Adrienne McCormick: 'Being Without': Marilyn Chin's Poems as Feminist Acts of Theorizing
Marilyn Chin's "I" poems do not merely reflect the rich and varied modes of Asian American feminist literary theory which predate her work, but are themselves acts of theorizing. By referring to Chin's poems as such, I intentionally riff on the work of Barbara Christian, Katie King, and Lisa Lowe. In the influential article "The Race for Theory," Christian claims that "people of color have always theorized, but in forms quite different from the Western form of abstract knowledge" (336). This statement is quoted in numerous texts, testifying to the importance of Christian's claim to the various practices called theorizing by writers of color. In the book Theory in Its Feminist Travels: Conversations in U.S. Women's Movements (1994), Katie King also explores at length the question of "what counts as theory," and voices her "investment in the object 'theory' as those mutually constituting, mutually embedded 'actions': theory building, alliance shifting, and political identity production" (29). As Christian does, King emphasizes the multiple acts that count as theorizing (as process) for different communities of writers. Building upon the work of feminists such as Christian and King in situating Chin's poems as acts of theorizing allows me to approach her work in a manner that challenges traditional relations of power within literary and theoretical communities. One way to avoid the continued marginalization of non-abstract modes of theorizing, Donald GoeUnicht argues, "is to read Asian American texts as theoretically informed and informing rather than as transparently referential human documents over which we place a grid of sophisticated Euro-American theory in order to extract meaning" (340) .
In keeping with Goellnicht's observation, I situate Chin as firmly rooted within a cohort of contemporary feminist women of color, and Asian American feminists in particular, who situate theorizing within diverse forms of creative and critical writing. By referring to Chin's poems as "feminist acts of theorizing," I particularly play upon Lisa Lowe's language in Immigrant Acts (1996). Lowe argues that the phrase "immigrant acts" works in two ways: first, it names the history of racialized oppression and exclusion of Asians within/from the "universality of the political body of the [U.S.] nation," and second, it marks immigrants' acts as a "generative site for the critique of that universality" (8-9). I play on Lowe's use of the word "acts" in particular in order to illustrate how the phrase "acts of theorizing" also serves a dual purpose in approaching Chin's poetry.
First, situating Chin's poems as acts of theorizing claims for the poet the history of Asian American feminist literary theorizing and the manner in which that history bridges the creative and critical, as do the theorizing practices of many women of color. The Forbidden Stitch: An Asian American Women's Anthology (1989), Making Waves: An Anthology of Writing By and About Asian American Women (1989), and Making More Waves: New Writing By Asian American Women (1997) provide three excellent examples of how Asian American feminist theorizing has bridged creative and critical theoretical practices by bringing together poetry, fiction, memoir, essays, and works of visual art in texts that broaden what we mean when we refer to theoretical practice. Just as these anthologies destabilize the distinction between what counts as a creative and what as a critical work (or theoretical—as Christian does), so too do Chin's poems destabilize the distinction between the poem and the act of theorizing. Her poems critique stereotypes of racialized and gendered identities, revealing the complex intersections between the two. By extending these critiques to questions of national identification, colonization, and sexual exploitation, Chin builds upon the intersectionality that has characterized feminist theorizing by contemporary Asian American feminists such as Trinh T. Minh-ha and Lowe, to name only two, as well as by African American and Latina feminists such as Christian, Audre Lorde, and Chela Sandoval. Furthermore, Chin's poems as acts of theorizing produce knowledge about new modes of identification and more complex understandings of identity in order to provide alternatives to the limitations—physical, mental, theoretical—embodied in the stereotypes and the status quo she critiques.
Second, situating Chin' s poems as "acts of theorizing" marks the manner in which contemporary theory has excluded such poetry from the realm of cultural critique. The "critical marginalization" of Asian American poetry, as Juliana Chang refers to it (84), has a complex history. After the confessional poets and the development of feminist theories of the poetic speaker, the poetic "I" as a transparent referent for the self of the poet has been positioned as either politically liberatory or aesthetically simplistic, depending upon the politics of the particular reader. Traditionally, any speaking voice in a poem can be referred to as the poem's persona, regardless of whether that voice uses an "I" or not. Many scholars would, for instance, refer to the speaking voice in Chin's poems as a "persona," rather than as Chin, regardless of the fact that she uses her own name and clearly refers to herself in several instances. In the introduction to Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women 's Poetry in America (1986), Alicia Ostriker warns her readers that this approach to the poetic persona does not apply to women' s poetry:
academic distinctions between the self and what we in the classroom call the 'persona' move to vanishing point [sic], When a woman poet today says 'I,' she is likely to mean herself . . . It is the fact that the question of identity is a real one, for which the thinking woman may have no satisfactory answer, that turns her resolutely inward. (12)
Chin's poetic "I" resembles Ostriker's; she does mean herself, but in a very irresolute manner, However, many contemporary theorists see such self-referential uses of the poetic "I" as outdated and suspect. These contradictory approaches to the poetic "I" contribute to the schism between poetry and contemporary critical theorists who "regard as naive the notion of a unified speaking subject" in any capacity (Keller and Miller 3). The critical neglect of contemporary poetry by many poststructuralist and anti- essentialist theorists—which Lynn Keller and Cristanne Miller describe—suggests that such theorists view poetry as uninteresting, an outdated genre that lags behind the advances of contemporary critical theory. But as several Asian American poets have observed, such arguments result in the silencing of ethnically marked poets in particular. For contemporary multi-ethnic American poets, questions of identity and the construction of self are particulariy complex and central to their work. This is not to say that they produce outdated, simplistic, or nostalgic poetic "I's" or totalized versions of identity; on the contrary, contemporary multi-ethnic American poets produce a range of complex poetic "I's" that critique simplistic notions of ethnic, racial, gender, sexual, and national identities. Marilyn Chin—as a Chinese American poet whose work theorizes feminist responses to racialized and gendered narratives of the Asian woman immigrant—provides some of the best examples of dynamic poetic "I's" that explore the production of specifically racialized, gendered, and national identities.
