Dreams in Harrison Railroad Park, Nellie Wong
Under Flag, Myung Mi Kim
Sphericity, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge
These three books from Kelsey St. Press might offer, initially, a cachet of racialized language that would help clarify some of the context of a recent intensity and interest in publishing Asian-North American women. Kelsey St. Press is a women's press and its attention to a wide range of good poetry is important. The gap of publication from Wong (1977) to Kim (1991) and Berssenbrugge (1993) is a stylistic leap that should be read, rather than comparatively, as representative of the press's dedication to good writing by women. Though the three poets can each claim a degree of foreignicity, Berssenbrugge's hybridity, at least in Sphericity, is not a content. Both Wong and Kim, on the other hand, address particular aspects of racial border crossing. The gap between Wong and the others is also a formal one. Wong's mid-seventies poems display an assumed narrative lyric while both Kim's and Berssengrugge's poems indicate a more recent attention to formal innovations. Each of the books, however they might be contextualized, are highly engaging and readable.

Nellie Wong's Dreams in Harrison Railroad Park was first published nearly twenty years ago. My copy is the 1983 fourth printing. The book situates the post-sixties enablement of race with feminism (some of the poems were published in Ms. and Women II) and the poems are frequently anecdotal instances of growing up Bay-area Chinese-American, family history, food, racism, sexism, abuse, and class. Though these juxtapositions have by now become a familiar complex, Wong's poems maintain an undeniable immediacy. The anguish, for example, of old-world/new-world dreams: "I turn and touch my mother's eyes./ They are wet/ and I dream/ and I dream/ of embroidering/ new skin." The strength of Wong's language, though lyrically informed, is its concreteness. The form is just that, a form, container, filled with necessity, and useful, then, as such. She uses the poem not only to document but also to observe, at times, other women through a scenario of identity: "At the edge of the plaza/ a young girl leans against a gray wall./ She is a donut, half raised./ The men who watch her/ finger themselves/ inside their pockets.// I tell myself:/ I am not she, I am not she./ She is someone else's/ sister." I like the directness of these poems within their lyric garb; Wong's use of the form is not at all decorative. Though this is, formally, a rather dated book, the poems are substantive and certainly important to recent sensibilities toward racialized writing in North America.

Myung Mi Kim's most recent collection is The Bounty (Chax Press, 1996) but the book I'm reviewing here is an earlier one, Under Flag (1991). Kim's work in this book locates the shifting dynamics of a Korean-American contamination. Her writing is quite spatial and insists on the sentence or phrase fragment as a unit of frictional movement with the bare and clean precision of minimal punctuation and lots of page space. Precision on the word as well: tone leading and objectivist concretion. "'In my country' preface to the immigrant's fallow/ Field my country ash in water follow/ Descent slur vowel." One of the strongest poems in the book, in terms of complicating the migrant tongue, is "Into Such Assembly," a playful and reflective dialogue on learning ESL: "And with distance traveled, as part of it/ How often when it rains here does it rain there?/ One gives over to a language and then/ What was given, given over?" Kim's negotiations with language and culture in these poems are resonant with a kind of "re-" poetics that is incisive in how it cuts into memory and image, recuperate, recover, and, especially, re-insist on the presence of the terms (literally) of contact. Her last line: "(Upahead) vision version nor bees neither honey."

Sphericity (1993) is probably not Mei-mei Berssenbrugge's most recent book. Her work has been published steadily for many years and her singular long line is very recognizable. These poems, however, are prose poems and they flow through the length of sentence syntax in a slightly narrative response to six drawings by her partner, Richard Tuttle (included). Their composition is interesting as construction and there is an attractive particularity of movement and deflection that builds through each paragraph. The book was written, apparently, just before and after the birth of their daughter: "I was interested that the changes in body chemistry so dramatically changed my language and perception, during this time." They feel careful, thoughtful, concrete/abstract translations of colour and form and metaphor. One of the most interesting aspects of these pieces is the way Berssenbrugge inserts fiction into abstract meditation through her play with pronouns and a spherical iteration of image. These are well-wrought poems and need to be read as paragraphed wholes for their palpable shapeliness:


There is no true perpendicular, except at sea level. You think about that face as if you're in the water, eyes level to the waves. Her profile of a wave spirals in or out toward a definition of recognition, a seeing or hearing as the natural enclosure, the way a valley resonates, that the face containing mineral light referred to a depth you recognize. Your recognition could exchange for meaning, like something you experience which you know. Meaning guarantees the exchange, the way light guarantees its sequence of incidents in the sky, on the plane of memory, or in a photograph in which points are part of the plane or limits of it. For a long time, the plane remained a frame or cellulose for frequencies from the lost spirit. So, she understands translucency as size, for example, the duration of containment of a person, for which the horizon mountain is a limit, part of a face above a hedge, minute corolla, if light speed, like wind, varied.

-Fred Wah