Under the Influence of Jane Wong: A Recipe-Qua-Review of How to Not Be Afraid of Everything
There’s a cornucopia between the covers of Jane Wong’s new collection How to Not Be Afraid of Everything, plentiful with opportunities for emulation and wholly deserving of homage. I will be feasting on the book for years to come.
In 2002, long before Wong joined the faculty of the MFA program at Western Washington University, I took a graduate poetry workshop with Bruce Beasley. After reading Negative Blue by Charles Wright, we gathered in small groups to create “Charles Wright Poetry Kits.” By identifying some of the signature features of a Charles Wright poem, we worked backwards to derive a kind of flexible recipe, one which could then be used to generate poems in his spirit/under his influence. Beasley’s approach was illuminating, and it’s clear to me how readily Wong belongs at such an innovative program, how significant her contribution to that literary community must be.
I still believe that emulation is the greatest form of homage and remembered the exercise from Beasley’s workshop while reading Wong’s new book. The title already alludes to a recipe or instruction manual of some kind, though recipe is most fitting considering Wong’s immense, visceral, and gustatory commitments throughout this book. I’m not sure if gustatory is the right word. Not all Wong’s writing about food is sweet or savory, but all her writing about food—and food as more than food—is potent, searing, charged with unforgettable flavor. It’s the language, the imagery, the investments in personal, familial, and public history that make this writing nothing less than delectable.
To emulate the deep resonance I found in these poems, poems that reverberate a long while after they land (gut-punch is the hyphenate that comes to mind), I set about making my own “Jane Wong Poetry Kit,” which readers are invited to imagine as a recipe box in lieu of a standard review.
(Some) Key Ingredients for Inclusion in a Jane Wong-inspired Poem: Keen and deliberate deployment of anaphora, epistrophe, and refrain (“I am a good daughter,” “I want to tell you,” for two), as such will amplify the differences between litanies and redundancies; precise diction, including specific and proper nouns (“frontier,” “kernel,” “Grand Canyon,” “Mars”), active verbs (“trill,” “slather, “bellow,” “tender,” “gild”), and surprising modifiers (“naked porcupine,” “gracious gravel,” “truant yam”); syntactical play (“Enemies gather softly in the clouds, cumulus,” “What we keep, we eat, what we / love, we break off”); variations in lineation and line length, resulting in the experience we call prosody and find especially pleasing in lyric poems*; well-placed fragments (“Heaps and heaps of starchy blight”) interspersed throughout with longer sentences (“I gather plastic cups along the shore and shake them out to use for tea, juice, a home for my toothbrush”).
(Some) Important Instructions for Preparing a Jane Wong-inspired Poem:
Do not fear involving the reader or audience in your decision-making process as a poet. Poetry, like cooking, is a communal, even collaborative process more often than it is not. Embrace the implicit multivalence of this genre, and explore peppering your project with evocative, fillable blanks:
“There are no wolves in this tale. Only handsome ______ with pea-green eyes who will tell you: ‘you are soft as ____.’ Then, they will carefully cut ______ and ______.” (from the poem “Mad”)
“My comfort: stir-fried tomato / and egg, appears in _________.” from “The Frontier,” second of three poems by this title)
Notice what is not there and honor these absences in writing. The acknowledged absence will add texture to your poems and enhance their overall complexity. In cooking and in poetry, this quality can be described as “full-bodied-ness.”
“In 1960, my grandmother holds no knife in no tall wheat” (from the poem “Everything”)
“I did not plunge my arms into the earth” (from “When You Died”)
Do not fear the infinitive form, for though it is underused, it carries vital charge. Perhaps it is the bone broth of our language.
“To not let in. / To speak / to whom? To sign over / nothing?” (from “The Frontier”)
“To love a country that refuses / to look you in the eye. / To love what keeps moving / even when it shouldn’t.”
“To be a good daughter means carrying everything with you at all times, the luggage of the past lifted to the mouth” (from “Everything”)
Prepare a simile that links something general, cerebral, or sensory-deficient with something specific, visceral, and sensory-suffuse. This is a delicate process akin to poaching or caramelizing:
“facts multiply like the arms of an aloe plant—spears of fact” (from “What I Tell Myself After Waking Up with Fists”)
“At my grandmother’s grave in Jersey, the ground. / Was as soft as a perfectly poached egg.” (from “When You Died”)
Variation: Repeat the above with metaphor, eliminating “like” or “as” for a more explicit and intense sensory suffusion:
“each apology: an overdressed salad” [taste the tang!] (from “What I Tell Myself After Waking Up with Fists”)
“dried cabbage butterfly” [visualize the wings!] (from “When You Died”)
Do not fear the articulation of your hungers. Or your dreams. Rather, bring these to a brisk, incisive boil.
“My mother fills an empty can of soup with water and swirls it, / until each speck of oil catches. How beautiful, this twinkling tin. / I have always loved what most people throw away: broccoli stems, fish/heads, the white of green onions and its dangling foot like an / anemone, the rat tail of a radish. I dream of boiling the salty shells of / pistachios. Of gorging myself with compost, slick with nutrients.” (from “When You Died”)
Consider the caesura as spice. Use inventively to enhance flavor.
