Valerie Hsiung, You & Me Forever, Action Books, 2020
Reviewed by Henry Goldkamp
I first saw Valerie Hsiung perform at AWP, at an awful San Antonio bar. Awful for the facts that A) the venue scheduled, simultaneously, three readings on the same patio and B) there was one bartender for over a hundred collective audience members. The poetry people all stood in line waiting like animals for death by overpriced ice melt. The PA systems all competed for air/ear space to the point where you couldn't hear shit, no matter how hard you tried. And I was thirsty! Yet, when Hsiung came up—paring knife/g & t. Other readers in my ears mere kiwis... pretty when sliced open, but insubstantial...
So much contemporary poetry these kiwis! Light verse dressed up in the dun fur of seriousness! Light verse un-intense, un-universal, unimportant ports grown from the runoff of mainstream kiwi farms! Hsiung, however, was incantatory... at one point, giving a death-stare to a front-row listener for effect (I do remember thinking, Is she going to stab him?? which I like to think is what she'd like us to think. This makes sense to me now, as her poems on the page fill the same brain-space that Aldous Harding's embouchure does as she sings.) She loomed towards him, slow, with an open-eyed gauziness that entranced whilst undergoing rapture—both accusatory of our audience's culpability, yet also asking, in the delivery of whatever line it was, "Aren't you coming with me?"
So like, Valerie Hsiung is out to kill every monster hiding under the roof of your mouth.
Her newest collection, You & Me Forever (Action Books, 2020), is not easy to digest, at least not for those of you who eat your biscuits like birds. But, if I may, I would like to present to the Biscuit Committee a generous crossword. And then, a difficult sudoku.
I ask you, nibbler—what is more rewarding?
I don't think Hsiung will ever give up her answer key, though from what I've read, her work grows and connects and interdigitates all its tentacles and lady-arms alike. Her oeuvre as a poetic succulent in a poetic desert under a poetic sun. Membranes all permeable and shit don't quit. Pick up anything by Hsiung and you are quickly led to the belly of the beast via "a sad clown's mirror glass pages" (81). Perhaps you feel you've pressed a red button, then, fallen down the chute of your life, as I did upon my third or fourth read. Hsiung does offer an alternative button, however:
What we might call sound advice.
"She would go back to the language again. // One of the monster's languages—this was paramount." (24)
The monster's language handed over is abduction / is rape / is neocolonialism's sisyphussed noose around this here neck of the woods / is a society armed with label-makers and-or nuclear power / is "love" / is ruthless gormandizer of human spirit / is finisher of systems / is pixelated cancer / is products of accessibility and renown fame. So / to speak such a tongue / is to become the monster ///
How children's bones are broken: stone teeth, sticks of tongue.
"Oppression is an inherently truthful form of communication," says the theory-monster, peeping out my tongue-closet, which is a manifestation of my educational upbringing and -keep, which is basically a Man Festival, which is a fucking joke I live inside.
The human animal is always complicating things. Yet to suit up inside this monster, as Hsiung does, then attempt to self-destruct it, the human becomes mandater, maneater, manfater of abc's. A cannibal grabbing canon by the balls, baby.
These, the same monsters who dog the speaker in the first poem of Hsiung's previous collection, e f g (Action Books, 2016), "the monsters who / brutalized your body, your mouth, your vagina, your anus, with bleach with splinters with semen" ("Haemophilia, or, While You Were Breathing"). Yes, the monsters have always linguistically beaten the skins of their freedom drums, any which way their whims dictate. Nefarious, plain-sight monsters they are: advertisements and classics and nutritional facts, alike.
A shudder as I read the dedication in the back matter of e f g: "for all the lost and for all the survivors forced into captivity, homelessness and hunger by humanity's own. "The back matters, as it were. Larger when I am reminded that sometimes those "owns" write poetry which is then dumped into my feedbag whose canvas I so lovingly thumb...
You & Me demands that you search for the meaning, and then the meaning become unmanned. A free-for-all via free-from-all! LET FREE-FROM RING. Like, literally smash that subscribe button!!
