The Brink of Unbearable: Careen by Grace Shuyi Liew

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Recently I had a conversation with an editor who had rejected one of my poems. I was struck by his comment, “I don’t have a good reason for not taking this poem,” followed by this heartfelt explanation: “[M]aybe it’s the closed assessment, the indictment, that leaves me little to do and hear.” This, of course, gave me pause. He wasn’t criticizing the poem simply for its accessibility, but, if I understood correctly, its fixed clarity. The balance of associative and unequivocal images was too strongly bent towards the unequivocal for this editor’s mind to go anywhere with it. I have given a great deal of thought over the years to associative leaning poetry, because so much of contemporary poetry is highly associative—and so often I feel like I just don’t get it. After all, my main gig is as a nurse. I don’t have an MFA. In some ways, I think this makes me a good reviewer of contemporary poetry, because I have not been swayed by its dissection in the classroom.

So, a short digression here about what academic poets have to say about associative—or more aptly put, dissociative—poetry. Christopher Kempf has an essay exploring the topic in Shenandoah, in which the following quotes are found. Barbara Herrnstein Smith calls it a “transcription, as it were, of an interior monologue” in which “thoughts may develop from each other through casual associations and lead nowhere in particular.” Carl Phillips writes, “By associative poetry, I mean poetry that works almost entirely by means of association—no connecting narrative pieces, often no syntactical connection, poetry that is characterized by leaps not just from stanza to stanza, but from one image to the next in ways that do not immediately make sense…” Mark Doty suggests that associative poetry is a “representation of temperament / subjectivity / thinking in the moment.” I’ve learned to understand that if a poem’s associative language doesn’t work for me, it’s possible that it hasn’t done its job well. Though it’s also likely that I haven’t given it enough of a chance.

In Careen, Grace Shuyi Liew displays acrobatic skill at flipping her imagery between the associative and the explicit. There are images in Careen for which I can make no associations whatsoever, paired with deeply recognizable and poignant imagery that pulls me deep inside of the speaker’s narrative. So much so, it is as if I am learning a new language with each poem. Some lines are so forceful, they snap me to attention, causing me to re-read the words, to grapple with their meaning.

On writing this work, in an interview with poet Vi Khi Nao, Liew says, “It allowed me to write what I previously felt unwritable. It allowed me to garble up the English language itself, make it nonsensical, and rearrange it into a truth. The end result is very much a convergence of my multiple selves. Under this lens, abstraction can be a powerful force of resistance.”

Careen measures eight by ten inches in order to accommodate Liew’s longer lines. The cover art is a disturbing collage of a woman tying rope around an enormous face that resembles hers. The poems are organized in a seemingly haphazard manner. Some of the poems are titled; some of the poems are untitled. There’s an “Index” rather than a table of contents—a gesture, I think, to the complexity and intersectionality of the poems. Throughout, the poems are simultaneously lyrical and political. Liew’s tone is alternately furious and tender; her themes ricochet among targets of racism, dislocation, childhood abuse, sexual violence, and elegy. Despite these predominating themes, Liew does not shy away from exploring her own sexuality and longings.

The titles in Careen are striking, and at times, magnificent. The four-page preface poem, “What Does It Mean to Be Durational, Not Eternal?” alerts the reader to the book’s recurring themes of racism and dislocation and their effects upon the speaker.

The first lines read,

In this state, my opacity blooms
            like wrong
            soap
            frothing out of a
           dishwasher. White foam coats
           my dreams
           of fascism, alien abduction, and anywhere
           but home

Tricky, right? I can’t really identify the speaker if I am complicit in her opacity. Although I have learned that Liew was born and raised in Malaysia, the speaker only announces that she is Asian and female. For the rest, I need to pay close attention to what she is willing to disclose. She reports,

I have since moved from a house by the train tracks to
            another house
            by another train tracks

And later,

I wish the train

                                                   would blow up or
                                                   roll off its rails

Home too, is not safe, and the speaker hides under “an old desk in my bedroom,” defying us to:

Find me there as a child,
dough-like and ready to rise
into shape for anyone who arrives with a threat
to take my life

Threats are both close at hand and distant, actual and fantastical,

my personal God wields a belt
like mama did.

and are cloaked with this caveat,

                              Where my body ends and where
mama’s begins
lies the rape that had
no space to exist.

Liew ends this poem with a story of “a courageous girl ready to jump off a cliff,” until,

                                                 someone said,
think of your mother. That edict gave her the
sincerity to finally push herself into thin air.

The inclination to view the speaker here as an impulsive teenage girl acting out is countered sharply by the earlier report of the “rape that had no space to exist” and, in fact, every line in this piece that precedes it. The “thin air” becomes the atmosphere in which the speaker is forced to either live or die. In any context, this is tragedy—a deep exploration of how early events shape or misshape lives.

The second, six-part poem is “Eventually, Every Color Careens into Its Own Lack”, subtitled “This original absence.” The definition of careen is to “move swiftly in an uncontrolled way,” a verb that is descriptive of Liew’s wild and irrepressible flow of language. The speaker notes that “Anger is never private,” and asks, “will the pull of rage be gentle, the way we tread above other people’s heads in an upstairs apartment?” It seems only possible to answer this impossible question with coded lines such as,

To retain a place in this world, burnish cherries until its red turns glossy with spit.

And,

To be tongued a floor has to retain its modesty even under duress.

In “Outgrowth of Contingent Nations,” subtitled, “A tale of statelessness,” the speaker urges herself to “familiarize yourself with the facts of your dislocation.” She describes the experience of continually shifting through many realms this way,

When permission (giving away power) weaves into objectification (receding humanity) the fist in your heart drops its punch (forgo return to another country).

or,

  Inside you is a mother wounded from the death of her mother.

Inside her is a mother who never recovered from the birth of
            her children.

Since I can’t replicate every poem in a review, here is one more gem to chew on. In “In Event of a Plunge, Give Over to Your Body,” Liew gets down and dirty with lines such as,

me     shear me
                  shear
                  me shear
                 heat of stricken tongue
                        ohgodyesing

          into double-eyed glaze

In the last two chapters of Careen, Liew offers a “Postlude” followed by a poem/essay titled, “The Use of Lyricism,” where she pays homage to mentor James Baldwin and quotes Miles Davis. She includes lines from Baldwin that speak to the sense of dislocation and racism that Liew herself (not only her speaker) clearly identifies with:

“It’s hard for me to recognize me,” he said
             “The way the world treats you is unbearable.”

In her interview with Kao, Liew says, “I want readers to feel just on the brink of something unbearable.” Careen covers so much disturbing content with such potent and vivid imagery, it can be difficult to read at times. Written as a straightforward narrative piece, it might well be unbearable. But Liew’s entrancing voice, enormously creative language, and surprising infusion of offbeat humor prove otherwise. In her own words, this unbearable narrative is turned into a “powerful force of resistance.”


Risa Denenberg lives on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state where she works as a nurse practitioner. She is a co-founder and editor at Headmistress Press, publisher of LBT poetry. Her most recent poetry collection is slight faith (MoonPath Press, 2018). She blogs at risadenenberg.com. More from this author →