Review of Celina Su's Landia (USA: Belladonna Series, 2018)
by Tse Hao Guang
Celina Su’s Landia could be the future of English poetry. It is concerned about placelessness/placemaking, language’s limits/unlimitedness, and the complex and contradictory relations between both. A debut gesturing beyond itself, it is the kind of book that makes one wonder what the next one is going to be like. Su works in Urban Studies and does community organising in the US and Thailand; she is of Chinese descent, was born in São Paulo and moved to the US. These tags inform her work, which totters between looking in and looking out, suggestive of a poetic voice anxious to reconcile every fascinating facet of Su’s mind. Out of all these facets America remains the place and language fundamental to the book. Su’s poems are speaking American to Americans, challenging them to go beyond America. Yet asking if Landia speaks to me, a Singaporean, seems a banal question next to: how does it speak?
Landia’s neologic title plays with the originally Greco-Latin “-ia” suffix, frequently used to form abstract, typically feminine nouns from adjectives: manic, mania. “Land” as an adjective also suggests animals and plants, distinguishing them from those that live in water. Landia, then, is the country of the land-based, who form not only a real ecology but also an imagined community of those asking, “what soil? whose soil?”. Landia is an in-between place, as Su says in her Lithub interview.
Such identity issues are the immediate focus of Landia’s first section, “Topographies,” and Su explores them deftly through wordplay. Aposiopesis is a favourite technique, a rhetorical breaking off in speech—for instance, “Still my own luminous blackened cloud of…” (“To Steal Oneself”)—a way of demonstrating the ultimate unsayability of the self, a confession that the self cannot be confessed in words alone. This impossibility is a moral dilemma:
A smuggled adult is merely, a smuggled adult.
Unless I, a woman of disgrace, open my mouth
Wide, illustrate the scars to prove it.
Then I exotic them my own body. Dryly, would I.
The confessing persona is damned if she opens her mouth, and damned if she does not. Either she makes her body an exotic object under an orientalist examination, or she silences the voice of the “smuggled adult” she identifies with and wishes to amplify. In addition, and more worryingly, the minority speaking risks assuming that the (non-smuggled, non-woman, non-disgraced) majority, “them,” is most worth speaking to. Ultimately, Su’s persona decides to “exotic them [her] own body,” but “Dryly,” at an ironic distance. She is in this way torn between the conceptual head and the confessing heart, “Tending to my wounds / Licking them quantitative / Number me dispassionate".
This vacillation toward and away from the confessional is also tactical. See “Means-tested Manifesto,” whose title shows a persona suspicious of the tendency not just to value but also to capitalise on the stories and poetics of the underprivileged. “I wear no suit, only a mask. It’s figurative, I am afraid, / As skin-deep, as personal and sacred, as my skin”—the confessional mask is one that looks exactly like the poet’s face, except fake. “Hey hey hey, you can’t catch me. I’m syntax-free,” the persona’s sickness says. Her “[colourblind]” illness has helped her escape being pinned down as merely a Woman of Color, has hopefully helped her book escape from the Asian-American section in bookstores. Should readers be happy or not?
A significant portion of “Topographies” deals with Su’s refugee work in Thailand, and her position within that space as a nonwhite but nonetheless immensely privileged American aid worker. In these poems, a more lyrical and coherent self emerges. Su’s personae are allowed to take on slightly more recognisable, less in-between identities (the refugee, the aid worker). Yet this recognition is limited by Su’s poetics. In “Chai-Dan Submits Three Aims,” the poem speaks in the voice of Chai-Dan, an asylum seeker, while making him speak in English, and in the style of a Celina Su poem. It is impossible to fully embody another, the poem suggests, while maintaining the importance of attempts to do so. Not for the sake of Chai-Dan, who probably cannot understand the poem and likely needs much more than poetry, but for the sake of Su, whose work is strengthened to the extent that such imaginative leaps are not condescending. The ultimate verdict rests with Chai-Dan, but from my vantage point Su has managed to give readers a sense of what a person like Chai-Dan thinks, while never hiding the fact that her persona is not, cannot be, him.
In the multipart “Route 1095,” built like a series of dictionary entries, Su’s style is at its most plainspoken (“To grasp a poetry of prosaic subjection”), and most consistently multilingual. The “I” here is unambiguously aid worker Celina Su, grappling with her experiences through the lens of Thai phrases containing the word “jai” or “heart”. In this poem, well-meaning certainties are overturned. Su is American:
My power here unsettling. A university degree, a couple of successful grant proposals, but mostly, my passport. Discordant with how I look to the locals, so that they constantly point at my face and ask me where I am from.
In this case, to not be in-between, to be confused by in-betweenness, is the disprivileged situation. The poem derives its energy from images and scenes of Thai and refugee experience: how “street food stalls announce “IMF” as a codeword for “austerity,” [ . . . ] “IMF fried chicken!,”” how “Two weeks after his hut burned down, we asked whether anything bad happened that year, and he could not think of anything”. The various soundscape of Thailand reverberates:
To fragile geckos trilling clicks, water buffaloes moaning, a creek slowly trickling, frogs croaking. The distant beats of trance music, the national anthem, the prayers of a mosque, the gongs and chants of a Buddhist temple, the silence of scarecrows.
Instead of the wordplay and self-doubt in other poems, here is a poetics of witness; the deconstruction of the poetic I makes way for real people living real lives. At least that’s what the poem seems to say. It ends, however, with a facsimile of a Thai child’s letter, complete with illustrated soldier: “When I grow up, I will become a Thai soldier, and I will arrest the Burmese migrant drug dealers, but their mothers will be very, very”. At the realest moment, Su breaks off rhetorically once more.
