Twenty-one

I suppose this has turned into a tradition of charting my course over the years as a continually evolving reaction to change. I often run up against the sentiment that “a lot has changed in the past year,” but I can’t help thinking that it holds true for the past twelve months, even more so for this past summer. I’m reading parts of Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology as a recommendation from a dear friend, and I’ve spent some time with the question: what does it mean to redirect one’s own orientations, especially in relation to time and the future?

This was perhaps the most subdued of celebrations—not that I had anything very flamboyant to begin with, except that one time with the magician and the puppies. Childhood birthday parties are nuts! But anyhow, I’d spent the past summer watching friends turn twenty-one, posting photos and videos of their parties, and attending a few myself. I never quite figured out how to parse that fine line between birthdays as masks for elaborate social gatherings versus birthdays as personally intimate markers of one’s life. Maybe it isn’t one or the other; maybe they’re intertwined.

There are the perks of adulthood: being able to drink, gamble, none of which I’m particularly fond of or interested in. But I think there’s something to be said about the whole “tradition” of turning twenty-one and the accompanying rituals that follow it—people across the country (and the world) partaking in similar activities, delights, and events, marking a departure from all that held them back in the past. It warms my heart. Even if my twenty-first is not mind-blowing or immediately formative—at least, not yet—perhaps, to someone else, their twenty-first is the best thing that’s happened to them thus far in their life. That’s enough of a gift to make me smile.

And perhaps the meaningful revelation that I’ve come across is recognizing where life has placed me; where I am now, in relation to where I was last year. (Isn’t it odd how we talk about points in time using terms of distance and space?). Twelve months ago, I couldn’t point toward where I was heading, nor could I articulate where I wished to go. Now, I have a slightly clearer view of the land before me, and it has remained within sight, glimmering softly like a wet November road in light.

By the mirror

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This is one of my favorite paintings. Its English title is “By the mirror” (1996), by Yang Feiyun, a Chinese figure painter, and it’s a portrait of his wife. I’ve never seen the painting in person, only images of it, which, I suppose, says something about my relation to it. But I like to think of my first encounter with the image as akin to the first time one sees an original work in person—footsteps slowing to a halt, gaze transfixed, lips parted, the mind with its buzzing incapacity to describe what the eyes are seeing.

This painting reminds me of Manet’s Emile Zola portrait, except less formal, less intent on providing the viewer with evidential information. I love the plant, the dying branch that bows under the weight of its leaves, curved perfectly under her hand. The mirror, reflecting not the plant nor the woman, but the wall, casts an eerie atmosphere across the greyed background. The woman’s pose—obviously posed, but also natural in its intended effect—makes her seem as though she’s lost in thought at the very instance of the painting’s reveal to the viewer.

What I love most, oddly, is the sweater. The texture, pattern, and colors remind me of an old blanket that I used to sleep with, now full of holes and frayed edges. It is as if its memory has been repurposed into the newness of this painting and this woman’s clothing, unknowingly nudging the past into present.

One Art

There’s a certain staleness that literary analysis/criticism acquires in the early years of education—I remember, in middle school, thinking that writing essays was such a dull task. If “creative writing” (poetry, fiction) was freedom, then literary analysis essays were the handcuffs. I don’t think the five-paragraph drill helped in lessening the apathy.

But, no longer! I’m still figuring out why it’s changed for me—perhaps a result of the classes I’ve taken, the books I’ve read, the professors I’ve met—but there’s been a shift in the air. I’ve discovered that the structure of essays does not need to feel formulaic: rather, there can be a certain elegance to it, an elegance only achieved after embarrassing drafts and relentless practice. I’ve found that this elegance also contains a soft spot, a hidden area of the unknown. I think that spot is where the writer’s voice shines brightest. Within that little area, imagination can run wild among the harvested fields (the close readings) and drift along the river (the thesis)—nothing is left out of reach of the possible.

I’ve just finished reading Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet, which is itself a shining example of literary criticism. Carson references a thought proposed in Plato’s Phaedrus: “Socrates conceives of wisdom as something alive, a ‘living breathing word.'” This is a tricky thing to embed in written text, especially literary analysis, which is essentially dead written words about a dead written work. But I like to think that literary analysis is also gifted with the ability to breathe life back into text: it is a conversation between minds, an exploration of microcosms and brave new worlds, a reach back into history to assemble a space for voices to sound, a space for those voices to continue echoing gently into the distance.

