FIVE GHOSTS: A REVIEW OF JANE WONG’S OVERPOUR
FIRST GHOST: It’s Thursday in the Middlewest—October, cold—and you’ve been waiting for the book to make it to Wisconsin. Patiently, for quite a while now, you’ve waited. The author of the book, Jane Wong, is a friend of yours, a poet to whom you’ve turned, off and on, for over seven years. For the better part of your careers you’ve traded poems. You’ve edited each other’s work and argued. You’ve watched each other change. It’s important for you to say this. To express your bias. This is a review you always knew you’d write, and the manila package, torn at the corner and sent from Notre Dame, is one you’ve always known you’d open. You feel excited. The words of other writers, Jane’s among them, underpin your every effort as an artist. Despite distances and differences, despite time, these voices remains a single, polyphonic note in which you, your voice, is but the echo of a small particulate, a part. Spectral and spectacular, even here and after years of silence, their language lives around you. This is true in all the ways that you imagine it, but Wong’s voice in particular, delicate and dangerous, intelligent, surreal, lingers longer than the others. Hers is a ghost which isn’t shakable, and now, in the Middlewest, the book being here, the simple fact of it, feels suddenly like something absent finally present, an apparition with whom you are familiar.
SECOND GHOST: So this is what it, the book, looks like: black and purple, red and white. An image of a wolf, in which a woman lives, lives across the cover. The book begins in dedication to a mother. In awe of her, in overpour, in the middle of the night. In Overpour, the author holds her mother close. Five of the nineteen poems collected here occur in Jin Ai’s voice, which is to say that Wong has made her maker, inhabited her history. Thus Overpour occurs as a possession, an occupation of the person from which she, the author, comes. Her origin. Her brother, too, her kin, so deeply populates these pages that the book at times resembles the small fires of [the] spinning house in Jersey they grew up in. And so the book is also, simultaneously, shelter, a structure leaning into place. Here, the history of a family lives and dies and resurrects itself in language sans a father. This is the world in which our kitchen table is made of glass and glistens and pig’s blood swelters in a tin that Wong has built for us to live in, a house whose many rooms feel haunted by a ghost whose language marks the objects of a landscape, the human boundaries of a home. Take, for instance, this:
and my mother smiles in front of the camera
and the meat glistens in the plastic wrap
and my brother loses his skeleton
and the place was matter and all
and all but matter
Distinctive of Wong’s work, her poem’s accumulate a musical velocity gently. In this case the anaphora repeats the and of a contingency, beginnings becoming singing, evolving into meaning, into song. More specifically, the speaker peers into a photograph of meat and memory and people. Sees her mother’s smile frozen. By virtue of proximity, the maternal grin becomes the flesh of an animal wrapped in cellophane and light, her brother’s skeleton a reminder of everything that’s left and isn’t there in the interior where it belongs, a thing not holding us, not supporting us. I miss someone, the speaker says, but I don’t know who. A structure stolen from a form.
THIRD GHOST: While Overpour does indeed map a disjointed, suburban record of familial histories, weaving fragments of Wong’s mother’s narrative into the spectral texture of her speaker’s voice, Wong also charts the uneasy intersection of a mind and its surroundings. These surroundings are, on the one hand, “natural” or pastoral, but the ghost of a geo-political warscape also lives in Overpour, challenging the more traditional boundaries of the genre. Haunted and dispelled, the necro-pastoral weather (often winter) of the book becomes a kind of looming presence, one which moves throughout the work and changes it. An often violent intersection of perpetual activity, the void created by the surrounding weather passing in and out of Wong’s speakers generates what Joyelle McSweeney refers to as a necropastoral zone of action and decomposing paradoxes. Never inert, McSweeney writes,
the necropastoral is defined by its activity, its networking, its paradoxical proliferation, its self-digestion…its hunger, and its hole making. Which configures a burgeoning textual tissue defined by holes, a tissue thus as absent as it is present, and therefore not absent, not present—protoplasmic, spectral. It is in this sense that we find the politic force of the necropastoral, its ability to stage networks and strange meetings.
For McSweeney, the living tissue of the necropastoral landscape derives its politic through an active engagement with its opposite, the ever-present specter of Death who is, and always has been, Arcadia’s premier celebrity resident. Suspended between the binary constructs of “civilization” and “wilderness,” and informed by the absent-presence of the dead, the myth of Arcadia exists in part by virtue of what it isn’t. Similarly, Wong’s poems feel ghosted by the wonder and the terror of a necropastoral landscape in which the speaker often finds herself engaged politically with the violence of another world, one defined by war and by the literal and figurative holes that violence makes in people. You see, the speaker says in a poem called “Pastoral Power,” we have this idea of hunting each other. And, later, in “Field Notes Toward War”:
The war is not over.
The streets are lined with little lamps of snow,
Melting. Water pours without end.
There is a swan in my mouth.
I have made a mess of it all.
Cotton in my eyes, too much
cast on my arm. All around me,
the mountains hum
a broth of air. A little on the tongue
is enough to feed. My eyes rinsed out
make a river large enough
to carry that which diminishes. I’m afraid
I will never make it home.