After all, "You have to deviate from dogma, and total anti-dogma as well—at every turn" (83).
Remind me, those poker playing pigs at the end of Animal Farm, did they fly?
You & Me is slippery, if you couldn't tell by now. Like finding yourself in a subway bathroom, with the slick urinal cake between your hands, because no soap. Making the best of pragmaticism, i.e. patriarchal death threats, among other inhumanities:
This is a big whopper-metaphor for English, its brute history going back to "1907 // or // 2006 // or // 1877 // or // 2018 // or // 2017" (56-57). If each dictionary man were a neuron, perhaps we could call the collective etymology we so frequently revel in psychopathic, what with all those "[t]ongues getting auctioned off" in order for us to get here (37). The chopping block ineluctable and the butcher knife thwacks our path out:
Throughout You & Me exists a calling back to natural forces, a first nature, a pure science of language in which truth is made communicable, creature to creature, heart to heart, through a "sublingual language" (65). The speaker beckons a transmutational experience—"my darling mute undergrowth"—whenever under threat (26). Screams are not screams, but "the Sound of Messenger Cells Germinating Through the Gulag Walls"; after an implicit abduction, we see not a hapless victim, but "Flora of A Body Woken Up In A Cargo Van" (49).
If there's anything tongue in cheek about this book, it's someone's severed tongue in someone else's greasepainted cheek. To laugh inside this circus is like taking advice from that Costa Rican wasp whose larva injects a certain orb spider with a bizarre chemical that modifies the spider's behavior. Its web-design suddenly shifts to suit the wasp progeny, rather than the spider's basic needs.
Hsiung is our parasitic savior on top of that parasite, grafting herself onto the evils of English in order to knock them the fuck! out! Your political cabinet. Thrum of carpenter bees: "If you've never been caught in a net—in a monster's net—then please... don't tell me of your solutions to end suffering" (11).
Each time I read this book, "like a cicada molting" I felt I held a prismatic, living thing (19). Hsiung is an escape artist—a motif which appears often in this book—alongside its performative cousins the trapeze artist and the clown and the voice who has "changed into a million syphilitic spy outfits" to survive (30). Hallucinatory, in how upon each read, everything changes, like Dickinson (shade: w/o the gothic priggishness). I'd recommend stretching before handling, as one must be willing to alter their expectations of poetry, to let the antacid do its athletics.
What is it about?
Yes and no.
Let's burn this heart down.
Again, sealing the new deal is not for everyone... noxious, yet appealing, is this anaphora-epistrophe, which feels like treading water inside a slush pile:
You & Me offers an existential hiccup from licking the envelopes, marks a moment (Forever) of literature's moving on. The green lyric grass that will grow dead is long dead. Done been dead, yo! At best a pasture of daisy-chains, little butter blades of Americana:
And this marked moment is taking You with it.
I think Hsiung knows there's a dearth of bread in our panem et circenses of contemporaneity—no sustenance save that of distractions, entertainment now being the sole purpose we've been juiced out the womb, and onto the theatre floor. Give me your poor, give me your cola-soaked, your bleary-eyed and screen-fatigued she seems to say in bizarre motherese...
Forgive me for taking us to this particular funhouse, but capitalism has deteriorated in its late stage, bippity bippity bop, which is to say Circus Capitalism, Circus Colonialism, aka "exportable American giantism," aka Late Stage White People, whose spider legs and alchie noses slime their way across Cincinnati, Saint Louis, Wichita, Brooklyn, New Orleans, Las Vegas, and everywhere else stuffed in between the coasts. (Fun fact: the name for traditional circus marches is screamers.) Robert Browning talked about reach exceeding grasp, but what if the wrinkled claw of pseudo-Whitmania, this Boy-Crazy City Upon A Thrill, who eventually chose implosion over achieving the impossible, could reach just about everything? Then it's all bets off, all alphabets on, until....
