Dear Reader, Dear Subscriber: I’ve noticed that not many of you choose our poetry books for your boxes. This saddens me. I’d like to tell you why.
Before I get started, let me make myself perfectly clear: I am not shaming anyone for choosing books other than poetry, nor am I discouraging you from doing so. The whole point of having multiple titles every month is so that we can offer a range of genres, styles, formats, and content. We ask you to choose your own books because you know best what your reading tastes are, and we want to give you books you want to read. What saddens me isn’t that I think you don’t want to read poetry. It’s that I worry you don’t think you’ll be able to understand or appreciate poetry, or that you think poetry just isn’t “for” you.
I worry about these things because, up till my eleventh year of school, most of what I knew about poetry was self-taught. I felt woefully inadequate and unprepared in every poetry class I took at my fancy liberal arts college. Next to my native English-speaking, American-educated classmates, symbolism and meanings flew right over my head. A reference to the Western canon I’d never read was incredibly obvious to them, but of course I didn’t get it. My classmates were kind, but I still felt less than for struggling to understand what T.S. Eliot or William Butler Yeats had to say.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked at a poem and nearly cried because I knew I was supposed to be getting something out of it, but didn’t know what that something was. Maybe you’ve felt the same way before. Maybe you haven’t. The point is that I worry because, for a long time, I wasn’t sure if poetry was for me, either.
The truth is that poetry can be daunting and inaccessible if you’re not sure how to approach it. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you how you’re supposed to approach it, because different people do it differently and what works for me may not work for you. What I can do is share this annotated section of our April poetry book, Larissa Lai’s Iron Goddess of Mercy, with you. I hope it shows you some of what I look for when I read poetry, and how I find my own meaning in the words on the page.
Iron Goddess of Mercy is one of the least traditional books of poetry I’ve ever read. It’s a single long poem presented in sixty-four fragments—each a solid 1-2 page chunk of text—to honor the hexagrams of the I Ching. Every fragment closes with a haiku, a characteristic borrowed from haibun, a traditional Japanese form of travel writing. There are lots of internal rhymes and wordplay (“Dear Dolly, gosh golly implicated in the hog’s holly clearing brush for democracy’s prop prop propolis..”). Almost everything is reference to pop culture and politics and history, all at once. Most of the text is made up of long sentences with little to no punctuation and, in some fragments, no capitalization, either. It’s the kind of book you go into fully expecting not to understand everything that is said. Basically, it’s the worst possible example of a poem I could have chosen to annotate for you.
Except—I kind of love this book. It’s relentless and strange and encompasses so much, from the history of Hong Kong to Ancient Greek mythology to Black, Indigenous, and Asian movements. I like to imagine that this poem is a distillation of what it means to be huáqiáo, overseas Chinese: Michael Jackson and Moana and the Moon and magic and a machine all coexisting at once in every possible permutation inside you, inside these sentences. Even when I don’t fully know or understand what Larissa Lai is referring to, I can read out loud and enjoy the way she makes sounds run into each other and bounce apart. I can picture the “octopus wav[ing] its metro card at the South China Morning Post conceding to PRC propaganda” and laugh. I can sit and ponder the many things “your love for the people swinging empty as bottles after the glass is broken after the beatings after the confessions the disappearances the slashed tongues and cracked skulls” can mean.
Dear Reader, Dear Subscriber, Dear Comeasyouare, I want you to know that poetry is absolutely for you. That there can be a poem that can meet you right where you are in your personal reading journey. Maybe that poem is Iron Goddess of Mercy. Maybe it’s not. There’s only one real way to learn what works for you in approaching poetry, and that’s to start.