Nowadays, when I write fiction and poetry, it’s less so with the ambition of creating a polished, finished product and more so with a desire to feel the thrill of creation. Literary analysis, though? I’ve been doing it for years (granted, poorly at first), yet I feel like I’m on the brink of discovery. There’s so much space to learn and grow. Perhaps what I want, simply, is to write essays. Beautiful, breathing essays, full of logos, pathos, questions, answers, and all the intricate complexities that offer a taste of more life.


Construction and Deconstruction in One Art

Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, One Art, unfolds deliberately like a paper fortune teller with a hidden message, ready to instill a catch in one’s throat. It is a poem about loss, but it is also a poem that is afraid to confront loss. Although tightly woven in form, this little villanelle reveals glimpses of instability, specifically regarding the speaker’s psyche. The poem is a simultaneous act of construction and deconstruction: line by line, as the poem unfolds, we bear witness to the collapse of the speaker’s emotional architecture. At the same time, the speaker attempts to create a world where loss is an art, only to find that that world has its limits. The revelation at the end, then, is that the poem redefines “loss” as not only the process of losing something or someone, but also as a process of accumulation, of collecting and re-organizing the heaviness of experience. It is within the liminal space of poetry that one can understand how the speaker, through an attempt to create an art out of losing things, ends up deconstructing and re-contextualizing herself to confront a significant loss.

The opening phrase, “the art of losing,” implies a practice. “To master” an art can only be achieved through steadfast repetition and work. Indeed, the word “art,” though nowadays commonly associated with that of the visual and expressive type, denotes a certain technical proficiency and skill in doing something as a result of continual practice (OED.com). But why the art of losing? It is rather odd to talk about loss in the context of practice: practice implies the addition of something, whether it is a collection of experience or an accumulation of skill. Loss, conversely, implies subtraction from one’s life. Already, there is a tension in this attempt to turn “losing” into a building of skill and technique.

Such is the tone set by the first line, and from the start, the poem is stripped of a particular emotional luster: the speaker sounds detached and somewhat didactic, expressing a matter-of-fact attitude, especially in the following lines: “so many things seem filled with the intent / to be lost that their loss is no disaster.” There is an an air of indifference, and the speaker affirms that things will disappear at some point—it is to be expected. That expectation is taken a step further in the phrase “filled with intent,” which implies the potential of construction within the space of loss. In the next stanza, the art of losing is reduced to a quotidian task: “Lose something every day.” Thus begins the practice. Here also emerges an interesting feature: the formation of the poem runs concurrently with the speaker’s explanation of the art of losing. As the speaker builds a case for the “art,” a literal “art” is being created before the eyes of the reader. The form of a poem emerges, one word after another. This relationship between content and form allows the speaker to appear as though she is constructing something. Therefore, the art, or practice, that the speaker introduces isn’t simply an accumulation of skill in losing things—it is also an act of creation out of loss. 

However, there is a peculiar quality to the construction of this practice within the space of the poem. In the third stanza, the speaker instructs, “Then practice losing farther, losing faster: / places, and names, and where it was you meant / to travel. None of these will bring disaster.” What’s significant about this is that there is no consequence involved. Spatially, none of it is real (i.e. not physically present in the speaker’s immediate physical space). The “places” and “names” all exist in the mind, in imagination, and so naturally, none of it “will bring disaster,” because imagination, in and of itself, has no consequence. This allows the speaker to distance herself both in presence and in emotion from these things.

Even when the speaker introduces the “I” perspective, there is considerable restraint in showing any sign of personal sentiment. No sooner after confessing, “I lost my mother’s watch,” the speaker interrupts herself with an exclamatory “And look!” It is as if the speaker doesn’t allow herself time to linger on the mother’s watch and simply presses on with the examples. Following that, the speaker says, “My last, or / next-to-last, of three loved houses went.” What’s odd about this line is the use of the word “houses”—the speaker opts for an impersonal description, rather than a more emotionally layered word such as “homes.” There is something being repressed on the speaker’s part, and later we find that this repression is the key to unlocking the deconstruction of the speaker’s emotional architecture.

