Poetry News

The Network of Dreams, Self-Delusions and Mini-Universes of Kim Gek Lin Short's China Cowboy

By Harriet Staff


We would really like to point you to this HTMLGIANT review of Philadelphia poet Kim Gek Lin Short's China Cowboy. At publisher Tarpaulin Sky's blog, they write that reviewer Sarah Heady "was...able to engage its more alarming contents -- 'the blunt physicality of child rape' -- while navigating with seeming ease China Cowboy's myriad formal experiments...."

As for the structure:

An expanded version of Short’s chapbook Run (Rope-a-Dope, 2010), China Cowboy is a poetically-executed novella largely taking the form of prose poems, although other textual structures creep in toward the end of the book—including spacious, lineated blocks that stand in for visual artworks created by Ren’s artist doppelganger, and rhyming country song lyrics in “La La’s Guthriecrucian Songbook: A Bildungsroman.”


It’s with such brash spunkiness that La La—a poor kid in Hong Kong with aspirations of American country singer celebrity—tells the story of her brief life and violent death, including the glamour she imagines for herself, the many small deaths along the way and her songwriting star that keeps ascending from beyond the grave.

A ring of hellfire encompasses La La from the moment of her birth, when the devil himself (“a white dark man”) wraps a searing-hot hand around the breech fetus’ calf and delivers her into the harsh world of Kowloon, 1977. La La’s parents make their living “taking the tourists to an alley stabbing them stealing their stuff,” and the child is used as a prop to gain victims’ trust. Early on, to cover up the odd claw-shaped birthmark on La La’s leg, her mother dresses her in “cowboy boots tube socks,” and Patsy Clone is born: La La’s country star alter ego, her ticket to America, where children “have their own rooms.”

Unfortunately, one of her family’s victims is an American ex-con/soybean farmer/child abductor who sticks around Hong Kong following the assault, and one day La La never comes home from school. Maybe Ren, a.k.a. Bill, a.k.a. William O’Rennessey, is really the devil incarnate, or maybe he’s just one of the devil’s many agents on a confused, globalized earth circa 1989. He is certainly an updated (and actually American) Humbert Humbert whose version of the coveted nymphet is called a “la la” (with a lower-case L). China Cowboy’s heroine is just one of many la las in the world....

Heady also writes of those aforementioned formal experiments:

It is an account of trauma and the stories people tell themselves to survive, in the larger context of colonialism (1997 representing the British handover of Hong Kong) and cultural tensions between China and America: “When I picture home Ren doesn’t picture the same place. If I could do-over anything I would make Ren picture the same place.”

An incredibly original conceit that is so thoughtfully constructed, with so much attention to detail and such a range of source material—from Dante to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly—the book must be reread to catch all of Short’s utterly un-snarky cleverness. She’s a master at making her strange little pieces glow brighter under the perfect titles, which locate them in the complex web of personal myth and symbology that Ren and La La spin around one another: “Butcher Holler,” “This Bean is Your Bean,” “Repulse Bay,” “Cow Loon.” As China Cowboy progresses, its interior space deepens: a network of dreams, self-delusions and mini-universes reveals itself through Nabokovian footnotes, appendices, crime reports, fake nonprofits (Cowboys Against Child Abuse), press releases for suspicious art galleries that just gush “front.” But for what?

With this and all of her projects, Short has expanded and fused the poetic and narrative fields, creating a zone where elegance and grace can gambol with the just-plain-fucked-up. The book is disquieting, seductive, a preteen pathological liar busking on a deserted corner with an invisible guitar. Is it awful to suggest we can all take a cue from the La La school of stress reduction?: “I want to scream. But I don’t. I ask myself // what would Patsy Cline do?”

Read the full review here.

Originally Published: July 27th, 2012