Not Just for Asian American Readers: The Asian American Literary Review

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AALRI’ve been haunted for much of this month by a bird. Not a real bird, but an animal depicted in “The Documents of Spring,” a poem by Rick Barot that appears in the latest issue of The Asian American Literary Review, which is by far the fattest literary journal to have landed on my doorstep in the past year (RHINO is a close second). As we all know, subscriptions to literary journals are not cheap.  But a former instructor’s advice and admonishment to a roomful of undergraduate writers still lives with me:  choosing to write means entering a community, which in turn means supporting that community by attending readings, buying books, and purchasing subscriptions.  And so, when I can, I pick up another subscription… to Inch, because something in its tiny pages stings me every time; to New England Review, because it’s doomed to tank soon; and to AALR, one of several new Asian American literary magazines that are bound to attract a readership extending well beyond the Asian American community.  Now, back to that bird….

One of the first poems I read in the latest AALR was “The Documents of Spring,” in which Barot’s speaker begins by questioning the role of the natural world in poetry.

I was told once that having so many birds in my poetry mean that it was all sentimental, that birds weren’t the real world, but a way of dodging the important questions. I bought this for about a week, until

looking one afternoon out my kitchen window, thinking hard about one of those big questions, I saw a small brown bird on top of the fence….

Brought to the speaker’s front door as an offering by a neighborhood cat, the bird’s wing—dismembered, bloody—comes to represent the severing of familial ties, a severing that can take place in ways that are hateful and furious.

…a few inches across, smoke-colored like the cat, with the torn edge bloody and bony, a screaming meat of a face in a painting by Francis Bacon.  Later, still lying there on the front porch, the ants had started in on it, a roiling of desire.

The big question I had in mind was about the hate that could pass between two people yet not wreck them completely, on the spot, that very instant one is sending the bat-black words to the other, and then hanging the fuck

up, fast.  It was going to be our mother’s sixtieth birthday, and here we were, my sister and I, arguing about what to do about it….

But while the speaker offers the suggestion that the living, flying bird is a “courtesy to our malfeasances, …water on our malfeasances,” he concedes that this “was one thing / the bird could mean, one thing I could / force from it.  Because mostly it was just/ what it was, and nothing else.”  By the poem’s conclusion, words become utterly useless for this speaker, who drives around a colorful springtime display of flowers that “even the dullest of us / cannot miss,” repeating the borrowed phrase, “azaleas and so on, azaleas and so on” and “[t]hinking that no good has come of / any word I’ve ever made, spoken, or borrowed.”  What I love about Barot’s poem, in part, is the way that the mangled, severed wing takes on metaphorical resonance even as the speaker renounces language’s power.  The irony of the poem, of course, is just that:  Barot moves us by crafting a powerfully meditative poem about the apparent futility of language.  And in Barot’s measured contemplation of the natural world and its “blank / documents of spring,” I hear something of Plath’s “Black Rook in Rainy Weather.”

Enough geeking out on poetry, which is what I tend to do when a literary journal arrives in my mailbox.  There is plenty to love in this issue of AALR—Barot’s haunting meditations as well as the off-rhymes of Adrienne Su; Prageeta Sharma’s forthright speakers (“I don’t think we bring out the best in each other”); Pimone Triplett’s six-part sequence about “hungry ghosts” (defined in Buddhism as “those who suffer in the afterlife from an insatiable hunger as a result of questionable deeds committed during their lifetimes”); translations of Japanese Peruvian poet Jose Watanabe by Michelle Har Kim (printed alongside the Spanish originals); and poetry by Ching-In Chen in which

My not-mother scraped the gunk out of the pot, stuffed our mouths with it before we crossed the border to the land with no food we recognized. When we wouldn’t swallow,
she pounded our backs against the sod until it poured out in chunks, laid upright into a body that that would not be broken apart again. (“Skyscraper”)

I haven’t even mentioned the interviews with Arthur Sze and Chang-rae Lee, along with prose by Joy Kogawa, Nina McConigley, Eric Galinda, and others; comic art; book reviews; and an accompanying CD of a video short, “The Making of Mixed: Portraits of Multiracial Kids.”  Last but not least, one distinctive feature of the AALR is its Forum section, which presents a question of relevance to the Asian American community (and beyond) and two rounds of responses by three writers, capturing a lively conversation that frames each issue in the place of a more typical “Note from the Editors.”  Given the thematic and aesthetic diversity of its content, the AALR is truly a journal of contemporary American writing, and the $28 subscription price is well worth what the publication offers.  If your budget won’t permit such an indulgence, then I urge you to convince your local library to subscribe.

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