The only substantial hint of personal sentiment, up until the last stanza, is when the speaker says “I miss them,” referring to the “realms” once owned. But even this is unconvincing and seems offhand with a “but it wasn’t a disaster” tacked on afterwards. The “realms” and “continents” are so removed in scale that it’s difficult to understand how an ordinary person would miss them. Unless, of course, the speaker is imagining herself on a larger scale as a ruler or an all-powerful figure. Perhaps the speaker tries to take control of the situation by amplifying this practice of loss into an act of creation at its greatest potential, on the scale of rulers and sovereigns. “Cities” and “rivers” and a “continent” are difficult to lose in a single day. These possessions would take weeks, months, years, to slip out of one’s grasp, and the temporal expansion brings to mind the acts of divinities, perhaps even of a God-like being (because losing a few cities and rivers wouldn’t be so terrible in the grand scheme of things). Naturally, the space of writing and poetry allows for the construction of these imaginings. This also hearkens back to the first line of the third stanza, which says, “practice losing farther, losing faster,” as if that advice was intended not only for the reader, but also for the speaker. However, the speaker’s attempt at assimilating this perspective of grand-scale creation is not strong enough to uphold the true weight of the poem. With what follows, we are faced with an inevitable collapse—

—and at last, we arrive at the heart of the matter. The speaker hesitates. A single dash, like a breath caught in midair, punctuates the beginning of the final stanza before words begin to fill the silence: “Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture / I love) I shan’t have lied.” How strange, and how heartbreaking, it is that speaker can only confront her own loss after talking of cities and continents. In a way, though, it is still an expression of expansion: the “you” is greater in meaning than a city or a continent.  This “you” character is also enough to shake the speaker’s once-consistent voice. Repeated lines and phrases are changed, such as “the art of losing’s not too hard to master”—the addition of the “too” adds a note of uncertainty. In the last line, it is as if the speaker struggles to complete the poem: “though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.” The stuttering “like”s and the interruption of a self-encouraging “(Write it!)” both emphasize the speaker’s wavering belief. It is possible that the art of losing “may” actually appear to be a disaster.

Additionally, the “you” and the “I” are physically separated by a caesura in parentheses, and a spotlight is cast upon the subjects: why insert an interlude between the two? Perhaps the speaker, in mastering the art of losing, must first separate herself from the “you” character. This suggests that loss is about redefining oneself in the context of what’s no longer there. One must deconstruct the self and all of its associations in order to cope with loss: it is like disassembling a machine to figure out how to get it running again without a certain part. Through the first five stanzas, the speaker tries to show that even though certain things are no longer present, it is no matter—there is no fear of losing one’s identity. But the last stanza hints that the speaker has not quite figured out how to re-contextualize herself without the “you.” Thus, it is only through the creation and construction of this long, winding list of detached, withdrawn losses that the speaker can steadily build enough repressive energy to break down her own emotional barriers. In other words, the speaker had to go through the course of this construction, to concoct this “art of losing” in her mind in order to arrive, ultimately, at the heart of the matter. The significance of this journey, then, is that it remains within a fixed poetic form (the villanelle) that offers something rigid for the speaker to try to organize a reaction to an insurmountable emotion, and that, in turn, allows the reader to witness, within the containment of the poem, a deconstruction and a revealing of something deeply intimate.

Loss, aside from any metaphorical sense, is a physical subtraction. In terms of one’s own experience, loss becomes addition. Someone may lose a pair of keys or even a house, but when those physical objects are subtracted from that person’s life, what replaces them is the consequence of dealing with those losses. Unfortunately, the repercussions are often messy, unbearable, and disorienting. Especially losing a person: the gestures and physicalities of the body no longer exist, save for in memory, and that absence translates into burden. The feat of this poem, then, is that it provides a structure for meaning to be organized in the aftermath of loss, even if it ends with the confession that, inevitably, we are gracefully broken by the absence of what once was.

The Field

Here is a story that takes place in a dream.


Her eyes were deep at war. Charcoal with a glint of bronze.

“Just a bit further… just a mile, or less.”

She walked clear through the field, over to where a thicket of shadowy green trees covered the cool ground. There was sparse undergrowth, and a jumble of moss-covered rocks bordered a small spring that pooled into a clean pond. This was the place where she had liked to rest and stretch herself across the ground, watching the birds and insects and small animals that rustled and scampered and chirped about. She had liked to face the sky and look up through the moving greenness overhead and count the insects flitting in the hazy soft sunbeams that stood like slanting, glowing bars between ground and treetops. Somehow, she had liked the movement of the little creatures in this place more than the movement of the rest of the world. Everything was intense with life and vibration, a patch of life’s wonders condensed into less than a few square feet.

The memories came like a wind’s stroke against her cheek. She recalled the smell of grass during dry spells. The gossiping trees and the old thin roots underfoot. Rich earth, thick with weeds and crumbly soil pressed under her weight with every step.

