#925 The process of forgetting
On Forgetting a Language
by Isabella Wang
London, ON: Baseline Press, 2019
[out of print] / 9781928066477
Reviewed by Michael Turner
This ten-poem unpaginated chapbook arrived in my mailbox last week, an hors de commerce copy because its numbered run of 80 is now in the hands of its readers. I chose the book from a list of poetry titles offered for review because its author, Isabella Wang, is a frequent and enthusiastic presence at poetry readings and because I believe that coming out for poetry readings counts for more than being a reader and a writer of poetry. Those who read and write poetry cannot live by poetry alone.
Like many younger writers, Wang, who was 19 when On Forgetting a Language was published, regularly shares her thoughts, feelings and professional accomplishments on platforms like Twitter, and as such it is becoming rare to read the literary writings of younger writers without prior or concurrent knowledge of where they are coming from, what matters to them and sometimes why — particularly at a time when social media and poetry books are available on the same devices. Bigger than a bio, more forward than a backstory, social media has electronically revived, if not transformed, Barthes’s dead author. Today when we read a book, we do so knowing that its author, like the raven in Poe’s poem, is potentially a window away, its claws soon enough clicking over the bust of Pallas Athena (goddess of wisdom) as its poem’s narrator — or in this case, its reader — grapples with the question of whether to remember or whether to forget.
“On Forgetting a Language” is the penultimate poem in Wang’s collection. Here, the story is told of a childhood “I” who left home for a new land and, eventually, a new language. When she “left behind” the dance studios where she practiced ballet, she is “shunned” — “more than my own family did/ when I couldn’t remember their faces,/ their names, how to write my own name,/ how to write our language.” A further response comes internally, from the dancer’s own body, a projected response after she begins “choreographing/ in my head again.” Years removed from her training, her “body no longer responds under command to/ chaîné, détourné, développé/ like second nature,” an effect that, three stanzas later, suggests a dissociative state — the “I” shifting to “you” then back:
I ordered a shipment of fifty pointe shoes
and pounded their tips thin.
When they said, you must feel the ground with your feet,
it was pain you felt. Pain
was how you connected to the ground,
and at home. I shared it with others.
The shift from the narrator’s “I” to “you” then back is apparent at the outset of this collection, albeit in rhetorical form. “Burned Out” is set during Christmas and features opening lines reminiscent of Hemingway’s famous six-word story (“For sale: baby shoes, never worn”). Wang writes:
Dad came. He brought with him
a tree this time with ornaments,
but forgot the star,
The remainder of the poem has its narrator spending much of the day “in my closet, a makeshift hideout,” a world as real and as meaningful to her as the Christmas season is false, or simply decorative. On her device she watches whatever is streaming, looks at “[p]ictures of friends.” A news story of a nearby car crash catches her attention. Someone “went up in flames” and she “tried picturing myself, a bystander/ at the scene, warming her hands.”
Where else do you go on a night like this
for warmth? The coffee shops were closed.
Snow fell, but the embers persisted.
In the following — and final — stanza she resumes “scrolling.” Upon seeing a Yorkshire Terrier, she thinks/writes, “It’s been days/ since I took the puppy out for a walk.”
Reading further into On Forgetting it becomes apparent that its poems, like those in, say, Atwood’s Morning in the Burned House (1995), are situational, essentially a chaptered long poem. Yet whereas Atwood’s carefully observed, emotionally crisp book is centred on her relationship with/to her dying father, the similarly sized left-margin poems in On Forgetting are focused on the poet’s dwindling childhood, her emergence as a poet, her transition from dependence to independence. We read of her anxieties about showing up at poetry readings to read “the same year-old poems” (“It’s Been Weeks of Forest Fires”), the abuse she endures from a mother who shames her for wanting to write, who tells her she will “never find work as a writer,” and If you are going to do it, she says,/ leave” (“Mother Explains Men”). “So you did,” Wang writes of the writer — she leaves.
Marie Antoinette once said, “There is nothing new except what has been forgotten.” New evidence of a lost civilization is known in English as a discovery — an appreciation of the monumental effort it took to forget it. For Wang, the process of forgetting registers through personal injury and insight, recollection and confession, resistance and resurgence. In short, an account. Languages are built this way, and within their structures — prisons. Wang left hers. And in doing so shed its uniform in poems. Some of them unforgettable.
Michael Turner is a writer of variegated ancestry (Scottish/ German/ Irish, mat.; English/ Japanese/ Russian, pat.) born, raised and living on unceded Coast Salish territory. He works in narrative and lyric forms, both singularly, as a writer of fiction (American Whiskey Bar, The Pornographer’s Poem, 8×10), poetry (Hard Core Logo, Kingsway, 9×11), criticism and music, and collaboratively, with artists such as Stan Douglas (screenplays), Geoffrey Farmer (public art installations) and Fishbone, Dream Warriors, Kinnie Starr and Andrea Young (songs). His work has been described as intertextual, with an emphasis on “a detailed and purposeful examination of ordinary things” (Wikipedia). He holds a BA (Anthropology) from UVic and an MFA (Interdisciplinary Studies) from UBC Okanagan. Currently he is an Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences and School of Interdisciplinary Studies and Graduate Studies, Ontario College of Art & Design University and a workshop leader at Mobil Art School, Vancouver.
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