I'd say spoiler alert if the line weren't already retted through the sour Puritanical milk of colonial tradition: It's Hsiung. Hsiung pulls down the squishy, Englishy string you've been walking for decades. Language is no longer a tightrope; it is a web you have been pushed into, and it sticks to your face and teeth, and within its seemingly beautiful/horrific structure is likely something that will bite you. This book is not an antidote, but a realized glitch—a glitch in the sense of a piece of human machinery that has long suffered a malfunction. Language is the human machine. And Hsiung, as with any parasitic, guerilla visionary, dedicates her art to maintaining the glitch by wrenching it apart and rebuilding it according to her own prints.
So few contemporaries generate the effect of language herein, the feeling that one is witnessing a genuine ghost chase. Hsiung recognizes the code of those ghosts she dedicated in e f g, not those famous ghosts whose smell emanates from canon smoke, but the overlooked and forgotten and unwritten. You & Me forays into memory by way of a fragmented guerilla-style warfare upon the injustices of the English language itself. The poet-speaker takes on various shapes to complete her ultimate mission: The destruction of language, so that we might be able to live in its afterlife...
In an untitled section that breathes between Books One and Two, Hsiung writes:
Akhmatova: "Not as an elegant armchair traveler / Did I overhear the prison songs, / But I recognized them in another way."
Rimbaud: HERE IS A BLACKED OUT RIMBAUD QUOTE
(Hsiung: "My poems never quote famous men." (80))
Cha: "She shapes her lips accordingly, gently she blows whos and whys and whats."
As if Hsiung is the she reincarnate, You & Me could be called a love poem. And many have killed in the name of love...
The not-eyes of this book lock not-eyes with you. You look into meaning, meaning:
The time for sense is over. How has it really worked out for us? Rhetors stack their wooden blocks like children. Bring me the carver of the roulette wheel! The gambling poet who puts it all on black! The flying poet who takes the leap between trapeze bars, line to line!
French high-wire artist Phillipe Petit said, "You have to exercise rebellion: to refuse to tape yourself to rules, to refuse your own success, to refuse to repeat yourself, to see every day, every year, every idea as a true challenge—and then you are going to live your life on a tightrope." But Hsiung does not subscribe to this "man alone" stock trope (the buttons got smashed, remember?). She wants everyone chilling on the tightrope together. In a 2017 interview with Vi Khi Nao, she said, "I see poetry and gambling, as both seeking to encounter the benevolent dictator of that soulful contact between speaker and listener. Winning, if there is such a thing in poetry, is when you create that mirror-door for the reader-listener to walk through."
We, the audience, are the ones being walked through, bartered in, lived in:
My second and last Hsiung experience occurred the next morning, tiptoeing my way through said barbaric AWP's sprawl of bookfair. I came across Hsiung by chance, sitting at Action Books' booth for a book signing. So, I go to get You & Me, a bit high on some leftover etc. in my overnight bag—high enough to have forgotten one of the things people do when they buy the book from the author is get the book signed...
I paid and turned away to go, when, "Don't you want it signed?" And it was weird—in a way, I didn't. I didn't want it signed, not yet anyway...—? But, she signed it, and thank goodness, for the signature, which acts as a kind of cipher for You & Me:
I'm no graphologist, but the openness of her H, a pathway, a broadness and a specificity, an implied future in ellipses, a future, that must find itself in the outer spaces of the page. This is a gift, a kind of breadcrumb that nourishes me towards my next series of questions, my sundries for thought, if you'll break this utterly marbled bread with me. We must cast a new line between the columns, a new line that is alive, on earth, today, together.
Where is the space between thought and speech? Before a thing is spoken? After? Where, or what, is that well-worn path? What is written there? Where is it? Here, just here. The ampersand of You & Me. The eye of the e in Forever. And see, &c. Can I end softly with something about the ampersands of time, or does the confluence clog the hourglassy apex? A knot, a joint, a cleave, a pith, a pit with potential to seed? Or go to seed? Seems a glass bottle launched into the wall—peals of glass, silence—is more appropriate: with the faith that this work will make its own shoreline at an indeterminate point in the future. Hsiung stands for Hinterland. We've arrived.