Now, she rested beneath a thick elm, and lifted her dark gaze to a red and black bird that had just come to the grove. It twittered on a thin branch, hopped back and forth, and cocked its head. She tried to whistle at it, but her whistle came out too airy, and the bird fluttered away.

It eventually came to her that something else was moving through the field.

She picked herself up from the base of the tree.

Calmly, she turned about and faced the little side path that cut off at right angles through the field. The moon was absent, and no wind stirred the sifted earth. The path dipped slightly where feet had trod and packed the soil beneath into a firm layer. She took a few steps, and the crumbled dirt spurted up in front of her boots.

She plodded along, dragging a scuffed trail behind her. A little bit ahead she saw the expanse and she breathed deeply.

“Just a bit further.”

Something moved in the grass.

“It’s you, isn’t it.”

There was no response, but she didn’t mind, and she continued to walk into the emptiness with the weight of her thoughts swaying like an ocean lullaby.

Remembering

 

 


 

There is no good place or time to write about loss, but it is one of those necessary things to write about. Inevitably, the emotional heft of it grows unbearable, and so words become a (temporary) repository for that heaviness.

I feel guilty writing about my grandfather. What is it to mourn someone you did not know very well? To want to grieve? When I think of him, I think of a few blurred memories, a bicycle, and sheets of drawings. Mostly, it is a blank wall with spots of paint peeling. I spent summers at my grandparent’s apartment in Beijing, most of which I cannot remember. There are videos and pictures from those days; if I close my eyes and breathe slow enough, I can catch strains of movement, all marked with impressions of a buoyant childhood.

What I remember of his death, years ago, is when after he died, my parents flew to China for the funeral and left my sister and I at home, because school was in session. We were only vaguely aware of what it meant to lose someone. I remember when my parents returned, my mother showed me pictures of the ceremony on her phone. She spoke of it in a very calm and dignified manner. I don’t recall my father speaking much of the whole ordeal, if at all. And I remember—I remember a part of me pressing painfully inside, as if struggling to burst out. Where were the tears? Where was the mourning, the anger, the sorrow? 

“Why does tragedy exist? Because you are full of rage. Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief.”
(Anne Carson, Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripides)

Perhaps it was too gradual of a death to feel any type of shock. Perhaps we were waiting for it. All the signs were there. Was I more attuned to this Western notion of lament, hearkening back to funeral rites and wailing laments and faces crumpled into hands? Of youth lost to time, of life too grand to equal death?

“We don’t forget, but something vacant settles in us.”
(Roland Barthes, Mourning Diary)

Grief works its effects in different ways for different people, and I suppose that it is a slower process for me, and that I have only been able to cope with it gradually, laboriously. But in a perverse and perhaps ugly way, grief is also a solace. How upsetting it must be to live a life not worth grieving over once it’s gone. Even more heartbreaking is that millions, billions of people die in this exact way, because it is too painful to care. Unremembered and forgotten—like in that one book of The Iliad, the one everyone usually skips over, the one with all the family names and places people are from—the fact that we forget the sheer scale of that war. No matter if it was real or not. The fact that Homer only had space to tell a handful of stories of this select group of heroes, and the fact that thousands of histories are swept away in the whirlwind of the epic. (Alice Oswald has an answer to this called Memorial. It is poem that retells the Iliad from the perspective of its two-hundred-some minor characters, briefly mentioned or otherwise).

Death is an obsession in a lot of canonical Western literature. An attempt to prepare for the unfathomable. I read poem after poem on the subject of loss, and I read these Greek tragedies that shouldn’t feel cathartic but they do. It is like partaking in this tradition of learning how to cope. Much in the sense of a tradition, it is both individual and communal.

“We were promised sufferings. They were part of the program. We were even told, ‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ and I accept it. I’ve got nothing that I hadn’t bargained for. Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not imagination.”
(C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed)

I wasn’t close enough to my grandfather to have his death break me. For that, I am both devastated and grateful.

Back home, in my room, there is a watercolor painting of a forest. It is by my grandfather. Someday, when I move into a place of my own, that painting will be the first piece of art that I hang up on my walls. I imagine it being across from a window, so that light will catch the glass behind its frame, and only by shadowing it will I be able to see the painting without reflection. Someday, I will look at that painting on a fine autumn evening, and I will think, all these years, this has been in my life. It always was and will be.