Chin uses the "I" persona to illustrate the extent to which, for her, neither gender, ethnic, racial nor national identity is a fixed quantity. Chin's work counters the prevailing tendency in many U.S. cultural and socio-political relations and institutions to mark the intersections between gendered, ethnic, and racial identities in overly simplistic terms. Disagreements continue to arise within different ethnic groups over who counts as an authentic or inauthentic member; discussions such as these position ethnic and racial identities as easily knowable and definable. As acts of theorizing that critique such limiting approaches to authenticity and the damaging racist stereotypes which they sustain, Chin's "I" poems function as op/positional tools. She challenges the notion that the genre of poetry still clings to a sense of coherent poetic identity and the presence of an authentic (gendered, ethnic, racial, or national) "I." This challenge extends to notions of the Asian woman as delicate, submissive, and exotic, and by extension, to characterizations of Asia as feminized and submissive to the West. In her foreword to Making More Waves, Jessica Hagedorn describes Chin's poem "A Portrait of the Self as Nation, 1990-1991" as "an ironic manifesto" for the anthology as a whole, due to the manner in which the poem portrays the self "as battleground and as defiant nation, the self as illuminating poem and story, the self as dark song of memory and resistance" (x). In situating the self /"I" so complexly, Chin theorizes an "I" that is not in the least bit naive, but which rather makes crucial waves in the already irresolute waters of contemporary cultural and critical theories pertaining to gender, ethnic, racial, and national identities.
Reading Chin's "I" Poems
Chin writes poems in which the "I" is un/equivocally linked to Chin as poet. She addresses the contradictions involved in processes of self-identification and in the assigning of ethnic, racial, sexual, and national identities in the United States. Her treatment of Asian American identity in particular addresses national identification and the contradictions involved in being asked, on the one hand, to assimilate to mainstream American culture, while on the other, being made to feel irrevocably foreign. Thus, Chin theorizes identity as something that is constantly being re/produced; it shifts upon entry into "the new country" as much as it shifts with the dying and birthing of old and new customs. Identity, for Chin, is something to kill and regenerate. It is part little bird, part rising phoenix; part lotus, part yellow crowfoot; part confining stereotype, part open space of possibility. These various parts are explored in depth in Chin's "How I Got That Name," "The Phoenix Gone, The Terrace Empty," and "A Portrait of the Self as Nation, 1990-1991."
The subtitle of "How I Got That Name" is "an essay on assimilation." The subtitle marks the manner in which the poem functions as an act of theorizing. Calling it an "essay" aligns the poem with a "legitimate" critical genre, thus bridging the creative writing of the poem with the critical writing of the essay/theory. The content, of course, also reveals Chin's theorizing. The first line of the poem establishes that the name being referred to is in fact the poet's: "I am Marilyn Mei Ling Chin" (16). The following lines expand upon the sense of "ir/resoluteness" in this statement:
Oh, how I love the resoluteness of that first person singular followed by that stalwart indicative of "be," without the uncertain i-n-g of "becoming." (16)
The speaker loves the resoluteness because it is something she lacks. She, herself, is constantly in the process of "becoming." The subtitle shows that the resoluteness of the "I am" which begins the poem stands in opposition to the unresolved nature of the speaker's "becoming American" through the process of assimilation. To become a citizen, Chin must assimilate, or in a word, change. The poem embodies this requisite transformation in the lines which address how her name "had been changed / somewhere between Angel Island and the sea" where her father "transliterated 'Mei Ling' to 'Marilyn"' after "some tragic white woman / swollen with gin and Nembutal" (16). This "transliteration" marks the impossibility of identity for Chin. She can state "I am Marilyn Mei Ling Chin," but in doing so, she cannot avoid marking how she is not "Marilyn Monroe," the epitome of blonde American beauty. Chin's "I," therefore, is always multiple and irresolute, even when she states her love for "the resoluteness of that first person singular"(16). Chin theorizes her own Chinese American identities and the poetic "I" attached to them as anything but resolute.