“We wake in the middle of a life, hungry.
We smear durian along our mouths, sing soft
death a lullaby.” (from “After Preparing the Altar, the Ghosts Feast Feverishly”)
Consider the em dash as spice. Use inventively to enhance flavor.
“Tired of fighting—under your armor—stuck to your ribs like a good, fat / meal—undo the gristle—knuckled in the prior—in gluttonous, bee-drunk / June—calling back what was never” (from “What I Tell Myself After Waking Up with Fists”)
Do not fear folding-in subjunctive elements for a richer version of the poem-dish:
“I’ve written this before. I’ve always been writing to you, even before I was born.” (from “When You Died”)
“I close my eyes and imagine my mother’s factory collapsing, pin / needles studding / the sky.”
“In a future life, we saw rats overtake / a supermarket with so much milk, we turned opaque.” (from “After Preparing the Altar, the Ghosts Feast Feverishly”)
“I think: if only I can find my father’s left lung, my missing family, that extra ration. / Everything will be whole.” (from “Notes for the Interior”)
Combine multiple ingredients in a single stanza-bowl.
“Growing up, our rice cooker was painted with / peonies and cherry blossoms. Plugged into a wall, an eye socket, a / button pressed to cook or warm. Grease and dust along the cord. A / rice paddle like a wide tongue depressor, table salt shaken like dandruff from my unwashed hair.” (from “When You Died”)
For instance, begin with the memory of a luminous object from childhood—both functional and aesthetic. Describe this object in detail. (Here, the rice cooker.) Is there an apt simile or metaphor to enhance its memorability for the reader? (Here, the wall socket becomes an eye socket—metaphors morph, one thing into another!) A visceral fragment invokes both “grease” and “dust.” The reader can feel these on their skin. (Tactility, the most overlooked / underwritten sense—though not in Wong’s poems.) Two similes stacked: rice paddle like a tongue depressor, table salt like dandruff. Writing this clear, this complex, this compressed—you can almost eat it, yes?
Onomatopoeia, to taste.
“the sumptuous splat” (from “When You Died”)
Chiasmus, to taste:
“What went wrong: a wrongdoing.”
Do not fear the question as serving dish, that essential vessel by which to deliver poems to your reader:
“[A]m I the only animal here?” (“I Put On My Fur Coat”)
“Who told you anything is permanent?” (from “The Beet”)
“Can we talk about privilege? / Can I say I always look behind me?” (from “How to Not Be Afraid of Everything”)
“[W]hat have you done? / Do you even know?” (from “The Cactus”)
“Will you pass or fail or fall over trying?” (from “Notes for the Interior”)
“What is love / if not knotted in garlic?” (from “After Preparing the Altar, the Ghosts Feast Feverishly”)
*For cooks/poets who wish to explore even more culinary/poetic approaches to generating pleasing prosody, consider:
“my brother and I yearned / to lick the sugar spackle / of an Easter egg but / were told: no, not yet” (from “The Egg”)
Note the sibilance of the phrase “sugar spackle,” which is also a spondee. Neither word is inflected more than the other, and both begin with the letter “s”—sibilance being that most succulent form of alliteration specific to the “s” sound. This is an extraordinary line sonically as well as viscerally; the reader feels the longing to lick the egg and lingers with the speaker and her brother in delayed gratification. The “flow” of the line, its “prosody,” is masterful, augmented by the active verb “yearned,” the consonance of the “ck” in “lick” echoing back through the “ck” in “spackle,” the particularity of the item in question (specific noun!)—not even just an “egg” but an “Easter egg,” and the consonant “t” sound at the ends of “not” and “yet” in quick succession, drawing the line taut as if in a knot.
“Once, when I was four, I poured Carnation condensed milk all over / my face. I was as white as I’ll ever be. Eyelashes of cream, I blinked / on, too ghostly for my own good.” (from “When You Died”)
Note the specificity of the circumstance here (readers ears perk up at the mention of “once,” which often implies an “only”—conditional time, rare). Then listen for the internal slant rhyme of “four” and “poured,” the proper and specific nouns compiling in “Carnation condensed milk” (that double “c” alliteration, too! that hard consonance!) Notice “was as white,” with its deft consonance of “w” and “s.” The “c” returns with “cream,” a hard sound again, and then a new sound pattern appears, with the “g” alliteration/consonance in “ghostly” and ‘good.” And as if that wasn’t enough, there’s the pattern of “l”s, too, introduced with the contraction “I’ll,” then picked up again at the front of “blinked” and the end of “ghostly.” It’s another pattern of threes overlapping with the first and creating a sense of completion at the end of these paratactic sentences.
N.B. Jane Wong is a connoisseur of sounds, which also makes her a conductor of subtle and elegant rhythms. A poet who spoon-feeds her reader nothing, she is also, simultaneously, a poet who offers everyone a place at her ambitious, well-fortified table. Here every poem is a victual, a profound gesture toward nourishment, even as the poet-speaker confronts deprivation again and again.