Rhapsody in Plain Yellow for a Perpetual Immigrant Nation
Or, The Sanctuary of Truths: How I Got There By Way of Marilyn Chin’s “Rhapsody”
By The Editors on 10.01.09
This is an original personal essay by Jean Larson (see bio below). It represents her response after reading Marilyn Chin’s 2002 poetry collection, Rhapsody in Plain Yellow
1. I knew a poem existed inside and outside of me multiple moments in my pre-poet life. Like Marilyn Chin’s “X-Acto knife” muse in Rhapsody in Plain Yellow, there it was: “beauty and terror.” It happened at about age nine when I couldn’t help crying for hours having suddenly realized my separateness from my mother, even though she sat there, stroking the hair up off my forehead.
And once when I hadn’t felt the passion of a man for eight years. And I suddenly experienced it, mind and body—both, feasting and exploding, cataloging details, memories, dreams—like tiny bulbs on a string, rapid-fire pops of shattered glass: laments, fears, longings zapped. But also the return of emotional complexity and simplicity stalking each other. Beethoven and candlelight sparking ecstasy, flowing parallel and merging into the physical surprise of my body’s proficiency, juxtaposed with the steeping interludes during which my story swirled out around the quiet basin of his bed and he lay listening. How he gasped in surprise, declaring, “That’s an amazing story!”—objectively removed from my pain and able to enjoy the narrative of woman deceived by hope and trust: thus, the empty body of my Self, the vessel ready, willing to receive.
The poem began in that emptiness, and rounded out in the vessels filling with both the perfection of the physical, the wonder of the promise, and then the boggling paradox of mind when this entity-man began to share his love for both Beethoven and Rush Limbaugh—the incongruity unimaginable to me. The simple antithetic reality that nothing is simple. That Marilyn Chin must write a poem about her granduncle kidnapping her mother in order to sell her. That her grandmother chased him down, rescued the little girl. That Grandmother’s feet were bound when she did this. And that in the same breath the poem, “Cauldron,” hurls the paradox: “Her cry would startle the ages. / Meanwhile, the chrysanthemum blooms.” That we all possess a love-hate relationship with Truth. That the poem began and won’t end.
Poems lie in the crux of our paradox-filled lives, form a fulcrum point. “Poetry is tribal, not material,” says C. D. Wright, “…poets are the ones who see that the word does not break faith with the line of the body.” Whether beautiful or terrible, the poem calls me out when I read it, when I write it: “When you clean the head, don’t forget the eyes,” writes Marilyn Chin. Words that do not break faith with the line of our bodies are behind-the-eye words—following our whole length, deep below the surface. But we do need our skin, that invaluable container.
2. The NordicTrack clacks, skis falling loosely in the mechanism’s tracks. I butterfly clip open Rhapsody in Plain Yellow and grab it when breathing reaches stasis. I read aloud Marilyn Chin’s poem, “Where We Live Now (Vol. 3, #4) eternal noonscape: “I don’t love you for your savage beauty,” fits into one exhale. Line one. “…not for your pale fragrant flesh,” facilitates exhale: line two. “…not for your sun-spectred countenance,”—line three—”…and your stars that paralyze the sky”: I’m flowing with the love and sense of impending bile. I enter the sanctuary of creation astride the poem. My heavy breath fits into Chin’s lines and I recreate it, just as it recreates me. It scrapes into the soft tissue of my imagination, dislodging loosened pieces, giving space, and breath—mine? Or hers? In the echoing antechamber, then, I see some elbow, heel, hip—some skeletal part of her soul—when in “To Pursue the Limitless” her poem pursues an infinitive “You”:
You were faithful to the original You were married to the Chinese paradox Beautiful words are not truthful The truth is not beautiful
and then the paradox interpreted:
You have translated "bitter" as "melon" "Fruit" as "willful absence"
There are body parts of consciousness flying through the air. I can’t help myself. I suck them in. They barrage my lungs, scour my eyes. Loveliness is discarded for truth: concise, un-Romantic, paradoxical Truth (boldly refuting Keats’ “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”!) Beauty exists. Truth exists. And they sometimes have nothing to do with each other. “Savage beauty” has failed us all, and the dazzling, be-tingling “sun-spectred countenance” that births obsession, too, withering when the truth about the obsessee comes out to play its ironic conundrum.