Chin's father dubs her "Marilyn" in a move fraught with the specific binds that women immigrants face after entering the United States. Not only must their names and customs change to match that which is dubbed most "American," but they also enter into the beauty game by which all American women are measured against an archetype of beauty, the "blonde bombshell" (16). Thus, Chin critiques not only the processes of identification by which names and customs are altered to more smoothly assimilate into the new culture, but also marks the specific discontinuities that surface for Asian women immigrants in particular in the process of assimilation. For women immigrants, their appearance becomes something that should also "fit" into a stereotypically American mold but that inevitably cannot. For Chin, this particular contradiction arises from traditions which do not question male decision-making: "nobody dared question / his initial impulse—for we all know / lust drove men to greatness, / not goodness, not decency" (16).
Chin also portrays her mother's response to her renaming:
And there I was, a wayward pink baby, named after some tragic white woman swollen with gin and Nembutal. My mother couldn't pronounce the "r." She dubbed me: "Numba one female offshoot" for brevity. (16)
The story of immigration is a common narrative, as is the taking on of an American name; Chin particularizes her representation of that experience with her wit. She exposes the contradictory positions of the ideal American woman (Marilyn Monroe) and the Asian immigrant woman, illustrated symbolically through the equally awkward names "Marilyn" (which cannot be pronounced correctly) and "Numba one female offshoot" (which is not brief). The tongue-in-cheek tone thus questions the male authority of the father in naming his immigrant daughter after Marilyn Monroe; it exposes the gendered double standards associated with the effects of lust (it drives men to greatness and women to shame); and it destabilizes the resolute "I" of ethnic, national, and gendered identities. Hence, the statement "I am Marilyn Mei Ling Chin" does not enforce a coherent sense of identity at all, but rather theorizes how identities and the names that are so inextricably intertwined with them are produced through complex processes which involve assimilation, cultural contradiction, and, for Chin, struggles with patriarchal power systems.
In the second section, the poem continues to indict what passes for mainstream American culture and how that culture fixes identities and categorizes people by group stereotypes. In order to extend her critique of putatively fixed I-dentities from the individual to the group, Chin chooses to speak as a "we" in this section rather than as an "I." This enables her to expand from her particular experiences as a Chinese American female meeting the myth of beauty in the U.S., and to explore group identities and stereotypes imposed upon Asian Americans. She examines two in particular, the myth of the Model Minority and the racist stereotype of duplicitous Asians:
How we've managed to fool the experts in education, statistics, and demography— We're not very creative but not adverse to rote-learning. Indeed they can use us. (17)
Chin refers to the demographers and politicians who "use" Asian "successes" as proof that the U.S. is the "land of opportunity," thus erasing inequalities within the Asian American community and redirecting the fault for poverty in other immigrant, ethnic, and racial groups away from the nationally sanctioned dynamics of exclusion, racism, and oppression and onto those groups themselves. Thus, it is not the American democratic, capitalist system that has faults but minority groups who do not work hard enough to achieve the American dream. Chin exposes the Model Minority myth as false by portraying it as something that Asian immigrants connived to trick and tease those in power: "But the 'Model Minority' is a tease. / We know you are watching now, / so we refuse to give you any!" (17). The model minority and those who have constructed them as such are portrayed as engaged in sexual relations—a premonition of the gendering of Asia as feminine and the West/U.S. as masculine that we see in more depth in "Portrait of the Self as Nation, 1990-1991." But the refusal of the feminine-gendered Asian Model Minority to "give any" to the masculine-gendered U.S. experts gives the model minority a false sense of power. The power is false since it too derives from a stereotype—the duplicitous Asian.
Chin turns every contradictory stereotype of Asian identity—as model, smart, tricky, lethargic, industrious—on its head. Shifting back from the communal to the single "I," Chin portrays herself as lethargic and as a failed descendent—failed because she is female but also because she is perceived as "ugly"—of the "Great Patriarch Chin": "too listless to fight for my people's destiny . . . I wait for imminent death. / The fact that this death is also metaphorical / is testament to my lethargy"(18). In a characteristic inversion, death in Chin is not seen as a negative, or endpoint, but rather provides an opportunity for the rebirth and reconstruction of a different understanding of identity. Death signs the differences within the "I" that undermine, or make impossible, coherent versions of identity. Trinh T. Minh-ha writes, "If identity refers to the whole pattern of sameness within a human life, the style of a continuing me that permeates all the changes undergone, then difference remains within the boundary of that which distinguishes one identity from another" (95). What Trinh argues for in her writing, and Chin also theorizes in her poetry, is a more complex understanding of difference not only between different I-dentities, but within them as well:
The differences made between entities comprehended as absolute presences—hence the notions of pure origin and true self—are an outgrowth of a dualistic system of thought peculiar to the Occident (the "ontotheology" which characterizes Western metaphysics). They should be distinguished from the differences grasped both between and within entities, each of these being understood as multiple presence. Not One, not two either. "I" is, therefore, not a unified subject, a fixed identity, or that solid mass covered with layers of superficialities one has gradually to peel off before one can see its true face. "I" is, itself, infinite layers. (90, 94)
Such an approach to difference, Trinh argues, "undermines the very idea of identity, deferring to infinity the layers whose totality forms T" (96).
