumbnail: Pat Whelen