3. I curl up in a hammock and stare at the garden through the screen. I hope for a hummingbird. I get a helicopter passing overhead, low. Chin’s “eternal noonscape” pulled me in and took me down. It rains and I watch the phlox wands driven to the ground, blooming. It’s been a cold, dry summer. I, too, long, for a lover’s “limp arm draped over my pillow”—and I could bid him come, establish the arm again. But then I couldn’t paint bamboo and leave my body gladly, ideas planted in my head by Chin’s noonscape. The lover, the arm, the helicopter, the hummingbird are outer. Today I re-establish myself as poet, let the malaise exile me from any response-ability. I had let myself be responsive, I thought; then a boyfriend described my best attributes (when pressed) as “caring, very loving; oh, and very sexy.” A nerve-bed of malaise could sprout in that dung—poems stalking each other like herbivoric Venus flytraps. He also declared my poems lacked myth. Meanwhile, I’m crazy-weeding my garden of all the myth-weeds—the firm-held myths, holding firm—unable to plant when I’m busy trying to weed all this outer stuff from the manure-rich soil, trying to act responsibly!
Marilyn’s poem is a wind, like a mariah or a zephyr, bringing the rain. Blow, Marilyn: blow malaise, exile—here in the house where I was born, I grapple with the tricky problem: all appears intact, even when peeled back, membrane glistening. The trickiness is the assumption that all must be well—I was born here, for god’s sake. There is no explanation for a sense of exile from the body—thus, madness. Preprogramming says, either buck up and declare yourself the problem—(snot nosed, tousle-haired,” writes Marilyn) (sexy and altogether too magnanimous, says another.) My roommate wants to try eggplant recipes. My client wants me to get her a baby now. The ex wants Loki, not trees. And I, curled up with Rhapsody in Plain Yellow, listening to the wind blow residual rain from the birch onto the astilbe and bee balm flowers. There is an invasive tree getting bigger by the day, stealing the white birch’s sun, soil, water. I need to do something about it. Get up. Find a saw. But now, thanks to Marilyn, I am a poet again: nothing, and everything, some strange exiled conduit. When I’m not looking I sense a quieting joy in this. So, instead, I google “Gibbs Farm Museum”—and learn about the Dakotah who walked the same trails I run. But they were headed to the wild rice ponds up north. I run in circles.
4. Chin’s platform:
The poet guards the conscience of society—no, you're wrong. She stands lonely on that hillock observing the pastures. The world scoffs back with bog and terror.
Though the world may scoff, Marilyn Chin’s poems stubbornly resist being cut off from their dark, inner blare. I want to stop. But I cannot move my eyes from the lines: “How is my mail-order darling? / Waiting for her man’s hard cock / He enters her from behind / her sobbing does not deter him / …Who is both Master and intruder? / Whose bloody handprint on the wall?” I know the wall, the taste of the floor, the spit wiped from my eyes, the hands throwing me to the tile—the slandering knife of a man’s words nurturing self-loathing, loathing of life. I took on the husband-words; they tattooed my body, in and out; lonely on my hillock I remember the accusation, “flip-flopping fish;” all the “c-words” cutting me. And I will never forget them, nor will my poem.
My poem/Chin’s poem create the sanctuary: “In art we enter into the sanctuary itself,” writes Wallace Stevens, “The true poem is not the work of the individual artist; it is the universe itself, the one work of art which is forever perfecting itself.” The plain-spoken shouts of these poems which call out violence against women—against any “other”—in both East and West, pull the secrets to our tongues. The poem begins to perfect itself within the reader. Too much information you mutter with bog and terror. Cut open the secrets and heal, we shout back: “She who survives to tell the tale shall hold the power,” writes Marilyn Chin.
The Poet’s dirty laundry becomes of the tribe, a fulcrum for healing.
5. Chin’s “yellow fists” fight: “If you cut my yellow wrists, I’ll teach my yellow toes to write” This is her version of seeing that “the word does not break faith.” There is no turning to the bright side, no sweet “melon” evolving from “bitter.” No ignoring her “yellow”-ness. Her poems just say it: “Me and silence / and some strange race WRECKED!” She, poised as the collision-piece between parents and new homeland, embodying transition: “A heathen poidog, a creamy half-and-half?” Daughter of Hong Kong and of the US. She grew up watching the outer-identities of her mother and her father—their quiet collapse under the weight and thrall of change from East to West—their “assimilation.” Chin is the witness—the truth teller. She must watch, it seems; take mental notes. She cannot help the spilling.
