(El Paso, Texas: Veliz Books, 2019)
The question of factual accuracy does not come up very often when considering poetry; this is more the controversial domain of non-fiction and memoir. But I find it is relevant when considering Tina Cane’s poetry. Her oeuvre, which includes Once More With Feeling (2017) and this year’s exquisite Body of Work, explores the changing landscape of New York City, the mixed blessings of motherhood and domesticity, and the “continual mysteries” of racial and ethnic heritage. Because these motifs so closely parallel Cane’s life — she grew up in an underprivileged, Chinese-American family in Hell’s Kitchen — it is tempting to characterize her work as autobiographical.
But it is a temptation worth resisting. While many of the autobiographical details reflected in Cane’s work may be factually accurate, it is her careful refracting of those facts, her deliberate enhancements and distortions, that elevate the collection. Though her poem “What He Said From His Hospital Bed,” appears toward the end of Body of Work, I think it offers a provocative lens through which the collection may be viewed. It reads, in full:
(what I heard)
You have to write
so your children know
who you are
The italicized portion of the poem, at first glance, suggests that Cane’s poetry can (and should) be interpreted as autobiographical. The word “have” may seem incidental but the context — a man speaking from his hospital bed — gives it weight. This an urgent injunction (not a suggestion!) for the poet to write well and write truthfully to make herself known to her family.
My initial reaction to this poem was to re-interpret Body of Work as the fulfillment of that injunction. But the isolated parenthetical nagged pleasantly at me: it offers a potent counterpoint to the title and, as the poem offers no action or resolution, it is impossible to ascertain whether what was said by the man in his hospital bed and what was heard by the poet were congruent. Each time I read the poem, it hurts more deeply, and forces me to consider the misunderstandings and missed moments that transpire daily without our noticing. Worse, too, is the idea that no amount of writing (regardless of how well or how truthful) can truly bridge the gaps in our understanding of one another.
In an interview with Fjords Review in 2017, Cane touches briefly on the intersection of factual accuracy and truth in her poetry. She explains: “I think sometimes you’re lying about the details to get closer to the truth of the poem. I’m not a stickler for facts. […]. Because it’s a creative work I feel like some of the details, I know they’re not as accurate, but I have little regard for that.” Clearly, to categorize Body of Work as “only” autobiographical would be both reductive and incorrect: uncovering truth in poetry may have very little at all to do with how closely the details parallel real life.
“(My) American Journal” is a long, ambitious poem that appears, to me, to reflect this creative approach. The poem is highly detailed — in many places, it reminds me of childhood dinners that took place in my grandparents’ basement in Fort Lee, New Jersey — and that specificity makes the poem feel true in an autobiographical sense. In an early stanza, for example, the narrator describes that a “fresh television set” is kept unopened in a box under the kitchen table while “the one we watched / displayed everything in green.” The perspective here is tightly focused; we see through the narrator’s eyes. But, as the poem moves on and the level of detail becomes more generalized, the perspective broadens:
everything wrung within an inch of its life / is comfort of a certain kind / stoicism in the land of plenty // is one kind of shrine /
Here, the poem offers what can be interpreted as one possible version of a broader immigrant experience: economic conservatism and, more generally, the impulse to hang on dearly to the past and present due to mistrust of the capricious future.
The beauty of “(My) American Journal” is that it finds its equilibrium by continuing this pattern of expansion and contraction through its final image. My favorite section — which reminds me of the Dixie cup of blackened oil my grandma kept on the kitchen counter to re-use for the next batch of fried chicken cutlets — contracts the perspective again. She writes:
daily they made space for the dead
crowding out other essentials while / protecting the wall by the stove with sheets of tin foil // to guard against oil from her spattering wok / my grandmother kept the enamel of her White Rose stove // unflecked as a temple floor / pulled racks from its oven without mitts / I used to wonder if she still had fingerprints
The details are selected with a canny eye: The White Rose stove and image of the narrator’s grandmother’s hands de-emphasize the cultural experience and re-emphasize the personal mysteries of the narrator’s Chinese-American heritage. But it doesn’t matter much, ultimately, whether any of the images are factually accurate.
In fact, placing the titular “my” in parentheses is an important signal: it can either underscore the unimportance (or negligible value of) the possessive or, perhaps, indicate that the stories and experiences contained within the poem “belong” to no one. I have long found the chaff of repeated parentheticals hugely satisfying in poetry and Cane applies this technique to considerable effect. As the poem moves into political terrain, tucking “my” between parenthesis throughout the poem feels increasingly decisive and grave: Our stories, no matter how singular, are never only our own.
Body of Work closes with “Conflation” and, while the entire collection demonstrates Cane’s tremendous poetic capability, this poem stands out to me as essential reading. It is maybe unfair of me to “give away” the collection’s ending, but these final lines grabbed me and have not yet let go:
how a man who dies of drink / is a man who dies of thirst
how if I am love / I am not / always the loving one
how if I stay / I am also / sometimes running away
same as you same as anyone
The poem affirms with its proficient use of repetition and “breath” spaces within lines both life’s paradoxes and synergies. The phrases “I am not,” “I am also,” and “same as” point to important truths about the spaces we share while living in the world with others. It is a basic human impulse to claim authority of our life story; we revolt when our desired narrative is thrown off course. “Conflation” pointedly tells us that life — identity — is not that straightforward or easy.
I like to think that closing the collection with “Conflation” is Cane’s deliberate response to the injunction in “What He Said From His Hospital Bed.” Consider: To “conflate” is to blend, combine, fuse, intermix, synthesize. Cane’s work does precisely that and, though the Body of Work may not be “autobiographical” in a factually verifiable sense, her poetry feels as intimate and honest as a fingerprint.
| | |
Lisa Grgas is the Associate Poetry Editor at The Literary Review. Her work has appeared in Tin House Magazine, Adroit Journal, Luna Luna, and elsewhere. She lives in Portland, Oregon.
You can purchase Body of Work here.