By Lo Kwa Mei-en
Alice James Books
Reviewed by David Nilsen
Yearling explores the chaos and staccato emotion of young adulthood with elemental language and imagery—fire, water, earth, wind, and the creatures that thrive and suffer amidst them. It is rare for a collection of poetry to be so consistent in its focus and expression, intricately weaving and repeating imagery and motifs without ever belaboring its own themes. There is a dark electricity bristling along every taut line of this collection, and taking as it does the danger, fear, thrill, pain, anger, lust, and identity-shifting of adolescence and young adulthood, these verses are appropriately elusive and fractured, dodging straight questions, bold in their ambiguity.
Imagine looking down from the sky at a roiling carpet of storm clouds. At first it seems impenetrable, a swirling mass of random violence, but then you notice breaks in the clouds. You notice more and more of them, and through these holes you can see fragments of action down below: a child crossing an ocean with her family, a teenager's first sexual encounter, a young woman talking to her mother. You see beasts and birds racing about, clawing and cawing and killing, more of them than you can count. As you stare at these disjointed images you discover they are related; they are all glimpses of the same young woman, even the beasts. If you could somehow arrange them you would know who she is, and so would she. This is the experience of reading Yearling.
The collection begins with a declaration of the poet's glowering glory in "Ariel": "When battle- / ready, sober, I was gorgeous / in anger." She finishes the poem with "I dreamt like a war machine / and woke like a child." In the next poem this anger is questioned, and a covering of her fury is hinted at as she speaks to Jupiter: "I couldn't wear my red, red / storm on the outside for five hundred years." In the subsequent poems her anger is guarded, buried, hardened. Images emerge of brittle tea cups, clay pots, and wood-carved girls on the prows of ships, before rigidity is shattered once again in the last poem of the book's opening movement, "A Girl Thief's Illustrated Primer": "Be first-felony Eve in the red telephone booth / outside the garden, a battle coal / dialing herself back into the war."
As with the above example, it is inappropriate to approach Yearling looking for direct explications of the poet's heart and mind. The collection is like an extended musical score in which varying themes emerge, dive beneath the surface, and reemerge later, each one layered atop the other. The music is played with elemental instruments; we hear overtures of fire and light, motifs of water and the creatures that dwell below it, swelling crescendos of air and sky and swiftly diving birds, quiet passages of dreams and stars playing throughout, and a final coda that picks out all these early themes and deposits them together on the far shore of the poet's dark sea in "Canon with Wolves in the Water": "The world may end in fire . . . / How a wolf watching water is how I want / how I want to love the new apocalypse for good."
Consistent with these alternating instrumentations are the shifts of perspective; Mei-en freely moves between the first, second, and third person in her poems, and uses all of them at points to refer to herself and her proxies. In a volume that explores the ripping and reassembling of self in adolescence and young adulthood, the poet by turns looks in at herself, speaks to herself as in a mirror, and sets her self on the shelf to examine and describe. So deftly does she shift her point of view we never feel jarred or tricked, which is not to say we always know what is happening. Consonant with the shifting identities and imagery quaking beneath the surface, the language of these poems is fractured and broken, their clear meaning always just out of reach, though still in sight.
Mei-en is wickedly clever with the structure of many of these poems. "Pinnochia from Pleasure Island" stands out in particular. The poem's forty-one lines follow a strictly chiastic structure, though her craft is so subtle this doesn't glare from the page or feel like a gimmick. Each phrase in the first half of the poem is altered in its echo in the second half, so the poem reads completely different from both sides of the center hub. The poem revolves around the conflict between the poet's own aggressive sexual desire and the aggressive sexual predation she has experienced, hinged around this central line: "Laws don't break here. It's like I can still break." The verses ripple out from here in concentric circles on the surface of the poem's dark waters. The poem displays Mei-en's total command of her craft, both in intent and execution.
There is a gorgeous lyricism to Yearling that the book's fractured language only serves to highlight, isolating lines so beautiful they punch the reader in the throat, as in "Pinnochia on Fire": "But I light up like an obscene October / sky celebrating a stroke of war." Or in "Reader, Fauna": "We'll scar both star / -studded knees kneeling on a red / blade of the electro-heavens." Periodically she will unveil an image that perfectly captures emotional experience in the language of the senses, as here in "Becoming Radio": "have I ever lived with a need / that went up to echo in the summer / attic of the throat?"
Lo Kwa Mei-en is a dazzling new talent, writing with a maturity of craft and a ferocity of expression rarely found in a debut collection. Light and dark, fire and water, pain and desire are all held in terrible balance. As she writes in "Prodigal Animals," "Let its light wash out and through, a nova unlocking a rib cage."