Discussion Guide

The Is Have It

Asian American Identity in the July/August 2017 Poetry

The July/August 2017 issue of Poetry—a special issue featuring work by Asian American poets—kicks off with a compelling question: what exactly does “Asian American” mean? The term “has always been an inelegant conglomeration,” writes Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis:

of peoples from all across the world, from nations and cultures too disparate to gather coherently, and equitably, together.... “Asian American” is a fabrication, a blinkered prayer for something like solidarity. We have always imagined our cultural landscapes and broken diasporic supply chains and bomb-shelter ethnic enclaves into being.

How, despite such distinctions, to gather together? And how to imagine oneself, and one’s community, into being? Brandon Som’s “Chino” explores both questions. Its title hints at the complexity of the poet’s identity—and the challenge of defining his role within his community:

The olla knocked with steam. The masa cooked.
                           She said her eyes are china. The vowel switched
on an aura, a shine that sheens the threshold.
                                          The vowel was spell: an i that might we,
an i that echoes how we’re seen and see.
                           Eyedentity. Ay Dios, she exclaimed
surrounded by photos — niños and nietos — 
                                          where I’m the only chino. How might I
see through my family’s eyes — an owl’s eyes
                           in ojos and one in its lid turned sideways 目 — 
I wondered with her at the table where we
                                         placed one olive — ojo negro — in each hoja,
that worn folio for field corn’s field notes.
                          What does that dark eye in the ear’s husk see?

Som is of both Chinese and Mexican ancestry. In the first lines of his poem, he cooks up a linguistic stew to mirror his background, stirring in the Spanish loanwords olla and masa (pot and corn), along with china. This poem—where a “shine … sheens the threshold”—maps all manners of boundaries: not just linguistic but also domestic, cultural, and personal. Within his family member’s kitchen, he notes that he is the only “chino” (Chinese or Chinese-looking person) in the family photos. Given that difference, how firm is the divide between him and the woman he sits with?

With that word china—which relates, fittingly, both to kitchenware and to cultural background—the woman suggests some identification with the speaker, as though the threshold between them might fade. “The vowel switched,” he writes—she describes her eyes as china, not chino—and that switch in spelling switches on a spell. Now “i … might we”; disparate people and backgrounds might meld into one.

Spelling works its magic throughout the poem. “How might I / see,” he writes, hinting that the I is more truly an eye. Accordingly, he swaps out i for eye in “Eyedentity,” a word that gestures toward the importance of how one sees oneself. This poem about perception asks us to see words afresh, and it’s full of os that stand in for eyes—as in “dios,” “photos,” “niños,” “nietos,” “chino,” “ojo,” and “folio.” These words function nearly like pictograms, a nod to Chinese characters (and particularly to the character for eye, which appears later in the poem, and indeed resembles an eye “in its lid turned sideways”).

Indeed, the closer one eyes the poem, the more eyes one sees, from the “Ay” of the relative’s exclamation to the black eyes (“ojo negro”) of the olives. All of which poses the question: in a world so full of eyes—so full of Is—how to come together as a we? And how to both be “seen and see”?

In “Essay on Craft,” Ocean Vuong, too, stares down matters of identity—but from a distinct angle. In pondering the question of who we are, he reimagines God’s creation of humans:

So I gathered fistfuls
of  ash, dark as ink,
hammered them
into marrow, into
a skull thick
enough to keep
the gentle curse
of  dreams.

Vuong’s God crafts us not of the usual dust, but of ink-like ash. God makes us, Vuong suggests, the way we make art—by inking, as though God’s creatures were drawings or poems. Paradox laces this idea: Vuong is producing the God whom he imagines producing us, sketching him in lines as brief as hammer-blows. His God saves humans’ mouths for last:

       Because I, too,
needed a place
to hold me. So I dipped
my fingers back
into the fire, pried open
the lower face
until the wound widened
into a throat,
until every leaf shook silver
with that god
-awful scream
& I was done.
& it was human.

The notion that God designs people’s throats explicitly to hold him suggests that people create God through their speech—just as Vuong does here. And the poet’s own speech grows dense with ambiguity as he approaches his conclusion. “Every leaf shook silver / with that god” suggests a moment of divine power, yet the following line reveals that a “god-awful scream”—not God himself—inspires the shaking. Humans, rather than God, wreak such effects, and now, God says, “I was done.” Done making humans, or done in general? Now that humans can create God, and mimic his influence, is God gone? While we wonder, Vuong closes his poem: “& it was human.” Perhaps these questions, this uncertainty, are human—as human as it gets. 

Originally Published: July 5th, 2017
Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In