In the final section of "How I Got That Name," Chin shifts again from the "I" to the third person "she, " thus incorporating layers of identity—as Trinh calls them—into the poem through shifting speaking voices. Chin kills herself metaphorically—"So, here lies Marilyn Mei Ling Chin"—in order to enable revisionings of the poetic "I" and of ethnic, racial, gender, and national identity that are subject neither to stereotype nor fixity, absolute presence nor dualistic systems of thought:
She was neither black nor white, neither cherished nor vanquished, just another squatter in her own bamboo grove minding her poetry— (18)
The poem embodies a series of contradictions which Chin positions herself in the middle of in order to disrupt them. She is "neither black nor white," "cherished nor vanquished"; she is also neither "Model" nor "lethargic." She is a (singular) not the (prescriptive) model of an Asian American woman artist, which perhaps has no small amount to do with her disruption of so many binaries. As poet, she teases the language in order to develop a dynamism that stands in opposition to the "mesmerized squatter" she portrays herself as in the poem. She shunts dynamically between these poles of identity that are imposed upon her in order to show that the complex "I" she envisions is "Not One, not two either," but is more associated with ambivalent spaces of possibility, as seen in the chasm referred to below:
one day heaven was unmerciful, and a chasm opened where she stood. Like the jowls of a mighty white whale, or the jaws of a metaphysical Godzilla, it swallowed her whole. (18)
The chasm is an unmarked space that exists between cultures, at the point of learning a new and unlearning a previous culture. These are symbolized by the white whale and Godzilla: the white whale is Melville's supremely patriarchal and phallic Moby Dick, symbolizing mainstream American male literary culture, and Godzilla is the Japanese movie icon symbolizing all that is Asian, "non-American," and threatening. The subject of the poem, who no longer speaks in the first person, has been split into the "squatter swallowed whole" and Chin/the poet who remains to describe what happens to her after she has been metaphorically killed by the process of assimilation:
She did not flinch nor writhe, nor fret about the afterlife, but stayed! Solid as wood, happily a little gnawed, tattered, mesmerized by all that had been lavished upon her and all that was taken away! (18)
The afterlife is Chin's life after entering the United States. Rather than become split and fractured, she stays "solid" though "gnawed" and "tattered." These gnaws and tatters are evident in the multiple voices of the poem, the "she," "we," and "I" which, though they construct a whole, do not comprise a fixed or necessarily coherent identity. The "she" of the poem remains "mesmerized / by all that had been lavished upon her" in her new life in the United States as well as in her past history, as well as by "all that was taken away"(18). The latter also applies both to the past—she was literally taken away from China—and to the present—the processes of assimilation continue to take things away.
The title poem of the collection—"The Phoenix Gone, the Terrace Empty"—likewise addresses the death and regeneration of I-dentity. Chin is again referred to in the first person in the poem; as her father plays dice, he begs her "Mei Ling, child, / Mei Ling, don't cry, / I can change our lives / with one strike" (49). But where the previous poem explores a multiple I-dentity in reaction to processes of immigration, assimilation, and racialization, "The Phoenix Gone, The Terrace Empty" is less linear and reactive and reverses the two worlds/lives as seen in "How I Got That Name." The afterlife does not refer to life in the U.S., but to China, which is referred to as the "netherworld" (47). In a rhyming, song-like stanza, Chin imagines a double of her Asian American self:
"Who in the netherworld walks on my soles as I walk? And opens her black mouth when I cry? Whose lutestrings play my sorrow? Whose silence undulates a millenium of bells, in which all of history shall wallow?" (47)
The use of quotation marks signals that the stanza is a lament or song that Chin quotes from elsewhere and uses to voice her own concerns with her Other, Chinese self. The series of questions transmit yearning for knowledge combined with sorrow, and a plaintive contrast between Chin's ability to voice these questions in a poem and the double's resounding silence. This double is not the" disowned" racial shadow of Asian American literature, but is perhaps an outgrowth of it. Sau-ling Wong's analysis of the racial shadow explores texts in which second generation Asian Americans project their own fears and insecurities onto less assimilated, recently arrived Asian immigrant doubles (77 -115). These projections invariably explore what Wong refers to as "the impossibility of the agenda set for Asian Americans: that they are expected at once to lose their offensive 'Asianness' and to remain permanently foreign" (91). In "Phoenix," Chin does not project this Other in order to know herself as less foreign, nor to produce a more coherent "I," or whole self; rather, Chin complicates how she knows the Other that is herself. She does not fear, but seeks, knowledge of that Other.
