A place is never simple, it is always shot through with the histories, symbols, and identities that collide and contest it, by the accrual of meanings over time and the conversations between those meanings. Given the role place often plays in how we understand and define ourselves, this messiness can seem infinitely complicating and disorienting. This would certainly seem to be true of a place like Hong Kong, the inspiration for Larissa Lai’s new book length poem, Iron Goddess of Mercy.
Hong Kong is marked by the occupations of the British and Japanese, by colonialism and imperialism, by the contradictions inherent within the idea of “One Country, Two Systems” and the ensuing pro-democracy protests. Lai’s speaker throughout the poem addresses these complicated histories and works to understand identity as a product of them. In a passage addressed to the liver this becomes clear when Lai writes, “Are you after all the soul’s meat taking heat for what we denied when we ditched the Tao to go Confucian, Christian, then Euro Enlightenment Canada Dry? My passions make corned beef hash of this mess polyvocal syncretic as the crypt of postmemory’s iron box.” The speaker describes a sense of loss while moving through these spiritual philosophies and, significantly, that movement is from the Chinese to the European. However, by describing the resulting mess as polyvocal and syncretic, it suggests that the problem is less one of loss, than one of accretion. The speaking self speaks in multiple languages, multiple voices simultaneously making it difficult for even the speaker to fully capture a singular meaning, an uncomplicated identity.
This is further problematized by the fact that this question of identity is being asked in a Canada with its own fraught construction of Chinese identity. When Lai writes that “Sheena the punk rocker can’t be an Asian of any persuasion,” it signals both a perceived otherness or alterity, and a flattening of Asian identities and experiences into a singular structure. This is a particularly significant part of the work the text does because it unsettles the myth of Canada by contextualizing that perception of otherness within the histories of violence that undergird the settler state. Contemporary anxieties about Capitalism, white supremacy, and the persistence of colonial structures are presented in parallel to the exploitation of Chinese labour in the building of the transcontinental railroad. Otherness and exclusion, displacement and violence, in the contemporary are rooted in a real and present history. This, of course, complicates the idea of “Asian-ness” as experienced in North America. Lai’s poem makes reference to Nanking and other Japanese atrocities perpetrated against the Chinese in the Second Sino-Japanese War (WWII), which serves to disrupt the coherence of a singular Asian identity. However, the text also finds solidarity between its speaker and Japanese internees in Canada by engaging with questions of place and power. None of Iron Goddess of Mercy’s navigations of identity are simple—identity is always a complex question—but the difficulty and intensity that the poem confronts the reader with are both necessary and rewarding.
Iron Goddess of Mercy benefits immensely from a particularly deft pairing of form to content. The long poem allows for ideas to accrue, to collide, to recur, because it doesn’t require lyric closure. While the poem achieves a peace by the end of the book, this resolution does not close off any of the uncertainties and contradictions that have been present to that point, but rather accepts them. Each section of the poem is made up of a prose poetic epistle followed by a strongly imagistic three-line conclusion, which gives the poem the feel of an extended haibun. This form creates a space where the self and place and the relationship between can be interrogated with requisite intensity while still allowing for meditative pause and release. The epistolary sections of the poem stack images on images and references on references. They pivot beautifully midline using internal rhyme or assonance to draw together concepts and feelings. They rage and roar, shaking with passion and energy, and the imagistic codas allow for moments of reflection that underscore that intensity while providing the reader a moment to breathe. Lai’s use of rhythm throughout the text is masterful and, most importantly, serves both the poem and the reader.
Larissa Lai’s Iron Goddess of Mercy is not a light read—no book that deals with the questions that Lai’s poems ask, that is worth the reader’s time, could be. Iron Goddess of Mercy will reward the reader the time they give it. It is intense and beautiful. It reflects the messiness of place and identity, and the way those two things are intertwined. The way it deftly, poetically, handles that messiness is something to be admired.
Iron Goddess of Mercy
by Larissa Lai
Arsenal Pulp Press, 2021, 178 pp., $19.95
Dr. Ryan J. Cox has a BA and MA in English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Windsor. He has also earned a PhD in English Literature from the University of Minnesota. His writing has appeared in Canadian Literature, English Studies in Canada, Arc Poetry Magazine, Carousel, and The Windsor Review.