6. Gaston Bachelard writes, “we feel calmer and more confident when in the old home, in the house we were born in, than we do in the houses on streets where we have only lived as transients.” If this is true, does calmness equal numbness? A connection to status quo, lulled, lulled, lulled into a night-dream world, not one of daydreams—and in those night-dreams do all the ghosts of the house rise up out of the old lampshades and joists?
My house has been my one stable rock from which I’ve launched divorce and single parenthood. Lately I’ve been longing to shake that strong-footing so I can feel the sense of my Self as strong—Marilyn Chin-strong—exiled, forced to find my sea legs in a world alien to Self. I dreamed a tornado devoured my house, took everything but the two-by-fours framing air. In the dream I cried out in delight at the prospect of re-invention of everything but my shelter’s skeleton. Now I wish to walk away and leave it to my memory and imagination. My creative mind wants a nest with no familiar ghosts.
My space in the house I was born in, the antithesis of Marilyn Chin’s. Her house is transient, along with her name, her identity, her landscape. But her ghosts follow her. This is not heartening.
7. My mother is lying in a hospital bed in a coma. I’m twenty-five. I’m holding my one-year-old daughter. I’m stroking the hair up off my mother’s forehead. For a week I hear her thoughts. I know she’s okay. We’re not separate. Then I watch her stop breathing. I am holding on tight to my daughter with my left hand and my mother’s cold hand with my right. I nearly break my brain trying to reconcile the two.
Twenty-five years later I still sleep in my mother’s bedroom. I position the bed all willy-nilly, differently angled than ever my mother placed it, different than ever I placed it when married to either of my two husbands. I’m practicing—my raft is floating on a green lake. I think it’s soon time to try a stream or maybe an ocean.
There was a moment in this bed when I lay crying, husband turned away from me, divorce on my mind, wanting my mother, when I realized I could be my own mother, do it pretty well, like I mother my children. The mother-skin, a good fit.
8. “Marilyn”—NOT “Mei Ling,” her given name. Her father renamed her for a famous blonde when at age five he transplanted her into Southern California from Hong Kong. Though she taped her eyes open in poems, they never became round. In “Song of the Giant Calabash,” she smashes her father’s head like a calabash (with a poem). No one will mind once they hear the tale, the daughter’s “useless” hands and mind, shredded by a father’s tongue and might.
So, when Chin asks, “Are you a rose—or a tattoo of fire?” (in “Identity Poem (#99)”!) I see her mother, Rose, tattooed upon a daughter, Marilyn, identity blazing both painfully and beautifully upon her skin. “She married him for a green card / He abandoned her for a blonde.” The flaming flower is blonde Marilyn, is exiled Mother Rose, is the inverse of the inner process: the beauty of nothing, clearly a Buddhist-bent sort of relief.
9. Birth has its inherent problems. We are freed into the tribe, unto ourselves, and into an ever-insidious longing for mother, (for an all-surrounding reassurance.) At her death, our worst fear is consummated and we pass through into the poetry of an orphan: “I sit at her grave for hours / A slow drizzle purifies my flesh / I still yearn for her womb / And can’t detach / …What is the void but motherlessness? / The song bellies up,” writes Chin. In her poem, “Transcendental Etude,” Adrienne Rich cuts it to the quick: “But in fact we were always like this, / rootless, dismembered: knowing it makes the difference.” Knowing it makes the difference. Rootless and dismembered. Born! Where does this “knowing” get us? How does this awareness free me from this sense of longing?
In the very first line of her book, Chin gives me an image to work with (to perfect): “The canary died in the gold mine, her dreams got lost in a sieve.” Grief-filled, but there is the sieve image, the sieve that catches dreams, and canaries, inner and outer things. “Poetry is a vast orphanage in which you and I are stars,” writes Chin. Can I—we—sift out identity to reconcile the tension between this unavoidable longing to be one with an “other”— and the ecstasy of liberation from the smothering, from the indistinct blurring, from the inner boundarilessness between self and parent? I want to choose my tattoos, put them in their place, call out the invasive inner messages, exorcise them to “outer” and tear off the plastic roses that needle, constrict, pretend, and alienate my peace. Then, I want to dwell, at will, in the presence of the other entity—Self—the inner entity. The star.
Perhaps poetry and its orphanage of stars might be what Alan Williamson is talking about when he describes an eruption of inner life—and how this explosion of being takes us out of the shared social world, transporting us into those self-defining moments in life when awareness of the tension between self and other—“solitude and dependency”—shutters through body and soul and we are both terrified and fascinated. Do I want to be alone or with someone? Which is it? Irreconcilable, perhaps the poem reconciles, accepts the Truth; perhaps we awaken from the blurry womb-dream and accept our abandonment—detach—laugh at ourselves, accept a partner if we’re lucky to find one.