The entire poem tells the story of Chin walking down a staircase, out a door, into a "new world," and then returning with a "strange" boyfriend, whose name a family member cannot pronounce and who is probably white. Thus, the motif for the poem is identity as a circle with constant shifts, deaths, and regenerations: "Shall I walk / into the new world / in last year's pinafore?" (50). Echoes of Prufrock give further depth to the presence of Chin as poet, an echo that can be heard in many of her poems. That she uses the snake to further develop her vision of identity as a circle also links to subversive symbols of the powerful woman, from Medusa's snaky locks to Coatlicue's serpent skirt:
The snake bites her own tail, meaning harmony at the year's end. Or does it mean she is eating herself into extinction? (51)
Chin's snake woman both consumes and regenerates herself. There is no answer to the paradox of the snake biting her own tail, only an insistent awareness of identity as again "Not One, not two either," but a constantly consumed and reproduced circle. I began this paragraph by stating a surface reading of the poem ("The entire poem tells the story of . . .") , but I will end by complicating that reading, for the poem is not simply a story of Chin leaving and returning to a childhood space of Chineseness. The poem is also a complex chronicle of how Chin must wrestle with the "stock signifiers" of what being Chinese means to her family (47), as well as with how her multiple identities do and do not satisfy the demands that her family and ethnic history place upon her. The voice of her Auntie jade laments, "Ten thousand years of history and you have come to this. / Four thousand years of tutelage and you have come to this!" (50). Certainly Chin's use of powerful female images such as the snake, and her rejection of passive female images such as the lotus, have something to do with this family member's expression of dismay.
Yet it is these very images of power and regeneration that are central to Chin's theorizing of the poetic/ethnic "I." The final two stanzas of the poem include several contradictory images which reinforce the dual possibilities of interpretation embodied in the snake woman as regenerating and/or self-consuming circle. These are not Chin's words, but are again spoken to her. They seem to be spoken to a child by the same voice that is quoted above, perhaps the Aunt again or some other family member, so the poem itself is a circle and returns to the moment of escape:
Little bird, little bird something escaping, something escaping . . .
The phoenix gone, the terrace empty. Look, Mei Ling, yellow crowfoot in the pond not lotus, not lily. (51)
Mei Ling is first associated with the "little bird" trying to escape, a diminutive image that resonates closely to stereotypes of Asian women as delicate, passive lotus (or lily) flowers. But the concluding stanza begins with a sentence that contradicts the tentativeness of the repetition in the preceding stanza. The phoenix is defined as a fabulous, powerful bird who lives for centuries before burning itself and then rising anew from the ashes; it does not connote a "little bird." Another connotation for phoenix is "a person or thing that has been restored after suffering calamity or apparent annihilation" (Webster's 1015). Thus, Mei Ling is not only the "little bird" produced by the adult's voice in the poem, but is also associated with the phoenix, a powerful bird who rises from her own ashes, who kills herself in order to make herself anew. She is also one who has suffered the calamity of assimilation and the "apparent annihilation" of her identity. Being unfixed, changing, and embodied in a circle, the "I" and identity in these terms is something that defies annihilation; identity is not totalized or impermeable, but unfixed and regenerative.
The "yellow crowfoot" is another example of a symbol used to counter the stereotype of the passive Asian female identity. Yellow crowfoot is a plant with "divided leaves suggestive of a bird's foot" (Webster's 326). The yellow crowfoot in the pond is a theorized alternative to the complex intersections of racist and sexist ideologies which produce Asian and Asian American women's identities as passive, exoticized lotus, or lily, blossoms. Chin does not ignore those misrepresentations, but juxtaposes them with other possibilities, with the powerful embodiment of the phoenix and the terrace as yet another unmarked, empty space signifying possibility. Thus, by the end of the poem, Chin's voice has become the silent voice, evoking the racial shadow from the beginning of the poem; Chin structures the poem to end with the voice of her Aunt or some other relative introducing her to the multiple possibilities for self-identification found in the lines quoted above, possibilities which extend to both the Chinese American and the Chinese woman through Chin's theorizing of the multiple poetic "I."
"A Portrait of the Self as Nation, 1990-1991" likewise theorizes a portrait of identity that builds upon the contradictions found in both of the poems by Chin already mentioned. But the contradictions here relate to the self as both person and nation, sadist and masochist, the site of possibility and the internalized enemy. The poem is an extended treatment of the self standing before an inquisitor, in this case the judge granting American citizenship to the Chinese applicant, Marilyn Mei Ling Chin. Chin/China plays the role of the passive, Eastern, masochistic female slave to the judge/U.S. as active, Western, sadistic male Master. The poem begins with two epigraphs which establish these themes. The first is a Latin proverb: "In mastery there is bondage / In bondage there is mastery," another example of the op/positions Chin frequently works into her poems (92). Bondage and mastery circle into one another just as the snake woman did in "The Phoenix Gone, The Terrace Empty." The second epigraph is a quote by the poet George Seferis: "The stranger and the enemy / We have seen him in the mirror" (92), which again speaks to the contradictions found within the individual and the manner in which they complicate processes of identity formation and identification.