It’s increasingly clear as one reads Landia that Su’s procedure is a kind of collage, where individual poems contain different kinds of text with different points of view, overlaid as a means of grappling with the enormity of human experience. In “Seeing Like a State,” another sprawling poem largely written in prose, part 3 shifts from paragraph to paragraph, beginning with a personal observation, moving to historical imagination, to inquiry, to quotations from famous politicians, to finally artful, fragmented poetic images. Here paragraphs becomes stanzas:
As if papers were these wispy gossamer nothings, tickets to role-playing games,
as if others could humor our pearl-white perils—when paperness demarcated our entire—
In these stanzas, another favourite stylistic technique recurs: As ifs appear in the margins, implying logical connections between parts but really using these false assumptions to demonstrate something stranger, poetic. Moments like this suggest that the logician and the poet might exist as one. The uneasiness generated by switching between fact and imagination is itself part of the pleasure of reading Landia.
The concerns of the next two sections of the book shift slightly. In the second section, “Distances,” the poetry becomes less interested in the question of the self, and more interested in how historical and current affairs might manifest in poetry. References to traumatic events and situations in Chile, China, the US, Brazil, and the Czech Republic almost blur into each other, and “in such cities, we stand outside ourselves” (“51”), watching these places as we might scroll through a travel journal, letting them wash over us. This creates an experience of space as felt by a ‘third-culture’ mind like Su’s:
Let him rise back from Hades, move to Newark,
eat pao de queijo with newly arrived Brazilian families, a fish
every Friday for penance.
Allow each fish to come from the Passaic,
downstream from the Agent Orange factories he commanded.
May he go for the medium rare. ("18")
The whole world is going mad, and it takes a certain perspective comfortable with jumping from Hades to Newark to Brazil to New Jersey to Vietnam from line to line to grasp the enormity of the problem. What does this mean for those—the majority of us, I suspect—who have only ever thought of one place as home, whether American or Burmese or Singaporean?
That the poems in “Distances” are titled with numbers that skip forward from piece to piece provides a clue. Landia suggests that readers need to get used to different ways of reading, and quickly. In the next section of the book, Section 3, running under each poem are words in the space where footnotes should be. Here are lines of an alternative poem spanning all the pages of the section, inviting us to approximate the kind of distracted reading that cyberspace promotes, eyes flicking from main poems to alt-poem, flipping back and forth, re-reading. The alt-poem itself jumps from place to place in each line, and ominously suggests that one symbol for this disconnected globalism might be America itself: “I grew up believing that America is// a serpentine thread in the global quilt, lining superhighways with electric cables…”.
Su understands that “The exact paths of [her] daily perambulations are not dictated by formal laws// and structures, but enforcement and access.” She wishes, therefore, to “jaywalk,” to get around law enforcement. It is doubtful, however, if a strategy of jaywalking truly succeeds. To trample “shortcuts through backyards to school,” as Su does, is still to reinforce school as an institution. One is merely changing the way that one gets there. In taking such illegal shortcuts, she “hope[s] to encounter,// amidst the homogenizing whorls of globalization, the finer knots.” It is probable that she considers her two ‘paths’ of reading (main poems versus alt-poem) as the invention of a shortcut, a way of short-circuiting the usual ways of reading. The two ‘paths” are, however, still formal laws and structures, albeit self-invented, which are enforced, or adhered to, in the book. Each new shortcut is then another homogenising force, which Su deplores in globalisation. After all, a shortcut taken daily will make a dirt path in the neighbor’s back lawn. I am not sure we can escape globalisation and its effects by any kind of shortcut, internally or externally imposed.
This uncertainty is perhaps also the author’s and it manifests itself in the increasing fragmentation of the main poems, a procedure that generates the best poems of the book. In these last poems we move from an open-air museum on the Ile de Gorée to a demolished Chinese theatre in New York City to other in-between places like a bus shelter, JFK Airport, and fantasy towns, in a steady progression from the real to the irreal. Formally, the poems, too, decay. Line length fluctuates; white space becomes even more integral to understanding the loss of physical and imaginative space; photographs and maps, often presented with very little context, invade the page and demand to be read as poems in their own right. In “Notes on the Shape of Absence,” the impossibility of escaping relentless globalisation manifests as dismay over urban renewal, and as the impossibility of using words:
I read that this was once the home of—
I cannot differentiate the homage from the lament. As I resign, I surmise. More often than not, via whitewashing or semiotic deconstruction, the erasure.
Aposiopesis is used again, this time beyond delineating the limits of the expressive self, to trace the same limits to words and reality. Where breaking-off in earlier poems felt smart, stylish, disruptive, here it is sad, meditative, final. Su’s bathetic last words on the citizens of Landia, those who live in-between, are:
We are neither here, nor there.
We are horse horse tiger tiger.
We are snake snake fish fish.
We are more or less.
We are like this, like that.
We are so-so. (“Aubade: At the Bus Shelter”)
Here are people who know all the multilingual idioms for “average,” and who nonetheless remain solidly so. The global expands, but it also flattens. The well-travelled become cynical. What’s left seems to be the fact that poetry exists, that this book exists, and we are invited to examine its formations and contradictions, like flaws in a diamond.
Tse Hao Guang is a poet and editor, assembled with parts from Hong Kong and Malaysia. His first full-length poetry collection, Deeds of Light, was shortlisted for the 2016 Singapore Literature Prize. He is a 2016 fellow of the University of Iowa's International Writing Program, and the 2018 National Writer-in-Residence at Nanyang Technological University.