This process is what I experience through Marilyn Chin’s clamoring “Rhapsody.” By the end she has moved from graveside and dares end the book with this: “Leave us nothing,” a paradoxical awakening beyond identity, beyond mother, beyond the harping of modern culture. She is freed of the pain of her history and that of her mother and father—those outer identity elements named, said: lunatic, orphan, old world, and even lover, and poet.
She takes us through her poetic sifting, first finding blues smeared on yellow, then, a clearer “plain yellow,” her identity a distinct outer entity. Stated. Said. Diminished to bare nothing:
…it ain't all randy dandy in the new kingdom. Say rebuke descry Hills and canyons, robbed by sun, leave us nothing. —Marilyn Chin
Even in the orphanage, we thrive. Birth ain’t so bad if we can manage to live. The sieve to “nothing” gives me hope.
10. Come, Marilyn. You show me my skin. My tattoos. I skim my body parts. I run to know my feet are sure. For comfort, for strength, I exult in the sky meeting empty field—touch my mind to “nothing.” I let in the knowledge that just beyond the hillock stands a Dakotah tipi, neatly fenced within museum’s yard. Observed. Othered. Exiled—within its own stone’s throw of home. My father bought this bare land and built on it. I forage and plant and borrow against it. I spit on it, claim its ownership of my soul, curse its hold on me, jump on the back of this poet who espouses to no home—to homelessness of spirit and an evolution into the “nothing” of this lack, a found-comfort in this Truth, versus comfort in a lie: that I own what my father staked and fenced.
So I follow your suggestion, Ms. Chin, I let the fists come out fighting. The toes, the feet, the fingers, the yellow fists, red fists, black fists, brown and white. The Limbaugh fists. To see the fists dance, to say the truth, hear it said; to rebuke the liar, and descry the lie blasts to smithereens the comfortable cartoons, well-nurtured by the caricatures playing across the screen of my culture. Blast and break, splinter—breathe and see. With inner and outer clarified, there is no way around the truth of how I came to be here, and the stories of the ghosts who wander here.
11. There’s the off chance it never would have happened, you wouldn’t have become. For opium you could have washed away down the slavery river, mother sold, mother ravished. I, too, could have ended pre-birth, death at the rifle point, my great-great-grandmother lost in the Dakotah’s last battles to keep the land. Same as the prairie people, grandmothers mowed down at Wounded Knee, New Ulm, Scandia Grove (where Olof successfully hid in tall grasses and grew to piece together my lineage.) What are the broken lines? Who are we missing? Who is exiled on her ancestral soil? Here I am, a curved line in a hammock holding a pen: maybe this sticky longing is for mountains and fjords. I try my damnedest to steward “my land,” write poems including those whose path crossed it just 150 years ago.
12. I nearly broke my brain trying to reconcile my discoveries in the Limbaugh-lover’s bed. The romance/the three-quarter ton pick-up full of Limbaugh-logs. The ink on my thigh where he first wrote his name/the passion with which he spoke his scarlet adulations to Limbaugh-hood. I left him for my hammock. For poems written by candlelight, alone on my porch.
13. Ultimately, poetry threatens my “American” way of life. To face my own truth is to face my whiteness: “The white egret on a dunghill stands”—the whole truth of my “arrogance, ignorance, indifference” (from Chin)—greed for the material, self-exile from the tribal (thus—spiritual poverty.) I turn away from the suffering of the majority of the world’s people. I ignore the scrum left sloshing in the wake of my consumption’s violence, ignore the wilting of Earth itself; dismembered, I ignore—forget—the tribe, and poetry’s call to the tribe. I need to clean my eyes, to hear Chin descry “Some American poet” who “said to me, ‘The Haiku is dead / I thought, pink and swollen, something sad about his body.’” I am pink, swollen and sad. So I let the poems belly up, work their sifting sieve.
14. The sanctuary is not an isolated place—it is the universe. The poet has a voice that plants poems like seeds inside of us to sprout and pop and become our own knowing. If the poet is Marilyn Chin, a new immigrant, she has the agency to represent all of us, to remind us of the significance we place on our outer shell—our appearance, our role, our racial heritage, our class. Her poems become our own and we see our skin. Back “home” it wasn’t so randy dandy, and neither is it here—it’s complex and hard wherever you roam. But if there is injury dealt in the wandering, we have to make right the evil, else our own inner soft places carry the injury, the blood/the death/the rot/the inner knives lodged in those we wronged and within ourselves: preventing movement, stardom.