The poem begins with the female China addressing the male U.S. judge: "Forgive me, Head Master, / but you see I have forgotten / to put on my black lace underwear" (92). The "I" here and throughout the poem is never straightforward, but rather should be read as ironic and thus critical of the power relations that it presents. The reader only learns what questions the judge asks through Chin/China's replies, thus hers is the voice the poem centers: "When was the last time I made love? / The last century?" (92). Speaking as a centuries-old China, she recounts past lovers and remembers that it was the West, represented by the United States, with whom she last "slept":
You were a conquering barbarian, helmeted, halberded, beneath the gauntleted moon, whispering Hunnish or English— so-long Oolong went the racist song bye-bye little chinky butterfly. (94)
Thus, the poem details in sadomasochistic terms the internalization of racism into "self-hate" and the internalization of Asian exoticism into "self-love, both self-erotic notions" (93). The self wishes to challenge how she has become her own enemy, and she attempts to do so by exposing what the other/U.S. finds attractive about her:
This is the way you want me— asleep quiescent, almost dead sedated by lush immigrant dreams of global bliss, connubial harmony. (95)
The bliss and harmony are in fact dreams, and the speaker realizes that she is no match for the sexual energies and histories which have determined the systems of inclusion and exclusion that decide what is and is not a valid American identity. Though she gets her citizenship, she must forget who does not in order to celebrate:
"Congratulations, On this day, fifteen of November, 1967, Marilyn Mei Ling Chin, application # z-z-z-z-z you are an American citizen naturalized in the name of God the father, God the son and the Holy Ghost." Time assuages, and even the Yellow River becomes clean . . .(96)
To assuage the pain of not belonging, not being "clean" or "naturally American enough" comes at the cost of forgetting those who are denied citizenship: "Meanwhile we forget / the power of exclusion / what you are walling in or walling out—" (96). These lines refer directly to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, as well as to China's attempts to police its own borders by building the Great Wall. The language of bondage and sexual colonization gives way to the lingo of nationalism and racist, ethnocentric exclusion. Chin's "I" surrounds the voice of the judge, isolating his power over her ability to identify as American or not. Whether she remains in bondage to the feminized, colonized stereotype of the Asian female, or in bondage to an idea of patriotism and national identification through the erasure of her Chineseness, she is still in bondage to a mastery of one form or another. But it is important to remember the epigraph also, that "In mastery there is bondage / In bondage there is mastery." While Chin/China remains in bondage, she also masters the Master. The opening lines say "Forgive me," but the reference to her absent "black lace underwear" is followed by an act of exposure in which Chin takes the power of looking/seeing her body into her own hands: "I have hiked my slip up, up to my waist / so that I can enjoy the breeze. / It feels good to be without" (92). Chin/China here gives herself pleasure, marking her power over her own body in defying the master as much as she marks her bondage to and mastery over the Master/U.S.
Another avenue that Chin goes down in exploring the multiple "I" is its relationship to history and memory. The version of identity Chin constructs in "A Portrait" results from amnesia and apathy, a set of characteristics that other feminist theorists and poets have identified as particularly American. In The Sacred Hoop (1986), Paula Gunn Allen argues that "Indians think it is important to remember, while Americans believe it is important to forget" (210). This is, of course, a generalization, but one that speaks to the necessity of "forgetting" rich pasts and cultures, as well as agonizing processes of assimilation and deculturation, common experiences for immigrant groups and colonized cultures in the United States. In Chin's poems, and in Allen's assertion, identity is closely intertwined with history. Allen asserts that "the root of oppression is loss of memory," and Chin's poems insist on how cultural memories and histories impact the process of assimilation and identity formation that immigrants undergo (213). For the newly assimilated American Chin whose voice closes the poem "A Portrait," there is little regret over loss and a haunting disregard for political accountability and the progress or regress of history:
Sir, Master, Dominatrix, Fall was a glorious season for the hegemonists, We took long melancholy strolls on the beach, digressed on art and politics in a quaint warfside cafe in La Jolla, The storm grazed our bare arms gently . . . History never failed us. (96-97)
"Art and politics" become digressions on a beach, and "history has never failed us" because "we" control what is remembered and how, and because internalized racism and sadistic international shows of force rule the day. This "we" resembles the one seen in "How I Got That Name"; while the ends of each are quite different—the former subsumes Chin into an amorphous American communal voice of arrogance and disregard for cultural difference while the latter positions Chin amongst a community of Asian Americans out to trick the U.S. cultural mainstream—both uses of the communal "we" are ironic, deftly manipulated by Chin as poet to critique the particular values communicated by each. In "A Portrait," the self asserts that the "storm" of war (Desert Storm) does nothing but "graze our arms gently" (97). The internalized racism positions Chin as an unapologetic ally of the western Master of hegemony, who endures in power because he controls the terms of American identity and the historical record and determines when to fight and what to fight for. Other countries only matter when they have something that the United States finds valuable or needs in order to preserve the dominance of its own cultural centers:
Why save Babylonia or Cathay, when we can always have Paris? Darling, if we are to remember at all, Let us remember it well— We were fierce, yet tender, fierce and tender. (97)
Babylonia refers to Iraq, and Cathay to China, both disposable when "we" have Paris, a reference not only to European cultural origins but to the dominance of U.S. industries, such as the film industry, signified by the iconic stature of films such as Casablanca and figures such as Bogart and Bergman.
