Post Your Opinion
Brief Reviews - Poetry
by Madeline Bassnett

With her first book of poetry, Monkeypuzzle (Press Gang Publishers, 107 pages, $14.95 paper), Rita Wong positions herself alongside poets such as Dionne Brand and Muriel Rukeyser, for whom the personal and political are intertwined.

The recipient of the Asian-Canadian Writers' Workshop 1997 Emerging Writer Award for Poetry, Wong takes risks in both form and subject matter. As her subject matter changes from memories of childhood and historical portraits to sensuous love poems, so too does her form. She doesn't hesitate to challenge the eye with a poem that gives its reader the visual impression of a Chinese character: Chinese becomes a backbone for the English language to shape itself around, allowing the poem subversively to hold two languages at once. In "pomegranate days", she addresses this state of living with two languages, with English fighting for the upper hand:

once bit

the english apple

must be

chewed & chewed & chewed

jaw tired

bone weary

this language has become you

trips up the cantonese stairs

Too many poets forget that the exploration of form is an important part of finding one's poetic voice. Wong may not always be successful in finding her form, but she is clearly discovering her choices. There were times when I found the poetic lining a distraction, as though the essence of the poem hadn't yet been uncovered, or perhaps wanted to become a prose poem, lined in a paragraph, a solid chunk of image.

Wong confronts issues of race, culture, and class, drawing from her personal experience as a Chinese-Canadian as well as from history. "for annie" is a fine example of Wong's ability to portray an historical character. She tells just enough to allow us to step into the reality of China Annie, a woman who escaped slavery in order to marry her lover: "so now i am a thief. funny how i always knew i'd be/a scarlet woman, lucky red, flaming alive". We observe Annie's struggles as a Chinese woman in early America, her strength in claiming freedom from her owners. Wong allows this poem to speak for itself, and allows the reader to draw her own conclusions about the political realities of China Annie's life.

Unfortunately, Wong does not always trust the strength of her own words, and sometimes lapses into polemic. I imagine that this trust, both in herself and in the reader as an active participant, will grow with time.

Wong's love poems are particularly successful. In "chloro fill", she takes us through sexual rhythms, the pauses, the wetness, in a completely refreshing way:

rhythms green green ,o

,drip me ,drip you ,o

humid now ,tug

curving cell's throb

throats into sigh

o wonder o this ,ness

The curving form of this poem reflects both the movement of making love and the curves of a lover's body. Wong uses the comma in a way I've never seen before: as a letter, the sound of dripping water in a deep, ferny dell.

I have no doubt that Wong's future work will continue the lush challenges of Monkeypuzzle. It will be exciting to follow her maturation as a poet who stretches the boundaries of subject and form, and who does not shy away from risk and invention.

Madeline Bassnett


Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us