August 2000

Amy Holman


Amy Holman is a poet and prose writer and Director of the Literary Horizons program at Poets & Writers, where she also writes a column on publishing issues. Her poetry has been in literary journals, chapbooks, and anthologies, including Best American Poetry 1999 (Scribner, 1999) and The Second Word Thursdays Anthology (Bright Hill Press, 1999). 
Of Flesh & Spirit
by Wang Ping
Coffee House Press, 1998
102 pages

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Language is resonant and inescapable, and the poetry books chosen by Coffee House Press are forms that follow function, as Porsche would say, forms driven by language. As I've mentioned before, Elaine Equi's books raise the question of how much influence other people's diction—absurd or familiar—has on our own expression. And Wang Ping, in Of Flesh & Spirit, finds herself uncomfortably bound, like her grandmothers' lotus feet, by ten centuries of misogynistic language and culture she must defy.

Wang has published two other books with Coffee House, both fiction—American Visa (1994), a collection of interconnected stories of a young Chinese woman in America, and Foreign Devil (1996), a novel of an outsider in her own culture. She edited a collection of the young, avant-garde Chinese poets struggling with language and political repression (published by Hanging Loose Press in 1999), some of which was excerpted last year in a special issue of the literary journal, Manoa, called "The Zig-Zag Way." Her dissertation is on the ancient practice of deforming a woman's foot to the three inch golden lotus men held to be highly erotic and the radiant psychological and sexual denial of women. As she tries to exorcise her anger over sexual repression, her subjects, themes, and situations keep coming back book after book, and they converge in this collection.

That old rhyme from our schoolyards—sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me—is a tough belief to have in China, where the word for woman is also the word for slave, and curses to women range from "may you bear no sons," to "losing money commodity," "disastrous flood," and "stinky whore," a culture where parents will name a first-born daughter "second girl" to trick the gods into taking pity on them and deliver a son next time, and where the second, third, and fourth girls are drowned in chamber pots. One's paternal grandmother is "breast-breast" while one's maternal grandmother is "outside stranger, old woman," though I would think it more natural the other way around. "What Are You Still Angry About" is a moving work that begins in lines and flexes into a biographical record of the lives of the women in her mother's family, women who supposedly do not matter:

But I must be an ungrateful beast
because I always feel like screaming with my broken voice.
How can I explain the anger that prevents me from breathing?
I want to scream
every time I bow to my family tree which hangs in the clan hall.
It records the men of Wang family for over fifty generations
whereas the names of my female ancestors
just vanish like tadpole tails.

And back we go, suddenly in paragraphs, listing the "outsiders" and defining each woman's name in contrast to her life as far back as her great, great grandmother, before she fast-forwards to herself and the unhappy, torn-up lives of her younger sisters. Throughout this book, there is a realization of women's being as terrible to their own sex as men are to them, that sex is evil and too much of it is the root of all women's troubles, and that women are, themselves, the root of all disaster in Chinese history.

Wang's life is remarkable against this backdrop. From her poems, we know she paid for her own tuition to Beijing University selling pigeon eggs and working in the country. Her married boyfriend was going to abandon his family and emigrate to America with her, but his American cousin would only sponsor Wang, so she arrived alone in New York City to start life anew. New was not exactly fresh, shuttling from place to place, job to job, meeting unfavorable expectations, and yet she began writing here and obtained a Master's degree. Her boyfriend thinks she's pretty and smart, not a whore, not a flood. "I can laugh as much as I want,/but I still feel like screaming inside." And why not? By now, she is a chorus of screams.

Wang's book is often a relentless list of ironic or heartless examples of China's righteous subordination of girls and women, a series of anecdotes laid out for us like a researcher presenting data to a panel. Though I can recognize the courage she has exerted to assert her sexual identity and individual voice, for nearly every "poem" is a work of cultural defiance, I do question this as a collection of poetry alone. Most of the work in Of Flesh & Spirit is prose, from the title piece to "Born In the Year of the Chicken" to "Female Marriage." And while largely autobiographical, one of the best poems of oppression in the book, "Song of Calling Souls," is written in the drowned voices from the ship Golden Venture—men who sold their belongings and bought passage for their families to America but were forced out of the ship in the New York harbor: "so we jumped/into the night/into the raging sea,/our breasts smothered/by foam and weeds,/our passions tangled,/the breath beaten from our bodies/by despair and hate." This poem appears in the final descent of the book when Wang is in the new world, the new language, at a geographical and ear distance from her home. It and those that follow—"Endless Embrace," "Ultimate Passage," and "Flash of Self Consciousness" are more complete, combining the passion of the fact (like the prose at the start of the book) with the result of her struggle with the facts. The title poem is about feminine sexual identity, but so is the book. The difference is that the poem is more flesh, and the book ultimately acknowledges the whole identity—body and soul, prose and poetry. By the end of the last poem, "Flash of Self Consciousness," Wang knows that she has wanted to escape her mother since she first learned to walk, that, even then, she was ready to be her own person. "I can hear the sound of silence, the echo/of my inner silence, a silence/which is not a void."



Amy Holman: Book Review
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