The question of remembering is, in fact, a question: "If we are to remember" is not a rhetorical structure suggesting that they (Chin/China and Master/U.S.), of course, will. The relationship between the question of cultural remembering and (the question of) membership in the U.S. polity is one that Lowe articulates in Immigrant Acts. Lowe writes:
Citizens inhabit the political space of the nation, a space that is, at once, juridically legislated, territorially situated, and culturally embodied. Although the law is perhaps the discourse that most literally governs citizenship, U.S. national culture—the collectively forged images, histories, and narratives that place, displace, and replace individuals in relation to the national polity—powerfully shapes who the citizenry is, where they dwell, what they remember, and what they forget. (2)
For Chin/China to become assimilated into the U.S. and to please her Master, she must be careful about what she remembers and what she forgets. The "I" in this poem will not remember the history she leaves behind in China, nor will she remember any alternative histories to the one the Master/U.S. portrays; she has chosen to" forget / the power of exclusion" in order to continue her "love" affair with her Master. However, the forgotten returns in the contradictoriness of the "love" story she tells. If she and her lover choose to remember their alliance, they must remember its contradictoriness—they were "fierce, yet tender / fierce and tender," both fierce warriors and tender lovers. Thus, the entire poem mocks the posturing involved in U.S. foreign relations, and reduces American concerns with the well-being of other nations, and immigrants from other nations, to a sexual game of role-playing and voluntary bondage. The representation of Chin/China as an amnesiac embodies what Lowe refers to as "critical acts that negate those universals" associated with U.S. citizenship (i.e., this is not a love story, but a story of bondage) (8). Lowe writes that "the cultural productions emerging out of the contradictions of immigrant marginality displace the fiction of reconciliation. [and] disrupt the myth of national identity by revealing its gaps and fissures" (8). Chin's "I" as both Chin/China reproduces the gap between her position as the assimilated American and the unassimilable Asian. But it is a contradictory gap; the bold voice of Chin/China belies a passive, masochistic Asia(n) assimilating to the U.S. Master. Thus, Chin's poem exemplifies the functioning of Asian American cultural productions as "alternative site[s] where the palimpsest of lost memories is reinvented, histories are fractured and retraced, and the unlike varieties of silence emerge into articulacy" (Lowe 6). For while the story that Chin/China tells is one of submission and bondage to the U.S./Master, the story of exclusion and forgetting that she seeks to fracture, retrace, and voice is encoded in the lines of the poem as well, and nothing, in effect, is forgotten.
In summary, Chin theorizes ethnic and racial identities as constructed around national concerns and narratives as much as they are constructed in response to group and individual interactions. She portrays the extent to which becoming an American involves contradictions and shifts in identity and identification, shifts that are affected by national narratives which assign gendered and sexualized characteristics to immigrants seeking citizenship, as much as they assign ethnic and racialized characteristics. Thus, Chin's "I" is hardly simplistic or nostalgic; it theorizes self, nation, gender, race, sexuality, citizenship, and power, and how each contributes to producing and/or exposing the multiple myths of national and individual identity.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly for the study of contemporary American poetry concerned with differences and identities, Chin situates these acts of theorizing within poems. In "Moon and Oatgrass," Chin envisions poetry as a kind of landscape, perhaps another space of possibility. References to the moon and oatgrass evoke stock images of the poet/self communing with nature, but the poem is not devoid of the concern with identities and differences seen in Chin's other work. On the contrary, "Moon and Oatgrass" explicitly draws the reader into Chin's vision of poetry as landscape, a space that she controls—"Only I know where / terrace ends and house begins"—and through which the reader wanders:
The moon is not over the water, as you would have it, but one with it, and the house is on the precipice overlooking a green meadow. And you—an eye and not an I— are walking through it. (54)
The reader's "eye" walks through the pages of the poem. By linking the "you" to the reader, Chin expands her critique of identity outward from the pages of her book to the "eye" / "not I" of the reader as well, whose identity can be no more fixed nor coherent than the identities explored throughout her poetry. Thus, Chin's poems emphasize the degree to which all identities are re/produced and mediated through representation; poems mediate the identities she explores, as much as a camera mediates the image the eye records.
Chin closes the poem by asking, "what is this landscape?" (54). Her answer is simple:
The moon in oatgrass, the oatgrass moon. A woman pacing the linoleum floor, contemplating a poem. (54-55)
This act of contemplation is also an act of power and an act of theorizing. "A woman" is contemplating a poem, providing a surrogate for the reader, whose contemplation of Chin's poems is likewise empowering. I end on this note in order to emphasize that approaching the poetic "I" as multiple and asserting the differences found within identities as unfixed and constantly consumed and re/produced does not reduce the possibilities for political alliance building or action. In a reading of Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior (1976), Wong writes that "talking means having the power to define oneself, to resist the definition of others" (89). By inserting her critique of identity into the poems she writes, writing poems—for Chin—means having the power to resist the definitions of others. Writing poems which theorize also means having the power to leave herself open to definition, to dwell in the undefined space of the empty terrace, to enjoy being—however momentarily—without.