Here, in the fleeting course of thirteen lines, Wong passes through the weather of a landscape (and a body) draped in snow, connecting the experience of political conflict with the experience of perpetual, personal exile. A kind of purgatory, this section of the poem concludes in a state of conflict, neither here nor there, in which a lack of faith in the recuperative powers of a return comes to dominate perception. The persistence of war, its inhuman refusal to cease, to stop hurting, hunting, haunts an otherwise composed experience. For Wong, the absence of a geo-political peace means that one cannot rest easy in the scene, or scenes, surrounding her. Thus, the war, for her, is personal, though she herself does not experience it directly. War is something to be imagined, a winter melting in the mouth and in the mind that makes a bathing swan of winter, there where it, the swan, is vulnerable, able to be devoured, drowned in a river large enough / to carry that which diminishes. Still, the risk of the necropastoral landscape is also its reward. By conscripting the absent specter (familiar stranger) of the dead into the body of her work, bringing the war home to rest and riot within the book, a pastoral nostalgia for home no longer feels like an ethical, aesthetic posture. Cast out and perpetually adrift, the speaker then imposes an imperative. Send death to swallow the war, she says. Send courage to tear each plume apart. // The sound of great wrestling. / It is enough to feed you. What is it, then, the war, and where? Who can stop the hunting?
FOURTH GHOST: Having read Wong’s work for the better part of seven years, you notice once again, over and over, the way her language thinks/sings/pours itself across a variety of distances at once. Of the many open and uncharted territories Overpour traverses—family, history, “nature,” war—the ghost of culture, specifically intersecting cultures—China, America—informs and complicates the speaker’s focus, drawing her attention to a people and a place to which she is inevitably and invisibly connected. The open field between the speaker and the many ghosts who haunt her speaking run parallel to the space dividing nations and identities. In “Thirty,” for example, the speaker splits her mind beyond the borders of the world in which she is and the one from which she comes:
…All around us,
Mosquitos ignite small fires
and they are our fires.
A country away, I can hear oxen
snorting in milk-colored fog.
But in this country, in the small fires
of this spinning house,
the fingers of a highway fern
are brushing my lungs awake.
Draped in milk and fog, lit by insects, the voice here juxtaposes a cultural home against a physical one, a past against a present. This duplicity is indicative of Wong’s work as well. Her poems often place their speakers in the middle distance between locations, cultures, times, attempting through paradox and talk to hold a multiplicity of worlds together in a single, living space. But it isn’t easy. Place affects perspective radically, and so Wong must also try to map and make hospitable the varying degrees to which location and culture alter her experience, and force her to see and say the uneasy connections that inform the way we think and name ourselves and our surroundings. In “Pastoral Power,” for example, when Wong’s speaker asks can Walden exist in China?, the different ghosts inhabiting two traditions, two locations, come alive, assert a difficult, but fertile scrutiny. The tradition of the American pastoral in which so much of Overpour attempts to operate now lives face to face with the cultural contingencies of its own occurrence. The luxury of a return to wilderness, to a specifically “American” conception of wilderness, intersects with a geo-cultural awareness of the extent to which a sense of “nature” cannot be truly separated from a sense of who one is in relation to an identity defined in part by borders. The romantic fact of the American forest, for example, or of the overtly poetic openness of American fields so often found in poems and literature—the many forms of Walden with which we are so endlessly and easily familiar—exists as evidence of privilege, a literary retreat perhaps more possible in one place than another.
FIFTH GHOST: By the end of Overpour it isn’t Thursday anymore. You’ve spent a week with it, six days to be exact, and in that time the book has moved you, fed you, haunted you, and hunted you. Ultimately, the book has brought you back to who and where you were before you read it. But something’s different now. You’re unsure what. It isn’t Thursday anymore and you’re sitting in your living room. You’re reading it again. Remember how black / the ash trees shook in cloud light, / how easy it is to fear. What you love about Wong’s work—the small, almost dream-like precision of its images, its slips and syntax, its delicate intelligence, its bravery—exists in the way that you imagine ghosts exist, half in this world and half in some other half-imagined place, a world that echoes this one, but not exactly. In a strong wind, I am at a loss. If Jane were here, you’d tell her that this is not the book you’d thought she’d always write. As a poet, as a person, she’s different than when you knew her. Her words are different, more tuned to the confluence of dissonance and song, more confident. Magnet of the organs, my mother returns / the story to the beginning. Toward the end of the book, you begin to wonder where’s she’s been all these years, who she’s been reading, what forces, invisible to you, have made it into Overpour, what series of events or facts uncovered in the imagination live and breathe within these pages, how many maps she’s made and ripped apart in order to make this one. Under / a microscope, bacteria blooms readily, tiny mansions / of the self. Who am I to multiply? The more you listen, the closer you press your ear, the more you start to sense the push and pull of a division within the self, indicative of Wong’s poetry. Suspended among identities, the self who lives in Overpour appears like a strange cacophony, a confluence, a conduit. With little effort, Wong’s is a voice in which a mother and a daughter speak as one voice, a music made of incongruent histories and distant presents. What do you mean by this? Maybe this is what you mean: In Overpour the world is made of ghosts and by them. The book feels, in many ways, a testament to the uncharted territory a voice must travel between people—not here, not there, not real, not unreal—an attempt to say what is and was connects directly to, and thus is haunted by, what isn’t. In this way, Wong delineates a passage between worlds. That which isn’t there exists, and the ghosts that we create create us also. We pour into each other, pouring over, pouring out. At times confessional, at others courageously surreal, Wong’s long-awaited and quietly brilliant first book lives as the unnerving echo of a language poured across a landscape draped in specters, bathed in light. And it, the light, surrounds you. It reaches everything. Somewhere else, deep within the center of the book, a low and subtle violence pours in your direction. You hear it, see it, and it changes you. In the morning, there is an echo of singing in the air. Its name—what is it—changes you. You’re sitting in your living room. The world and war are there. A confluence of disparate weathers existing in the intersection. In a room with no windows. And you are haunted by the sound the room is making, the book within you. And it is beautiful, this sound—a ghost within each echo, an echo in every ghost. You’re terrified. Twilight spreads a museum of flies circling…a bracelet of wings and eyes. You’re grateful.