"Ovarian Twists: New and Selected Poems"
(New York: Fly By Night Press, 2003)
PO Box 20693, NY, NY, 10009
79 pages, paper.
"Baby on the Water: New and Selected Poems"
(Hoboken, NJ: Long Shot Productions, 2003)
PO Box 6238, Hoboken, NJ, 07030
96 pages, paper, $12.
Reading good writing is like opening a box of paradoxes. Let's use that criterion to study the two books under review here: Tsaurah Litzky's Baby on the Water and Anyssa Kim's ovarian twists.
A comparison is made easier by the fact that both volumes center on the relationships between mothers and their daughters; indeed, both turn on similar epiphanies. "Now, I see with two pair of eyes//hers and mine, all colors doubly radiant," (67) Litzky notes as she picks through her mother's possessions after the older woman's funeral, while Kim writes, "and now, as you [her mother] bend through//the remaining shadows of your life//i see the world through your eyes." (25)
Here is the first paradox: Litzky grew up in New York City in intimate, daily contact with her mother's watchful eyes and termagant tongue, but she depicts their relationship as one of unbridgeable distance. (Note, to avoid over-complexity, I'm pretending the poem's narrator can be identified with its author, although a fuller analysis would have to make a distinction between these two.) Litzky poignantly describes her mother's last days in the warm rot of a nursing home where she is dying of Alzheimer's. The mother doesn't recognize her daughter, misidentifying her as a sister who died a generation ago. "She opens her mouth,//makes a sound, calls out a word,//but has not spoken sense in a month." (63) This dire lack of communication, dramatized most forcefully here, pervades all contact with people - whether relatives or lovers - described in the book's somber, melancholy lyrics.
Kim has a much more substantial, affectionate relationship with her birth mother. But there is a paradoxical catch. As the bio at the back of the book details, "Anyssa Kim was born in Seoul, Korea and was adopted and raised in the suburban town of Westbury." (78) She was taken from her biological family during infancy and has not been able to trace her roots now that she is an adult. Yet, in the poems directed to this unknown progenitor, the poet displays a precise, intense ability to recognize and understand who she was or, rather, who she might have been. And Kim's skill at unearthing others' sensibilities informs the deepest knowledge in her writing: that the cleaving together of human being - which is inevitable - one way or another, can only take place humanely if we muster all the empathy we have.
Paradox 2: empathy, not sympathy. Contrary to what the foregoing might have suggested, Kim is not a friendly narrator. What she sees in others can only be reported in scathing (or, at best, unflattering) terms; yet she portrays people with convincing aptness, whether it be the bigot who flounders through various stereotypes because he can't place what type of Oriental she is (in the poem "eye language, 1984") or the lover who would encase her in a glass goblet as he has his many fine wines: "oh yes, he wished to possess my everything." (75)
Kim also turns this dissecting pencil against herself. Indeed, she endorses this very insight, commenting that she is aware of how her thoughts mirror and dovetail with the thoughts of other people.
the messy stuff that rests in my cranium
and the moving branches
of similar - but not enough so
or maybe too much so? - minds of others
where my kite thoughts get caught
in their twigs
What does not necessarily follow from this insightfulness, but is revealed in the previous quotation, is that Kim is an exquisite stylist who, in the midst of a crowded procession of thought, will suddenly lift an image that trails incantatory and incendiary power, as here she does with the reference to "kites."
Neither do Litzky's descriptions of humanity lack for clarity, as can be seen in the prose pieces included that depict dysfunctional romances. However, her guiding idea is that we can never comprehend others except in a superficial way, and that, consequently, we can have little self knowledge. Such a perspective on the narrow possibilities of human interaction can lead in two directions: suicide or religion. The latter route, chosen by Litzky, offers a viable resolution to the isolation and loneliness associated with her view of life, since through prayer and ritual one can at least achieve an indirect form of intimacy with another being.
Admittedly, Litzky is something of a hierophant. Her signature pieces are no-holds-barred, overwrought invocations of different goddesses, gods, and anti-gods. Such work derives from feminist poetry of the 1970s, but it outdistances the bulk of this work by adding two crucial spices: humor and urbanity. Everything she says about the ineffable is couched in metaphors drawn from everyday life. When, for instance, she prays to different manifestations of Buddha, she mentions, "False Plastic Geisha Buddha of Collagen Complexion Masks and Electrolysis," whom she asks not to "tempt me with dermabrasion//or acupuncture face lifts." (15) This excerpt also gives a hint of the rough and tumble wit at work, a humor brought to a high-water mark in a group of poems where she asks for heavenly blessings. In "Tough Love Blessing," she asks a higher power to:
bless the slaves to Diet Pepsi and dominant Duck,
bless vinegar douches and endless sucks,
bless the foolish hope in the word "Neo"
The second paradox for Litzky, then, is that despite such a pessimistic world view, she is able to produce writing with such a rollicking, jolly spirit.
Whereas Kim's language is exquisite, poised, and graceful, Litzky's is slam-bang earthy. And while the poems to her expiring mother set a tone of sorrow in the bed of the book, the religious poems leave one with a feeling of rumpled and well-used sheets.
Kim's book only has one poem about her mother; yet, to reiterate, her quest to comprehend that unknown woman seems to have set the defining nuance of her verse, which is a pitch-perfect assessment of her own and others' psychological motivations. This occurs with special intensity in the poems about creativity, where she seems able to see into the deepest expressive intentions of master musicians. (She plays violin regularly with an orchestra.)
Litzky's mother's near-catatonic incomprehension as she lies on her sickbed epitomizes years of non-communication with her daughter, and is also symbolic of the universal abysses that separate people from each other. The poet's use of religious verse arises from a desire to resolve this essential alienation; divinities offer understanding, which we can believe in, but never practice with others.
To speak more broadly, in closing, it might be noted that the United States is increasingly hostile to women like these, women who are independent of mind, clear-eyed, and hard-spoken. Moreover, New York City, where both of these writers make their homes, may have replaced Dublin as what Joyce called the world's "center of moral paralysis" since, in such a media town, the lies pour down hot and thick like molten steel from a forge. Neither woman was dealt a good hand. One was made an orphan by socio-politics; the other was the child of closed off, Puritanical parents. Yet, both women show how the most unpromising materials (starved childhoods and disenfranchised presents) can be used to fashion multi-pronged, revelatory, paradoxical, glowing chapters in the poems of life.