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REVIEW and Q&A: Careen by Grace Shuyi Liew

"White foam coats/my dreams/of fascism, alien abductions, and anywhere/but home"

In Portland, we just couldn't get over how amazing our readers were for our AWP edition of I Scream Social. One of these awe-inspiring writers was poet, journalist and educator, Grace Shuyi Liew.

Grace was born and raised in Malaysia, a former colony of The British Empire. Hearing her read, it was clear that Grace thinks closely of migration, loss, sexuality, and violence. Her work is concerned with The Mother figure, the Mother tongue, and the Mother land, and theories about split consciousnesses.

Her debut collection of poems, Careencaptures the strangeness of our times, and the particular strangeness of being an Asian woman living in America. These poems are fierce. They are naked and unadorned, completely without fear even as they enter into the most unstable spaces of the mind, the body and the spirit. This book is a necessary handbook for all of us who are navigating the treacherous sociopolitical climate. It shows us how to remain human, even as we feel more and more alien in our own minds. 

Here is a collection that offers us the graphic details of intimacy. It also offers the anguish of the displaced, a colonized inheritance that bleeds into everything, even romantic trysts, even the daydreams of childhood. Careen offers poetry that does the real and difficult work of introspection, even as it hurtles through time, grappling with the repulsive face of society, "when all platitudes go dark":

“Line each dent up to find that no two look the same.
Oily, gritty, underfoot. Unfixed thinghood.”

No two dents look the same. No two people experience pain the same way. There are no platitudes to blithely explain away the experience of living today. We exist in a state of ‘Unfixed thinghood,” a concept that, is the antithesis to fascism. As any writing within the realm of the avant-garde does, this work rejects the conventional ways of making meaning, which in itself is a form of resistance against corrupt structures of power:

"Part of the narrative requires incomprehension."

Folks, there is no cheap consolation here. We are asked to step inside the roiling consciousness of a woman and her many selves, to observe them in intimate moments of pleasure and distress, to travel through the philosophical pangs of reconciling with a birthright of subjugation:  

"My name called wrongly is still my name, until each incorrect letter bears out its worthless existence indefinitely."

This is an instance of failure to translate, the colonized being mistranslated into oblivion. Identity whitewashed in the mispronunciation of a name. This is the opacity to which the speaker refers, but in no certain terms—there are moments when the opaque self effervesces forth in a simple, yet devastating image:

“my opacity blooms/like wrong/soap/frothing out of a/dishwasher.”

Liew reminds us that the ever-changing Self cannot be categorized, eradicated, or contained. Even in the oppression of whitewashing fascism, these poems cannot help but to blossom with the subtle beauty of existence:

"I am water/color lifting/into ether." 

This is the utter magnetism of this work, the feeling of being lifted into the ether, leaving behind the shackles of the logical mind to explore alternative forms of consciousness. For all of their beautiful soul searching, these poems turn again and again toward the convulsing face of abstraction, as a self-prescribed attempt to soothe the pangs of the realities of “home” and all of its thorny layers:

"White foam coats/my dreams/of fascism, alien abductions, and anywhere/but home"

Careen treks into the waterlogged territory of a mother-daughter relationship that is rife with discord, the kind of pain that can only come from such a tangled, formative blood tie. “Mother” in these poems is referred to as “owner,” forbids the speaker to her to touch herself, beats her when she does, encodes in her a planned obsolescence for love, the sexual fantasies of violence, the desire to evacuate the body:

"We learn bodily ire from our mothers—how to run/out of our own flesh—"

So it is fitting that the book chooses instead its own constellation of mothers, naming them in the dedication of certain poems. In this act of self-reliance, Careen shows us that as artists, we have the ability to establish our own, chosen lineage, a concept that I find to be astronomically empowering.

In Liew's constellation, we find Anne Sexton, and Careen is haunted by the personal intimacy and trauma found in her work. Liew's poems inhabit a kind of pseudo-confessional tone that at once reveals its deepest secrets and covers them back up with a sparkling velvet cloth:

"Some nights I dream/I am monument & eternal/& you, human,/at the base of my stairs."

Also in her constellation, is Rosmarie Waldrop, and the lineage of her experimental, avant-garde, and philosophical plunges, as referenced in the poem “Ars Poetica”: 

"revelation in stone green/specific dead body/dislodging yourself a prized/collection display/whatever’s hurled at you"
And in true Waldrop fashion, the poem ends with massive expansion, opening up the definition of the Self to infinitudes of possibility:
"who does “you”/stand for henceforth?"

In this line, Liew opens up a portal. Like other portals in this book, it exists in plain sight, amidst the muck and mire of a life lived in the dangerous territories of body and mind. But Careen doesn't ask for permission to disobey these faculties of the Self, and in its stubborn insistence on being anything but conventional, anything but what history and heritage have prescribed, we too, can feel empowered, to be transported through these vivid portals, of art and love and sacred transgression.

I had the delightful opportunity to chat with Grace about her poetry, and to ask her a few questions that were lingering on my mind after reading Careen.   

How do you feel that your biography interacts with your poetry?

We cannot escape our experiences. They are what give our art urgency and heft. This doesn't mean all my poetry is autobiographical. Or narrative. It means my craft is informed by my life, where I come from, who I interact with, the culture I consume, my community, my social relations, political systems, generational traumas, personal joys, etc. These all come through my poetry in various shades. That said, my favorite poems hold a tension between these personal truths and more universalizable emotions. I hold this in mind.

What is your relationship to abstraction, or writing beyond the physical, human experience? 

I lean on abstraction a lot. I don't see abstraction as separate from our empirical experiences. Conventionally, yes, in an English lesson, we separate the abstract (ideas) versus the concrete (images). To me this is just one mode of categorization. Language as a whole is material / real to me. I am multi-lingual and multi-accented, and all my languages carry competing histories, coloniality, traumas, memories that call on me. Under this lens, abstraction can be a powerful force of resistance. In a poem, it allows a speaker to resist being known. It lets "The Other" resist being easily catalogued. It breaks open a closed system. From Myung Mi Kim to Hart Crane to Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, I am interested in poets that use abstraction to inhabit multiple identities, to code switch between registers. 

How does place influence your work? 

Place feels insurmountable. I often experience places as private, emotional, and singular. I used to travel alone all the time. When I recall a place, I am not just recalling the flowers in front of my childhood home or the ocean waves. I am recalling how I felt. So places are containers of those feelings, locked in time. As a child, we moved around a lot, to go wherever my father could find work, and as an adult, I relocate every couple of years, for work, writing, and art. (Being transient is very taxing.) Careen has a chapter of place-based lyric essays called "Displaced, Replaced." The pieces are internal, foggy, and ambulatory. The speaker carries places within, and struggles to set them down.


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