When I started this blog, my intent was to focus primarily on contemporary poetry, its relatively unknown writers, and the internet journals that publish some of their work. Unfortunately, while attempting numerous drafts toward this goal, I’ve been dissatisfied with my inability to write the kind of reviews I have in mind. The reason for this is pretty simple: thoughts outpace my ability to clearly express the complicated dynamics of the poems I like best. In other words, I don’t always know how to say what I mean, but I still want to say it. And a lot of the poetry I've been reading lately is deceptively complex.
Which brings me to Adrienne Su. While I haven’t read any of her three books, there are a few poems available online that I particularly enjoy—three of which I’ve highlighted below. In each of these, I was impressed by the way Su develops an ambiguous rhetorical structure that repeatedly draws me back for additional reads. But it isn’t just a matter of puzzling out what a poem means that draws me back. Instead, it's the way these poems gradually unfold into rich tapestries of unspoken consequence and complexity that makes subsequent reads so rewarding. She creates an experience of poetry that is difficult to describe or explain.
Of course, that's usually what I’m hoping for: a poem that generates a sense of experience—aesthetic or conceptual—that defies easy explanation as to its creation. More simply, I enjoy poetry that integrates every element of a compositional structure into a greater whole that speaks beyond its words. And, despite recent reports of poetry's supposed demise in contemporary Western culture, I have no trouble finding poets whose work satisfies this desire. Adrienne Su is no exception.
Of her online poems, "The Re-education of the Intellectuals" is one of my favorites. Beginning with a prosaic title that suggests Mao’s cultural revolution (or the Khmer Rouge), Su’s opening lines surprised me by beginning in a gentle, pastoral tone that eventually unfolds, stanza by stanza, into a humanized portrait of the suffering and sorrow experienced by political prisoners in agrarian labor camps. Eliciting a powerful sense of emotional and intellectual loss, Su’s use of nuanced language (and interrelated meanings) creates a poetic context from which the complexity of cultural experience is richly inferred. Even the title plays a role—beyond its literal meaning—by reflexively demonstrating the dry voice of an ideology that is effectively blind to the prophetic consequences of the poem’s final stanzas.
Another poem, "Adolescence,” is equally effective, using precise language that builds ambiguously from its reflection on particular images and thoughts to a sense of universal meaning that refuses to be tied down to a singular perspective. Written in the past tense, this is a beautiful poem that begins with an allusion to personal adolescence, but then transforms into something far larger (and more meaningful) than the ego-oriented surface of individual experience. More pointedly, Su's use of an ambiguous time-frame in this poem's structure (looking to the future from the past tense while implying a present tense voice) opens the canyon of her primary metaphor to create shades of nuanced meaning for each of the particular images and thoughts that anchor her poem in tangible experience and practical concerns. Su’s masterful use of grammatical tense as a device in creating this impression seems to enact the metaphor while also developing shades of meaning that transcend the practicality of her final lines.
A third poem I enjoyed was "Things Chinese". Speaking in the first person, Su examines the borders we personally erect—almost unconsciously—when it comes to understanding and expressing our subjective experience of the world. Focusing on the details of personal experience, this poem begins as a casual form of self-analysis, but as it proceeds to the final lines, the poem’s analytic voice transforms into a strikingly insightful recognition of subjective limitation and the reflexive role it plays in creating the circumstances that shape experience. Relying on negation as a means of expressing the unspoken consequence of its recollected experience, “Things Chinese”—like the other two poems mentioned above—focuses on the sometimes conflicting roles of socialization and family heritage that form individual concepts of self and society.
How we awaken to the realizations developed in these poems—and the role played by cultural differences—seems to be at the heart of Adrienne Su's poetics. What makes these poems really speak, though, is the complex, detailed attention to craft, heritage, and personal experience that Su brings to her work. On reflection, each of these poems reveal interrelated meanings that complicate any simplified discussion of their creation. In the end, all you can really do is point someone in the direction of a poem and ask them to read. Which, I suppose (in a round about way), I've just done.