1. These anthologies belong to a larger group of anthologies produced by multiple communities of women of color, all of which situate creative and critical works as modes of theorizing. Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua's This Bridge Called My Back: Writings By Radical Women of Color (1981), and Anzaldua's later Making Face, Making Soul / Haciendo Caras: Creative and Critical Perspectives by Feminists of Color (1990) are but two examples of multi-genre anthologies. See Cynthia Franklin for a book length discussion of the politics of such anthologies.
2. See Alicia Ostriker for a discussion of the self-referential "I" as politically liberatory for feminist poets exploring women's subjectivity; see Bob Perelman and Marjorie Perloff for discussions of the self-referential "I" as theoretically unsophisticated.
3. The most obvious exception to this is language poetry, which refuses the referentiality of language In general as well as the concept of a self-referential poetry. See Perelman, Perloff, and Koethe.
4. See John Yau and David Mura.
5. I am currently working on a book project titled Practicing Poetry, Producing Theory that explores contemporary multi-ethnic American poets—including Marilyn Chin—whose persona poems theorize new understandings of identity and difference.
6. The most obvious example of this dynamic is Frank Chin's introduction to The Big Aiiieeeee!, "Come All Ye Asian American Writers of the Real and the Fake." According to Chin, the fakes are those who write from assimilated, Christian, inauthentic positions (such as Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan), and the real are those who write authentically of their Asian histories and non-Christian cultural heritages (1-35).
7. The book project this essay is taken from examines op/positional poetic practices in contemporary multi-ethnic American poetry. Op/positional poetries 1) emphasize the interconnectedness of politics and aesthetics; 2) portray the poetic "I" as dynamic, unfixed, and capable of multiple forms of agency; 3) examine the intersectionality of identities; 4) revise familial, social, and mythic histories; and 5) situate poetry as an important sight for theorizing. In this essay, I analyze how op/positional poets utilize a multiple poetic "I" (number 2 above). The term "op/positional" highlights the importance of oppositional politics (opposing the oversimplification of group traits common to identity politics, and opposing racism, sexism, heterosexism) as well as the importance of the politics of position (learning to hear the specificities of each poet's use of language, as well as the particular intersections of the multiple axes which construct and produce each poet's identities).
8. All poems and quotations are from Chin's second collection of poetry, The Phoenix Gone, The Terrace Empty (1994).
9. Sau-ling Cynthia Wong explores several different aspects of the racial shadow in Asian American literature. I differentiate Chin's specifically from Wong's exploration of the "disowned" racial shadow, not from the racial shadow in general. Wong ends her chapter on the racial shadow by postulating some possibilities for future research, one of which includes the possibility for "doubling by multiplication," whereby "differing versions of a basic figure are offered to the protagonist faced with a race- and ethnicity- linked identity crisis" (117). The differing versions that Chin explores in this poem are not, however, of a basic figure but include versions of herself and also imagined others. See the first poem of The Phoenix Gone, The Terrace Empty—"Exile's Letter: after the failed revolution"—for another image of the racial shadow.
10. "How I Got That Name" has an intertextual reference to William Carlos Williams in the following lines:
History has turned its stomach on a black polluted beach— where life doesn't hinge on that red, red wheelbarrow, but whether or not our new lover in the final episode of "Santa Barbara" will lean over a scented candle and call us a "bitch." (17)
11. Two important intertexts for reading "A Portrait of the Self as Nation, 1990-1991" are Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's Dictee and the visual art of Yong Soon Min, both of whom situate the body of the woman as a synecdoche for the body of the nation (Korea). Yong Soon Min's work can be found in Writing Self, Writing Nation (1994), a collection of essays on Dictee edited by Norma Alarcon and Elaine Kim. Thanks to Helena Grice and to Heike Berner for stimulating my thinking on these connections at the Asian America session of the conference on "Reconfiguring Ethnic America," University of Wales, Aberystwyth. Berner's paper on "Identity and the Self in Contemporary Korean American Art: Yong Soon Min, Young Chung, and Jean Shin" was particularly helpful in thinking about the connections between Chin's theorizing and work being done by Asian American visual artists.
12. Another intertextual echo here is Robert Frost's "Mending Wall."
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|Title||Adrienne McCormick: 'Being Without': Marilyn Chin's Poems as Feminist Acts of Theorizing||Type of Content||General Poet Criticism|
|Criticism Author||Adrienne McCormick||Criticism Target||Marilyn Chin|
|Criticism Type||Poet||Originally Posted||28 Jun 2021|
|Publication Status||Excerpted Criticism||Publication||'Being Without': Marilyn Chin's Poems as Feminist Acts of Theorizing|
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