We’re all the same—that’s the point.
I am the great-great-granddaughter of immigrants who took the land of the Dakotah and Ojibway; I am the great-granddaughter of a poor orphan, of subsistence farmers who spoke no English, who changed their names to fit in. A little boy hid in prairie grass and avoided death—the life of a child was rescued, and thus I exist.
15. Teetering on the fulcrum of awareness, we are the poem. All who are non-Native, break our heads against an inherent condition: exiled immigrants sharing the precious land we robbed and spoiled. With knowledge of the precious inner, the flagrant outer, we just might be able to save our souls, begin the creative process of reconciliation for the ignored sins of immigrant forefathers and mothers: Chin catches the images in her poetry sieve (I mix two of her poems): “Black swollen fruit dangling on a limb.” [“They gave you the paterland, but you were too lazy to farm it”.] “Red forgotten flesh sprayed across the prairie.” [“Your condo is leaking, but you’re too angry to repair it”.] “Parched brown vines creeping over the wall.” [“Love grows in the garden, but you’re too impudent to tend it”.] “Yellow winged pollen, invisible enemies.” [“The Goddess wags her finger at your beautiful wasteland”.]
The native people here were hunters and gatherers, not owners of land. My poor great-great-grandparents dreamed of tillable land, came and took advantage of the landless. In the line of my body, buried deep, is a hut at the foot of a glacier at the end of a Norwegian fjord, the land too poor to produce much.
16. Tonight I transplant echinacea—purple cone flower. I dig it out of my poetry garden and place it in a more arid garden—poor soil, hot sun, street-side and salty. I’ll call it the Sanctuary of Truths, watch the healing flower struggle and thrive, bear its myriad blossoms with their astounding centers that give birth to even more star-like babies. I’ll dedicate this place to Marilyn Chin, bless it with her strength in truth-telling. I’ll move a black-eyed Susan here, too, for my mother, let it be the Aria to mothers Chin began. I’ll let the poem perfect itself here. Put her tin can, too, provoke bog and terror when my neighbors walk by. My daughter, now grown, will tell me to weed it; and I will hear the freeway’s “requiem” when I do. “In the motherless desert heat / I am missing you. Welcome sweet sojourner.”
17. To live with my Self as well as with the tribe, I live and breathe poems, both my own and those of others, choke on their phlegm and bitter translation, run from their truth in terror, but ultimately, disembark from the ski machine, jubilant in the sanctuary of Truths. I see my body, strong. I sense the inner quiet of my Self, distinct, untouchable. Identity glistens on my skin. I ponder exile, picking up Chin’s “Rhapsody.” Caught in a “twofold” consciousness, Chin summons souls—only to find nothing—a connection to Self that is paradoxically contingent upon connection to “other”-ness—an infinitive “You.” As poet and dreamer she sings and I follow—sojourn into the sprawl of the global tribe, vigilantly sifting with the sieve of poetry, ever perfecting the universe—the sanctuary—it creates.
Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Trans. Maria Jolas. Boston: Beacon, 1994.
Chin, Marilyn. Rhapsody in Plain Yellow. New York: Norton, 2002.
Rich, Adrienne. “Transcendental Etude.” The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974-1977. Adrienne Rich’s Poetry and Prose. Ed. Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi and Albert Gelpi. New York: Norton. 86-90.
Stevens, Wallace. The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination. New York: Vintage, 1951.
Williamson, Alan. “Falling off the World: Poetry and Innerness.” Poets Teaching Poets. University of Michigan Press, 1996.
Wright, C.D. “69 Hidebound Opinions, Propositions, and Several Asides from a Manila Folder Concerning the Stuff of Poetry.” By Herself. Saint Paul: Graywolf, 2004.
Jean Miriam Larson‘s poems, interviews and essays have appeared in Midway Journal, rock paper scissors, the Park Bugle, and in performances with TalkingImageConnection and Three Dances. Her poem, Night Suite, received honorable mention from judge, Stanley Plumly, in the 2003 Ann Stanford Poetry Prize. Jean served on the editorial board of Water-Stone Review 2007 and has an MFA in Writing from Hamline University, Saint Paul, Minnesota.